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How to set a realistic monthly food budget and stick to it

Try and implement one (or more!) of these tips if you're wanting to save on your grocery bill. Who doesn't?

by: Julie Donald | 24 Aug 2017

(image: iStock)

We all know how expensive food has become. And for many it's often hard to make ends meet in our current economic climate. In the past few months I've learnt how to cut my monthly grocery budget by a whopping 40% and I want to share the things that helped me do it. These simple changes can work for you too, if you have the inclination to cut down and save save save!

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1. Set your budget
For simplicity sake, I saved all my slips from the supermarket and included all household items in my budget (cleaning stuff, wine, toiletries etc).  I do have a separate budget for food that I eat out of the house (like takeaway coffees or snacks that I purchase during the day and a separate budget for entertainment including meals out or takeaways).  But you do what works for you.

If you are working with only food, it is quite easy to set a daily budget (for example, I need to feed my family of 4 for R200 per day including all meals, packed lunches, snacks etc).  From there you can work out your monthly budget. E.g. R6000 for a family of 4 for a 30-day month.

Your budget may be determined by what you earn, and a good guideline is that your groceries (and personal items) should not exceed 25% of your earnings. The less you earn the greater this percentage will be.  Someone that takes home R10 000 per month, needs to budget on no more than R2500 for groceries which works out at R83 per day.  

Be realistic about your budget. If you make it too small you will never be able to stick to it.  Include at least one night off per week (which could be a toasted sandwich, or a ready cooked meal or a meal out etc).

2. Change your thinking
The biggest step for me was to change my thinking and consequently my habits.  I think this was the hardest part for me.  It took me a concerted, determined effort, and a few months to get used to new ways of doing things.  Remember every penny counts, even if they seem like small savings they all add up.

3. Forget about cash envelopes?
A lot of budgets suggest a cash envelope system (i.e. withdraw the amount of cash in your budget for each budgeted item and put in an envelope at the beginning of the month). When it is spent it is finished until the beginning of next month.  In my experience, this is the unicorn of budgeting for a few reasons:  
1. It is expensive to withdraw cash
2. No one wants to carry thousands of rands in cash around with them
3. My family needs to eat and if I exceed my budget for whatever reason, I still need to make sure that there is food on the table and therefore it needs to be slightly flexible
4. Using my credit card gains me quite a bit in cash-back, and discounts

Cash envelopes DO work well for luxuries like takeaway coffee. Once it is used it is used. No one is going to die without a takeaway coffee.  Make it at home.

4. Avoiding credit card debt
To avoid overspending and running up a large credit card bill, consider loading money onto your credit card at the beginning of the month in lieu of cash in an envelope.  Having said that, I am well aware that people reading an article on how to budget have most likely already been using their credit cards to purchase groceries and probably already have some debt.  So, let’s get real!  Credit isn’t your money, even though it is available to you.  It belongs to the bank and you are paying for the service.  If you have credit card debt, start the journey by actively trying to reduce it.  That means any savings go directly into your credit card.  It may take a few months or even years to get out of debt.

ALSO READ: 15 wholesome meals for busy students on a budget

5. Make use of coupons, specials and loyalty programmes
In the South African context, coupons are relatively rare. I do make use of coupons at the supermarket, if they are available. Keep an eye out for supermarket specials and plan your meals around them, and if there are items that you routinely buy and they are on a special - stock up a bit (I usually buy two if I have space to store it).  Don’t be tempted to buy items that you don’t normally use just because they are on special.  This is a false economy, you are now spending more money on something you wouldn’t have bought at all.  

I do get a lot more savings or cash back by using loyalty programmes. Find out which ones are offered at the various stores, and sign up.  Make sure you swipe each time. I leave my savings to build up for a full year, so come Christmas time, I use all my points and cash back to buy Christmas dinner and gifts.  Also check on the cost to you for these programmes, make sure the benefits are worth the cost.

6. Shop less regularly
I stopped shopping every week and started shopping once every two weeks.  At first, I only stretched to a week and a half, but I gradually got better and better at planning and now I only need to do a big shop once a fortnight.  Now I am working up to a once a month shop with a top up of fresh stuff once a week.

7. Meal planning and not shopping off-list
I started planning our weekly meals. Nothing comprehensive, but along the lines of Monday will be a pasta dish, Tuesday will be a mince dish etc.  I buy only what is on the list, and I allow myself five items not on the list (things I forgot to list or if I was diligent with making my list then I reward myself with a treat item).  If it isn’t on the list, it doesn’t go in the trolley.

8. Eat cheaper food
I guess this sounds obvious, but I started doing more meals like burgers and stews, using cheaper cuts of meat. Make sure your fruit and veg is in season, and not imported. Convenience and pre-prepared food also add a lot to your bill. There are a few layers of convenience; for instance, if you buy a butternut it might cost you R10.  If you buy pre-cut butternut you will get less and it might cost you R20. Then the final tier is to buy pre-cooked butternut which might be even less in quantity and will cost you double again. Think carefully about what you can manage in terms of food preparation. Resolve to spend the extra 5 minutes to prepare your own veg.

9. Shopping around
I used online shops to compare prices. No one in the world has time to go to various shops to compare prices. But by looking at the online prices I could compare and make a specific list for each shop. Fruit and veg for instance, can vary greatly in price and quality. If I shopped at the green grocer, I chose carefully from their specials, often finding better value.  

10. Online shopping
Online shopping may cost more in the sense of paying more for delivery. However, there is no possibility (or temptation!) to shop off-list.  Also, you save a lot of time and you can do it any time of the day or night.  It does require a bit more planning in that it takes a while to get to you, so don’t leave your shopping to the last minute.

11. Shopping at an up-market supermarket
I love, and I mean LOVE, to shop at an upmarket supermarket. Not only because it is always beautifully clean and neat, but because their offering is always fresh and full of treats. I would go in to buy one item and leave with a bag costing R500. Since I banned myself from shopping there I saved myself from a lot of temptation.

12. Having a per day target
Having a target per day, makes it easier to see how you will meet the budget at the end of the month.  For instance if your target is R100 per day per person, when you plan your meal, you will quickly see which foods are putting you out of your range.  You can always try and make it up on another day, for example having Meat-free Monday after a Sunday roast.

13. Meat-free Monday
Plant-based food is far cheaper than eating meat. Incorporate one (or more) meat-free meals per week.

14. Reduce food waste
Reduce your food waste by not buying unnecessary items that go off in your fridge, eating left-overs for lunch the following day or have a left-over night, where you use up all the left overs in your fridge. If you have a substantial amount of something leftover, freeze it for a future meal.

15. Take meals to work
If you purchased a coffee and a sandwich every week day it would cost you in the region of R70 per day. Over a month that would be R1400, over a year that would be R16 800. By bringing a sandwich to work and drinking the coffee at work you could save most of that. Save your budget for a treat on Fridays, and bring leftovers the rest of the week.

16. Kids lunch boxes
My kids love small bags of snacks. I would buy them because they are portable, and easy to pack. The problem is that they are not always that healthy and usually much more expensive (also worse for the environment). Instead, consider buying a big bag of snacks and packing a lunch box. Again, only slightly more effort, but quite a big saving.  

17. Don’t shop hungry (or with your children)
This is often suggested because when you are hungry you tend to buy more food (more readily available calories like high sugar and convenience foods). I recommend also leaving your children behind, they tend to request a treat and we seldom get out without buying at least one extra thing for each child.

Bottom line
I took our grocery spending from R10 000 for a family of five to R6 000. Yes, it was more work and we did have to change our eating and spending habits quite a lot.  But it is definitely doable!  

Do you have any tips for saving money on your monthly grocery bill? SHARE them with us in the comments section below!

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