Family of 5 with a $200-300/month grocery budget. How can it be done?

I’ve been married for 12 years, and we have 3 young children aged 5, 3 and 1. We own our own home, have a home equity line of credit, a car (paid with cash), and a leased van.

I only started with a budget in April as I was tired of living beyond our means. I had tried to budget in the past but didn’t really understand that you need to account for every cent! I thought you could save money if you budgeted the majority, and the saving would just happen on its own.

The problem was that the savings ended up being spent one bit at a time for a hundred different small things. I started using something my bank offered where the bank would automatically transfer a chosen (minimum $0.50) amount to a savings account every time you used your debit card. Think of how many times you use your debit card!

By the time we had our second child I was tired of not having and money. We had already taken our a home equity loan to develop the basement. We ended up going through an investment banker and they managed our mortgage. I also learned that a home equity loan and line of credit is not meant for emergencies.

It’s only meant to purchase things that are for improvements on the home. We now use the envelope approach of budgeting. For the first time in 12 years we have savings, money for our homeowners fees, money for vehicle maintenance, vehicle registrations, vehicle gas, pet food, groceries, gifts, and many other things all neatly separated and organized in envelopes.

Here’s how I did it, with having a grocery budget of $300/month or less!

These points are written in the order in which I did them. They can be done in any order, this was simply the order we tried them in.

1. Cut out the Unnecessary.

We cancelled our television cable years ago. We reduced our home and cell phone plans. We sold our newly leased vehicles, and used the money to buy older vehicles outright.

2. Don’t be brand loyal!

It’s okay to buy no name brand! Many taste just the same or work just the same for baking.

3. Utilities Budget Programs.

Many utilities have budget plans so you have a consistent amount to pay every months. This makes your full budget easier because then you know what to expect no matter the season. You can also do this with your property taxes, and home insurance.

Some charge you interest, but this is a start to get your budget going.

4. Learn to cook, and eat out less!

I like finding new recipes. I use the produce from the Good Food Box as my basis. In the past few years I’ve been making my own bread, buns (hamburger and sandwich), tortillas (which my children enjoy more than the bought ones), cookies, cakes, granola bars (which my children LOVE).

Some of the cooking necessities comes from dietary restrictions, in my case dairy and eggs. There are a lot of healthy alternatives too! I started using websites like http://www.hillbillyhousewife.com as my starting point. They have great, albeit American, meal plans for tight budgets.

5. Buy less processed foods.

They are expensive for what you get, they don’t taste good, and they aren’t good for you! It’s easy enough to make your own coating for KFC type chicken (you can even save it for later!), create a pasta sauce, and bake your own bread and buns.

6. Get a Good Food Box through your local community kitchen

If you can, it’s a cost effective way of getting a lot of produce for a little. You can buy 20+ pounds of produce for $15, 30+ pounds for $20 and 40+ pounds for $25. It’s not organic, you don’t get to chose what kind of produce you get, you have to pay in advance, you have to pick up at a specific time and location and it’s not available for two months in the summer – but beggars cannot and should not be choosers! It’s a great start when you’re low on cash, and don’t know where to start.

The Good Food Box gives me produce I likely wouldn’t have bought myself. It MAKES me cook because it came in this box that I’ve already paid for, and I feel guilty if stuff goes bad in it – it’s like throwing away money.

Here’s a website where you may be able to find your nearest location: http://www.foodshare.net/goodfoodbox01.htm

7. Meal Plan

I don’t necessarily write everything down that we’re going to eat week to week, but I do have certain meals that we eat on certain days. I do this because of some scheduling and have continued it for consistency both for me and my kids. My one daughter goes to choir at 4:30-5:30, so it’s right when dinner preparation and dinner eating would be.

For us we have this type of schedule for dinners – Mondays: ‘meatless’ or easy cooking. Tuesdays: Tacos, Wednesdays: pancakes, Thursdays: chicken or some other protein, Fridays: left overs from the week, Saturdays: family favorites, Sundays: larger meal which makes left overs for lunches. My meatless dinners are meals that don’t include “fresh” meats or any meats at all. So things like homemade soup, meatless chili, fish cakes made with canned fish, wieners and beans, quiche, scrambled eggs, plain pasta with fruit and veg sides… etc.

8. Buy meat from a butcher.

This will require some research and trial and error on your part. I’ve determined that we spend $100 a month on meat. So we need a butcher who will give a us a good deal. We recently switched from buying ALL of our meats from Costco to Wal-Mart and now to a butcher shop. Why did I switch? We always found we were spending more money than we needed to at Costco. With Wal-Mart – their meat prices have recently gone up. It made me want to cry a couple months ago when I noticed ground beef go up 10% and then 30% where it’s now stayed. I started doing some research on various butcher shops and just went for it.

Unfortunately, this butcher shop, while they pride themselves on customer service and offer free shipping to your house; did not have the best cuts of meat or the freshest or the best price even. I’ve recently gone with another butcher shop that’s just outside our city. They will deliver our meat for a fee of only $10. For the price of gas, and the limited time I have to drive one hour to that particular butcher shop, I think I’ll take it!

They have better cuts of meat, good customer service, and better prices than Wal-Mart and others. Try and find a butcher that gets fresh cuts. You’ll know you’ve found one when you talk to them on the phone and they tell you it will take them a week to get a cow in to get your cuts in. The more you buy in one shot the more you’ll get for less. You can buy 100+ pounds of meat for $600. That may seem difficult to work into your budget, but once you get going, you’ll have the extra money. For now, we still use our credit card and I pay off $100 on it from our grocery part of our budget.

To do this you will need a freezer! Chest freezers are more energy efficient than uprights. The only tricky you part, you will notice by my photos, are organizing it all in your freezer! I plan on finding wire baskets or milk crates to sort everything.

My “empty freezer” before 100+ pounds of meat.

$645 worth of different cuts of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork. Fit into 5 boxes.

Box of ground beef and beef tenderloin

Whole Ham, bacon, & various cuts of chicken

Filling up my freezer with pork chops, steaks, stewing beef and more!

Bacon, chicken, roasts, more cuts of beef.

Almost full!

Full! Chicken breasts and steaks on top!

9. Get Flyers and Make a Price Book.

Make a list of the items you buy. All of them! Check your flyers for the next 6 weeks+. You will notice that almost everything goes on a sale in a cycle. Note that not everything in the flyers are on sale! Shop sales!

10. Coupons, coupons and more coupons!

I’ve learned a lot about coupons in the past 6months or so. Mostly from sites like groceryalerts.ca. You can get coupons from a variety of sources: websites, flyers, in-store tear pads, contacting companies, and coupon trains.

11. Stores

Shop at the most convenient store that accepts coupons, and price matching. Once you’ve decided which store that is, you can use your flyers & price list to purchase items at the lowest cost by price matching (if necessary), and use coupons if you have them!

12. Don’t buy your lunch at work.

Even if you pay $5 a day it can add up to more than $800 a year. What could you do with $800? Probably quite a lot if you really thought about it! I’ve finally convinced my husband to take lunch to work!

Good luck on your new budget!

Steven Zussino

Steven Zussino is the co-founder of Grocery Alerts Canada. He loves to help Canadians save money on groceries. He also runs the blog, CanadianTravelHacking.com.

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