When your weekly budget is $60 — and that's what mine is for my two-month-long "cash diet" — you have to be strategic when it comes to shopping for food.
I set a loose goal of spending less than $30 a week on groceries. That leaves me with another $30 for everyday expenses, which so far have included gifts, toilet paper, laundry, and a couple of rides on the subway.
During Week One of my cash diet, I managed to keep my grocery bill under $20: $17.50, to be exact. That went towards cereal, pasta, rice, eggs, oranges, bananas, almond milk, granola bars, and Goldfish crackers. To give you an idea of what my meals looked like, here's a typical day:
Breakfast: Cheerios with milk and a banana, plus the free coffee I get from my office
Mid-morning snack: Granola bar or orange
Lunch: Whole wheat pasta dressed up with butter and salt
Dinner: Fried eggs, a side of rice, and a glass of milk
Yes, this is incredibly minimal, and Week Two will definitely feature more vegetables, but my groceries got me through the week, I never felt hungry, and I truly don't mind no-frills meals.
If you're looking to trim your grocery bill — to $17.50, $30, or just anything less than what you're spending now — here are my best tips for making it happen.
1. Start by figuring out how much you spend
Do you know exactly how much you spent on groceries last month? If not, look at your credit card statements or, if you're like me, sort through your receipts. Use the data to form an estimate, and then aim to cut that number.
The average family wastes about 20% of their groceries, so chances are, you're over-purchasing in some way. Set a realistic goal, like cutting your bill by 25% or a specific dollar amount, that makes sense for your spending habits.
After all, you can't regularly lower your bill if you don't know how much you're spending in the first place.
2. Plan your meals out and make a list
Before heading to the store, think about all the meals you want to prepare for the week and make a list of the ingredients you'll need for them. Then, when you're actually shopping, stick to the list. No impulse buys!
Once you have all the ingredients you need for the week, prepare as many meals in advance as you can. I've found that I'm much less inclined to order in or go out when I have my dinner prepped and waiting for me in the fridge.
3. Stick to the basics
Complex meals with a lot of spices or sauces can get pricey. When it comes to buying flavor enhancers, pick out condiments that are versatile — like salt, soy sauce, or olive oil — and can be used on multiple foods.
Of course, you don't have to strip your meals down to the absolute bare minimum. While I'm content with plain pasta and eggs, that's not to say you can't make tasty meals on a budget. There are a lot of food blogs devoted to eating well on the cheap, such as Budget Bytes, Stone Soup, and BrokeAss Gourmet.
4. Go cash only
When you have to stick to a tight budget, ditching your plastic cards for bills can make a world of difference. You get a better idea of exactly how much money you're spending and how much you have remaining in your budget.
Next time you grocery shop, determine how much you want to spend on food for the week or month and withdraw that amount of cash. When you head to the store, don't bring the plastic so you're not tempted to use it.
Want to join in on the cash diet fun? Check out how I'm doing it in New York City for eight weeks and head to an ATM this afternoon.