Sunday, October 5, 2014

My $200 Grocery Budget (More or Less)

Normally I don’t put two “frugal specific” posts  back to back on this blog, and in fact, I have been writing for the past week on the things we can to do remain healthy and safe through the cold season.  That said, three people asked me for specifics about my grocery costs and how I do it.  I always aim to please, so here is a hopefully down and dirty explanation of the grocery life of this frugal retiree. Below is a list of the four primary things I do to keep my grocery costs down.

Before I begin, we should probably make sure that we are comparing apples to apples, if you will. I feed three people for approximately $200 per month.  I do not cook on the weekends, someone else does (there are exceptions, but in general the working housemate likes to cook on the weekend).  That person buys the food for those dinners, usually what she feels like cooking. She also purchases her own wine (I’ve given it up for chances to spend calories elsewhere)  So I guess you could say that out of 28 days, I buy all the food for twenty days, plus breakfast and snack stuff for the other days. If she was not cooking, I would probably need to eat out more often, but I prefer to save that for special occasions and travel food. My husband cooked on the weekends and holidays for the entirety of our marriage, which may be one of the reasons I have not had the urge other spouses might to run away from the kitchen on Friday or Saturday night.

This budget ONLY includes food. It does not include dog food, paper products or other things that one sometimes buys in a grocery store. This budget does not include eating out (which generally comes once a month, twice at most).  Holiday and extremely special birthday meals are in a separate holiday/entertainment category, although I use many basic pantry items as well. My organic purchases consist of the dangerous and dirty options, cage free eggs when on sale.

 My goal for next year is to be part of a CSA and begin buying free range chicken and meat as I can afford it. That will increase our costs. Finally, my 200 is an average. In the summer my meat costs are higher because I purchase grill meats, and in the winter this Texas girl needs strawberries, in season or not. While I wish we ate more organic, I believe that by cooking from scratch and eating primarily fruits and vegetables we are ahead in the long run.

To give you all a small idea as to what we eat:  In the past week we have had the following for dinner in terms of proteins:  shoulder lamb shops, a small pork tenderloin in rosemary maple marinade, large rosemary garlic chicken drum sticks cooked in the slow cooker and homemade minestrone with homemade popovers. Our sides vary depending on what is on season and on hand.  We had mashed potatoes, salad and vegetable with the lamb chops, and fruit and wheat popovers with the soup, just for example. Our breakfasts include oatmeal, cheerios cereal, eggs and toast, bagels and low fat cream cheese and waffles on weekdays. Except for me (picky, picky) lunches are leftovers. We always have fruit on hand and vegetables for snacking. We drink milk, soda, juice, coffee and water. These meals also yielded leftovers for both Friday and Saturday.

Now that this is all clear as mud………………….

1.  We eat everything, for the most part. We don’t just eat boneless skinless chicken breasts. We also eat drumsticks and bone in thighs, for example. I cook them skin on and people have the option of removing skin afterwards. My doctor says this is healthy. We eat pork and ham, lamb, ground meats, sausages and brats. We also eat a variety of fish and on occasion seafood. Our diet is does not eliminate much, and allows most things in moderation. What used to be a dash diet has changed a tiny bit to be more Mediterranean. In other words, we allow healthy fats and most proteins, piles of fruits and vegetables, and limit but don’t eliminate carbs and wheat products (although I do attempt to make baked goods at least half whole wheat). We are not paleo, we do use regular flour and sugar (albeit I attempt to add whole wheat and brown when I can).

2.  I cannot say often enough or loud enough that we do not make a grocery list and shop from it. This should probably be number one, actually. We buy loss leaders each week in terms of protein and staples, and the only things we buy regularly each week are some dairy products, in season produce, and fresh bread as needed.  I choose what we will have from what we have on hand.  The shoulder chops mentioned above for example were 2.99 a pound. I bought enough for three meals. Shoulder shops are not rib chops but they are extremely tasty and can be cooked a variety of ways, including in the skillet like a steak and served with mint. So this week I purchased the meat above, drumsticks and thighs for 88 cents a pound and that was the only meat. I always buy at least two of loss leader proteins, one for the freezer. For those who wonder how I decide the best price, I have a website to refer to and I have been shopping long enough that I have a top price that I will pay in my head. Since my primary store is King Sooper (a Kroger store) perhaps I will start sharing every week or so what I buy and how I plan to use it-let me know what you think. I could add it at the bottom of another post.

3. I cook from scratch and have a pantry.  Before you run screaming from the screen, this is not as hard as it seems. I am a happy, active retiree with a life who has better things to do most of the time than slave in the kitchen all day.  However, when I DO cook, I at least double anything freezable.  At the beginning of last week, we had blueberry pancakes and bacon with fruit for dinner. I made a batch of pancakes as large as one of those Tupperware bowls. The waffle iron was on the kitchen table, so as we sat and talked, I waffled. Those waffles are now between pieces of waxed paper in large freezer bags, ready for gigantor to have for breakfast.  Everyone’s definition of what constitutes a convenience item differs.  My freezer has ice cream and frozen vegetables (often more nutrients than less than fresh). Everything else is either frozen loss leader grocery items or homemade and frozen items. My pantry includes everything from canned tomatoes and boxed broth to ever seasoning on earth and three kinds of oil, to various pastas and both white and brown rice.  In other words, my scratch tomato sauce will be from tomatoes in a can and tomato paste, not from the garden. That is my “from scratch” level”.  However, I make my own flavored rice and pilaf, not from a box. And almost every store bought baked good makes me go ew.  I am not a gourmet cook. Many of my meals are thrown the slow cooker in the morning and remembered at dinner time.

4.  I do take advantages of coupons and deals. I am not a coupon queen and do not allow this to take up my precious time. I have a website that shows printable coupon deals that match grocery stores in my area, and available Catalina deals (the ones that print out at the grocery store or Target), as well as gift card target deals. Visiting this website takes me about half an hour a week and reaps results.  While this is a paper item, this week Kroger stores are giving a two dollar coupon on your next purchase when you buy Ziploc brand bags. and there is a one dollar coupon available to print on two.  This makes Ziploc bags much cheaper than generic bags and worth purchasing if they are something you will use (I use them for freezing AND for storage of small items such as sewing supplies).  Again, this is a non-food item but there are in fact many food Catalina's available. There are also many Target red cards that make sense when you look at the final cost. Are there many meat and vegetable coupons? Not really. But by getting broth, canned tomatoes, and sugar at less than half the price of generic using coupons, that cash is freed up for the proverbial good stuff. Coupons shoppers know, by the way that the smallest container is the cheapest when using coupons. Better to use three one dollar coupons on the small container of mustard than use one dollar on the family size-even taking recycling into consideration.

That’s it. Those are the four primary things I do to keep my food costs low. If you read this far, you understand the basics of what I do, although I could describe many of them in more detail., and may in a further post. This part of the article is the meat (no pun intended) of the article on my retirement food strategy. If you don't read any further, you have gotten at least eighty percent of what I do, if not more.

What I would add as an addendum are three things:  First, it’s not a deal if you don’t eat it. I buy the things I buy because we eat them. If you only eat chicken breasts, then you’ll want to buy more at the lowest price than I do, for example. 

Second, you need to know what the lowest price is, and the flyer is no indication.  You have to find a way to figure out what the lowest price is, and how often you can get it at that price (so you know how much to buy). You can start making a list and comparing it twice, or you can find a good website that lists grocery deals for the week and rates them somehow (as well as telling you that there are coupons). My website rates with five being an absolute run out and buy it price. When I scan her list, if it is not a four, I don’t even stop to see what it is. I consider myself financially savvy, but let someone else do this chore.

Third, the fewer options you have, the more you will need to stock up. Most things go to their lowest price in my location every four months.  HOWEVER, I am within couple miles of an Albertson’s, a King Soopers, a Safeway and a Sprouts.  If I only had one store, or only time to hit a single store a week, then I would stock up a larger amount, to keep me until the next sale.

I am not an expert. These are our prices, at this particular time. Prices may go up, sales may get worse, I may decide I need more wine and chocolate, who knows. Even at three hundred dollars a month, we would still be considered a thrifty household who ate well.  For now, this budget works for me!!


  1. My husband shops and cooks for our household, and you sound like him. He loves buying things on sale, and lots of them. Last week he bought 60 cans of cat food (not for us!)

  2. Good advice, Barb! I started getting serious about stocking a functional pantry when we moved to the country. Now I have to stock up at the grocery store once per week, or less. Your point about buying/cooking what you really like has hit home with us. Those times when I tried to cut corners or get "too healthy" with meals really backfired. It sounds like you've made similar decisions. We, too, continue to eat whatever proteins we like, but always serve them with fruits, veggies, or salads. One question I have for you is if you think the discounted herbs/spices are as good as the namebrand ones. I need to go through my spices this fall, and wondered what your experience had been. Thanks for your help!

  3. Perfect, Barb. Than you for the follow up blog. Our current costs for two people is double yours! There is a lot here to consider.

  4. All excellent advice !
    I've found that a fixed weekly housekeeping allowance works for us . If it's not in my wallet , I can't spend it .

  5. Pam,I also did that "too much cutting back" thing at one time and we ended up going OUT to eat! LOL! It's MUCH less expensive to do a few indulgent meals here and there and avoid the restaurant urge.I got spare ribs on sale a few weeks ago and made a more expensive meal than usual (for us!) in the oven with a 4 ingredient recipe I had, rice in the rice cooker, green beans on the side.I think it cost me $5.00 for the 2 of us.Other nights we eat bean soups from the crock pot with home made bread.But those "splurges" cost soooo much less than going out and our Spirit need some sustenance too! Ribs dinner in a restaurant around my neck of the woods is $15 a head or more..usually MORE!!! I love Barb's ideas too..


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