I love when people ask me how many kids I have. When I say “five,” there’s always an expected humorous reaction. Sometimes we get the typical, “don’t you know what causes that?” Other times it’s, “wow, you have an entire basketball team.”
Originality is not a requirement when responding to someone who just told you he has five kids.
When I continue talking, at some point, it will come up… “how do you afford to feed seven people every month?”
We decided years ago that we weren’t going to sacrifice health to save money on groceries. We’ve discovered that you don’t have to. You can eat well without going broke. We’ve developed a system now, and $400 is our monthly grocery budget.
We eat out fairly often, because travel and food are two of our favorite things to spend money on. Priorities. But we knew that if we wanted to eat out once a week (and the entire time we’re on vacation or mini-vacations), we couldn’t also spend $1000+ on groceries every month.
This is how we spend less than $400/month on groceries for our large family, and how you can too…
1. Have a Plan
If you get nothing else out of this article, remember this. If you have a plan for the food you buy, you’ll buy less and waste less. Simple meal planning is the easiest way to save money and time.
Make a list before you go to the store. This helps to eliminate impulse buys, and it keeps you on track. When you get to the store, look at your list, not the advertising and marketing signs everywhere.
Planning is the key to not overspending, and it’s not hard to plan. It takes five minutes to sit down and write a list.
How to Plan Your Meals
Meal planning is simple. First, determine how far out you plan to buy. If you’re just buying for the week, figure out how many meals your family will need, excluding times when you’re eating elsewhere, like work and school.
Now this is where we’re a little different. We don’t typically plan specifics, we plan ideas, and then purchase based on sales. For example, a dish could be:
- Slow-cooked meat
- Green vegetables
We know we’re cooking some sort of meat in the slow cooker — that could be chicken, beef, or pork… whichever is on sale and/or looks the best. For the greens, we could buy spinach, broccoli, or even cauliflower (yes, I realize cauliflower is white), but the point is, we’ll buy whichever vegetable is selling for the best price. The carb could be rice, potatoes, or homemade bread, among so many other options.
Before we leave for the store, we check to see if we already have anything on the menu, and then cross it off if we do.
The key to meal planning is to have a plan, but be flexible and open to trying new things.
2. Use Food Co-Ops
To eat nutritious meals, you need to eat real food. If your family is looking to eat more local, organic plants and meats, look for a food co-op. If you’ve never heard of a food co-op, this could be life changing.
Some food co-ops are set up like a farmer’s market, open certain times of the week, in a scheduled meeting spot. Others have actual storefronts…
There could be a food co-op right around the corner from your home. They’re a great way to eat higher quality, real food, at a fraction of the supermarket prices.
Some co-ops have membership dues, which can typically be paid in cash, or sometimes even in volunteer hours. The storefront co-ops are more likely to function this way, while the market-style co-ops typically just charge you for whatever you buy each visit.
How to Find a Food Co-Op
Ask around in your neighborhood to see if people already know about a popular one; there could be multiple co-ops in your area.
If people don’t know of any, don’t worry! There are three great resources to help you find one:
If there isn’t one close to you, consider driving the distance occasionally to supplement your regular groceries. You’ve at least got to see one for yourself. I love food co-ops.
3. Drink More [Tap] Water
Is water the primary drink of choice for your family? It should be. The occasional soda, juice, wine, or beer is fine, but when any of those become your regular drink, I would reconsider
your life that decision.
Maybe it wasn’t a decision. Often, over the years, you don’t even realize how much junk you’re drinking. Let’s get intentional about what we drink. Additionally, if you only drink bottled water, you may be wasting money.
Check your local water report to see if your water is drinkable. If you’re in the States, it’s probably fine. We live in Italy at the moment, where wine is much cheaper than bottled water. We’ve ran into a lot of other Americans who only drink bottled water, because they didn’t realize the tap water here is high-quality drinking water.
Having lower quality tap water isn’t an excuse to drink bottled water… or even worse, to not drink water. With technology today, you have plenty of options for a fix. But the funny thing about bottled water is that there’s a good chance it is tap water…
“There are three different types of drinking water to choose from: tap water, filtered water, and bottled water. However, the differences between each type are less distinct than you might think. For example, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximately 25% of bottled water is nothing more than bottled tap water. Also, federal regulations that govern the manufacturers of bottled water are typically much less strict than those regarding tap water.”Dr. Carly Stewart, MoneyCrashers
You may think bottled water is safer, but that’s only true if you live somewhere with contaminated water. In many cases, the plastic bottles are actually more dangerous.
Options for Filtering Water
If you think your tap water is unsafe, or if you don’t like the taste, there are many options for filtering your water. You may pay upfront, but you’re going to save money and have better water in the long run.
Standard water filters like this are a simple solution. You can find one at almost any home store. Here’s an inexpensive one you can get from Amazon (pictured). It’s less than $30, and the filters are around $5/each. That’s not bad considering one filter replaces around 300 standard bottles of water.
Filtered water dispensers like this are easy to use, and it’s easy to replace the filters. They also fit nicely in the fridge to keep the water cold.
If you need to go a step further, you can get a reverse osmosis filter. This will ensure higher quality water, and it typically eliminates any bad taste. The installation is pretty simple — much easier than it looks. The quality of water is worth it, especially if your water isn’t great.
Regardless of how much you spend on any type of water filtering system, it’s going to be cheaper than buying water bottles for the rest of your life.
The moral of the story: drink more water. You’ll save money and improve your health. And be sure you’re drinking enough water if you want your body to work properly. You’ll feel better too. It’s a win-win.
4. Eat Leftovers on Purpose
I know a lot of people who don’t eat leftovers. Often, it’s because they were forced to eat them as a kid, or they just don’t like the idea of reheating things.
When we plan a meal, we typically plan the same meal for more than one day. It’s cheaper to buy enough for a large meal that lasts two days, than to buy items for two separate meals. This doesn’t have to be every meal, but especially for your favorites and your kids’ favorites, consider making enough to have more than one meal.
If you’re opposed to leftovers, I suggest trying it again. I’m not talking about nuking everything and serving; actually reheat the food the same way you cooked it (oven, stove, grill, etc.). You may be surprised to realize that when you reheat food the way you cooked it, it won’t taste much different.
5. Eat Less Meat
We’re not vegetarians—though I have been for various times in my life—but we also don’t eat meat with every meal. Meat is expensive, and it’s not completely necessary. Beans are often a good replacement for meat (think Mexican food).
It’s common for our family to eat a meatless meal every few days. It saves money, and there are plenty of healthy vegetarian meals out there that are so good you won’t even miss the meat. Trust me.
If you don’t want to completely eliminate meat, try cooking the meat as a side, and serving veggies as the main course a few nights each week. You can save hundreds over a year, just by reducing the amount of meat you consume.
I’m not a fan of tofu, but the good news is that you don’t have to replace meat with tofu (unless you’re into that sort of thing). If you can get your mind to stop thinking you need the meat in a meal, it’s pretty easy to come up with some tasty meatless options. Noodle and rice dishes, casseroles, and burritos are all great options for a meatless meal.
Try these recipes to get started:
6. Stop Wasting Food
According to the NRDC, 40% of the food in the US is never eaten 1. Why? Often because we fail to plan our meals, which leads to wasted and rotten food.
Often, you can still use much of the food you toss (think banana bread out of overripe bananas). Or better yet, plan your meals, and you won’t have all of the excess wasted food. The NRDC goes on to show that Americans waste an average of $1,820 per year on unused food.
When we waste food, not only are we wasting money, but we’re not being good stewards.
7. Buy Frozen Fruit & Veggies
It’s always best to buy produce fresh. We all know that. And even better than that is buying local, preferably organic produce that’s grown without an abundance of chemicals and modification.
When you buy produce from a supermarket, however, frozen and fresh have similar nutritional values. According to several studies, when you’re comparing frozen and fresh in the supermarket, frozen may actually have a higher nutritional value, due to when the fresh produce is picked, and the length of time it’s stored afterward 2 3 4.
Frozen vegetables are often blanched—the process of placing the vegetables in boiling water for a few moments prior to freezing—which can reduce the nutritional value, but this is similar to how the storage time of produce often reduces the nutritional value for “fresh” produce. Fruit isn’t blanched, because that would give it a weird texture, but vitamin C and/or sugar may be added.
The bottom line is, if you’re buying locally, from a co-op or farmer’s market, buy fresh. If you’re buying from the store, buy frozen. Frozen is a healthier option than canned, and it’s about the same as buying fresh from a grocery store or supermarket, for a fraction of the price.
8. Stop Buying Fake Food
What is fake food? It’s the stuff posing as food that’s really not food at all. The over-processed, unhealthful, high-sugar junk. Snack foods, sodas, and any other highly processed or modified foods.
Junk food is a staple in the American diet. Go to any other country, and look at the “American section” in a supermarket. It looks like the snack food isle in American grocery stores. On top of that, more than one third of Americans eat fast food on a given day, according to a CDC survey. 5.
Junk food, fast food, and all highly-processed foods are killing us, and taking our money with them. If you cut out all the junk, you’ll cut a huge chunk off your budget. If you’re already not buying junk, I applaud you.
We only buy junk food on vacations. Not the mini-vacations we take often, but the longer ones we take once or twice per year. It’s part of the fun… getting to eat the things we almost never eat at home. You know, moderation.
Your Monthly Grocery Budget
If you can reduce your budget to $400/month, you’re doing great. $100 per person, per month is great too. The point is, be mindful of what you spend — track it, and reduce it. If you’re doing that, you’re headed the right way.
Don’t get caught up in justifying why you spend so much on groceries each month, or how you can’t spend any less than you do. Or how this isn’t practical in “your part of the country.” Any excuse for why you can’t spend less won’t help you, even if it’s legitimate.
Make adjustments and you can spend less. Making excuses keeps us where we are. Thinking through issues, and thinking outside the box, helps us become better.
We’ve lived on this budget in a small town in Oklahoma, in the heart of San Diego, California, and even in Venice, Italy… when we were a smaller family, and now as a family of seven. We know it’s possible. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.
I wouldn’t sacrifice health for money, and if you just can’t seem to keep your budget under $400 while still eating healthful meals, with all of these tips, then keep reducing until you’re as low as you can go.
Further Book Reading
- Dinner for a Dollar: $1 Per Person Per Meal by Shelly Longenecker
- 100 Days of Real Food by Lisa Leake
- Cooking Scrappy by Joel Gamoran
Over to You!
- How much do you spend on groceries each month?
- Do you think you could live on $400/month?
- NRDC Staff. (2019). Food Waste. NRDC
- Rickman, J. C., Barrett, D. M. and Bruhn, C. M. (2007), Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. J. Sci. Food Agric., 87: 930-944.
- Rickman, J. C., Bruhn, C. M. and Barrett, D. M. (2007), Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables II. Vitamin A and carotenoids, vitamin E, minerals and fiber. J. Sci. Food Agric., 87: 1185-1196
- Shofian, N. M., Hamid, A. A., Osman, A., Saari, N., Anwar, F., Dek, M. S., & Hairuddin, M. R. (2011). Effect of freeze-drying on the antioxidant compounds and antioxidant activity of selected tropical fruits. International journal of molecular sciences, 12(7), 4678–4692.
- Molina, B. (2018, October 3). More Than 1 in 3 Adults Eat Fast Food on a Given Day, CDC Survey Finds. USA Today.