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How to feed a family on a frugal budget

by retirebyforty on May 9, 2014 · 31 comments

in cash flow, frugal lifestyle

eat organic on a frugal budget

Organic dairy can be expensive.

Every month, I track all our income and expenses and publish them on our monthly cash report. I find it really helpful because tracking our cash flow enables me to see how we are doing financially every month. We occasionally have a negative month, but most of the time we have positive cash flow which is the first step to building wealth. This is especially valuable if your cash flow is tight like when you’re first starting out or when you’re newly retired. Seeing where your money goes will enable you to tweak your expenses and keep your cash flow in the green.

One of the questions I consistently get is – How do you keep your grocery bill so low? I’m not really sure because we don’t use coupons that much. I guess we eat a bit less than the typical US household, but probably not by a huge amount. We cook most of our meals at home and eat out only once or twice a week so it’s not offset by going out.

I have been meaning to save all our grocery receipts and then write an article about this, but those little receipts have a way of disappearing into thin air (especially with a 3 year old running around.) Finally, I was able to save all the receipts from April, so here we go.

Actually, April was a bit lower than usual because we left on vacation on the 27th. We ate up a lot of stuff in the cupboard and put off buying replacements until we got back. Our monthly grocery bill averages around $350/month, but in April it was a little low at $296. Currently, we have 2 adults, a 3 year old boy, and a senior (my mom) in our household.  Our kid and my mom don’t eat that much, so I’m sure that’s a factor.

Where we shopped

$21 Gmart – Korean grocery store. Usually we spend more on Asian groceries, but not in April for some reason.

$101 Trader Joes’s – Our go to spot for organic fruits.

$162 WinCo – The most affordable grocery store in town. They just added an organic produce section in May so that’s nice.

$13 Safeway – The nearest grocery store to our condo. We drop by if we need something quickly.

Total – $296

What we purchased

I’ll just break the bills down into categories. If you have any suggestions, let me know and I can modify it. I highlighted the organic/natural items in green.

Protein

tofu $1.50
bacon $4.50
smoked turkey sliced $5.00
chicken drumsticks (5) $2.80
chicken drumsticks (5) $2.90
chicken breasts $6.50
shrimp $6.50
natural whole chicken $7.00
chuck steak $7.45
tofu $1.50
walnut $4.00
eggs $2.60
chuck steak $7.50
pork loin $9.00
breakfast sausage $2.75
natural whole chicken $7.00
ham slice $2.75
pastrami sliced $5.00
Total $86.25

What the heck did we make last month? Who can remember that far back? :)

  • Tofu – Mapo tofu or stir fry with vegetables.
  • Bacon – topping for Okonomiyaki. Also went well with eggs in the morning.
  • Chicken drumsticks – seasoned and roasted in oven.
  • Chicken breasts – ? probably stir fry or put in tacos.
  • Whole chickens – Thai grill chicken (recipe at the bottom!) This dish is really convenient because I’d have some left over for those workout days. A little lean protein in the morning is much better than breakfast sausages.
  • Chuck steak –hamburgers, bulgogi, and stir fry with veggies.
  • Pork loin – Korean spicy pork, Mapo tofu, cilantro soup, and nam prik ong (a specialty from Chiangmai.)
  • Lunch meat – sandwiches for lunch…

This looks pretty typical. We eat chicken, pork, and beef regularly. I don’t see much seafood in here this month. Usually we buy some salmon, too, so that would increase the grocery bill.

Grains

Rye bread $3.00
flour $1.60
bagels $2.30
Wheat bread $1.50
Wheat bread $1.50
burger buns $1.20
Total $11.10

 

Wow, we didn’t spend much on bread last month. It looks like we didn’t eat much carbohydrates in April, but looks can be deceiving. We usually buy a 25 lb bag of rice and that would last us a couple of months, so it doesn’t show up very often.  Mrs. RB40 has been too busy to bake, so that cuts down on flour usage.

Produce

onion $0.80
banana $1.14
organic raisins $3.00
2 apples $1.80
2 oranges $1.60
pear $0.80
fruits $2.00
lettuce $2.00
4 bananas $0.75
apple $0.90
5 bananas $0.95
3 apples $2.70
green onion $1.00
parsley $0.50
celery $1.00
artichoke $2.00
onion $0.75
bananas $1.00
grapefruit $1.00
onion $0.40
broccoli $0.60
cilantro $0.50
carrots $1.00
bananas $1.34
tomatoes $1.40
bell peppers $0.80
lemon $0.75
pineapple $2.00
garlic $1.00
Total $35.48

 

That’s not good. I see a lot of fruits, but not a lot of vegetables…  We really should buy more vegetables.  In the summer, our community garden will be teeming with veggies so that should really help out. Vegetables taste so much better fresh from the garden.

Dairy

cheddar cheese $4.00
cream cheese $1.70
milk $2.00
milk $6.00
cream cheese $1.20
Cheddar cheese $5.40
Greek yogurt $2.70
butter $3.00
milk $5.50
milk $1.40
Total $32.90

 

Organic milk is pretty expensive at around $6/gallon. This one looks pretty normal to me for a family with a kid.

Beverages

yogurt drink $2.00
OJ $3.00
2 sparkling water $2.00
beer $7.30
Total $14.30

My 6 pack of beer inflated the cost in of this category. At least we don’t drink much soda pop.

Snacks

2 Pocky snack $4.00
yogurt cups $3.00
crackers $2.30
Tortilla chips $2.00
dried apricots $1.50
Total $12.80

Who doesn’t love junk food? Hey, it looks like we were pretty good with the snacks in April. I don’t see a lot of junk food at all. I’m not sure where all the chocolate and crackers in our cabinet comes from… :)

Prepackaged food

BBQ pulled pork 16 oz $5.50
2 ravioli packages $7.00
sweet potato fries $2.30
gyoza pork $3.30
chicken nuggets $3.80
sweet potato fries $2.30
Total $24.20

We purchased more prepackaged food than usual from Trader Joe’s in April because we got lazy with the vacation coming up at the end of the month. We were all busy, so we got ready made stuff that made life easier. The BBQ pulled pork from Trader Joe’s was pretty good. We’d probably get it again. Chicken nuggets are still in the freezer.

Cleaning/personal care

dish soap $3.80
lotion $6.00
conditioner $1.50
Icy hot cream $5.50
Total $16.80

 Misc

red pepper powder $5.00
misc $1.30
sesame oil $6.00
Coffee beans $7.00
mayonnaise $4.00
jam $3.00
2 cans cat food $1.20
spice $1.40
canola oil $2.50
cumin $2.80
TP $5.00
Peanut butter $1.80
Nutella $6.40
Peanut butter $4.00
LBMN BBQ BRISH??? $3.00
Chicharones $2.00
wax paper $2.00
plastic cling wrap $2.70
Total $61.10

In case you’re wondering why there are two different prices of peanut butter, Mrs. RB40 bought a smaller jar to put in her desk drawer at work.  In general, we are careful to buy what we think we’ll need and what we know we’ll use.  Like I mentioned in a previous post, we have a smaller fridge and pantry, so things don’t get hidden out of sight in the back.  Even when we’re not going on vacation, we’re pretty good about using what we have before buying anything new.  Our May grocery bill probably will be higher since we bought groceries on vacation in Hawaii where food prices tend to be up to 25% higher than the mainland, and we are going to have to restock our shelves now that we are home.

Wrap it up

protein grains produce dairy beverage snacks prepackaged personal care misc
$86 $11 $35 $33 $14 $13 $24 $17 $61

 The whole thing doesn’t seem very remarkable to me. We spend a lot of money on protein and probably can cut down a bit. We should eat more vegetables. I’m sure this is a similar story in many US households. Actually, our grocery bill is a bit higher now that we are trying to eat more organic food. It’s mostly fruits, though, so it’s not too bad.

Well, looking through other people’s grocery bill can be pretty boring. What do you think? Let me know if you have any questions or comments. How does this compare to your family’s grocery bill?

Bonus recipe – Thai Grilled Chicken

Cut the chicken into small pieces… Am I underestimating our readers here? I don’t think many people know how to do this. Here is a more detailed instruction on how to cut a whole chicken into pieces.

Marinade

  • Lemon grass – mince one or two stalks.
  • 2-3 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1-2 Tbsp. fish sauce
  • 2-3 Tbsp. whisky, cognac, or cooking wine
  • 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • Black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon (or more) curry powder
  • 1 whole garlic minced

Preparation

Marinade the chicken for an hour or two (or overnight.) I put it in the over at 350 degree for about 30 minutes, then finish it off on the grill for 5-10 minutes. You can just grill it too, but I use the oven to make it easy.

Serve with rice and Thai Chicken sauce (very important.) I recommend Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce. Wow, $16.82 for 2 bottles on Amazon. Usually you can get this for around $3 at any Asian grocery store. The customer reviews on Amazon is pretty amusing, though. Everyone loves this sauce!

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

CL May 9, 2014 at 4:51 am

Your grocery bill is incredibly low for 4 people. Your household spends less per person than mine does. Have you ever thought of eating more fish? Salmon is expensive, but tilapia’s not – and prepared properly, tilapia can be delicious! I also am fond of egg whites. I have a very high protein intake, and it’s deliberate – so I do buy quite a bit of protein. Our grocery bill, to be honest, is probably broken in the same percentages.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 8:26 am

April was about 20% cheaper than usual for various reasons. We’ll see how it goes in May. We also buy tilapia and mackerel as well as salmon. I really do need to eat more fish and vegetables.

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Seth May 9, 2014 at 5:20 am

How long did it take to compile all of those receipts? I never thought to break it down like you did here. After a period of time, this can tell you if food prices are increasing (my wife tells me this all the time, but I always think it is a ploy to get a larger food budget!) and what you are eating. I have only tracked total spending by month, never to the line-item detail.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 8:28 am

It took a couple of hours. Usually we don’t do it because it’s hard to keep track of the receipts. I have been meaning to do this for 4-5 months now, but we’re always missing a receipt or two. It’s easier to just go with the credit card statement and see the big category. I don’t think we’ll do this again anytime soon.

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Justin @ Root of Good May 9, 2014 at 6:30 am

Joe, this is awesome. Totally out of coincidence, I have a fat stack of receipts from all our grocery purchases in April, too. I’ll put up our summary of grocery expenses in a couple of days hopefully. The total came to $555 for a family of 5 (2 adults, kids age 2, 7, 9).

Per person, it’s roughly what you’re paying, so I’m feeling good about the overall expense level. Interestingly enough, many of our categories are pretty close (dairy, proteins, drinks). The big variant in our spending is “produce” where we spent about $100 more than you did. That includes a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and some canned/jarred stuff like pasta sauce and pickled jalapenos (the latter might be elsewhere in your summary??).

I also found out we bought 33 pounds of bananas in April!! That’s what happens when your 2 year old has simian-like powers of banana consumption. Although that is going to stop since he has apparently given up on them. That meant a lot of banana bread and banana smoothies.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 8:30 am

Have fun! It’s actually a lot of work. :)
We’ll buy more produce this month. Mrs. RB40 isn’t very good at eating her fruits and vegetables. Our little guy eats a lot of fruits but rarely eat vegetables…. Actually, we still have a big bag of frozen Thai chili from last summer. We don’t eat that spicy.
Wow, 33 lbs of bananas. That’s gotta be a record of some kind. Our guy quit eating banana for a while, but now he’s eating them again. Just a few though.

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Justin @ Root of Good May 9, 2014 at 5:14 pm

We usually load up on fruits that are on sale at Aldi (like Winco I think). They often have sales on strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, and mango and other fruits that are normally pretty expensive in regular stores. This means we always have a variety of fruits on hand (in addition to the staple bananas, apples, oranges, and grapefruits). Kids (and adults) have a hard time turning down fresh fruits in our house.

I’ve seen a box of donuts almost go stale on our counter because there was so much delicious fruit around the kitchen for snacks and dessert.

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Frugal Pediatrician May 9, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Is your son constipated? That is a lot of bananas. Its a common belief that bananas are constipating but I don’t think there has ever really been a study on it. Just looking at the fiber content, they actually do have 6g of fiber per cup of mashed bananas. Maybe I’ve been telling my patients the wrong thing. Food for thought.

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John @ Sprout Wealth May 9, 2014 at 6:33 am

Thanks for sharing Joe! We’re right at the $475ish mark for our family of five. We’ve completely changed what we’re eating since January and we’re concerned that we wouldn’t be able to stay to our budgeted amount by switching to mainly organic fruits and veggies for a lot of what we eat, but we’ve been able to still swing it. We buy at least 90% of our stuff now from Costco now as they’ve started to offer a lot more organic items at our store. I just shudder to think of what we’ll need though when our 2 & 4 year old boys get older. :)

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 8:41 am

That’s pretty good for a family of 5. I haven’t been to Costco in a few years so I’m a bit curious. Maybe we’ll stop by someday. It’s just so busy over there. Yeah, I’m sure our boy will eat a ton when he’s a teenager.

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kammi May 9, 2014 at 6:45 am

I LOVE Asian grocery stores! I do all of my grocery shopping there or at no-name, generic stores. It’s just cheaper and I eat mostly veggies and tofu with fish, so the cost is very low. I just wished there was a 99 ranch near me :(

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 8:42 am

We would love to have a 99 ranch here in Portland. The Asian grocery stores here are not cheap…

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Frugal Pediatrician May 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm

We have lots of Asian grocers in San Diego. The Korean ones are expensive. Even my Korean in-laws don’t go there. The Vietnamese/Chinese grocers are much more reasonable.

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retirebyforty May 10, 2014 at 8:58 pm

We usually go to the Vietnamese/Chinese grocery stores too. The Korean and Japanese stores are more expensive, but sometime it’s more convenient for a quick visit.

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Susan May 9, 2014 at 8:04 am

Thank you Joe!
This was actually very helpful and has motivated me to keep each and every receipt for the next month to see if we (couple) can figure out our very high food bills. Live in the SF area and know I splurge too much on the tempting selections here! But we need to reign in as we prep for early retirement.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 8:43 am

Yes, try it out and see what you’re spending money on. Our farmer market here in Portland is very tempting as well (and expensive.) It’s a good thing that we have a community garden so we have fresh organic produce in the summer.

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davidmichael May 9, 2014 at 9:40 am

Great share. Even with just the two of us, and sharing meals when we go out, your food budget is less than ours. Amazing! We spend about $500 a month for groceries (wife and me) plus another $100 for eating out. We nearly always share meals when eating out both for savings but also (in our 70’s) we eat less now than in previous years.

I agree with you about Winco as a place to save, although we tend to favor TJ (Trader Joe’s) and Costco, and our local Market of Choice for other things, plus occasional Safeway. By employing more Asian cooking, I believe we could reduce our food costs more. My goal during this summer is to save $100 per month to bring the costs down to $400.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 10:27 pm

We spent about $100 eating out last month too. $400 seems very doable for two people. Good luck!

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Chris@ChattanoogaCheapster May 9, 2014 at 9:50 am

Our grocery bill is one of my big shames. We spend about $500 to $600 per month on groceries. It’s just me, my wife and our 7 year old daughter. The big difference I see is that we buy almost 100% organic, and our Costco doesn’t carry a lot of organic products. Looks like we eat a lot more fruits and vegetables than you do. My wife is also pregnant, so I find myself making a lot of emergency dessert trips. It’ll be interesting to see how our budget changes after the baby comes next month. I think we could easily get it down to $400/month. Especially once the garden starts producing.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 10:29 pm

I think it’s great that you are eating healthy. We really do need to do a better job with our fruits and vegetables. We probably eat 2 fruits a day and 1-2 serving of vegetables. That’s not enough.

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davidmichael May 9, 2014 at 9:50 am

P.S. When we lived and worked in Jordan a few years ago while teaching ESL at a small college in Amman, my students found out that we were spending $200 a month for our food bill per month. They were shocked! Most families averaged about $50 a month. So several of them took us down to the local outdoor markets and negotiated purchases for the next month. Sure enough, we did reduce grocery costs but we didn’t speak Arabic fluently so that chore passed quickly when on our own. Fun but time consuming. Very happy to return to the local Big Box store that had stuff from all over the world. Surprisingly there were two Safeway Stores in Amman which really surprised me. By the way, talking about American influence: there are more Fast Food restaurants in Amman (McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, etc) than any place (per capita) I have travelled in the world. It was amazing!

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Kenny May 9, 2014 at 10:33 am

Organic products and milk is an expensive option. My question to everyone is ‘how do you know’. I will ask again ‘how do we know what is the definition of organic for the source of that product’. I am not challenging you, but challenging the concept since the price differential is too huge to justify the ‘unknown’.

Things that are written as ‘natural’ and ‘whole grains’ has a lot of content that is beyond it, esp. if you read the labels, and therefore, we stick to the basics. Here is my solution:

1. Buy the milk that talks about coming from a dairy that does not use the hormones. That has been proven to be bad for the health. It is something that can be controlled easily and trusted.
2. Buy these products from a big name grocery store only where there is enough fear in them for class action law suits for violations (Walmart, Meijers, Safeway etc).
3. Wash the veggies and fruits with special soap to get rid of anything / everything that is sitting on the surface.
4. Do NOT buy any pre-prepared-foods even from Costco or Restaurants more than once a month and that too for 1 meal.

We believe in making things starting from scratch with grains purchased in bulk from Asian and Fruit/Veggie stores. Washing them well, and making our own Salsa, Beans, Tofu-like-protein, Bars, Chex-Mix-with-Oats-n-Granola etc. If we have to make tortilla, we make it at home with 100% whole wheat for example. We make our own Healthy Protein bars since the best protein bars are $1.00 each and still have more than 10-20 ingredients whereas our homemade bars have 6 to 8 ingredients.

ALL of this is a huge money saver, but time consumer. But, if it is for health, we don’t “buy the labels”, but act on being ‘natural’ by using natural.

By the way, we both work having full time jobs, run a real estate rental business (ourselves), and have a day-trading-business in equity markets! So, yes, I need a 48 hour day to manage, but for now we are working on all cylinders and doing well. Cash flow positive, lost 62 lbs, and getting ready to call it quits from work (by choice).

Just sharing……No onus.

Kenny

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 10:31 pm

Thanks for sharing your strategy. We wash fruits and veggie with just water. I’ll check into washing with soap. I heard mild soap will help a lot with bacteria. I don’t think it helps much with pesticide, but I don’t know. I agree about prepackaged food. They are not very healthy. Losing 62 lbs was a great job.

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Sandy May 18, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Milk at Walmart is hormone free, according to label. I found the yearly membership not worth the price at the big box stores. Besides who has the room for a 48 roll of toilet paper? Better to buy it weekly at Walmart. Avoid as many packaged processed foods as possible and save$. Homemade granola is the best. Same with homemade energy bars.

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retirebyforty May 19, 2014 at 10:02 am

Great! I’ll check the label. Hormone free is good. I don’t like CostCo either. It’s too busy and we don’t have storage space.

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jim May 9, 2014 at 2:38 pm

One big factor in keeping it cheap is that you have very few processed foods there. Its almost all raw ingredients. I think a lot of families tend towards more preprocessed items rather than simply buying meat, vegetables, etc.

I’d also hazard a guess that you eat a lot less than average. For example it looks like you bought 2-3 gallons of milk for the month. I drink that much milk myself in two weeks. Your bread consumption is probably 1/2 what my wife and I eat. So you may consume less… or maybe we eat too much? ;-)

Plus you are shopping at the cheaper places for sure. Winco is cheap and Trader Joes is practical for organics. Simply shopping at a little more expensive store would increase your costs +25% pretty easy.

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retirebyforty May 9, 2014 at 10:33 pm

The milk is mostly for the kid. We don’t drink much milk these days. Yeah, I know if we go to Safeway often, it’d cost more.

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fritz May 10, 2014 at 4:03 pm

We eat about twice that amount of food. i guess if we cut back it would be cheaper as well. you were on vacation- why didn’t you include what you spent during that time?

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No Nonsense Landlord May 11, 2014 at 7:07 pm

We probably spend less, but eat out a LOT more. And probably less fruits and vegetables too.

Most of our food is from Sam’s club.

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Chris May 11, 2014 at 8:08 pm

I must say that my dear wife is very, very good with the grocery spending. She get’s about $550/month to feed our family of 6, a large dog, and small dog, and that includes a ton of snacks for me (one of these days I gotta start working out just to build more muscle), not to mention more soda in a single week than most people do in a month or more – about one 2-liter of Mountain Dew 5 days a week.
Luckily I have some insane metabolism and still maintain 175-180 lbs on 6′ frame.

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Bilgefisher August 11, 2014 at 11:43 am

Were still trying to figure out how everyone does it. I have two in diapers and we spend around $1200/mo on average. It makes me cringe when we go to the grocery store. I was very excited because we only pent $200 at king soopers last week, then my wife informed me she had already stopped at target and spent $100 on formula.

Jason

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