One of the main concepts of budgeting is learning to manage money wisely. However, budgeting for food can become difficult because of randomly eating out or sporadic grocery shopping. In all honesty, to budget for food is probably the most difficult part of creating a realistic household budget because of the ever changing market and fluctuating prices.

It doesn’t have to be so difficult, though, and with a few simple steps, your food budget can be easier to create and maintain than it ever has been before!

Follow these tips to make budgeting for food a little easier:

Make a List – For anyone who is starting a food budget, making a list of groceries can be a perfect way to keep that budget in check. Start by going through the pantry and refrigerator. Write down the necessary groceries under one heading; then add everything else into a second heading. By separating needs and wants when it comes to grocery shopping, budgeters can eliminate extra unnecessary spending. Beside each item, write down an estimated cost or actual cost if known. If the cost is unknown, take an educated guess. If one of the “needs” on the list doesn’t cost as much as planned for, then it is optional to purchase from the “want” list.

Limit Eating Out – Going out to eat too often can really put a dent into the food budget. Sometimes, it is difficult to avoid eating out, and this is why it’s safe to budget around a number of days planned to eat out. Start by figuring the number of times each week—or each month if the budget is monthly. Put an estimated amount spent on meals out each week as well. If it seems that the spending is way over projected budget, cut back on the amount of time spent dining out. The restaurant can also be expensive. If it’s necessary to go out, find a place that accepts coupons or isn’t very pricey.

Plan Ahead – Planning ahead can help save trouble when budgeting for food expenses. Planning all the meals out by the week means listing your required ingredients, calculating the cost, and limiting dining out. Not only does planning ahead help with the budgeting, but it also aids with the grocery shopping as well because the expectations are laid out plainly each week. Meal planning doesn’t have to be difficult, and it can even be flexible.

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You might have to crunch some numbers first, but perhaps a food delivery service such as HelloFresh or Blue Apron would save you not only time but money too. These meal delivery services are wonderful because they do ALL the meal planning AND the grocery shopping too. The food and recipes are delivered to your house each week and all you have to do is follow the simple recipes and cook the meals. Make sure the cost makes sense for your family first and research which food delivery service is best for your needs.

Coupon Extremely – Don’t laugh at the lady in the store for her mountains of coupons. Those coupons can help save on any food budget by giving discounts on food products or even meals out. There are apps and websites that offer coupons to consumers, and if shopping is done at a chain store, they may offer coupons in store as well. Try doing a quick Google search to see if any coupons are available for the things bought often. Those discounts can really add up!

Make it Flexible – Make sure the entire budget is a bit flexible. If spending is not as much in another part of the budget that month, take a day to splurge a bit and have a nice dinner out. If the day has been long, use a little money to buy some ice cream or cake. If there is a new diet in the plan, fix the food budget to include the prices of a new food item. Whatever is done, make sure to be flexible with the necessary grocery shopping and food budget. It can save a good bit of stress in the future.

Incorporate a food budget into a debt management program –

You’ve incurred significant debt, and now, you’re on a quest to improve your credit score. You’ve embarked upon a debt management program, you’re seeking credit counseling, you save all of your receipts, and you’ve renounced family vacations, at least for now. However, you’re still sinking. Where else might you cut back to avoid getting into further debt? Perhaps you could learn to Budget Food better and save more money?

The purpose of this article is not to suggest that you should fast or starve yourself – quite the contrary. An unfed brain begets muddled thinking – the sort of thinking that is wholly unsuited to a comprehensive debt management and credit restoration plan. However, it is wise to take a long, hard look at exactly where your food dollars are going, and devise a plan to spend less of them, every time.

Fast food and restaurant tips –  

Eating out isn’t cheap. And, if you do it frequently, the dollars really do add up. A value meal at a popular hamburger chain might only be 5 or 6 dollars, but that’s a lot of money spent on a relatively nutritionally empty fare. If you make all three of your daily squares fast food, you’ll be doing damage not only to your cardiovascular health and your waistline but to your wallet as well.

Busy people find take-out or home delivery options like Chinese food and pizza to be attractive. However, frequently ordering takeout is a major budget buster, and might be contributing to your debt. Consider: You can easily rack up a bill of 30 or 40 dollars (based on a cursory survey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania delivery restaurants) per meal for a family of 3 or 4 – and then, there’s tipping the driver. In order to manage debt and whittle away at your credit card bills, avoid takeout. The same can be said of eating at restaurants. Not only do most restaurant menu items – especially sodas and alcoholic beverages – feature outstanding price markups, but you’ll still need to tip the wait-staff after you’ve chowed down. And fat- and sodium-laden, gargantuan restaurant portions aren’t good for you, either!

The workplace can be another area where precious dining dollars are lost. According to finance blog Lifehack.org, you can save almost $1,000 each year by bringing your lunch from home. By purchasing a loaf of bread, a pound of lunch meat or cheese (or, a tub of hummus for the vegans), and some pieces of fresh fruit, you can eat a healthy lunch for under 15 dollars a week, based upon BLS Consumer Price Indexes for the year 2007. And, why not mix it up? You can arrange tuna on a bed of lettuce, treat yourself to tortillas with Jack cheese and tomato slices, or enjoy peanut butter and jelly – PBJ is one of the most cost-efficient lunches, incidentally, according to Lifehack.org. And, there are always leftovers.

Here’s one caveat: avoiding social lunches all of the time can actually lower your dispensable income. Sources as varied as blogger Ricky Spears and Forbes magazine state that eating out now and then provides you with an effective career networking tool. By getting face time with your boss outside of the office, you get to know him or her better. You can learn of new opportunities, might get a chance to work on special projects, and might even receive a raise. Lunch out now and then can pay off – and increasing your income goes a long way toward debt management.

Eating on the cheap –

So now, you know what NOT to do when it comes to figuring food into your debt management plan. How do you save money on food each month?

  • Buy in bulk – Stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco allow you to buy food items in bulk, which gives you major savings on cost-per-unit. Other big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart often have deals, too.
  • Focus on staples – Cheap eats include rice, pasta, beans, legumes, and other grains that can be purchased in large quantities. Throw some sauce and cheese on top of ziti, add chicken slices, green peppers, and jerk seasoning to rice, or stir curry spices and a dash of olive oil into legumes. Bonus: You’ll have enough for leftovers.
  • Dollar store – At many dollar stores, you can purchase generic canned goods, pasta, sauces, coffee, crackers and cookies, drinks, and spices at deep discounts. And, quality generally doesn’t suffer – many generics contain the same ingredients as their name-brand counterparts, so you’re essentially saving dollars by saying ‘no’ to paying for a name.
  • Say no to sodas and sugary snacks – Besides contributing nutritionally empty calories to your diet, they can be pricey, and you might see the costs of excess sugar in your dental bills later. If you want something sweet, snack on raisins or an apple. If you need something fizzy, sip seltzer or flavored seltzer cut with water.

The bad habit calculator –

Check out this great resource that we came across to help you calculate how much you are spending on things you don’t really need like that morning latte, eating out for lunch every single day, playing the lottery, etc. This is a great free tool: https://www.lendingtree.com/info/bad-habit-calculator

Other money-saving tips for grocery shopping –

As the cost of food continues to rise, a simple trip to the grocery store can easily break your bank. Keep in mind these few simple tips to help cut the cost of your monthly grocery bills:

1) Just buy food – It’s very easy to make your grocery store a one-stop-shop and get laundry soap, toilet paper, and other household products in addition to groceries, but you’ll likely pay more for non-food products at the grocery store. Get these items somewhere else and save money!

2) Eat seasonally – Strawberries are cheap in the late spring, apples are less expensive in the late fall. If you can flex on what your family will eat, particularly when buying produce, you can save quite a lot by eating seasonally.

3) Take care with bulk purchases – Three cans of green beans for a dollar may seem like a great deal, but unless you have plans to use them soon, they can clog up your cupboards and make it hard to keep a running inventory of what you have. Only buy things you use every day or week in bulk.

4) Buy what you do use in bulk – Unless you and your family can actually eat a gallon of pickles before they get mushy, that huge jar is not a great deal. Peanut butter on sale in small containers can be a great deal, but big jars may get rancid in the summer.

5) Consider cutting back on meat – This one is tricky, because if you really enjoy meat you may feel deprived and go out and blow your budget. However, meat is one of the more expensive forms of protein you can buy. If you can consume them without putting your health at risk, eggs and dairy-based proteins are more cost effective. And canned meats are nearly always cheaper than packaged, and don’t require refrigeration.

6. Don’t buy empty calories – Two small bags of chips for a dollar may seem like a good deal, but they’re a nutritionally void purchase. Applesauce or small containers of fruit packed in their own juice are an excellent snack that’s also healthy.

7. Avoid non-dairy liquid calories – Juice and sodas add a lot of sugar without filling you up, leaving you with a hunger that will need to be sated with food anyway, so why not eat fruit instead of drinking juice? The fruit has more nutritional value than juice anyway.

8. Shop small – Superstores that offer groceries may seem like a great time saver, but you’ll ultimately spend more time and much more money at these behemoths than you would at a small grocery store. Plus, small grocery stores offer fewer processed foods, reducing your sodium intake in the bargain.

9. Split out purchases when you get home – If you buy a large bag of grapes, consider splitting them into grab-and-go packages when you get home. This makes it easy to add them to lunch boxes or to hand out for a quick snack.

10. Splurge every now and then – If you and your family absolutely adore a particular treat, get it. Saving on your grocery bill isn’t about deprivation; it’s about getting great value for your money. A fun family treat that brings everyone together is always a bargain.

Start with a Plan –

Before you even head out to do your shopping, take the time to sit down, plan your weekly menu and make a list. This way, you are going to the store with a set goal rather than roaming the aisles aimlessly, picking up items you don’t need or will never use while attempting to come up with meals on the spot and trying to come up with ingredients.

It is also wise to prepare for a trip to the grocery store by taking a few minutes each week to browse weekly circulars in your local newspapers for coupons. Even just one or two coupons can save you a few dollars, so it’s worth it to take a look.

Stock Up –

Once you are at the store, keep an eye out for store specials and take that opportunity to stock up on deals like “buy one get one”, especially on household necessities. Never turn down a price-saver and the chance to stock up. But beware of certain multiple sale items and take a moment to do the math. For instance, if a product is being offered at “5 for $5”, multiply the original cost of the product by five to see if it is worth the savings. If you are only going to end up saving a few cents to buy that item in bulk (and running the risk of never using it), it may not be worth it.

As you browse the aisles for deals, try not to get sucked into purchasing a product simply because it has flashy packaging or a name-brand label. Instead, compare name brands to store brands or other generics. Take a look at the main or active ingredients in comparable products. More often than not, you’ll find they are nearly identical, and choosing store brands over name brands can result in big savings at the register. Similarly, when you head over to the meat counter, consider opting for cheaper cuts of meat, such as sirloin instead of rib-eye or filet, and even chicken on the bone versus its boneless, skinless counterpart.

Last but not least, always keep in mind the old saying – “never shop hungry”. When walking around a store filled with food while you are on an empty stomach, you will – without a doubt – give in to nearly every hunger-induced impulse and end up spending far more than you should.

Conclusion –

It seems like a headache to mention food budgeting to most people, but it really doesn’t have to be. By taking a few quick measures, a budget can be modified to help save hard-earned money on food. Whether the budget is completed weekly or monthly, it is a good idea to always plan ahead and be as flexible as possible. By learning to budget your food expenditures, you can continue to manage your money well and hopefully stay out of debt.

If you need help getting out of debt now, don’t hesitate to give Advantage CCS a call. Our certified credit counselors can help you set up a household (and food) budget that will help you reach your goals. We’ve been helping people get out of debt since 1968 and we can help you too! Give us a call at 866-699-2227 or visit us online at www.advantageccs.org

Author: Lauralynn Mangis
Lauralynn is the Online Marketing Specialist for AdvantageCCS. She is married and has two young daughters. She enjoys writing, reading, hiking, cooking, video games, sewing, and gardening. Lauralynn has a degree in Multimedia Technologies from Pittsburgh Technical College.