Stop. Grab a calculator, open your banking app or pick up your bank statement and have a good look. How much did you spend on food this month? It’s probably more than you expected, but it doesn’t have to be. Creating a food budget for your family will help you stay in control of your spending.
There’s no way around this: you have to know how much you normally spend, and what you spend it on. Either track it as you shop (there are some good apps to help with that), or go through your receipts at the end of each week. Make a list of where your money went.
Break your list into:
Essentials are the foods that you need to stay alive; treats are the foods that you could do without; “emergencies” is a catch-all to cover everything that goes wrong. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us!
Now that you have your starting point, it’s time to create your food budget.
Look at the items on your lists and ask yourself:
Set a reasonable goal, try it for a week, then tweak it. After a few weeks you’ll have something that works for you.
To make your food budget work for you, balance your wants with your needs. Start with your treats. Cut them down, but don’t cut them out altogether.
Eat a few squares of good-quality chocolate slowly and mindfully rather than gobbling a chocolate muffin. Eat out once a week or once a month rather than every night. If your social group likes eating out, invite them home for a ‘pot luck’ party instead, where everyone brings something different. Go home for dessert rather than buying it at the restaurant, and drink soft drinks or water rather than alcohol. You’ll save some money.
Are pre-made meals or take-aways essential? If you cook at home instead, you can trim your “essentials” budget; as a bonus, it’s satisfying, and you can have meals exactly the way you like them.
I plan five main main meals a week and use my leftovers the rest of the time. Experiment and find out what works for you.
Keep a list and a pen on the fridge. When you use something up, write it on the list immediately. When you do go shopping, take your list with you and you won’t have to wonder what you need. Do your food shopping after a meal or online, and you’ll find it easier to resist impulse-buying and stick to your budget.
Start with your essentials, like rice and pasta. Can you substitute them for a less expensive brand? Try one each week, and if you can’t tell the difference, stick with it.
Buy long-lasting staples like flour, rice and potatoes in bulk. Don’t buy more than you’ll use, but if you use a lot of rice it makes more sense to buy a big bag.
Big supermarkets are easy and convenient, but you might get better prices at the local Asian grocery, for instance, or at budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. You won’t know until you look.
A slow cooker can transform beans and cheap cuts of meat into gourmet meals with very little effort on your part.
Find simple ways to use up your leftovers. Frittata, flatbread pizza, and mixed vegetable creamy pasta with cream cheese are easy ways to turn any leftovers into a tasty meal.
When you have leftovers, portion them out into resealable freezer bags, label them with a name and date, and freeze them. Next time there’s an emergency, you can just defrost, reheat and eat. Emergencies can destroy your food budget, so a bit of planning goes a long way.
Your food budget is a tool to help you, not a trap. If it doesn’t work, keep the basic principles in mind and revise it. A little bit of effort will save you money and give you a food budget that works for you.