Maybe you’ve been in this pickle before: Every month, you keep close tabs on your spending to see where your money goes. And every month, you find that you spend way more than you expected or wanted to on food.
Everyone needs to eat, but no one needs to buy more food than they can eat or afford. Whether you’re grocery shopping for one or for an entire family, here’s how to stop overspending on food, reduce food waste and boost your savings.
Set realistic spending estimates
The first step when figuring out how to stop overspending on food is to determine your ideal yet realistic grocery budget. How much is too much really depends on your household size, overall household budget and general preferences. No idea where to even start in figuring out a food budget? You’re not alone.
That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed several food spending plans: Thrifty, Low Cost, Moderate Cost and Liberal. These proposed weekly and monthly budgets are designed to help people see what an average monthly spend should look like. The USDA plans also scale for the number of people in a household and their ages (proving that teenagers do, in fact, eat a lot). Use the USDA plans as a general guideline when planning your food budget.
Make a flexible meal plan
Creating a meal plan helps you avoid overspending in a few ways. It encourages you to use what you already have on hand and keeps you from ordering takeout on those days when you can’t figure out what to cook.
The success of your meal plan depends largely on its flexibility. If you plan every single meal for every day of the week, you might burn out on your pre-portioned salads and seasoned chicken breasts by the time Friday rolls around. Instead, give yourself options. Leave a few meals open, so you can order takeout if you want or heat up leftovers.
If you have kids and they tend to be picky eaters, embracing flexibility also helps you avoid meal-time meltdowns. New York Times food blogger Deb Perelman recommends breaking down meals into components as much as you can. Keep the vegetables separate from the sauce, for example, if one of your kids is going through a “green vegetables are icky” phase.
Use a list when shopping
Never shop when hungry, and never shop without a list. Going to the store with a list of what you need helps you avoid forgetting to purchase vital ingredients and keeps you from veering off course and buying stuff because it looks enticing in the moment.
When you sit down to make your list, take a look at what you have in the fridge and pantry. You may already have enough to make several meals! Then, brainstorm a few meals to make this week. Stick to simple recipes you enjoy, rather than trying out something that requires a lot of unusual ingredients.
You can also use sales flyers and coupons and cash back offers when making your list. Try to pick your meals for the week based on what’s on sale or what you have a coupon for to shave even more off your spending.
Give yourself some rules
Having some ground rules helps you reduce spending, minimize food waste and eat healthier. Your rules don’t have to be extreme. Think of them as little reminders to help you keep your food spending on track and to change your overspending habits.
Some rules to try include:
- Limiting takeout or restaurant meals to once a week
- Eating breakfast at home
- Meal-prepping and packing your lunch
- Letting yourself have one grocery splurge each week, such as cookies from the bakery department or a pint of gourmet ice cream
- Ordering a basic coffee or tea most days and getting that latte or other fancy beverage just once a week
- Skipping the add-ons, such as the pastry with your coffee or the fountain soda with your to-go burger
Cut back on the splurge items
Some grocery products cost way more than others. If you’re spending more than you want on food, it helps to figure out the source of your overspending.
For a month or so, hang on to all of your grocery and food receipts. Examine them to find the sneaky expenses that are busting your budget. For example, you might be tossing a bag of chips or a package of dried fruit into your cart every time you shop, and those snacks might be pushing you over your spending limit.
Don’t be too rigid
Being flexible should be your main goal when controlling your overall food spending. You’ll likely find that cutting back on everything all at once is not sustainable — or enjoyable.
You don’t have to cut splurges like takeout or lattes from your budget entirely: A special treat every once in a while is just fine. Knowing what they are, then mindfully applying a stricter boundary around them will help you adjust your spending habits and reduce your food costs overall.