The Lazy Man’s Guide to Groceries on a Budget

This is a guest post from Karl Katzke.

Eating well is one of the small pleasures that I decided not to forego when I dug myself out of credit card debt. I'm a busy bachelor with an active social life and an absorbing job; I like food with a lot of flavor to it; and I live in a rural area without a lot of shopping or coupon options. These three things don't usually go hand-in-hand with eating well or cheaply.

To meet my financial goals, I had to keep my food budget under $100 per month — that's $25 a week to feed one or two people (since I often cook for dates and friends). It's been a challenge. Luckily, in Texas and many other states, there is no sales tax on unprepared foods. Using a few simple strategies I managed to meet my goal and then some. I didn't eat rice and beans for the entire month (unlike Morgan Spurlock), I don't waste time digging through supermarket circulars, and I don't spend hours in the kitchen every night. This is definitely the lazy man's approach to groceries on a budget.

Here's a quick rundown of my method:

  • I joined discount clubs at the supermarkets I frequented, and I gave them my real address. Kroger sends me coupons once a month.
  • I shop for fresh vegetables at the Farmer's Market. Produce at our farmer's market is literally half the price as the grocery store.
  • I have family members send me coupons. (This is also a great way to keep in touch with my grandparents, who don't have email and who I don't get to talk to all that often.)
  • Where it makes sense, I buy store brands to save money.
  • I make a large shopping run at the beginning of the month, and then only go to the farmer's market for fresh vegetables during the rest of the month. If I don't have an ingredient, I make something else. This forces me to get creative and use what I do have.
  • I plan my meals to use the same or similar ingredients. That way I can buy in bulk and I rarely have to get creative.
  • I buy staples in larger “family” quantities, and I also shop the short-dated bins for meats, which I usually grill immediately.

The most important thing by far has been getting creative with leftovers. I don't let anything go to waste, and that's saying something considering the quantities I buy.

For instance, I typically will buy a 12-pack of fresh thick-cut boneless pork chops at the grocery store near the beginning of the month. (I always compare prices between the butcher's counter and the meat aisle — you'd be surprised how often the butcher's counter is cheaper!) For the week after I grill, I have meals that feature pork chops: plain pork chops with various sides, pork chops on top of fresh salads, pork chop slices with barbecue sauce and cheese in a tortilla. You get the idea.

Another perennial favorite is taco meat. A frozen one-pound tube of ground turkey is $2. Taco seasoning from the bulk aisle is $5 per pound (though a pound will last longer than I'll live!). Besides tacos, taquitos, and nachos, taco meat goes great on fresh salads or mixed with another side dish like beans and rice. That's five or six meals right there without any repeats. The base ingredient is about $3 for those five meals.

Tacos use the same ingredients as a salad: olives, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese. Soups, stews, and Spaghetti sauce are in the same category. I make my own spaghetti sauce to an old family recipe using canned tomato sauce and a pound of ground turkey. It freezes well, costs less than $5 to make in a batch, and takes only a minute to reheat. I generally make it once a month.

Don't buy ingredients that work for only a single meal. A friend of mine loves an arugula salad that I make with lemon balsamic dressing, but I don't make it for her regularly because you can't really use the arugula before it goes bad.

On the other hand, one of the few products I buy from my grocery store's produce section is bagged whole romaine hearts. They come three to a plastic bag for $3. Romaine hearts will keep for at least two weeks fresh in the bag, and it only takes a minute to wash and chop them into salad. (Use the entire heart, of course. Don't peel the green leaves off. The paler parts are very sweet and juicy!) Don't buy bagged, pre-cut lettuce — it's soggy and unappetizing after less than a week.

Be careful with coupons. Make sure you carry a calculator (I use the one on my cell phone) to figure out if it's really a good deal versus the store brands. You'll usually find, like I do, that store brands are cheaper. On the other hand, you can find things are a better value — buying lunch meat in the re-useable containers has actually proven to be a good value because you can wash and keep the container. At my grocery store it's more expensive to buy the containers than it is to buy the half-pound of lunch meat that comes in them!

It seems my grandparents' lessons are always the best. “Waste not, want not.” I watch my neighbors' trashcans and shake my head every week. I hardly throw out anything, but some of them seem to fill their trashcans to the brim with kitchen waste every week. How can you get rich (slowly or not!) if you're throwing out that much food?

For more about eating well for less, check out these past articles at Get Rich Slowly:

Images by Jesse Michael Nix and desi.italy. This article is not associated with Lazy Man and Money, but you should visit his site anyhow.

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Trees Full of Money
Trees Full of Money
12 years ago

Great post Karl,

My passion for cooking has been reinvigorated with my desire to save money, and eat healthier. My wife and daughter love it when we cook healthy home cooked meals instead of eating out, or getting to go! It also is great family time spent in the kitchen while the meals are being prepared!

Ben @ Trees Full of Money

Jan
Jan
12 years ago

Good post, except I’m going to disagree that “digging through the store circulars” is a waste of time. If you’re going to spend the time to collect and organize all of those coupons – and I know you did say that mostly you get them in the mail, but still – you can take 15 minutes per week to scan the grocery ads, identify the loss leaders, and buy them in quantity.

We hold our grocery budget to about $75/week for a family of five and that’s one of the ways. You of course mentioned many of the other ways!

grimsaburger
grimsaburger
12 years ago

I’m always mystified by these articles that say they can get by on as little as 25% of what we spend per month at the grocery. Some questions for those able to spend $200 or less per month:

Do household goods like trash bags, etc. go into another budgetary category, or do they come out of the grocery budget?

If you buy alcohol, does that go into the grocery budget?

Damsel
Damsel
12 years ago

Great post!! Another thing that goes along with your calculator bit is to check the unit price for each item and compare different brands. At two of the three stores I like, the store puts the unit price on the tag that’s on the shelf. I had to really hunt for it at one, because it was tiny, but I found it!

Does anyone know of good farmers’ markets in the North Austin area? Or a website where they might be listed? Thanks!

Sara
Sara
12 years ago

I usually take this approach to shopping myself. I’ll use the stores coupons but I usually don’t buy brand name foods that are in the regular coupons (and we don’t get the paper). Asking family to send them is a great idea though! I’m not sure how but I find that I’m able to fill a grocery cart for $100-$125 and my husband fills it and it will cost $250! He doesn’t buy a lot of meat so I’m not sure what it is. Maybe because it’s almost physically painful for me to pick up something that’s not on sale?… Read more »

tracy ho
tracy ho
12 years ago

Try Chinese style cooking , its cheap & simple as steam , fry is simple yet delicious ,

anyway enjoy reading your post ,

All the best ,

tracy ho
wisdomgettingloaded

Dennis
Dennis
12 years ago

Good post. Eating healthy is expensive. Any tips on how to shave off cost is a big help.

Mister E
Mister E
12 years ago

Excellent post! The best tip is to make sure you use EVERYTHING. I buy chicken thighs (or very occasionally breasts when they’re on sale) and pick the meat off for pasta’s, rice dishes, sandwiches and lots of other options and then freeze the bones to make stock. Chicken stock in the freezer is great for a quick soup or sauce or to add to any number of things for that extra little bit of flavour and it’s essentially free since I bought the meat anyways. Ends of vegetables get frozen and added to the pot too. The odd time that… Read more »

Rick
Rick
12 years ago

Great Post. I’ve really been inspired recently to live on the lowest budget I feel comfortable with and my grocery spending is going to be about $80 hopefully. I’ll be living with my girlfriend and I’m sure that with her spending a similar amount we should do quite well. Coming from a latin american family, I’m used to eating rice and beans everyday which is cheaper than picking up a can of soda. I also love eating lots of chicken leg quarters and stock up when they’re on sale. I’ll also be baking my own bread and making my own… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

Damsel, the Austin flea market has vendors who sell veggies–the one out towards Manor.

Jarick
Jarick
12 years ago

Back in college, I lived on $20-25 a week in groceries, but I gained a ton of weight because all I would buy is cheap carbs and hamburger. At least now, I’m spending $75 a week on groceries, but I’m losing weight since I buy more produce and lean meat.

Any ideas for those of us who live in the frozen midwest and don’t have a farmers market for half the year?

Andy
Andy
12 years ago

I am trying to find a farmer’s market nearby me (Cincinnati). I definitely like the idea of one grocery store trip per month and than just buy more produce each week when you need it.

Dariaclone
Dariaclone
12 years ago

Any ideas for those of us who live in the frozen midwest and don’t have a farmers market for half the year? I bought and froze a lot of food from the farmer’s market last summer. The sweet corn we just opened was delicious. The tomato sauce is gone now unfortunately, but we used it for pasta sauce and pizza sauce most of winter. I froze the tomato sauce in muffin tins, then transferred it to freezer bags, so that I could pick the amount I wanted to use each time. For the “plain” vegetables, you’ll want to blanch the… Read more »

Dariaclone
Dariaclone
12 years ago

For those of you looking for a farmer’s market, try this website:

http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

What a cool post! It sounds like you eat wonderfully at a reasonable price. Wish we had farmer’s markets around here like the ones folks describe in other cities. Farmer’s market produce here is usually higher than the grocery store’s and is often wilted. Plus you have to pay in cash, making it difficult to keep track of expenditures. Have you tried ethnic markets? There’s a local chain here that caters to Mexicans and Asians. It carries a very diverse line of produce that is often a lot cheaper than the homogeneous national chains. Lemons, limes, and bananas are a… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

We don’t have a farmers market here in Oregon at this time of year, either. We use our local market during the summer, and we grow a lot of vegetables ourselves. Our solution to out-of-season produce is to can the food for later use, but that’s probably a bit outside what a “lazy man” (or woman) wants to do. 🙂

Amanda W
Amanda W
12 years ago

I have found some very helpful strategies in grocery shopping. Every Friday (or whatever day) I get all of my local grocery store’s weekly ads in the mail every week. I circle only what I would normally buy and then I go to the big W (Wal-Mart), where they price match. They will price match any stores sale price as long as you have the ad and it is the same item. This saves me time from going to 4 different stores. I also clip coupons, but only take the ones for the items I have on my list, otherwise… Read more »

h.c.
h.c.
12 years ago

For the household part of the budget, I keep it low by 1) do not buy trashbags. I have a small trashcan that uses the plastic bags from the supermarket. That means I take out the trash more often, keep my kitchen smell fresh, lower cost, and I see it as a form of recycling. 2) limit use of saran wrap zip lock bags. I try to use tupperware as much as poss. Since tupperware are reused, no throwaway saran wrap zip lock bags. 3) no need to use paper towels. I hardly use any b/c for most everyday cleaning… Read more »

Kristi Wachter
Kristi Wachter
12 years ago

Great guest post, Karl!

Next time you DO make that arugula salad for your friend, try making yourself some pasta with arugula for your next meal – just chop it up a bit, toss it in with the pasta (while it’s cooking if you want it wilted like spinach, or while you’re draining the pasta for a bit of crunch) and top with some parmesan cheese. It’s really good.

Steve
Steve
12 years ago


# Dennis Says:
March 12th, 2008 at 6:17 am
Good post. Eating healthy is expensive. Any tips on how to shave off cost is a big help.

Eating healthily can be expensive( still cheaper than doctor’s appointments ), but it doesn’t have to be.

At the bottom of this blog post are links to previous articles that deal with this very subject:

https://www.getrichslowly.org/16-ways-to-eat-healthy-while-keeping-it-cheap/

https://www.getrichslowly.org/healthy-food-on-an-unhealthy-budget/

Legumes, seasonal produce, and some whole grains are among the cheapest as well as the healthiest foods on the planet.

The most important tips are to eat out less, make meals from scratch and comparison shop.

Arlene
Arlene
12 years ago

I’ll have to disagree with you on arugula!! Whenever I have flavorful greens leftover and I’m sick of salad, they go right into a frittata for some color and veggie flavor. You can often chop spinach or arugula right into hot pasta, it will cook slightly and add a burst of color. Cooking for dates is well and good but how do you stop them from eating all the leftovers you were hoping to have for the rest of the week? Maybe I’m just too greedy but I feel like a miser when I put away food I was hoping… Read more »

aj Gail
aj Gail
12 years ago

My only problem with this post is that he is buying the kind of meat where the animals are treated unfairly. I really make sure to budget my food but I also only buy animals that I know have lived happy and heathly lives. I would hope even the cheap can appreciate that.

nathan
nathan
12 years ago

I think there is a difference between being frugal and being cheap, and I think this borders being cheap. What is the point of robbing yourself of even the simplest pleasures to save money you may never be able to use? I don’t think a grocery budget should be extreme, but there has to be some sort of middle path. My family is healthier, happier, and more productive when we aren’t worried about making a meal out of scraps in the fridge.

I also agree with AJ Gail in regards to the animals.

AB
AB
12 years ago

JD- actually there is a year round fresh produce stand right next to Reed college, which I think is out your way. It’s on SE Steele. A nursery runs it and they generally have good stuff.

Adam Snider
Adam Snider
12 years ago

Strangely, I find that the local farmer’s markets where I live often cost MORE than at the grocery stores. However, the produce is usually of a much higher quality, and doesn’t go bad as quickly, so I tend to think that it’s worth paying a little bit more for it, since it means I have less waste from vegetables going bad before I’ve had a chance to use them.

fred
fred
12 years ago

“..but I also only buy animals that I know have lived happy and heathly lives. I would hope even the cheap can appreciate that.”

How do you define a happy and healthy life? My basset hound has lived a full 14 years happy and healthy… but we’re not gonna eat him when he goes just to save money.

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

I agree with previous posts that local == fresher longer. Stuff coming to me (in Wisconsin) from Colombia is already HOW old when I take it home?!?! Amazing how local carrots lasted 2 weeks and were still crisp, while the California carrots were limp as heck by then. 😛 I think we splurge a bit on fresh produce — it’s worth it to us. We enjoy going to a farmer’s market and wandering around the abundance and letting the kids see the people who grow their food. We’re on board with the author’s point about planning, but we’re not so… Read more »

mike
mike
12 years ago

$20-40 dollars a week on food seems doable but JD’s story about living on $15 a week is a bit excessive if you are working and earning a decent salary. Were you completely broke or unemployed during this time?

Steve
Steve
12 years ago

# aj Gail Says: March 12th, 2008 at 11:13 am My only problem with this post is that he is buying the kind of meat where the animals are treated unfairly. Gail; You must be a vegan then, as am I :). Serioulsy, there is no body of government standards or enforcement in regards to labels like “cruelty free” or “free range”. Often those labels only mean that someone is suckering you into paying more for the same product. FWIW, even dairy animals are killed when they can no longer produce and they live under horrible conditions while alive. The… Read more »

Anthony StClair
Anthony StClair
12 years ago

Re the “you can’t really use the arugula before it goes bad”… Try timing it with when you make a batch of pasta sauce. We also have started making big batches of our own sauce. Greens go great in it – good flavor, and another way to make sure you’re getting your veggies. 2 options 1. When you make the sauce, add chopped arugula during the last 5 minutes of cooking 2. When you reheat the sauce for another meal, add the chopped arugula then. Just did this the other night, in fact. Arugula’s great in pasta sauce, since it… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

@Mike

Not me! I could never live on $15/week. That was a guest post, too. I’m quite open that Kris and I spend a *lot* on food. It’s the biggest weakness in our budget. We like to eat, and we like to eat well. We grow our own food and do canning to help keep our costs down. If we didn’t, we’d be in the poorhouse because of how much we spend on food.

Now clothing? You’d be shocked by how little I spend on clothing. (And probably not shocked in a good way.)

Matthew
Matthew
12 years ago

First of all, I think that in general its okay to be cheap, it’s your motivation that matters. If you’re being cheap simply because you don’t want to spend the money on others because you’re selfish, that’s different from being cheap because you want to get out of debt so that you will have money to use on others. I also think that as someone who evaluates others as cheap or not, it’s important that you look at their whole life. I’m cheap when it comes to paying for television, trying to get discounts on my internet or telephone, and… Read more »

chad
chad
12 years ago

aj Gail: I hear that. I mean, since we’re going to kill the animal anyway, we should be “nice” to it along the way, right? “Humane treatment” of non-human animals is a good thing, yes? Who do you think that really benefits? The non-human animal who *still ends up dead on your plate* or your guilty conscience and sense of well being? So as long as you treat your slaves nicely, it is okay to have slaves, and in the end choose whatever fate *you* decide for them. Your position is analogous to “do less harm where possible” which is… Read more »

FranticWoman
FranticWoman
12 years ago

I echo a previous poster – how does an adult really live on such a paltry amount? $100 a month? I’d have to see what things costs line by line. For ex. – the post mentioned $2/lb ground turkey. I’m lucky where I live to find it for $2.64 or so ON SALE. Full price is over $4. I’ve been trying to cut my food costs for a long time and rarely can get below $250 for one person (although I admit, some things I will not compromise on, like organic milk; regular milk tastes yucky to me now). I… Read more »

Mister E
Mister E
12 years ago

Just to chime in, my weekly grocery budget for 2 of us is $70 but sometimes we come in under that and that includes all grocery store items (cat litter, toiletries, garbage bags, etc..) not just food. We eat pretty good I’d say too, most of our friends envy our meals even the ones that spend twice as much. I worked in kitchens for a decade though and my girlfriend attended culinary school so we have that going for us. We used to get by on $50/week but that involved cutting out a lot of fresh produce and eating a… Read more »

chad
chad
12 years ago

An add-on for aj Gail: I want you to know that I think your sentiment and concepts of treating non-human animals is well intentioned, and certainly a step in the right direction, despite being based on an ethical and moral framework that enables and encourages exploitation. However, while you understand and realize that these non-human animals have interests [ie. do not want to be treated “unfairly” as you put it] and we have an obligation [imperative!] to consider those interests *whether we decide that they are aware of their interests or not*. Ergo, since you understand that these being have… Read more »

Ken
Ken
12 years ago

ANDY: Findlay Market in Cincinnati is good. here’s the website: http://www.findlaymarket.org/

FranticWoman
FranticWoman
12 years ago

to add to my previous comment: when I was eating v. healthy, my food bill was $350-400 mn for one person. I had also greatly reduced my eating out bill, so of course my grocery bill went up. Now that I’ve reduced it greatly in the last 2.5 mns – I’ve started gaining a bit of weight and am a bit more sluggish. I might have to go back my specialized eating healthy plan, even if more expensive. The weird part though, is my portion sizes got less since I can’t be impulsive: if I make anything I have to… Read more »

Linda
Linda
12 years ago

I’m getting better at using up what I already have in the pantry and refrigerator. Less waste and fewer trips to the store = saved time and money. One site that is helpful is:
http://allrecipes.com/Search/Ingredients.aspx
You can type in what ingredients you want to use and then find recipes with those ingredients. I also like that the recipes are reviewed so you can see what other users thought of the recipe.

thehungrydollar.com
thehungrydollar.com
12 years ago

I do everything by the book, but I still cringe every time I checkout at the supermarket. The biggest problem I run into is that my wife and I are trying to eat healthy, and as many of you know, it’s a lot more expensive to eat healthy.

Steve
Steve
12 years ago

FWIW people, there are dozens of varieties of legumes, whole grains, spices, and vegetables available in most urban areas. Mountains of recipes on the internet. There is no reason for eating “rice and beans” every day to be the same meal every day.

blogrdoc
blogrdoc
12 years ago

I *just* blogged about “The Art and Science of Grocery Shopping” a couple days ago. Here’s my tips: 1. Arm yourself by getting calibrated for unit prices. The truly lazy can just keep in mind $~1.50/lb for veggies, $2.00/lb for meat. 2. You-bag-it stores kick butt. Find one and check it out, if you don’t use them already. 3. Wholesale stores are usually a rip off for any ‘ready-made’ food. Their fridge/freezer sections will violate you. Wholesale stores are best for: oatmeal, sugar, coffee. That’s about all I’ve found that’s a good deal there. E.g. peanut butter was 2x the… Read more »

mike
mike
12 years ago

“Not me! I could never live on $15/week. That was a guest post, too. I’m quite open that Kris and I spend a *lot* on food. It’s the biggest weakness in our budget. We like to eat, and we like to eat well. We grow our own food and do canning to help keep our costs down. If we didn’t, we’d be in the poorhouse because of how much we spend on food.” JD, Gotcha. I was wondering about that. I love to eat as well but I save where I can while making sure that I eat well and… Read more »

Minimum Wage
Minimum Wage
12 years ago

That’s funny, I’ve been to farmers’ markets here, and they seem pretty overpriced.

stngy1
stngy1
12 years ago

Strangely. our local Farmers Mkt is MORE expensive than the local grocery stores. I think its because all vendors are certified organic, and that locals are simply willing to pay extra, but still it surprises me. There’s got to be less overhead!
Really liked the point about using ingredients in multiple recipes. I think in analyzing our purchase this is where we make or break it. I’ve bought stuff for a single meal, ended up with extra of an exotic ingredient, and THAT sits until its useless.
Oh Well.

TripleE
TripleE
12 years ago

Seriously, where in the heck outside of northern California and Oregon is the farmer’s market worthwhile? They sure as hell aren’t in the DC area. They’re trendy, which raises the prices, and frankly, I can’t tell any difference in quality between a good grocery store and farmer’s market produce. Plus, my stores have way better selection. Then again, this may be a nice side effect of living near the city and working in the ‘burbs where I can get decent stores. Seriously, though, if I knew that farmer’s markets actually had semi-local produce and was worth the value, I’d be… Read more »

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

Amanda wrote: “I get all of my local grocery store’s weekly ads in the mail every week. I circle only what I would normally buy and then I go to the big W (Wal-Mart), where they price match.” This is a strategy that will save you money in the short-term, but what happens when the local stores are run out of business by “the big W”, and Walmart is the only choice? I’m not anti-business, but I fear that the anti-corporate nutjobs have at least a bit of truth here…

Brett from Common Cents for Everyone
Brett from Common Cents for Everyone
12 years ago

Good post, but I think you can add a couple things.

1. Find an inexpensive deep freezer to keep a larger quantity of milk, bread, meats, and other staples after you find them on sale and before you are able to use them.
2. Wait to use the coupons. Coupons are usually the first wave of promotion for a product. Wait for the sale price in the store and use the coupons then.
3. Since I am also one for simplicity, you can combine your FREE discount/frequent shopper keytags onto one card here.

Rachelle
Rachelle
12 years ago

Just a reminder:

Ground spices lose their flavor after 6 months. So calculate that into your price.

I find that most grocery stores carry cheap bagged ‘mexican’ spices. It’s slightly limited selection, but they have basil and oregano which are my two go-to spices for 1.50 each. Lasts about two/three months. Just transfer it into a container so that it will keep.

AB
AB
12 years ago

My husband and I have a grocery budget of 200 a month. This includes things like trash bags, toilet paper etc. (we got to Costco for that stuff, so we only buy it a couple times a year). We don’t live on ramen (though ramen with an egg and a cup of frozen broccoli is a comfort food for me that has healthy protein and veggies and costs about .44 to make). I buy our chicken breast at the local Asian market for between 1.60-2.18 per lb. We also get our produce there unless I drop by afore mentioned food… Read more »

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