Grocery bills are on the rise and I’m always looking for ways to save money. I was recently intrigued when I read about a $5 a day meal planning program until I realized the writer was American. I don’t think it’s possible to shop the same way in Canada. Our food prices are a lot higher, and our grocery stores don’t offer double and triple coupon days or coupons on fresh items such as produce, meat, and dairy like they do in the U.S.

Nevertheless, I’m always up for a challenge and I’m trying to convince my husband to give it a try. I wanted to go beyond couponing and buying generic brands.

Related: Couponing to the extreme

Statistics Canada (2013) reports that the average Canadian household spends $241 per person on food each month. A general rule is allocating $200 – $250 per person per month. Can you aim for less?

1. Plan your meals

Meal planning is one of those items on the to-do list that always gets pushed aside because it seems so tedious. But, a proper menu plan can make a huge difference in your grocery budget, and it prevents you from making quick runs to the store at the last minute and wandering around for inspiration, or resorting to take-out yet again.

Ask your family what their favourite meals are and keep a list in a meal plan binder or folder. You can reference it to see what you can make with your weekly sale items.

You will eventually get to where meal ideas come easily to you based on what your family enjoys. Follow your plan, and enjoy your dinner.

2. Buy fewer pre-packaged foods

I regularly see people in the grocery store, their carts loaded with all kinds of expensive prepared food and junk food.

Related: How to save money on groceries

One of the biggest ways you can save money – and improve your health – is to make your meals from scratch. Now that there is just the two of us at home, we’ll regularly cook a big meal and divide it into smaller batches to freeze for another time. You can take leftovers to work for lunch the next day.

Choose larger packages instead of individual servings of items such as oatmeal, juice, and snacks, and transfer serving sizes into reusable containers.

Alternatively, buy smaller quantities of things like spices from the bulk bins. You can buy just what you need and avoid the leftover bit sitting in the pantry forever.

Chop your fruit and vegetables yourself. Shred your cheese. Shell your shrimp. You can also make your own salads, stir-fry sauces, salad dressings, etc. for a fraction of store-bought versions.

Buy local and in-season, when fresh fruits and vegetables are more delicious and easier on the wallet. I don’t can my produce like my mother once did, but I do freeze some (such as berries) to enjoy in the winter.

3. Check your store flyers

Jot down items that are on sale. The best deals of the week are usually on the front pages. Know your prices though – not everything in the flyers is on sale. Many grocery stores will match their competitors’ flyers so you don’t have to travel from place to place to get your deals.

Related: Would you buy your groceries online?

Stock up on items your use regularly – within reason – when the price is right, and if you have the room and budget for it.

My husband does most of the cooking and grocery shopping, but he is a terrible shopper.

Me: “Look, that sauce you like is less than half price. We should buy a couple of jars.”

Him: “Nah! I don’t need it right now.” (I’ll buy it next week when it’s full price.)

4. Stick to your list!

Research shows that people who avoid impulse spending can save up to 23% on their grocery bill.

Also, a Dun & Bradstreet study found that people who shop with a credit card pay 12-18% more than those with cash. I know – you want to collect your reward points, so make especially sure you stick to your shopping list. 

5. Double-check your pantry

Challenge yourself to use what you already have in your pantry and freezer for a week. See if you can skip a grocery shop and live off what you’ve already stockpiled.

Some helpful apps

A couple of select apps on your phone can help you save money, keep track of the best deals, and help you plan your shopping list. I’ll admit I don’t own a smart phone so I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but here are a few that have been recommended:

  • Checkout 51 – A list of offers is provided each week. Pick the ones you like and upload a photo of your receipt. When your account reaches $20, you will get a cheque.
  • A similar cash back tool is Snap by Groupon. Both of these apps have coupons for fruit, vegetables, and dairy that are not usually available with paper coupons.
  • Flipp – Browse local flyers, search for a specific product sale price.
  • Salewhale – Search grocery flyers, scan barcodes to compare prices, set alerts for when products go on sale.

Do you use an app to save money?

Final thoughts

Buying groceries is the second highest monthly expense after mortgage or rent payments. It’s one area that’s easy to overspend.

Related: 30 signs you grew up in a frugal family

How much is your typical monthly grocery budget?

What are some strategies you use to save on groceries?

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17 Comments

  1. Tracey H on June 17, 2015 at 6:51 am

    I consistently spend $450/month for 3 adults (and that includes everything I buy at the grocery store plus any food from Shoppers Drug Mart and Costco as well as cleaners and paper goods, etc.). I’ve been grocery shopping for over 35 years and I’m frugal without even thinking about it. First, I go through all of my flyers, especially looking for things I’m getting low on. I choose either the store that price matches and has the most items on my list or else the price matching store with store brands on sale that I want (since I can’t price match them elsewhere). Occasionally I shop at my 3rd store if I don’t want to price match from the other 2 (price-matching) stores. I seldom pay full price for things other than milk (but all of my stores have it at a low price). I stock up, but avoid over-stocking. I know good prices and have a feel for how often the sales come up. I frequently freeze leftovers in single servings so they’ll be good for lunch much later (when they seem really attractive again). Couponing and refunding used to give me a lot of money back, but neither is really great in Canada anymore (and we did have double-coupon days at 2 different stores decades ago—Big V Pharmacy and Fortinos ran them occasionally and I once got $400 worth of groceries for free from the latter). So now sales are even more important. And we each eat only about 100g of meat and not every single day of the week. We love nuts, beans and 2 of us love lentils. Eggs are a good, cheap source of protein, too. And we’ve never been milk-guzzlers so that helps, too.

  2. DGI&R on June 17, 2015 at 8:24 am

    $5 a day would be great! Currently my wife and I have a groceries budget of $425 per month. That includes pet food and supplies for the cat. Every other budget category we are ok with, but the grocery budget is always a struggle. We are definately guilty of the impulse buys.

    I read a similar article on Mr. Money Mustace that talked about saving a lot of money by only grocery shopping once a week. We’ve started to try it, but we live in the city and the convience factor makes it hard not to just drop into the store for that missing ingredient.

    We need to do a better job of meal planning.

    • Boomer on June 17, 2015 at 9:24 am

      @DGI&R: Once a week! Except for fresh produce and dairy, I shop once a month and I’ll admit it can be quite a challenge fitting it all in my small freezer and pantry on shopping day.

      My husband is bad for impulse purchases. He’ll go to the store with a short list and come home with twice as much.

  3. Carlee H on June 17, 2015 at 8:45 am

    Thanks for the great article – I go in spurts with meal planning, but definitely feel good about it when I do – especially for the first few days of each week. Pizza night is our splurge on Fridays. We typically spend about $800 per month for family of four; when my older son went to university this year we saw a significant reduction in our food costs – an indicator of who was costing us the most in groceries!! I do shop the sales at the grocery stores closest to me, but tend not to drive further for a better price – to me the cost of gas and time doesn’t make it worthwhile at this point. However my retired parents are happy to drive all over town for the weekly sales – that could well be me in a decade or so!

  4. Maggie on June 17, 2015 at 9:11 am

    I would be interested in your take on some grocery stores policy of asking for charity donations at the checkout. This week Loblaws is collecting for Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. There is even a sign which says if the cashier forgets to ask you claim a free chocolate bar. (I claimed a free bar.) but I’m curious as to why this is so important an activity for the store, and how much of my $2 actually gets to Sick Kids. Any way to find out?

    • Boomer on June 17, 2015 at 9:34 am

      @Maggie: Most companies will take on a pet charity or two. I have worked in banking and retail and both tend to involve their customers in their fund raising efforts. In my experience, all the money goes to the charity. Studies have shown that people are more likely to give if they are asked directly, and what’s a couple of bucks, right? My stock phrase is, “Not today, thank you.”

      Why do they do it? This past June Costco raised $1.6 million for the BC Children’s Hospital. Don’t you think that giant cheque makes the company look good?

  5. Hyacinthe on June 17, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Our goal is usually to keep it under $5/each per meal, and we buy mostly organic and/or local food, hence the relative high cost. We could all feed on $5 easily if we bought lower quality food.

  6. Travis @enemyofdebt.com on June 17, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I COULD probably average out to $5 a meal…..but I don’t want to. If that’s all my budget would allow, I could make it happen – BUT, since my budget can handle buying and making better food at home I do. Because a.) great food is fun to make b.) great food makes life more enjoyable and c.) great food at home makes it less likely that I’m going to load the family up in the van and spend an outlandish amount at a restaurant.

  7. DGI&R on June 18, 2015 at 7:41 am

    @Boomer

    The majority of what I’m buying at the grocery store is fresh fruit and vegetables, so going less than once a week is hard for me.

  8. Paul N on June 18, 2015 at 10:52 am

    I always seem to be the contrarian…

    Why would you want to feed your family on $5.00/ day?

    Not my concept of “financial freedom”…

    Rather focus on making more and boosting income then cutting back on food.

    • Boomer on June 18, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      @Paul N: I don’t mean to imply that this is desirable, and I don’t even think it’s possible for most without, as Hyacinthe above says, buying lower quality food. I’m always amazed at the prices when I see commercials from US grocery chains. It also depends on how much you eat. When I had two teenage football playing sons at home, I’m sure we spent more than our monthly mortgage payment every two weeks.

      We now probably spend about the average according to Stats Can, but I do try to save with price comparisons, stocking up, etc. etc.

      • Paul N on June 18, 2015 at 2:28 pm

        Thanks,

        For a minute I thought you were going all “ERE” on us here. 🙂

        I’ve seen people submit a recipe for some kind of meal (in posts)that they can eat for 3-4 days on $20.00. Then there is all this excitement about it. I can’t buy into that.

        I think Joe below read my thoughts. You have to eat well – and eat quality foods. Save somewhere else. Your obviously also right though if you have a couple of mouths to feed, that can hurt. I missed that aspect, thinking more in an “empty nest” kind of way.

  9. Joe on June 18, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    Well written article but I’m with Paul on this one. As someone that lost 100 lbs, I tend to look at grocery shopping differently. Where can I cut back in other areas so I can spend MORE on buying food not less. I’m not talking about stocking up on boxes of cereal or pop tarts. More along the lines of the best cuts of grass fed meat, fresh fruits and vegetables ect. The majority of people’s weight and health problems can be fixed through changes in their diet but now I’m really getting off topic and we could go on forever. Love the blog btw.

  10. Heather on June 19, 2015 at 5:59 am

    I price match at The Superstore using the app Flipp. Every week I save roughly $20 and I only have to visit 1 store. I cook from scratch, so buying fresh fruit, vegetables consumes a large part of my grocery budget. Both my kids (one in University the other just finished) follow the same process and have been able to reduce some of their expenses while at University.

  11. Chris @ Rags to Reasonable on June 19, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Great article. Meal planning has to be the simplest way to cut down on food costs … although it also seems to be the thing I struggle to do consistently.

    I think it’s tricky to simplify the ‘cost’ of food down to just money. Like a few others mentioned the cheapest food … is often not the best value. It’s got to be a balance. Cutting corners on your health is only going to come back and bite you later.

    Of course all the options you mentioned are great ways to eat for less, and eat well, but it’s good to remember that there’s more to cost than just a dollar amount.

  12. Cool Koshur on June 19, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Like others (Tracey H & Heather).Price matching is key. Flyers get delivered to my home on Thursday. I spend 10 minutes and make a list. I buy majority of stuff from SuperStore which is under 1 km from home. Superstore price matches flyers from all retailers. I not only save money on gas, quality of produce, groceries is very good. on top of this, I get cash back of 1.75% using my credit card. For family of 4, my grocery bill is ~$800.

    Feeding your family on $5 per day is possible but not practical, if you eat just Kraft dinner.

  13. mary on February 3, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Easy to eat on $5. a day…just not every day. A family of 5…some days you eat and other days you dont. Some days just bread and peanut butter or noodles.

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