How To Save Money Grocery Shopping (With Example $20 Weekly Budget)

Read Time: 7 minutes, or get to the point.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, it is possible to have a $20 weekly grocery budget for one person. For me, that’s a budget for Monday through Thursday and I have a separate budget for the weekend since that’s usually when I go out to eat. I also usually skip breakfast and have 2 meals a day. For the record, I don’t skip breakfast food. Breakfast food is amazing. I just don’t eat it in the morning.

parks and rec breakfast food quote

Below is an example $20 grocery budget.

Shopping List

CostItemAmount
$1.89cheddar cheese8 oz
$1.89yellow onions3 lbs
$2.09ground turkey1 lb
$0.89roma tomatoes1 lb
$0.45tomato paste6 oz
$0.85saltines1 box
$2.75red potatoes5 lbs
$1.35carrots2 lbs
$1.89broccoli1 lb
$4.46chicken legs4.5 lbs
$19.67Total ~18.4 lbs

Already Have List

seasoningsstaplesfrom the garden
cuminolive oilkale
chili powderbalsamic vinegar
cayenneminced garlic
garlic powderdried pinto beans
brown sugardried northern white beans
salt
black pepper
oregano
basil
paprika
thyme

I know, I know, the “already have list” is pretty long, but most of the items on there are things I would recommend having in stock at all times in your kitchen, and honestly this budget is overkill. This is too much food for one week, but I’m trying to show the huge amount of food you can get for just $20 a week. With this list and some staples, you could make turkey and bean chili, kale salad (with onion, tomato, carrots, and oil and vinegar dressing), cheese and crackers (one of my favorite snacks), roast chicken and vegetables, and you’d still have plenty of leftover food.

Planning

Start by planning your grocery list for the week on Sunday. That initial grocery list is generally just enough for one or two recipes, and it doesn’t use the entire budget so you can have some flexibility if you decide you’re craving something else later in the week.

If you really have no idea what you want, I recommend going to the weekly ad for the store you shop at the most. You can really reduce your budget by simply planning your weekly meals around what’s on sale. Most major grocery stores will post their weekly ads online. My personal favorite is Aldi’s.

Next, start searching for recipes online. My favorite site for budget recipes is Budget Bytes. Deciding which recipe you want to cook will come with practice and confidence. Once you’re comfortable with cooking, you’ll be able to look at recipes and have a general idea of how they’ll taste with the spices and ingredients used. Try to stick to the recipes that look the simplest (with the fewest ingredients) and with ingredients you know you can buy at your local store. Fewer ingredients means you have room to make it more interesting with whatever other foods or spices you have around.

Once you’ve decided on a recipe, make a grocery list in a spreadsheet (I use Google Sheets), and put a price next to each item you’re buying. Most grocery stores have a way to shop online, so you can use this to get the price of everything so you can make sure you’re within your budget before visiting the store. If the store doesn’t have an online presence, you can sometimes use Instacart to find price estimates. If you’re over your budget, or just think some of the things on the list are more expensive than they should be, make substitutions. 

Now, you may be thinking, why find the prices online before you go in? Why not just go ahead and order online. Well, there’s nothing wrong with ordering online, you just might have to pay delivery fees and have to order a certain amount before you can check out. I know for Walmart, you have to spend at least $35. I also just like to do the shopping myself. I like to be the one in the store making the final decision about what I’m buying. Sometimes what you see online isn’t updated, the price is different, or it’s not in stock. I would rather encounter and solve those issues myself.

Spices

Having an extensive spice rack is a must if you want to get into cooking. With lots of spices, you can feel comfortable taking on any recipe knowing you can make it interesting even if it turns out a little bland. Spices are pretty expensive, but you usually don’t need to use a lot at a time, so they’ll last you a while. My go-to spices are: salt, pepper, basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, curry, cumin, garlic, ginger, paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and dill weed. I have a few more than that, but these are the ones I love to use. 

Substitutions

Substitutions are another huge part of being able to save money cooking. Over time, you’ll get more familiar with what ingredients are good substitutes for other foods. If you stick to every recipe exactly as written, you’ll often end up spending more and having lots of food waste. More often than not, a decent substitution is much less expensive, and if you already have it, then you can avoid having to buy anything at all. This is the kind of thing that comes with practice, but I can say that in most cases any expensive ingredient can be replaced with a less expensive one with a minimal effect on the dish.

Staples

Just by having some of the basics in your kitchen, you can put together meals even when you think you don’t have any food in my house. The most important staples are: rice, flour, eggs, olive oil, and pasta. If you really want to have some fun with it, you can even make pasta from just flour and water.

In fact, I bet you have all the stuff you need to make a simple meal right now even if it seems like you’re out of food. For example, you can make pasta with flour and water, cook it in boiling water, and then make a simple sauce for the noodles out of olive oil, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper. Another example of a cheap meal that uses staples is called omurice. It’s an easy meal that mostly uses eggs and rice, so it’s incredibly cheap, and if you usually have eggs and rice on hand, it makes a great emergency meal. So just having some versatile ingredients that you can use to make easy and cheap meals is always a good idea so you aren’t tempted to go out to eat or order delivery when you’re out of everything else at home. 

So, there you have it. That’s my process for saving money with food. The more you cook, the more you’ll get used to your preferences, what’s expensive and what’s cheap. You’ll get familiar with what you can substitute, and ultimately you’ll be amazed at how much money you can save.

P.S. here are some of my favorite recipes

  • Curry chicken salad: https://www.budgetbytes.com/curry-chicken-salad/
    • The things I change about this recipe actually make it a little more expensive, but I think it’s worth it. I replace the raisins with craisins and when I’m in a hurry, I use a rotisserie chicken. If you don’t have lemon juice or honey, these are not all that necessary for this dish. I also like to dice up some pickles and add them. This dish pairs well with saltines.
  • Ginger chicken and rice: https://www.budgetbytes.com/easy-sesame-chicken/
    • I know the recipe calls this “sesame chicken”, but I ignore the sesame seeds and sesame oil, because they’re hard to find near me. I replace the rice vinegar with regular white distilled vinegar. I also like to replace the water in the recipe with teriyaki sauce and sriracha, or any other liquid Asian style seasoning (duck sauce, fish sauce, sweet chili sauce, or maybe even some oyster sauce if I have it).
  • Soup
    • This is very generic, but soup is a great meal to make with almost any vegetable produce leftovers you have. Produce is great, but sometimes you can’t find a reasonable amount of something. For example, celery is a real challenge to use up the whole stalk before it goes bad. That’s why soup is awesome. You can chuck just about any vegetable produce in a pot with broth and make a delicious soup. I highly recommend always having bouillon cubes on hand so you can make a quick broth for soup at a moment’s notice. Most soup recipes are going to be the same: just boil some water, add bouillon cubes, and add vegetables. Cook until the vegetables are soft. Add seasoning to make it interesting.
  • Ranch dressing
    • This isn’t really a meal, but it’s another way to eat up unused vegetable produce. If you don’t want to bother with making soup, just make a simple ranch dressing to dip your vegetables in to make them delicious. If you don’t already have some ranch, just mix up some mayo, parsley, garlic, salt, and a little bit of water (just to give it the right consistency) and mix thoroughly until the mayo is completely blended with the water (it will take quite a bit of stirring). If your ranch is too thick, add more water. If it’s too thin, add more mayo. You can also use milk instead of water, or buttermilk if you’re fancy.

The Point:

Your grocery budget could be $20 per week per person. All it takes is planning your meals before you go grocery shopping (look at the price of the ingredients online before going into the store), knowing what spices and staples to have at home, and knowing how to effectively substitute ingredients. Here’s an example shopping list:

Shopping List

CostItemAmount
$1.89cheddar cheese8 oz
$1.89yellow onions3 lbs
$2.09ground turkey1 lb
$0.89roma tomatoes1 lb
$0.45tomato paste6 oz
$0.85saltines1 box
$2.75red potatoes5 lbs
$1.35carrots2 lbs
$1.89broccoli1 lb
$4.46chicken legs4.5 lbs
$19.67Total ~18.4 lbs

2 thoughts on “How To Save Money Grocery Shopping (With Example $20 Weekly Budget)”

  1. My husband does most of the shopping and he goes through the circulars with a passion. Not sure I can get him to do online, but will give it a shot. Thanks for the recipes!

    1. The circulars are great too! I just like to do it online because I can look up anything in the store and get a relatively accurate idea of how much it’s going to cost. Instacart will add a small markup on their site though, so when I actually get to the store it usually ends up being cheaper than I anticipated.

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