Grocery shopping on a budget: No extreme couponing required!

I don't think it's just me who feels like the cost of food is going up, up, up these days. Lately, my family has been eating really healthy too, which isn't always budget friendly either. But, I've managed to find some ways to keep costs down and within reason and I wanted to share them here in hopes that it will help other families stay within their grocery budgets as well.

Tip 1:Take the time to make a wise list
I have a calendar that hangs in the kitchen and each week, I take it down and determine how many nights we'll be eating dinner at home. You'll want to take into account things like baseball games, PTA meetings, church nights, etc. whatever you and your family may do during the week, and plan for how many meals you'll actually need to cook. If you know you usually grab Chipotle on baseball nights (ding ding ding! that's us.) and you plan a meal for the night, you may end up wasting food and money.

image via: momables
Before you plan out your meals, take a visual inventory of things you have on hand both in the fridge and pantry. Determine the fresh items you have from the previous week that are still good and plan to use them early in the upcoming week. (Example, this week I had baby squash from the previous week that didn't get used, so I planned to make it Sunday night, the first night of my new grocery week - saves me from buying another vegetable and puts to use what I have on hand.) Look at what you have in the freezer and pantry. Frozen chicken breasts? Great. Pasta sauce? Awesome. Plan on meals that can incorporate as many of the key ingredients that you already have on hand so you're not buying as much.

As you plan each meal, write a list of the items you don't already have that you need to buy. Think about breakfast, lunches and snacks too. (Those are usually quicker, easy to grab items in my house at least during the week: sandwich stuff, salad stuff, Amy's Organic frozen lunches, Gogurt, etc. so I don't write them on the calendar.)

Finally, walk through your house and see what other items need replenishing. Toilet paper? Shampoo? Windex? Sunblock? Dog food? Add those items to your list. A walk through will save you additional trips to the store for the 2 items you didn't know you needed. That will save you gas money AND an additional opportunity to be in a store, buying more than you actually needed.

Sort your list so you can get in and out of the stores your frequent quickly. I sort mine into sections: produce, meat/cheese, dairy, dry goods, frozen and other.

Tip 2: Find stores that work for your needs
You'll waste a lot of gas trying to drive to every store that has an item on your list, on sale. Find a couple of stores that can meet most of your needs and then find a specialty store or two that you can hit once or twice a month.

For my family, we like to eat a lot of fresh produce. Like, a lot. But, high-quality, fresh produce in large quantities can get pricey. For produce, I recommend shopping Costco or your local farmer's market for items you use a lot of. In my house those are: lettuce, strawberries, bananas, peaches, bell peppers, spinach. The quality and taste is exceptional and the cost for the amount you get is the lowest I have been able to find.

image via: sfgate Don't lie, you know you love the samples at Costco too.
Beyond produce, I find that I can stretch my dollar further buying certain other items in bulk at Costco. The cost of the following items, based on my experience, is lowest per item when purchased in bulk: frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts, lean ground beef, bread, paper towels, toilet paper, shampoo and conditioner*. (*if you are someone who hasn't found a favorite shampoo and conditioner and ends up buying different formulas often because you get tired of one, don't buy 'em in bulk ;-))

Target or Fresh & Easy
I usually buy the majority of my other items at either Target or Fresh & Easy. If it's a week where my list is heavy in household needs, I'll likely shop Target. If it's heavy in food items, with very little household, I'll shop Fresh & Easy. In general, household and toiletry items tend to be marked up at grocery stores where food is lower in price. Those items typically cost less at discount chains like Target or Wal Mart.

Trader Joe's and Grocery Outlet
These are my two favorite "specialty stores." I consider them both kind of like the equivalent of a toy store but for food. I usually go to one of these stores about once a month, as my first stop on days that I either have the extra time to make an additional stop or when I'm tired of the same 'ol same 'ol foods I always tend to buy and want to try something new. I'll still use my list as a guide, but if I've done well overall on my grocery budget that month, and come in under budget, I allow a few splurges at these stores.

Trader Joe's has some really unique snacks, salads and lunches (both frozen and fresh) that I LOVE and they are typically healthier in that they use whole food ingredients, limit high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and offer a lot of organics at very reasonable prices. Also, I love their cheese and wine selections. MMMMM!

Grocery Outlet has different things each time you go. They're like the TJ Maxx of food. Their products are typically over-produced products, package mistakes/past promotions and test market flavors. But, they're totally within dates and you can often find really yummy things there (including organics and lots of great nitrate free meats) for insanely affordable prices. Their cheese, wine and snack sections are AWESOME and always changing and offering new things. Last time I went, I got jalapeno string cheese. It was so delicious! Probably a test flavor, because I can't find it anywhere else. Another awesome thing about Grocery Outlet is their health and beauty section. AMAZING drug store brands at crazy low prices. My last trip? Nivea lip balms in a three pack for the cost of one at Target and a Revlon lipstick for $1.99.

image via: eastvilliagesandiego, Grocery Outlet store interior
I'm pretty excited because a new Grocery Outlet store is opening near my office this week. Their grand opening is this Saturday, May 24th. There will be awesome activities for families to enjoy, giveaways, and a brand new fully stocked store to enjoy. If you're in the Fresno area, you should definitely go by on Saturday and check it out! The store will be located on the SE corner of Tulare and R streets in Downtown Fresno. (Keep reading for a chance to win a $25 gift card to Grocery Outlet to spend at this new store or your local store!)

Tip 3: Gather your coupons
I don't go coupon crazy. The vast majority of the time, the coupons that are widely available are for brand names (I often buy generic, Up & Up at Target is a-ok with me on 99% of things and still cheaper than the name brand with a coupon) or highly processed foods (no thank you). But, I do pay attention to the specific deals offered by the stores I'm shopping that week.

I look at the Costco app to see what instant coupons are available, and if I'm trying to decide to get an item at Costco or elsewhere, a coupon can sway my decision. (Costco doesn't require physical coupons, they instantly reduce the price at the register)

image via: mojosavings
I also look through the Cartwheel Mobile App for Target and see if anything on my list is on Cartwheel. I find Carthweel better than most cut out coupons because they give discounts on things like milk and produce vs. only brand new items.

Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT look at coupons before you make your list. It is NOT a deal to save 25% on something you did not need to buy in the first place. A $10 item for $7.50 that isn't something you actually need is $7.50 more than you need to spend.

Tip 4: Minimize the potential for disaster
Try to shop when you can be focused, stick to your list and get in and out of the store easily. If you can shop alone, you're likely to spend less. If you can't shop without littles in tow, be sure to bring toys or items to keep them entertained or involve them in the shopping process ("can you find mommy the brightest red apples?" "Can you point to where the broccoli is?" "Can you please get a loaf of bread from that table and place it gently in the cart?").

Whatever you do, do NOT shop hungry or with hungry kids. If at all possible, shop right after eating. If you think it's a myth the shopping hungry costs more, save your receipts and test it. I promise you though, hungry shopping is expensive shopping! EVERYTHING looks good and like a must have when you're starving! Also, use the restroom before you go to the store (same goes for kiddos). Distracted, frustrated or hurried shopping leads to impulse buys and the grabbing of items as a reward or comfort ("I deserve this chocolate bar for schlepping three kids to the Target bathroom 4 times in one trip!")

Tip 5: The golden rule - stick to the list
If it's not on your list (or an insanely good deal on something you will definitely NEED soon) do NOT buy it! This will save you more money than almost any other thing you do. Really. Going in without a plan is a recipe for overspending. Creating a good list takes a little bit of effort, but that time will pay you back in the money that you save. Really!

{THE GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED} My winners: comments #1 & 3 - Miranda and Elena! Congratulations! I will email you! :-)

I will choose two winners using on Wednesday, May 28th. Good luck!

{Gift cards provided compliments of Grocery Outlet, opinions and content however are entirely my own and I frequent Grocery Outlet stores because they really do have awesome finds and treasures!}


  1. I pair sales and coupons to get the maximum savings

  2. I just buy what is needed at the time, and try to buy when there are sales for what we like to eat.

  3. I use coupons and shop for groceries on sale

  4. When I buy groceries for my family I have a budget. I brake it down for our meats, our sides, our drinks and our snacks. I usually get a gift card so I don't let myself go over. (: Email:

  5. I like to buy all of my household cleaning items at costco. they last me months! Heres a little known fact...BUY Kirkland (Costcos brand) brand when you can...oh but you only like Tide detergent? buy kirkland...its made by Tide! All of Kirklands items are really namenbrand items just repackaged!

  6. Not only does Grocery Outlet have great prices, they also mark down about-to-expire items GREATLY at my store. Oversized signs & unbelievable prices! Once I got fresh ravioli, fresh tamales & a few other items; spent about $3–saved $20+!

  7. I make general menu plans, but leave things the sides of produce up in the air, so that I can buy what is cheap and looks/smells good to flesh out the meal. For example, my local store had brussels sprouts and bags of red potatoes very cheap, so my general plan of sides of pasta and a veggie became a side of roasted potatoes and brussels sprouts. I also rely on my slow cooker/crockpot to make delicious meals with cheaper cuts of meat and whatever veggies are in season. I'm a big fan of Target's Cartwheel, too.

  8. We recently moved from central NY to NC, and I miss Wegmans so much! I find that I have to go to multiple stores every week to get what we need. To save money, I avoid Target (LOL), meal plan every Sunday, and plan meals around what we already have on hand. I admit it isn't always easy. Sometimes we have chicken in the freezer but I am really craving burgers that week, so I'll end up buying extra things that we really don't need.


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