One of the biggest expenses for most people is food. It’s admittedly too easy to spend a ton of money on food because you literally eat the evidence. We’ve all been there- there seems to never be anything “good to eat” at home and then at the end of the month, you look at your bank account balance and think, “Where did all of my money go?” Today, I’m going to share how we maintain a $280 monthly grocery budget for 2 people in one of the most expensive cities in America. In case you missed my previous money-saving tips post, click here.
Mr. NavigatingAdulthood, my 6’2 husband and I live in the Boston area [Boston is now the 4th most expensive city in America] and we’ve managed to consistently stick to a $280 monthly grocery budget for 2 people. I mention Mr. NA’s height because he eats a lot. I joke that he’s a growing boy because the man literally eats twice as much as I do. Here are our monthly figures [I’m a little behind and haven’t finished adding June’s numbers to the spreadsheet]. You can see that we’re definitely not perfect- check out that $527 grocery total for January 2017!
After reading a post by Frugal Asian Finance and chatting with Ms. FAF about monthly grocery bills, I realized that I actually have monthly grocery budget numbers for almost the past 3 years…because we’re huge data nerds and we track all monthly expenses in a monthly spreadsheet. It’s not always the most glamorous Instagram-worthy meals, but I’ve managed to keep Mr. NA from starving and we’ve never gone hungry. In fact, we literally always have some food leftover at the end of the month in both the freezer and the refrigerator!
Five Ways We Keep A $280 Grocery Budget For 2 People In The Boston Area
1. We cut down the amount of meat we eat.
This is perhaps the #1 way we’re able to keep our grocery budget this low. Last year, we watched Fork Over Knives on Netflix and it was a wake-up call for how a whole-food, plant-based diet was good for your health. We didn’t agree with all of the facts that the film presented but we did agree that vegetables are healthier for you than meat in many ways. We eat meat-less meals at least twice a week and the cost savings definitely adds up. Meat is expensive. Even when we buy chicken thighs at the store for $0.88 a pound, a pound of dried black beans costs almost the same price. But, the difference is that the dried beans will stretch much further than the chicken.
Another bonus to eating less meat is that we’re able to buy better meat when we do purchase it. Mr. NA loves red meat, so every few months, we’ll splurge on a grass-fed steak at Whole Foods. This may sound a little extravagant, but we’ve tried the cheaper grass-fed steaks from Trader Joe’s and our local grocery stores and the flavor is better when we purchase from Whole Food’s. By having better quality steak from time to time, it cuts down on the frequency we purchase it [and the number of cravings we have for it]. Win-win!
2. We Eat Oatmeal For Breakfast
On average, we eat oatmeal 3-4 times a week. Guys, oatmeal is SO CHEAP. Mr. NavigatingAdulthood is the oatmeal whisperer in our household [mostly because he follows the exact directions on the back of the box]. We used to buy our oatmeal in the form of $9 10 lb bags of Quaker oats from Costco before we cut our membership a year ago. Prior to our membership running out, we literally bought 3 bags [30 pounds of oatmeal] because we knew we would eat all of it. It’s just pennies per serving [even if you don’t purchase in bulk from Costco and you purchase it from your regular grocery store] and it’s so healthy for you.
Mr. NA prepares it according to instructions from the back of the box and then adds 2 eggs, 1 TB of soy sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, and some chopped green scallion. Eating it savory eliminates having to eat it with sugar and butter AND the protein from the eggs helps the satiety of the oatmeal.
3. We Almost Never Buy Supermarket Prepared Foods Or Prepackaged Vegetables/Fruits
This may sound a bit extreme, but it’s true: we almost never buy pre-prepared foods from the grocery store. The one exception to this rule is Costco’s rotisserie chicken- but let’s be honest, that is the best $5 chicken you will ever eat or buy. We also don’t buy prepackaged vegetables [unless they’re in the reduced produce section].
I’ll be honest, Mr. NA is ALWAYS in the mood for some fried chicken so our compromise is that if it’s on sale in the deli section, then we can think about getting some [this ends up happening every 2-3 months]. In general, we’re not really tempted by the prepared foods section because if we’re feeling super lazy, then we’ll just get pizza from our local pizza shop. I don’t think we’ve ever been tempted to buy food from the grocery store to eat, unless we were travelling.
Similarly, the huge markup on prepackaged vegetables and fruits has always deterred me from purchasing them. Plus, you don’t know how long those vegetables have been sitting there for. Whole fruits and vegetables last much longer in the fridge! If I’m a time crunch, I’ll opt for frozen vegetables, which are usually way cheaper than the pre-cut vegetables.
4. I spend 1-2 hours preparing and cooking food every weekend
Typically on Sundays, I’ll spend a solid hour to two hours preparing food. We have a tiny, narrow galley-style kitchen that really only has enough space for one person, so Mr. NA graciously does dishes after I’m done cooking. Food prep usually entails making 1-2 proteins and a vegetable dish so we can be prepared for the week ahead. For example, this week I did the following:
- Made a batch of rice in the rice cooker [I’ve had this rice cooker for over 4 years and it’s still doing great. Highly recommend!]
- Baked 5 potatoes in the oven
- Baked 2 lbs of chicken thighs
- Made a vegetable curry
- Tofu and swiss chard stir-fry
I don’t love meal planning, but it REALLY helps cut down on the temptation of eating out when you already have part of a meal ready to go in the refrigerator. Bonus: when Mr. NA whines he’s hungry, he can make himself a mini bowl of some leftovers and be satiated until the next meal.
5. We limit the amount of snacks we buy
I’ll admit, we are major snackers. There’s nothing better than lounging on the sofa with a good movie and some salty snacks. Over the years, I think we’ve both realized that it’s really hard to cut snacking out of the grocery budget. So instead, we opt to snack mindfully. Usually, people gravitate towards snacks because they eat them in-between meals. By striving to have some sort of food always ready to go in the fridge, we’re able to snack on leftovers until it’s time for the next meal. It’s also a great way to question whether you have a case of the munchies or if you’re actually hungry. When your choices are “tofu stir-fry” or “deliciously cheesy Cheetos” you’ll probably opt for Cheetos if you have the choice.
When we do snack, we use a bowl for portion control [we are the type of people who can easily finish off a family-sized bag of salt and vinegar potato chips in one sitting]. and we do so while enjoying a tv show or movie. This lets us cut down on calories so we can buy the tastier full-fat snacks! Additionally, by being “mindful” of when we consume snacks, we get more enjoyment out of them.
6. We track our grocery trips throughout the month
This is one of the biggest contributors towards how we’re able to maintain a $280 grocery budget for 2 people in the Boston area. We track our monthly finances in a spreadsheet [again, because we’re huge nerds] and we highlight the grocery expenses in yellow. This makes it super easy to add all of the grocery numbers together at the end of the month.
Here is a real example from our spreadsheet for the month of June:
This is admittedly not the funnest thing in the world BUT it helps us seen when we’re off-track. If we’ve spent a ton of money on groceries at the beginning of the month, it might be time to dig into the freezer to see what we can eat for “free” from the reserves. Similarly, we might try to eat more cheap vegetarian dinners like lentils or rice and beans if we’re already at the $200 mark by the second week of the month.
7. We stock up our freezer when there’s a sale
I feel like the freezer is a very under-utilized space in most kitchens. I know most freezers probably have vodka and ice cream, but ours is filled with extra grocery. Fancy whole-wheat bread that’s on sale? We’ll buy an extra loaf and put it in the freezer. Organic nitrate-free bacon that’s on clearance at the grocery store? I’ll buy almost all of it and I’ll put it in the freezer [not exaggerating, just purchased 5 packages 2 months ago]. You get the idea.
We’re fortunate enough to not live paycheck to paycheck, so if I do buy $50 of well-priced meat one month, I’ll amortize it by splitting the cost across future months. Example: I know that we won’t eat all $50 of meat in the month I bought it, so I’ll divide that number by 3 months and add $16.67 to this month’s spreadsheet and then add $16.67 to the future 2 month’s expenses. This may seem like “cheating” to some but it really helps us save money. Chicken thighs can be found on sale for $0.88 a pound in our area- but it’s often $2.50 when not on sale.
Just took a peek at our freezer and we have a corned beef from St. Patty’s day. 4 packages of bacon, 1 package of chicken thighs, and 2 chicken carcasses [I use them when I make dried beans in the slow cooker to add extra flavor for “free.”] This means we probably don’t have to buy meat for the next month or two!
I hope you enjoyed this peek into our finances! I hope this post shows you how you too can maintain a $280 monthly grocery budget for 2 people, even if you live in an expensive city.