How To Create A Food Budget That Doesn’t Ruin Your Life

I’m not going to lie; food is one of the best parts of being alive; particularly in the garbage year that is 2016. It is delicious and nourishing and magical and sometimes pretty. But it can also be damn expensive.

It would be a stretch (okay, an absolute lie) to tell you that I am any good at budgeting. Until recently, I believed that budgets were for baby boomers who knew how to create functional spreadsheets and needed to do adult things like make mortgage repayments. But money stress and living life as a freelancer forced me to think about where the bulk of my cash was going – and if perhaps something needed to change.

Prior to that revelation, here is a tweet that appropriately sums up my food tendencies:

The amount of money that my partner and I were capable of spending on groceries was truly incredible – and a little bit horrifying – so I decided it was time to create a grocery budget.

Naturally, I turned to Twitter to research a reasonable budget for two people. The responses varied wildly, from $50 per week, to $600 per week – but most people agreed on the $150-200 mark, which wasn’t too far a cry from an average grocery spend in our household. We decided on $150 per week, but would try to keep it around the $100 mark where possible.

That $100-150 per week would include all groceries, alcohol, coffees, and work lunches. It’s probably important to mention that we are meat eaters, and also really like food. The budget did not include takeaway or dinners out (usually 1-2 per week max), the odd brunch, or hungover Maccas runs. One step at a time.

We have shopped to the budget for four weeks now, and there have been ups and downs, but mostly we have stuck to the rules. It’s resulted in substantial savings, and more money left over at the end of each week. Plus, unexpectedly, it has lead to us eating healthier; simply because we are planning out meals in advance. Who knew!?

So, how do we do it, you may ask?

Be reasonable and embrace meal planning

Your budget may be significantly less or more than ours based on the number of people you are feeding, your income, and your love of food. Try to figure out how much you are already spending on average per week, and think about what you could easily go without – and what you may need to cut down on. People who have certain food allergies or requirements will have a totally different budget and view on the topic.

Once you have a vague idea of what you’re hoping to stick to, it’s time to get planning. I don’t mean meal planning like those super fit people you see on Instagram who line up all their steamed broccoli for the week and then post a photo of themselves doing Crossfit. I mean, just pre-plan your meals for the week.

This is one of our biggest downfalls; we are terrible at planning and prior to our budget, could end up at the grocery shop three or four times per week. When you create a budget, it’s vital to cover as much as you possibly can in one big shop, otherwise you’ll just keep buying more and more and more.

Let go of the cheese

I really like cheese. I’m not referring to average cheese that goes in toasties or on top of nachos (although I do love that cheese, too). I’m talking more like the cheese that goes well with a glass of wine and a delicious quince paste. You know, the expensive stuff that has its own little fridge at the supermarket and probably comes from an exotic land like Tasmania. The problem with grocery budgets is that you can no longer buy wheels of camembert for your weekend snack, or put together beautiful cheese boards when your mates come over for a bevvo.

You probably have a beloved expensive food too; cheese, cured meats, overpriced ice cream, weird vegan food, yoghurt that tastes like chocolate. Having a relatively tight grocery budget means that you have to let go of your cheese, for the most part. Have a goodbye meal with it, and then say au revoir; you will meet again one day. Cheese is now reserved for special occasions and really bad days.

Write it all down

As you may have guessed, complicated spreadsheets confuse me. However, I am very good at making lists, and updating apps and keeping records of things. One of the fairly obvious keys to keeping a budget is that you need to write everything down, right from the get-go. Write down what you want to get from the shops, and if you’re really dedicated, write yourself little warnings at the end of the list (“Chloe! You don’t need haloumi for breakfast!”).

Then, check out your bank account at the end of the week. Yes, I mean actually open your app and look at the damage – and take notes. There are a bunch of budget tracker apps out there, where you can either set the app up to take notes for you, or manually add things in. I can vouch for Wally as a super simple app to add in your food spendage. Keep checking back and see how you go each week; it’ll give you a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Sometimes you just have to throw out the budget

Look, budgeting is all well and good, and yes you save money and feel good about your life choices. But sometimes you just have to put the budget in the bin for the week. You aren’t going to be able to stick to it if you are having a friend or relative come to stay, or if you are having friends over for a dinner party, or if you’re having a bad week and all you want is to make a massive lamb roast with heaps of potatoes and gravy.

I learned pretty quickly that being too strict with the budget wouldn’t win me any awards, and there wasn’t much point in feeling guilty if I went over budget. But it’s great to have a guideline there; a number that you know is feasible on your income and that will allow you to buy and cook lots of delicious meals.

My biggest tip? Step away from the brie.


Adieu, sweet prince.

 Chloe Papas is a journalist and writer based in Victoria. You can find her on Twitter here.