When you first start out, balancing a low carb grocery budget can seem like a strange, mysterious, and even impossible task. Fortunately, the basic “secrets” to balancing a food budget are open secrets that anyone can learn, regardless of the type of diet they’re budgeting for. Here, then, are 9 “secrets” that frugal shoppers use to eat well while keeping the spending down.

1. They’re willing to invest some time.

If time equals money, we should be able to trade one for the other, right? Right! And that’s exactly what we have to do to make a food budget work. Frugal shoppers invest time in planning, shopping, and cooking in order to leave some money in their pockets. A big part of that time investment may be in shopping several different stores and markets in order to get the best deals on the healthiest foods.

In the beginning it can seem like too much time for too little return. But food budgeting and shopping are a set of skills that improve over time. The more you practice, the faster you’ll get–and you will most likely develop some shortcuts as you go along. Keep trying until you find the right balance between money and time spent.

2. They’re willing to know themselves.

You have to know your spending and eating habits–or be willing to learn about them–for a grocery budget to work. Some of the knowledge might be unpleasant, but some might not. Either way, you can’t compensate for your weaknesses or play to your strengths if you don’t know what they are!

But if you don’t know yourself in these areas when you start out, don’t worry. If you’re honest in your budgeting efforts, you’ll learn as you go along.

Of course if you’re shopping for a household, you need to know their habits, too, and they may need to know yours. That might mean some ongoing conversations about food and money!

3. They set firm but realistic spending limits.

Successful shoppers know that you can’t meet a budget goal if you don’t set it. And you probably won’t meet it if you give yourself permission to break it. On the other hand, you aren’t really meeting it if you’re underfeeding yourself in order to stay under budget!

Setting realistic spending limits may be something that you need to learn over time. Secrets 5 and 6 can help with that.

4. They use meal plans & shopping lists.

A shopping list is one of the best tools available for a) preventing impulse buying, and b) making sure you get home with what you need. Take the time to make your list thorough, then don’t stray from it–unless you find a lower-price substitute for something on your list.

Meal plans have more leeway. They can be detailed and structured, or open and flexible. They can be written before you shop or after, or drafted first and then revised. The important thing is to know what you’re doing with the food you buy. (Make sure you include notes about what to do with your leftovers!)

5. They estimate how much they’ll spend.

This can be a key to coming in under a spending limit. As you make your shopping list, note how much you expect to pay for each item, and keep a running total as you go. If the total creeps higher than your spending limit, revise your list (and your meal plan, if necessary). Keep revising until you have a plan and list that come in under budget while feeding you decently.

6. They track the actual expenditures.

Smart shoppers have a way to keep records of how much they’re spending on their regular purchases, and they note where they paid those prices. Having notes about the prices we paid does two things: it helps us find the best price next time, and it helps us get better at estimating our grocery bills.

There are several different methods for tracking grocery expenditures. Some people keep a three-ring binder with a half-page or page for each food item. Others keep a mini-notepad that fits in their purse or glove box. I put my grocery list in a spreadsheet with columns for the store and the price. Use any method that will be easy for you to return to again and again.

7. They have a way to do math on the fly.

Of course estimating and tracking your spending may mean some math at the kitchen table. But you also need to be able to make some calculations inside the store.

For example:, suppose you paid $3.00 for 28 ounces of SuperSomething last time you bought it. But this time around, you’re in the middle of a different store when you discover an unadvertised sale on a 17-ounce package of SuperSomething–for $2.00. Is this a better deal than your regular price, or not?

If you can’t do the math, then you don’t know. And while some problems like this can be done in your head, others won’t be so easy. So successful shoppers carry a scrap of paper, a calculator, a cell phone–anything that will let them do math in the store.

(In this example, by the way, the regular purchase is a slightly better deal. It costs roughly 11 cents per ounce, while the “special” is 12 cents an ounce.)

8. They develop a useful set of routines.

In my experience, schedules can be stressful but routines can be sanity savers. Schedules often insist you have to do something by a certain time. Routines merely require that you do something in a certain order so that you can maximize your results. A routine can include a schedule, and vice versa, but they aren’t the same thing at all.

You will probably wind up developing some meal planning, shopping, and cooking routines whether you mean to or not. But being conscious of the idea can help you create and streamline them faster. Some examples of routines that people find helpful include:

  1. always making the grocery list on the same day of the week or month–or on the day before or after their paycheck;
  2. buying certain fruits and vegetables seasonally;
  3. visiting their main stores and markets in a certain order each time they shop;
  4. making a favorite recipe a certain number of times per month;
  5. checking for meat discounts on Wednesdays (or whatever day is the usual markdown day).

There are many, many, more. The point is, routines don’t have to be constraining. They’re intangible tools that help us get the best food for the least time, effort, and money.

9. They adapt as needed.

Successful shoppers know that finances, dietary needs, and schedules can change over time. When that happens, they change what they’re doing to meet the new demands. Just remember that adaptations should quiet the chaos, not create more. If you find yourself feeling more frazzled instead of less (after a reasonable time for a learning curve), you may need to adapt the adaptation!

Summary

The “secrets” to food shopping on a budget aren’t really secrets, and they work regardless of diet. Incorporating them properly can make a big difference in how much money you have left over at the end of a shopping trip.

I’ll be examining some of these “secrets” in more detail in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, which ones are you already using? Which ones do you not? Do you have other “secrets” that you think I missed, or certain topics you’d like me to discuss first? Let me know below!

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