I used to think budgeting was synonymous to being handcuffed: a restraint I didn’t find appealing. But just as much as it confines us, a budget can also set us free.
Keeping a budget can reveal the truth of our spending habits, particularly around food. Numbers don’t lie, and they can help us take an honest look at the five lattes purchased last week or the large pizza ordered on an empty stomach. Budgets have a way of bringing us back to reality.
And in that reality is a sense of freedom that boundaries naturally create. They help us prioritize and even save for the things we want to invest more resources in — which provides more freedom rather than less. Budgets help us say no while also saying yes — they help us find gratitude in what we’ve earned, and peace in letting go of what we don’t need.
Whether you’re beginning the budgeting journey or hoping to learn some new tricks, we’ll explore the best ways to eat on a budget.
- Start with the basics: set a realistic budget
- Meal plan for the week
- Seek out the deals
- Limit take-out orders
- Meal-share with friends
- Create Sunday stew
Taking an honest look at finances is essential when it comes to eating on a budget. Spend a week writing down your purchases from the grocery store, take-out places, and even coffee shops in order to get a real sense of how much money you spend in these categories.
Once you understand how much money is outgoing in the food department, you can then assess where you need to cut back or how much you can afford for a food budget. Apps like You Need a Budget are great for tracking spending in all areas of your life. Once you make a purchase, you can enter it into this app immediately.
Having factual knowledge of your finances and the amount you spend for groceries and dining out experiences will be fundamentally important to staying within a budget.
Planning is the key to success in anything, especially when it comes to staying on budget. Choose your meals for the week and buy ingredients and produce for only those meals. Not only does this method help to keep you on track, but it also limits impulse purchases.
Choose a day of the week to make your grocery list — the weekend is usually best — and write down exactly what you need for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then shop for a full week of groceries at once, which will reduce future trips to the grocery store and keep that budget in check.
Yes, you’ll see deals advertised when you are in the store, but it’s best to know what is on sale before making your meal plan. Check weekly ads and find coupons that make sense for your lifestyle. Having to buy six yogurts to get one free may not be the best purchase for the amount of yogurt you eat. A lot of grocery stores offer digital coupons, which you can load on to your shopper’s club card. That makes it easy to save money at checkout.
Buying the store brand versus the name brand is another great way to stay on budget. Not only is the store brand the cheaper option, it often is made of the same ingredients as the name brand, just with different marketing.
And consider a strategic treat-like purchase at the grocery store (a pint of ice cream!), which could help ward off frivolous purchases later in the week.
This seems like common sense: limit take-out and save money. But the concept is so much harder when the week throws stress and a variety of schedule changes your way. Yes, limiting outside dining can help those bank funds, but sometimes you just need General Tso’s chicken — we’ve all been there.
So, maybe place your order at Chipotle, but dine at home with your own chips and soda (or pop, depending on where you live) in order to save money on those costly sides. It could be that you don’t have to change your dining habits, just your mindset around them.
Breaking bread with friends is not only fun, it’s also beneficial for the old pocketbook. Whether it’s a potluck dinner where everyone brings a dish, or a meal swap where you cook one week and your friends cook another, meal-sharing is the perfect way to save money. You might find that the fellowship nourishes you just as much as the food!
Life happens, and sometimes it’s impossible to use up all the food you purchased earlier in the week. When that’s the case, take all your unused vegetables, stock, and seasonings to make a stew. Be creative with what you have — empty out the pantry to save money and make room for next week’s groceries. Voilá, dinner is easily and cheaply served.
The “treat yourself, don’t cheat yourself” mindset has allowed for some sincere justification purchases in my house, so it helps to consider if these options are “needs” or “wants.” Saying no is freeing in a new way, making it easier to say yes to more important things in life — which is a better treat than that second PSL today, anyway.