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Surprise Grocery Budget-Buster


I have always, always tracked my spending. Even before I had imposed a budget or started trying to tackle our debt in a serious way (heck, even before we had any debt at all!), I have always tracked my spending.

So I have known – for years – that one of the biggest black holes of where our money disappears is….food. Whether its groceries or eating out with the family, food is one of our reliably largest monthly expenses. Wouldn’t we all save so much money if we could just stop eating? I joke, but seriously!

Part of my Money-Envelope May challenge has been to really examine where our grocery budget is going so I can try to reduce it further, particularly in light of all the things I have switched to making home-made for much cheaper than store-bought (e.g., tortillas, bagels, bread, pizza dough….lots of bread products!)

And you may be surprised what I discovered.

Many people suggest that meat is the biggest cost in most people’s food budgets. I will admit that meat can be costly. However, I am really good about shopping sales. I always look at the sale fliers that are circulated each week for our neighborhood grocers and stock up on sale meats. Here are some of the sales I buy on the regular:

  • Whole chicken, .88 cents/pound
  • Split chicken breasts, .99 cents/pound
  • Bone-in pork chops, 1.29/pound
  • Boneless pork loin roast, 1.77/lb
  • Pork spare ribs, 1.99/lb.

We buy a lot of chicken and pork because I can find it for cheaper than beef or fish and the cuts I buy often last several meals (e.g., I make a whole chicken as a rotisserie, then use leftover chicken to make chicken salads, chicken enchiladas, chicken tortilla soup, etc etc etc.).

In fact, I’ve gotten pretty good at spending $2/lb or less. The exception is ground beef (which I can find for as little as 2.88/lb for 93% lean). In case you’re wondering how I can spout off these prices – I track prices (and highly recommend it! Then you always know whether the “sales” being advertised are actually good prices or not and you can track patterns of sales).

So meat wasn’t a huge issue for our family. Guess what is……..CHEESE!

OMG, Cheeeeeeese, how I love you!!! If cheese were a man I would run away with him in a heart beat (sorry, husband!)

The problem is, I’m a little sketchy about my cheese selections. First, I don’t like to buy anything labeled with “cheese product” (aka: not real cheese). Second, I prefer to buy rBST-free cheese. I generally buy our cheeses in big blocks from Sprouts Farmers’ Market (they have a different cheese on sale each week). But, even bought in big blocks (often cheaper than pre-shredded), the cheapest I can find is 2.99/lb (that’s for “regular” cheese). Whenever their rBST-free cheeses go on sale I always STOCK UP (the sale price is 3.99/lb, regular 4.99/lb). I can buy 3-4 lbs in a single trip and freeze the extras. BUT, that means I’ve used $16 of my $95 weekly grocery budget on just CHEESE (that’s 17% of the budget!). And sometimes – gasp – I splurge on a special cheese, like brie (6.99/lb)! Talk about eating the budget up QUICK!!!!

Have I mentioned I love cheese (pssst….it’s even in my author bio)???? Just about every meal I make includes cheese in some form or fashion.

So I guess I’ve discovered one of our grocery budget-busters! Looks like we’ll be cutting back a little on cheese around here (not eliminating it…just cutting back a little. I don’t want to go through withdrawal and end up binging, you know?)

Have you ever had a surprise budget-buster??


  • Reply Christa |

    I love cheese and being from Vermont only buy Cabot. What the heck is cheese product anyway?

  • Reply Jessica |

    Mmm, cheese…if cheese could make up 100% of my budget, I would do it

  • Reply Joe |

    We love goat cheese (spread on bread or in salads). But the good stuff costs as much as gold!

    • Reply Ashley |

      You know who has cheap (DELICIOUS) goat cheese….Costco!!!! The only problem is you’re buying bulk so its still a pretty big chunk of the budget, but its BY FAR the cheapest price for the quality that I’ve ever found!

  • Reply CanadianKate |

    A couple of suggestions:

    1. budget a reasonable amount for cheese and ‘splurge’ using your allowance money if you have it. I can’t recall if you give yourself an allowance each month, or not. I highly recommend you do because it means you have money you can spend without having to justify it to anyone. I use mine for baked cheetos and Dr. Pepper among other things (hair treatments, clothes not from a thrift shop and treating myself or others are other things I use it for.)

    2. make friends with one or more of the cheese makers at the Farmer’s Market and barter house cleaning, babysitting or one of your other talents for cheese.

    • Reply Ashley |

      OMG – GENIUS about bartering for cheese!!! I’ve also looked into making my own cheeses, but it looks like a pretty difficult and involved process. Still may do it at some point, but I’m not convinced I would really save any money.

  • Reply Jim |

    I always suggest to make a Price Book… how are you writing it down? Just the price or the price per ounce or some other way?

    • Reply Ashley |

      I break it down to a per pound price. Most of the bagged cheese are only in the 6-8 oz range, but I just convert to a per pound price. And I keep it in an excel file. I’ve been doing it long enough now that I kind of know the prices for everything, but when I first started I’d open up the file and compare MY prices against the sales flier prices every week before making a grocery list (and I found that a lot of the “sale” prices really weren’t a great deal!)

  • Reply Mary from SC |

    We have talked about trying to make our own cheese. We are planning on starting with homemade mozzarella and have found several recipes online that look doable for first timers. 🙂 Good luck with your cheese addiction. I so understand that one. 🙂

    • Reply Ashley |

      Let me know if you try it and what recipe worked for you!! I think homemade mozzarella and homemade ricotta are two of the “newbie-friendly” cheeses so if I were to do it, I’d probably start with one of those!

  • Reply Walnut |

    My best suggestion on cheese is to measure out how much you’re using and try to skinny it up from there. I used to just eyeball my cheese adds, but it seemed like a 1/2 cup always turned into a full cup. Afterall, when you love cheese as much as we do, adding extra just seems like a great idea.

    Now I’ll measure out the cheese and just add what the recipe calls for. A little bit can go a long way!

  • Reply Connie |

    I too LOVE cheese. I’ve found by always shredding, never slicing, I’ve cut way back on how much it takes. I don’t really measure but go by a “light layer on top” for most stuff. Mac and cheese is an exception ‘cuz I must have real cheese in the sauce but I found that substituting low fat cream cheese for the butter/roux mix, is delicious and saves on the cheddar. I’ve also made cheese. It can be time intensive, but no more so than making bread. I’m not sure about the saving money part, but it’s a lot of fun. I cook a lot and had a kit the first time I tried it but I think I would benefit from a class for hard cheeses like cheddar. So far my first attempt was a lot like feta, but I flavored it with $.99 Cent Store No Salt seasoning and it was delicious on crackers. I think the key is getting the milk on sale. I first bought organic goat’s milk but that is only a bargain if you look at the cost of goat’s milk cheese. I decided I didn’t like it all that well so now I’ve used regular milk, buttermilk, etc. It is really fun and if you like to cook, it feels a little like being a mad scientist. Try it when you’re waiting for your bread to rise. You might find a new hobby.

    • Reply Ashley |

      The way you describe it sounds like a lot of fun! I like the “mad scientist” thing!

  • Reply scarr |

    Oh cheese CHEESE!!!!! I so I understand this budget buster cheese is easily our budget buster too. I love it so much I have dreams about it. I have come Into the habit of not going to buy more cheese when we run out until our next grocery day.

  • Reply Helene |

    My surprise budget buster isn’t a food or an item, it’s an occurrence. It’s usually when people come to visit and stay a few days. I truly love to cook (not bake but cook) and when people come to stay, I try to be hospitable and let them know that I’m happy to have them. One of the ways I do that is by making sure we’re not out to eat for every meal.

    Something like that can easily add $100 or more to my monthly food budget.

    And as we discussed last week, birthdays and holidays can be big budget-busters, especially when they cluster together in one month. Think about a typical spring or summer month, maybe you go to a picnic and bring a dish to pass. But that month also includes a baby shower; if you’re co-hosting then that’s even more $$$ — maybe like me you have two friends both having babies within weeks of each other, so you co-host multiple showers — and then maybe there’s a holiday, like Mother’s Day. Add a child’s birthday and possibly costs associated with extracurriculars and there goes all your money.

    I had to swallow a tough one this summer. It’s killing me.

    I just moved to a great neighborhood following my divorce. It has an absolutely incredible pool, the envy of everyone who drives by.

    But you must be a member of the pool/swim club to use it. Membership affords you privileges at this pool plus others nearby, plus the ability to schedule a private party at the pool area for a nominal fee, and it keeps HOA dues low for those who choose not to use the pool.

    The “initiation fee” for the pool is currently $1200 and you pay it only once. Not a typo. And that is just to join. Not for pool access. Actual pool access from May 15-Sept. 15 costs another $800 or so per season for a family membership. 🙁 Empty-nesters with proof of age and no kids can join for a reduced fee of $550 per season. There is nothing in between.

    Now. Try telling your 9-y-o why we can’t join it, knowing we will have to walk by that amazing pool every single time we walk our dog and he will hear the shouts of all the “rich kids” enjoying the pool, see them walking by wrapped in towels after a full day of swimming in the lazy river, splashing in the sprayground and riding down the multilevel twirly slide.

    I was clear with him from the get-go that I was not living in this hood for the pool, that we would likely not have the money to join it this year. The inspector told me the house needed to be caulked and painted before I bought it, and that is NOT cheap, but it’s in my interest to do it so the house is kept up right.

    I have just barely scratched that money together and my ex is telling me I am selfish by spending that money to have the house painted rather than join the pool. He tells my son this.

    And now on top of everything, my paid-off car is giving up the ghost. It’s literally not safe to drive, so I will need another one within a month tops. My bonus was half of what I had expected based on previous years, which crushed me. But it’s all tied to corporate profits.

    So … it appears 2014 in and of itself is one big ol budget-buster to me. Ah well.

    • Reply Ashley |

      Oh Dear Lord! This is a nightmare! Is there anyway you could talk to the HoA people and try to work-out a deal volunteering in exchange for free/reduced “initiation”??? I have no idea if this would even work, but I know a lot of work is done by volunteers so it seems like a possibility (particularly if they needed help)???

  • Reply Jamie |

    Ashley, you’re doing the right thing, but are you thinking about it correctly? I understand dividing a budget so that you’re spending X amount per week. But at the same time, if you’re going to buy on sale and stock up (which is sensible, if you’re trying to be frugal), you have to also consider the ENTIRE food budget amount for the month and not just what you’re spending per week.

    To use your own example, if rBST-free cheese is on sale for $3.99/lb and you buy 4 lbs, unless you’re using it all that week (and by saying you’re “stocking up and freezing,” that sounds like you’d be using the cheese over more than a week), then that $16 spent, while looking like it comes out of one week’s groceries, actually comes out of more than one week’s allotment. So if you’ve budgeted for four pounds of cheese for the month, you can credit that week’s money (when you bought the cheese) with the “cheese” money for the other weeks, since you already have the cheese for those weeks and thus won’t be spending any more money for cheese.

    • Reply Ashley |

      You make a good point, but at the same time the thought of further dividing my grocery money into specific allocations (dairy, meat, veggies/fruit, etc.) it would hurt my head! I like to think that it all just comes out in the wash because there’s always something I’m stocking up on something from the grocery store/Costco (be it TP, meat, cheese, staples like flour & sugar, etc etc.) We tend to always buy 1-week’s worth of fruits/veggies/milk and then “stock” up on whatever we’re currently “low” on to use throughout the month.

  • Reply ND Chic |

    I am married to a cheesaholic and its super annoying. Why can’t one 8 oz. bag last an entire week instead on 1 day? We just buy a lot on sale and freeze it now.

  • Reply Deby |

    I love Sprouts, we usually shop there every couple of weeks. (The closest one is about a half hour away or it would be weekly.) But for us it’s the bulk bins that draw us in. Good cheap oatmeal, cornmeal and other dry goods without having to buy a huge Costco-sized bag. For my husband, it’s the gummy bears, in fact we were just having a discussion that there will be no more gummies bought unless they are on sale! We also really like their chicken and stock up whenever it’s on sale.
    When I want good cheese we usually go to The Nugget Market for Romano, Parmesan and my favorite, asiago. I did try my hand at making mozzarella and ricotta cheese the last time I made lasagna. The ricotta was extremely easy and way better than store bought. The mozzarella was ok, but needs practice. My family did say it was The Best. Lasagna. Ever! so I guess it turned out ok 😉

    • Reply Ashley |

      The bulk bins can definitely draw you in! I try to steer clear unless there’s something specific on sale that I need there because it can get pretty pricey QUICK – especially with the bulk nuts! Its definitely cheaper than store bought, but still in the $7-8/lb range and it’s easy for those dang nuts to add up QUICK!

So, what do you think ?