Ya know when you feel like your budget is stretched to its limits? Then you realize you still have to buy groceries for the month? Believe me, I’ve been there. But through the years, I finally figured out how to make a cheap grocery list. Here are my top tips for making a low-cost basic grocery list and buying food on a tight budget.
In this post, we’ll answer the following questions:
How do you grocery shop on a budget?
How do you make a grocery list?
How do you plan meals for the week on a budget?
Whether your weekly grocery budget is $30 or $100, we’ll examine how to make it work.
If you follow these tips and tricks, you can feed yourself and your family healthy, good food, no matter what you have to spend!
You May Also Like:
- The 70 Best Things to Buy at Aldi
- How I Saved Series – real life examples of my grocery shopping trips
- Where to Start When You’re Flat Broke
- 5 Ways to Save Money on Groceries (without using coupons!)
This post may contain affiliate links. You can view my full disclosure policy here.
How to Make a Cheap Grocery List on a Budget
1. Set your budget
The very first step in making your cheap grocery list is knowing how much you can actually spend.
Having a budget boils down to simply having a plan. That structure will help determine what you buy.
Food just might be one of your biggest expenditures. The good news? It’s also one of the easiest to control. That’s where the budget comes into play.
2. Take inventory of what you have
Now that you know what you can spend, the next step in creating your grocery list is figuring out what you already have at home.
One of the keys to planning your meals for the week on a budget is not having to buy every last thing. You probably have some meals already hiding in your pantry, fridge, and freezer.
Here’s an example of how this inventory-taking might look.
Let’s say you look in your pantry and find:
- Canned tomatoes
- Chicken broth
And in your freezer you see:
- Chicken breasts
- Frozen fruit
- Leftover ham
Maybe your fridge has:
- Shredded cheese
Off the top of my head, it looks like you could make these dinners:
- Chicken with rice soup
- Hashbrown casserole (with fruit as a side dish)
That’s 3 meals (more if you have leftovers) you don’t have to spend money on!
3. Start writing out your meal plan
Once you inventory what you have on hand, start writing your meal plan.
The idea is just to start assigning meals to the days of the week. Even if you end up moving things around, it’s just easiest to see it laid out like this.
4. Simultaneously start making your grocery list
As you go about creating your meal plan, you’ll also be making your grocery list.
First add any ingredients you’ll need to complete the meals you wrote down from your pantry inventory.
Using the example above, maybe you also need:
- Ground beef or turkey to make spaghetti
- Garlic bread
- Carrots for the chicken soup
These are the beginnings of your grocery list. Don’t forget to write down the ingredients for any side dishes you plan to make with those meals.
5. Check the sales ad for inspiration
Okay, you have come up with a few meals based on what you already have. The next step in creating your frugal shopping list is to come up with other ideas by seeing what’s on sale.
I’ll let you in on a little secret.
The biggest savings at the grocery store actually comes from the sale prices. While I love coupons and rebate apps like Ibotta, the sales are where the biggest discounts are.
See, every week your grocery store has what are called ‘loss leaders.’ These are items that they make little to no money on (or maybe even take a loss).
Can you guess why they do that?
If you guessed it’s because they want you to come in for that deeply discounted item or two and buy tons of other stuff at full price, you’re right.
Well the joke is on them if we go and buy almost entirely stuff on sale!
This is the best way to enjoy good food on a tight budget.
So be sure to take a good look at your store’s sales ad. If it doesn’t get mailed to your house, it’ll be available on their app or website.
Pro-tip: If there are a few different stores in your area, check out all of their sales ads to decide which store has your favorite stuff on sale. The best prices tend to be on the front and back pages.
I recently discovered the Flipp app, where you can see all the sales ads in your area. You can even search by item, such as chicken breasts, to compare what stores have it on sale. Genius!
There are also blogs devoted entirely to letting you know the best deals at certain stores. Just Google “[your favorite store] coupon matchups” and you’ll find a bunch of websites that detail the best savings for that week.
Meal Idea: Let’s say your store has beef chuck roast buy one, get one free. You could add pot roast to your meal plan for the week, plus freeze the extra for next month.
Instead of trying to come up with some random meal ideas in the big wide world of Pinterest, use the sale items as inspiration for what you’ll cook and eat this week.
6. Use ingredients in multiple meals
This is especially helpful if you’re a smaller household of one or 2. If you don’t think you’ll eat an entire pot roast at one meal, search for ways to repurpose the leftovers.
A quick Google search just showed me that leftover roast could be made into everything from tacos to shepherd’s pie to soup.
Or if chicken breasts are on sale in the big family pack size, plan 2-3 dinners that use chicken this week.
7. List prices as you go
A great hack to create a cheap grocery list is to write down the estimated price next to each item on the list.
It doesn’t have to be exact, but take your best guess as to what each item will cost. Keep a running tally as you make your list to ensure you stay within your budget.
If you are really broke, and can’t afford to go over budget, check your grocery store website or app to look up each individual item and check the price.
8. Don’t forget to plan for things besides dinner
Dinners are the first thing people think of when they plan out their meals. But since we need to eat and drink throughout the day, don’t forget to add those items to your list.
As you make your grocery list, don’t forget to include stuff for:
9. Use a master grocery list to ensure you never forget anything
Not sure what the heck that is?
A master grocery list is a reusable list that you can use to prepare for your weekly or monthly grocery shopping trip.
It contains a list of all the foods, ingredients, and household necessities you buy, and you reference it over and over when you write your shopping list.
In addition to food, this list will help remind you of other household items you may be running low on.
10. Go shopping and stick to your list
The final key to your success will be how well you use the cheap grocery list you created.
Whatever you do, do NOT walk up and down each aisle looking at everything. That is recipe for budget disaster.
Keep a laser-like focus on your list, and get in and get out.
Unless you’re some grocery-shopping-loving enigma, you will appreciate how much time you save at the store when you have your airtight list to stick to.
If you want extra credit, write down the actual cost of each item as you shop. That way you can see how well you’re staying within your budget.
If you wrote down estimated prices as you created your shopping list, compare those to your receipt to see how much you actually spent.
Were your guesses any good?
Pro-tip: If you love Ibotta like I do, now’s the time to cash in those rebates!
Some final tips for nailing your cheap grocery list and shopping trip:
1. Buy in bulk when it makes sense – Do the math to see if you’ll save money on something you buy regularly by buying it in a large quantity. Just be sure you’ll use it before it spoils.
2. Compare prices – As you shop, check out the other brands and sizes on the shelf to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
3. Keep a price list – For the items you buy often, start keeping a list of the best prices you see. Try to only buy those items when they’re on sale for those prices.
4. Avoid buying pre-packaged stuff – You know that really convenient cut up fruit, and those individually packaged pretzels?
You really pay a premium for the convenience. Just chop it or put it in Ziploc baggies yourself, and you’ll save so much!
5. Buy produce in season – Fruits and vegetables are SO much cheaper (and more delicious!) when they’re in season.
Since you’re basing some of your grocery list on what’s on sale, you can enjoy the tastiest produce at its peak.
6. Don’t shop when you’re hungry – You know those Snickers commercials that say ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry?’
Low blood sugar notwithstanding, you’re just more apt to make poor decisions and way overspend on groceries if you shop hungry.
7. Buy generic brand – Don’t worry, the generic or store brands aren’t gross or anything.
In fact, they’re often made by the brand name company, but sold without the fancy packaging or expensive prime shelf space.
The good news for you? They’re often up to 40% cheaper! That’s one of the main reasons I love shopping at Aldi. You just save money automatically!
I use a collapsible shopping basket like this one for my Aldi shopping.
8. Keep your meal plan simple, flexible, and realistic – Know you’ll be exhausted and frazzled by Friday evening?
Put a frozen pizza on your grocery list.
Think you love to cook while scrolling Pinterest, but in reality it’s not your favorite?
Just plan to make really simple dishes. Don’t worry, Bon appetit magazine won’t be stopping by to take pictures.
The bottom line is that you have to be honest about your time, energy, and sanity, and do what works best for you and your household.
9. Eat less meat – Even at those loss leader prices, meat is more expensive than most other food ingredients. Try adding some meatless meals to your weekly meal plan.
10. Use coupons wisely – Trust me, I love using coupons. It feels like a game, or like I’m getting one over on ‘the man’ or something.
But the danger comes when you buy things just because you have a coupon. If it’s not free (or almost free), you weren’t planning to buy it anyway, or have an immediate use for it, just leave it at the store.
Go forth and save
I sincerely hope that these tips on how to create a cheap grocery list will help you keep your grocery budget in check.
With some forward thinking and a bit of planning, you can save yourself a ton of money and grief.
Enjoy your evenings more when you’re not stressed about what to make for dinner. And relish more room in your budget. You gave the grocery store less of your hard-earned money!
P.S. Don’t forget to also check out:
- How to Get Started Meal Planning: 10 Easy Tricks You Can Try Today
- 5 Easy Meal Planning Strategies for Beginners
- Create Quick & Cheap Meals with these 30 Pantry Staples
- 30 Delicious Ways to Use a Pound of Ground Beef