How to create a realistic grocery budget (and actually stick to it)

From "shopping your pantry" to supermarket hacks, a no-fear guide to eating better for less

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 27, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)

Shopping cart full of oranges (Getty Images/Qi Yang)
Shopping cart full of oranges (Getty Images/Qi Yang)

After several years of a global pandemic, supply-chain issues and skyrocketing inflation, grocery prices are finally starting to come down. 

Well, somewhat. 

As CNN Business reported earlier this month, from March to April, grocery prices ticked down 0.2%. It's not a big number, but it is heartening for a couple reasons. The first is that there are specific categories that saw a more drastic drop, like milk which saw a 2% decline in price. The second reason is that this is the first time supermarket prices have dipped as a whole since September 2020. 

That said, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze — especially when it comes time to ring up the items in their cart. But this week Salon Food is focused on cutting costs.  As part of "Budget Week," keep an eye out for stories, recipes and how-tos that center on eating better for less

What's the first step? Here is our beginner's guide to setting a realistic grocery budget (and actually sticking to it). 

Establishing your budget 

Like anything having to do with money, the final number you land on is going to be unique to you based on your income, family structure and dietary needs. That said, here are some figures to get you going: Many financial experts recommend spending between 10% and 15% of your monthly paycheck on food. That includes both dining in and eating out. 

So, for ease of math, if you brought in $1,000 per week — and that figure worked for your larger budget — you would budget between $100 and $150 for groceries and food each week, or between $400 and $600 per month. 

A great place to look for guidance is The United States Department of Agriculture (or the USDA) website, which offers sample food spending plans for singles, couples and families of four divided into four categories: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. As an example, the department estimates that a single female in the 20 to 50 age category could eat a full, healthful diet at "moderate-cost" for $314.80 per month. However, the best place to start establishing a realistic budget is by looking at your current food costs. 

Check your last few credit card statements or banking app to determine how much you are spending each month on groceries, dining out, delivery and take-out (I know when I'm trying to budget or save money, delivery and take-out are the first things to get put on pause, which causes me to really make sure that I'm getting the most out of my groceries at home).

Once you've nailed down a specific number, it's time to plan your next supermarket trip. 

Shop your pantry 

Much like fashion experts recommend "shopping your closet" when you feel like you have nothing to wear and the siren song of Shein is calling to you, taking a look to see what is in your pantry — and taking a few moments to consider how it could be used or remixed in the coming week — is one of the easiest ways to trim grocery costs. 

Before I made my meal plan for the week, I took five minutes to take my notebook into the kitchen and jot down what "meal starters" I had in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. I found: 

Whether I use a physical notebook or the Notes app on my phone, jotting down those ingredients helps me both meal plan and also helps me avoid re-buying an ingredient that I actually already have — which I've totally done before and I always kick myself for it after the fact. 

Tip: A friend of mine who used to work as a chef at a small hotel on the coast of Maryland — and who was a master at making the kitchen's small budget stretch — told me that whenever he did a survey of food costs, he made sure to look for "leaks" in the budget. Much like you check your windows and doors for leaks that can result in a costlier eclectic bill, he looked for food items that sat unused or weren't used to their full capacity. For him one summer, it was mango for a dessert that consistently wasn't selling, so it got kicked off the menu. 

For me, it was the extra-large tub of arugula that I never quite made it through. For you, it may be a bag of snacks you can't  make a dent in before they go stale. Whatever it is, while taking notes about what is in your pantry, consider jotting down items that you don't need to re-buy because they will go unused. 

Meal plan 

One of the benefits of "shopping my pantry" is that it gives me a quick jolt of inspiration for meal planning, which can otherwise feel like a bit of a chore. Typically, I play a little bit of "mix and match" with the ingredients on-hand to get things going. So, for instance, here are the meals I planned for this work week: 

  • Chinese stir-fried tomatoes and eggs: This Francis Lam recipe is both simple and satisfying. I'm going to use the cans of tomatoes, as well as a few of the eggs I have on hand, as the base of the dish. As a side, I'll plan on air-frying the scallion pancakes that have been lingering in my freezer. 
  • Smoky black bean soup with cheese quesadillas: I'll plan on combining the black beans, some of the vegetable stock, chiles in adobo and pico de gallo to make a simple black bean soup, served with quesadillas made with some of the white cheddar. 
  • Coconut and chicken corn chowder: This is one of my favorite throw-it-together dinners. I combine fresh or frozen corn with diced onion, diced jalapeño, shredded rotisserie chicken, stock and coconut milk (plus a lot of coriander, paprika and cayenne pepper) for a hearty, dairy-free chowder. It's great with avocado and tortilla strips. 
  • Sweet potato, spinach and caramelized onion breakfast tacos: I love breakfast for dinner and I've also been dying to riff on the fantastic sweet potato taco at Zombie Tacos in Chicago. I'm going to use the eggs and remaining cheddar that I have on-hand as a base, plus I'll add some frozen spinach for a little greens injection. 
  • Air-fried chicken, peas, Annie's macaroni and cheese: I try to bake a few easier meals into the weekly rotation. I'm going to use the frozen peas I have in the freezer as a side. 
  • Deli counter take-and-bake pizza: I may zhush this up with hot honey and some fresh basil. I may just eat it like a raccoon over the sink. We'll see what this week brings. 

Typically, if I am buying meat or fish at the store, I'll try to stretch it across at least two meals. For instance, I'm buying chicken for the corn chowder, so I'm going to plan on incorporating that into a simple meal, alongside peas and macaroni and cheese, later in the week. 

This work week is actually a slight anomaly in that I don't have any "repeat dinners," but I just want to stress you are meal planning: repeat meals are totally OK (and they are often cheaper to prepare!). 

I may zhush this up with hot honey and some fresh basil. I may just eat it like a raccoon over the sink.

Let's say you get a great deal on pork sausage, which you whip up into a delicious pasta sauce. Go ahead and plan on making an extra big batch of baked pasta that you and your family can eat on for another day or two — or pack for lunches. I promise, they won't get bored. 

To that end, I typically only choose one breakfast option and one lunch option per week for both ease and cost. This week, it's going to be Greek yogurt, lemon zest and berries for breakfast, and then chicken salad wraps for lunch. 

Once you've established your meal plan for the week, double-check what ingredients you need to make the recipes you've picked, including spices and cooking fats. 

Think about the "extras" 

Depending on where you shop, you may toss items onto your grocery list other than food, like coffee, paper products and toiletries. If you are trying to stick to a specific food budget each month, make sure that you account for these items and — if necessary, based on how you split your household expenses — add or deduct them from your calculations. 

For instance, if I buy a $5 bag of dog treats at the supermarket, I note after the fact that the $5 expense is deducted from my "pet costs" monthly budget, rather than my "food costs" monthly budget. 

Supermarket hacks 

As mentioned, grocery prices are slowly creeping down, but in the meantime, here are the main tips I follow at the supermarket to trim costs even more: 

  • Loyalty cards: Most major supermarkets and many locally-owned stores offer loyalty cards that provide members with special prices and coupons. Those extra cents can really start to add up over a large grocery order. 
  • Discount sections: The supermarket closest to my apartment has two discount sections that I make sure to hit whenever I go. They have a discount produce table filled with bags of 99-cent produce that is just slightly bruised, discolored or nearing its sell-by date. I score cheap bags of avocados, citrus and potatoes on a regular basis. They also have an "Oops, we baked too much!" bakery section, which is perfect for quick treats and bagels. 
  • Calculator and cash: I know this is old-school, but if you really want to stick to a grocery budget, you can't go wrong with taking a calculator and just the cash you need to the store (with maybe an extra $10 or $15 float, just in case). 

How to make your money stretch 

I'm not a fan of "just eat rice and beans" as advice to folks who are looking to eat more cheaply. Don't get me wrong — I love beans and rice, but all Americans should be able to afford a nutritious, vibrant diet complete with fresh produce and diverse protein on a regular basis. That said, one of the best ways to practically make your money stretch is by increasing the number of plant-based meals you eat on a regular basis. 

Look into the Salon Food archives for some inspiration. 

I'm not a fan of "just eat rice and beans" as advice to folks who are looking to eat more cheaply. Don't get me wrong — I love beans and rice, but all Americans should be able to afford a nutritious, vibrant diet complete with fresh produce and diverse protein on a regular basis.

Another longer-term strategy for cutting costs over time is by building up both your freezer and your pantry. If a particular cut of meat or fish that I like is on sale and I have the money in my budget, I'll pick up an extra serving or two to freeze for a later time. I try to do the same with homemade meals. For example, if I'm buying ingredients for one pasta bake, could I stretch that into two dinners and freeze one? 

Similarly, adding "pantry staples" to your kitchen that are shelf-stable and take up minimal space — like bags of beans and legumes, canned vegetables and spices — as you have the funds to do so can really help you become more inventive and inspired when it comes to day-to-day cooking. 

If applicable, check to see if you and your family qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) benefits. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in order for most participants to qualify, their "household income before any of the program's deductions are applied — generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line." 

"For a family of three, the poverty line used to calculate SNAP benefits in federal fiscal year 2023 is $1,920 a month," they write. "Thus, 130 percent of the poverty line for a three-person family is $2,495 a month, or about $29,940 a year. The poverty level is higher for bigger families and lower for smaller families." 

Also, just so you know — everyone is welcome at food pantries and community refrigerators. Often you can find schedules and locations for both in your area simply by searching the phrase "food pantry" + your city, neighborhood or zip code. Your local council person's office should also have the information available. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Budget Budget Week Commentary Grocery Inflation