Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Good Food, Small Budget, post 1

This summer, and the last several summers, I have given myself a very meager grocery budget. In years past, the budget was $50 a week. This year, I raised the stakes, and made the budget $40 a week for 6 people (hubby and myself + 4 boys, ages 7-1). I maintained this budget for 9 weeks over the summer.

Several friends have asked me for the nuts and bolts of how I did this, so I thought I would spend a few posts outlining how I made this work for our family.

I am happy to share what worked for us, as long as it is clear that I in no way consider myself some kind of expert, nor a mama that has it all figured out. I am not saying that you should do as I do. Nor do I believe that I am doing anything radical or would turn up blog after blog and article after article, covering everything I am going to say here. However, sometimes hearing (reading) from someone who is like you, or that you can relate to, can be helpful. So, maybe some of my friends who are reading this will find it useful.

First, I would say that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a $40 a week budget for our family year-round. I choose to significantly reduce my budget in the summer, b/c we live in an agrarian area of the country, where fresh, local fruits and vegetables are available VERY inexpensively most of the year but especially in the summer. In fact, during this 9 week period, I would say that I received 90% of our produce for free from friends and families whose gardens were producing more than they could use.
During the rest of the year, my weekly grocery spending hovers in the $75-90 range.

Also, another thing that made it possible to stick to our $40 a week budget is that no one in my family has any food related allergies, or any illnesses that require dietary restrictions. My children are all generally good eaters (though they could be better), and I enjoy preparing food for my family and friends. All those factors worked in my favor for keeping our budget low.

For the rest of this post, I am going to talk about how I have worked to trim our food budget DOWN, over the last few years. My current low budget is the cumulative result of small, progressive changes to the way I shopped and prepared food.

Food is a VERY important part of my life...besides the need of food-as-sustenance, I really love to read about, think about, shop for, prepare and serve food to my family.

While my food budget it small, I place a high value on purchasing foods that are local, seasonal, healthy, and fresh.
My focus is to create as little waste as possible in my food purchases.
This is fleshed out in bringing my own reusable bags, going without produce bags whenever possible, buying foods with as little packaging as I can find, and shopping from locally owned, small businesses.

Sometimes this means paying more for some groceries than I would at a big-box store. Supporting small business owners is an important value to me, and so often I am willing to pay more for certain groceries, if I have to, in order to do that. None of these values were compromised while only spending $40 on groceries.

Here is a list of some of the ways I reduced my grocery spending:

  • I do not purchase disposable diapers, paper napkins, paper towels, zip lock bags, plastic wrap, etc. Instead, I use cloth diapers, cloth napkins and towels, tin foil (which I wash and reuse, then recycle), and rewash/reuse zip lock bags from several years ago. I do purchase toilet paper and wet wipes.
  • I do not buy meat. 90% of our meals at home are vegetarian. Occasionally, I will cook seafood, or use deer meat (which my husband killed, and was therefore free). Sometimes my husband will grill meat. When we eat meat, he purchases it through his job (he sells food to restaurants), and it was not figured in to my $40 a week budget.
  • I don't buy much dairy. If I buy yogurt, I buy a large container of plain yogurt, not the individual cartons. If I buy milk, I purchase pasteurized, non homogenized milk from a local dairy for $4.50 a gallon. I buy about 2 gallons a month. The rest of the time, we use almond milk. We do use a fair amount of butter and cheese.
  • I buy seasonal produce. That means that I buy asparagus and strawberries in April, apples and sweet potatoes in October, watermelon and sweet corn in July. Not only does it taste indescribably better, it is also much, much cheaper. Probably about 80% of the produce in our house is local and in season. Other things, such as bananas and mangoes, that will never be in season where we live, I purchase sometimes.
  • I make my own laundry detergent.
  • I buy very, very little prepackaged foods. Occasionally, I will buy a box of crackers or cereal. It is rare that I buy anything in a can or box. I really focus on buying INGREDIENTS. 
  • When something is in season, I buy a lot and either can or freeze it for later. During the summer, I fill my pantry and freezer with homemade pasta sauce, whole canned tomatoes, cream corn, green beans, blueberries, strawberries, etc. This keeps my grocery bill much lower the rest of the year, and gives us food to use that is delicious, inexpensive, and local. I didn't do much canning this year, but I did freeze a lot.
  • I shop the sales cycle. When olive oil goes on sale (Buy 1, Get 1 free), I look for a coupon online, and buy enough to last 6-8 weeks, when it will go on sale again. A bottle of extra virgin olive oil that is normally $7, would then be $3.50 when it is B1G1, plus a $1 off coupon, brings it down to $2.50, for a savings of $4.50. I usually buy 3-4 at a time, for a savings of up to $18.
  • I use a few coupons, maybe 4-5 a week, for items that we use a lot of, such as toilet paper, almonds, almond milk, and olive oil. I save them until I can pair them with a sale, for maximum savings. 
  • I buy the best ingredients I can afford. Pure maple syrup, local free range eggs, non homogenized milk from a local dairy, blocks of parmesan cheese, sourdough bread from the bakery in town, etc. Using good quality ingredients saves me money in 2 ways. First, I am more judicious with it, because I don't want to waste it and second, it is more flavorful, and a small amount can go a long way to flavoring a dish. 
  • Because my husband is in the food-sales industry, every now and then, he brings home samples. It doesn't happen that often but for the sake of full disclosure, I will mention it :)
  • Sometimes, I purchase foods in bulk from my husband. This isn't something I rely on regularly, but perhaps once every 2 months or so, I will order a big box of organic spinach, or several logs of goat cheese, which saves money.
  • My mom supplies me with fresh eggs from her chickens, blueberries from their bushes, and green beans that she cans for me that my grandparents grew. I know, I am a lucky girl. I am so, so grateful for those food gifts! 
What ways do you save money on your groceries? What is one of your biggest food-related expenses? For me, it is dried cranberries. Random, I know, but they are pricey ($4 for a small bag!) and 2 of my boys absolutely LOVE them. Also, my dark chocolate with sea salt obsession can be an expensive indulgence...especially when the boys catch me and I have to share! :)

In the next posts, I am going to talk about what I do spend my money on, and then, what a week of eating looks like around our house. 

If you want to look back, here is a post from a few years ago on the same topic:


  1. Good post, Laurel! I was wondering how often y'all eat out? I would assume that doesn't fall into the grocery budget 'cause we drop $40 easily when eating out a single time! LOL!

    Thanks for the good info!

  2. wonderful, organized, informative post!

    so, maybe you're going to hit on this - but, menus, menus, menus...or maybe it's recipes i should be curious about. everything else you have here is reasonable and makes sense, but, since i am focusing on ingredients too, i wonder where am i going wrong...i am always questioning why my grocery bill so high and what i always come back to is that maybe i need to tweak my menus or recipes.

  3. I love your list!!!! So inspiring Laurel!!

  4. Looking forward to your next post! We are slowly switching over to all organic and whole dairy products. I found a woman who sells us eggs and I make our bread with the 5 minutes a day artisan bread recipe. So easy!

  5. may pass this up anyway, but lindt choc w/sea salt is available at walmart for <$2.

  6. girl, I LOVE THIS POST!! Seriously, I don't know how you do it. We spend $150-200 a week and I feel like I am pretty cost-conscious. Granted, we do buy more dairy and meat...our local produce is wonderful but the same price (or more!) as the grocery stores. How about toiletries? I do all-natural/organic shampoos, toothpastes, soaps, dishwashing detergent, dish soap.
    would love some of your el-cheapo non-meat recipes!! what do your boys eat for breakfast?

  7. I will have to spend more time looking for those B1G1 sales, or coupons. I have to admit to not shopping as effectively as I should. I have started canning though and I love getting the produce fresh from the farm and turning it into food I can use year-round.

  8. Anonymous3:30 PM

    I am not familiar at all with almond milk. You may have discussed it before, but I've never heard of it. What is it? Where do you get it? What is its nutritional value? Is it good for people with allergies?


  9. Bessie8:07 AM

    Thanks so much for the post!! I can save more using the B1G1F which I've been checking out in the pennysaver, and now that I know you can combine it with out! I've been meaning to check local stores for almond milk...where locally do you find the best deal? Is it more than the milk at the FM? We too have been saving money eating less meat, very few paper products and local fresh fruits and veggies. Thanks again, always love your posts!

  10. Wow. Very interesting, Laurel. I have a food budget of 100/wk. Period. I can sneak from our envelopes, but for the most part that is it for toilet paper, paper towels, shampoo, etc. etc. plus food and we eat meat with almost everything. I also buy alot of butter, because our goats don't give the cream. I have started making my own easy mozzarella cheese, but other than that...I'd like to be more disciplined as to paying attention to where exactly my money is going. I buy on sale and more than 1/2 of our stuff is organic. Hmmmm....You've got me thinking. - I'm much more wasteful than you, and I use paper products, baggies etc. because many of the uses I've never thought about doing differently. I wish I cared about cooking more like you do. I just don't find it that fun.

    When you buy wine, say, do you add that in to your budget? I usually sneak from another area's allotted money for the luxury. :)


  11. This is SO inspriring, Laurel. I've already been challenged to change a few things reading this. :)

  12. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Your list inspires me a lot, so many ways I can do better!

    I did notice you buy wipes... seriously you have to try cloth wipes! We love them, they are THE best! My favorites are Kissaluvs, but my friend just uses some cheapo washcloths that work just as well!

  13. paula2:25 PM

    I am enjoying your blog, I just came across it today. I love the great tips you have.
    I also make my own laundry det., use homemade cloth napkins, can and freeze items in season, and one of my biggest things is always buying as much as I can in the bulk foods section. Our local store has a fantastic bulk foods dept., we buy anything from croutons, to nuts, spices, cereal, noodles, flour, you name it. And we use reusable containers for all of them in our pantry. It cuts down on packaging signifigantly!