Financial wizards will tell you that there’s no time like the present to reign in your spending and get a grip on your budget—but it’s their job to say that! Setting a food budget (that you can stick to) isn’t exactly a cake walk. In fact, it’s kinda the opposite. To help you get on the right track, we asked 10 (super-relatable) home cooks for their best realistic food budgeting advice that you can implement right now.
1. Track every penny.
I started my food budget with detailed tracking of my food expenses. Even if you only dedicate yourself to doing this for a short period of time, the results will be extremely insightful. You will see where your money is being wasted, or put to good use, and that will help guide you to how your budgeting efforts can be most effective. Track every penny—even if it’s just for a week!
2. Commit to cooking at home.
My budget isn’t a budget in the traditional sense, but it’s what works for me. Rather than limit myself to a specific dollar amount every month, I choose a few months throughout the year where I cook at home for every meal for the full month (inspired by Epicurious’ Cook90 program). I’ve found that I spend way less money at the grocery store than I do at restaurants, and cooking this much encourages me to try new recipes and techniques in the kitchen.
3. Eat your pantry.
Keeping a tab on your basic pantry items—in the dry pantry, fridge, and freezer—can help you keep to a food budget. It’s so easy to think you might not have enough of something when you’re at the store so you jut grab another one “just in case” only to find out you already have a half-gallon of milk, or plenty of flour. I try to cook almost completely through the ingredients before restocking, which not only helps me avoid overspending, but also cuts down on food waste.
4. Download an app.
I used to spend way too much money on food, but at the end of last year I received a copy of The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money and they convinced me I needed to download the Mint app. The app breaks down your budget and keeps track of your spending habits—and it’s revolutionized how I spend (and save!) money.
Every bottle of wine I buy, every restaurant I eat at, every grocery store visit all get a “Food & Drinks” tag and the app collects the data and clearly shows how I’m pacing for the month. Because it’s an app, and because I always have my phone on me, checking how I’m pacing for the month has become a daily thing for me. It’s helped me to prioritize what’s really worth buying and what’s not—and feel confident about those choices.
5. Lean on beans and eggs.
I’ll be the first to admit that sticking with a food budget is not easy. Here’s the thing I’ve learned, though: Really delicious food does not have to be expensive. To keep my budget in check, I make a point to always include one to two meals a week that lean hard on cheap pantry staples like beans, lentils, rice, and eggs. That also helps me use up the lingering produce in the crisper, which cuts down on waste and also helps me save a little more.
6. Be a bargain hunter.
The best way I’ve been able to stick (close) to my food budget is by shopping the sales. My go-to grocery store is Publix, where they have BOGO deals each week. I’ll pick up two for the price of one to build my pantry stash or toss just one into the cart for half the price. While other stores might not have BOGOs, glancing through the circular before venturing into the store can save you some serious cash.
7. Eat less meat.
Meat is often the most expensive thing on my grocery list. So when budgeting, I try to get creative with substitutions. In place of meat, I’ll swap in high-protein, low-cost vegetarian staples a few nights each week—like chickpeas, black beans, eggs, or edamame—and build dinners around them.
—Melissa Harrison, Food Director, @melissaharrison
8. Reward yourself when you stick to your plan.
I buy pantry ingredients in bulk, which is usually cheaper that the alternative, and then organize my pantry by using clear jars to store grains, legumes, spices, and superfoods. This way, I know exactly what I have and what I need. When I do an excellent of job sticking to it, I reward myself with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine, or some fancy olive oil.
9. Don’t buy lunch.
I used to spend at least $10 a day on lunch—which is horrifying when you stop to think about it. I made a promise to myself that I’d only buy lunch on Fridays and have made a point to shop for lunch stuff (salad, sandwich, and snack board supplies) on Sundays. If I’m feeling lazy, I just remind myself that there’s no room in the budget for $50 on deli sandwiches.
10. Set “rules” to hold yourself accountable.
After a few years of unruly spending and some credit card debt that I didn’t want, I got more serious about my finances. I started by setting some “rules” that I follow. I have two food budgets—one for groceries and one for dining out. I only allow myself to go out to eat on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights. I’ve found that if you lump all of your “food” costs together, you can accidentally blow all of your grocery money on dining out. I track my spending with a budgeting app called EveryDollar.
—Jean Simon, Apartment Therapy Media Product Team