Meal Planning on a Budget

Posted on Wednesday 04 December 2019

Maybe you want to start putting away money to move out of your apartment and buy your first home. Maybe your car is on its last leg and you’re preparing to buy a new one. You might be trying to start a family or set up a rainy day fund—or maybe you’re just interested in budgeting just to stop the cycle of living from paycheque to paycheque.

No matter the reason, budgeting for your living expenses, daily spending, and savings goals can be challenging enough on its own. And when you throw in meal planning on a budget, it gets even tougher.

In 2019, The Canadian Press wrote that the average grocery costs in Canada rose between 1.5 percent and 3.5 percent. Researchers predict that inflation will continue on its upward trend, which means you can’t necessarily count on your grocery bills decreasing in 2020 (sorry, optimists).

If you’re struggling with figuring out how to fit your daily meals around into your budget, keep reading! We’ll give you the best tips on how to maximize your budget by decreasing the money you spend on groceries—and how to do it all without going into starvation mode.

1. Stop paying full price—shop for deals instead

One of the best ways to plan your meals on a budget is to simply to spend less while you’re filling up your grocery cart. It sounds easier said than done, but this is really all about buying what’s on sale. You could save tons of money (as much as 70 or 80 percent) on your grocery bills just from buying sale items!

But it isn’t always easy to know what’s going to be cheaper during the week, mostly because it’s hard to find the time to search for deals. This is where coupon and savings apps come into play, such as:

  • Flipp
    Flipp lets you browse through a collection of digital ads from local retailers all from the comfort of your home. You can select any coupons or deals that you like, save them, and create your own shopping list based on local sales. There’s even a mobile app, so you can access your shopping list right from the grocery store aisle.

  • Reebee
    Just like Flipp, Reebee lets you see an online collection of ads and sales from grocery stores within your area. Reebee is great for households to use, since you can save the coupons and deals that you like, make a list, and share with other people.

Using a coupon app makes it easy to see what’s on sale each week—and who knows, it might even help you find new grocery stores to experiment with! Instead of spending hours sifting through paper ads and cutting coupons, opt for sites like Flipp and Reebee to make shopping for deals as convenient and as painless as possible. Also, get in touch with your credit card company. You can probably save more with "points" and things of that nature. If you have a good credit score, you may even get better rewards.

2. Opt for discount supermarkets

We all have fancier grocery stores in our neighborhood—the kind where you can easily spend $60 putting together a charcuterie board, or find yourself splurging on a $7 bottle of organic salad dressing. While those supermarkets can be fun to walk around in and get some unique things, they aren’t the place for you when you are meal planning on a budget.

Superstore or No Frills is a great option for grocery shopping on a budget. Find a discount supermarket in your area and commit to making them your primary stop to start fitting groceries into your monthly budget.

Unless, of course, you find some great coupons and deals at another store—don’t worry, you can always break this rule for the sake of a good deal.

3. Plan ahead for your grocery trip

Buying groceries when they’re on sale is only one half of the equation: the follow-through means that you need to put together a list and shop with purpose. Have each item planned out specifically before you even walk into the grocery store so that you know exactly what to get (and exactly what you’ll be spending).

This is a good way to avoid impulse grocery purchases, which can add up over time. And while we’re at it, don’t ever let yourself go grocery shopping while you’re hungry. Resisting the siren song of that filet mignon may be difficult on any day, but it’s nearly impossible on an empty stomach.

4. Buy generic instead of name brands

Choosing a plain, generic brand instead of a fancy, name brand can get you virtually the same product at a fraction of the price. It makes sense when you think about all of the hidden costs that you accrue when you buy a name brand, like higher marketing and packaging costs.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, choose generic brands for these types of items and take a look at the price difference:

  • Spices
  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Cereal
  • Canned soup
  • Canned vegetables
  • Water bottles
  • Cleaning products
  • Paper products

While it’s true that some name brands taste better than their generic counterparts (let’s be honest, we all know that we’d rather have the flavour of name-brand coffee), saving money is probably worth the sacrifice. And if you really want to commit to getting on the generic train, there are even online grocery stores that exclusively sell generic products, like Brandless.

5. Use what you already have first

Before you even start thinking about heading out to the grocery store, check to see what’s in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. It’s so easy to stock up on food and then completely forget what you have. Over time, you could be sitting on an entire week’s worth of meals without even knowing it!

Save yourself a trip to the grocery store (and the bill that goes along with it) and take a look at what you have. If you don’t have everything you need for a full meal, try to find a recipe that at least utilizes some of what you already have. It may not feel like you are saving a ton of money, but all of those extra expenses at the grocery store certainly add up over time. Your wallet will be better off saving the money up front rather than getting a payday from My Canada Payday, but don't forget that we're here to help in a pinch.

6. Buy frozen (instead of fresh) produce

It sounds super counterintuitive, but there are a lot of good arguments for buying frozen veggies and fruits instead of fresh. Buying fresh produce is easily one of the biggest costs that you can incur at the grocery store, and you can actually get the same nutritional value—at a lower price—by opting for the frozen aisle instead.

And in some cases, you might even get more nutritional value from choosing frozen instead of fresh. That’s because produce is frozen right after it is picked, whereas fresh produce is picked, shipped, and then left to sit on the grocery store shelves. That’s plenty of time for those strawberries and green beans to start losing their nutritional value, a problem that can be avoided entirely by freezing.

Here are some good options to look for in the frozen food aisle:

  • Cherries
  • Strawberries
  • Edamame
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans
  • Raspberries
  • Peaches
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Corn

The other benefits? Frozen produce lasts longer, is easier to cook, and has almost zero prep time, which will make other aspects of meal planning on a budget (like finding the time to cook a meal at home) fall into place.

7. Stock up on sales

Don’t be afraid to stock up and purchase a little more than you actually need when a sale hits. If it’s something that won’t expire right away, like canned vegetables or pasta, having a few extra cans or boxes in your pantry can go a long way towards extending your time between grocery trips.

But be careful: for this to work with meal planning on a budget, you also have to make sure that it’s something you will definitely use. Stick to the regular household staples that you know will always be on your grocery list and get extras when there is a good sale going on.

8. Avoid recipes with special ingredients

Experimenting with recipes when you are meal planning on a budget can be a fun way to try new things—but it can also quickly become an added expense. If you are trying out a new recipe, take the time to look at each ingredient. If you have to buy an expensive spice that you’ll only use one time, it might not be worth it.

Instead of buying unique ingredients, you can substitute with things you already have and make the recipe into your own (and keep your budget intact at the same time). It might feel like a risky move to some, but if you like a little bit of creativity in the kitchen, this is a great habit to get into.

Grocery shopping on a budget takes a lot of determination and focus. But once you commit to keeping your costs down and meal planning on a budget, you’ll start to see just how easy it is to cut down on your costs at the grocery store. And who knows—with that extra money you save, you could put money away towards a big goal, like buying a house, getting a new car, paying for a wedding, or finally taking that dream vacation that you’ve been working so hard for.