With many Americans spending more time at home cooking — coupled with rising food costs —sometimes it feels like income is emptying from our wallets directly into to our pantries. That's where better budgeting can help.
“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery prices noticeably increased for consumers. Overall, there was a year-to-year increase of about 6%, which Americans felt in their wallets," Diane McCrohan, associate professor in the College of Business at Johnson & Wales University, told TODAY Food. "There were several reasons for the price increases: the rapid increase of eating at home; supply chain issues; and enhanced safety precautions."
In 2021, the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service predicted food purchased at grocery stores will increase an additional 1 to 2% and food-away-from-home will increase between 2 and 3%.
"Grocery prices could climb higher depending upon the vaccination rollout and how quickly the U.S. turns the tide on the pandemic," McCrohan added. "If we continue, as expected into the summer, we could see higher prices."
Last year, meat and dairy shortages affected eating routines and spending when costs skyrocketed. In December 2020, the USDA estimated a 6 to 9% increase in farm-level soybean prices (soy is an ingredient found in many foods like plant-based meat substitutes) and a 5 to 8% rise in farm-level wheat, which is a staple in many people's diets, from bread to pasta and cereal.
While these price jumps can be intimidating, don't let it bring you down. Budgeting is helpful for people across all income brackets and the more you know — like the least crowded time to shop — the better experience you can create when it comes to buying food.
To curate the ultimate budgeting guide, TODAY spoke to McCrohan, Caitlin Self, licensed nutritionist and blogger behind Frugal Nutrition, and Jon Matlock, founder of The Good Steward Financial Coaching, who helps clients outline detailed grocery budgets.
1. Look at what you're spending now
"The first thing to do to budget for groceries is to track what you're currently spending," Self told TODAY. "Most people can reasonably reduce their grocery expenses by 10 to 30%."
One of the main things to look at when making a plan to reduce expenditures is to be realistic about how much time you have to prepare foods at home versus purchasing processed or pre-prepared foods. When you can buy whole ingredients and spread them out over many meals, it can save a lot compared to buying pre-made lasagnas, soups or frozen pizzas.
2. Take an inventory
"The next step is to assess what you currently have that you can use, such as frozen vegetables and canned goods, but to also assess what you have that you are unlikely to use, such as random condiments and ingredients that you may have purchased for one specialty recipe," Self told TODAY. "You want to utilize what you have as much as possible, but avoid buying more of the same products that go to waste. That may be a bottle of salad dressing or a jar of a special spicy paste that you never used."
Write down the products you use most often and rarely throw out and these will be essential when you make a grocery list. Self looks at her grocery list and her month-long budget for how much she'd like to spend and omits the single-use ingredients — for example, an interesting ingredient for a particular recipe. Maybe there's a substitute that falls into the frequent-use category. Alternatively, research some recipes with that ingredient to ensure you'll get more meals from it.
3. Make a meal plan
Another part of a great list is meal planning for the week (or two weeks, depending on how often you shop). Make sure a lot of the products on your list can be repurposed into more than one meal (say, bulk chicken thighs on sale can be cooked, divided and made into a curry one night and tacos the next) or make enough to have leftovers for lunch so you're not buying extra.
"Change the way you do dinner," Matlock told TODAY. "You don't have to cook steaks and scallops every night. You can try looking at some low-cost options that would work well for the whole family. For example, you can try your hand at cooking omelettes. All you need are some eggs, peppers, cheese and onions and you've got a pretty good meal. You can also go with old-fashioned rice and beans."
Swapping out vegetarian meals for meat some nights in your meal plan will also reduce costs. High-protein legumes like beans are one of the cheapest healthy foods, can be purchased in bulk when on sale and have a long shelf life, which reduces food waste.
3. Once you make a list, stick to it
McCrohan shared that "impulse buying" is one of the easiest ways to overspend. This is why she (and most grocery shopping experts) advise to never shop hungry.
"Never do your grocery shopping on an empty stomach," McCrohan told TODAY. "You will end up purchasing more food than you need. You may also end up with many snack foods you did not want."
So be sure to have a snack or meal before you shop (whether it's online or in-store), know what you're buying and how much you're spending before you begin.
4. Watch for sales and compare prices
There are many ways to do this. Here are a few:
- McCrohan said to always compare unit pricing (on the little label in front of food in the store), especially between national brands and store brands. You will notice large differences in cost and can learn which brands to put on your grocery list. Oftentimes, the store brand and the national brand are processed in the same plant anyway.
- Sign up for the grocery store loyalty program wherever you shop. Most stores offer members-only deals that can be used instead of or in addition to coupons.
- If the store you go to has a section of discounted items with dented cans, damaged packages (as long as the inside isn't tampered with or open) and day-old items, shoppers can score some great deals.
- According to Matlock, he and his wife have shaved about $150 off their monthly grocery budget by shopping at lower-cost grocery stores. "Most people feel like they have to shop at high-end grocery stores to find quality food. However, my wife and I have continued to shop at places like Lidl and Aldi, and we have no complaints. Sure, you can't always find everything at these stores. But you'll find the necessities like milk, bread, eggs, milk, fruits and veggies," the financial coach told TODAY.
- Matlock also advised that cash rebate apps are hugely helpful. "There are a lot of them out there. Personally, we use Ibotta and we typically get around $20 (to) $30 back a month," he said. "Sure, it's relatively minute. But every little bit helps! Most of them are easy to use and contain rebates for items we actually use and with stores we actually shop at.
5. Stock up while you can
With the expectation of rising grocery costs in the next few months, Self said to start stocking up on pantry staples that can be used over the next few months or even throughout the year. Look for sales and buy in bulk to save money in the long run.
6. Invest in a freezer or extra storage
While this may not be an option for everyone (and that's completely OK), saving up to buy an extra freezer or watching for an affordable second-hand one can be super helpful when it comes to cashing in on the best deals. If chicken is .99 cents per pound, for example, buy several packages and store them. Same goes for "can can" sales or times when shelf-stable items go on a big sale. A little extra storage can go a long way.