Grocery Shopping in 2023: Vigilance & Discipline

(photo credit: Maria Lin Kim/unsplash)

I nearly went into shock at the end of last year when Brett told me our grocery spending had been nearly $1000 a month since arriving in Tennessee. I knew some of that was because of our family gathering at Christmas, but I had no idea I had been spending as much as I did. The fault was entirely mine – I went sort of crazy buying all the things we couldn’t find or afford on Kaua’i and I was not keeping track of my spending. If I wanted something, I bought it, and pretty much just went crazy every time I went into a store. I was so wowed by how low prices were here compared to Hawaii that I never stopped to consider how much I was actually spending.

After recovering from the shock of Brett’s announcement, I resolved that we would spend less on food this year. I knew we could keep our monthly food spending here at $500 a month and initially set that as our goal for 2023. However, I decided I wanted a bit more of a challenge and see if it would be possible to keep our grocery spending to $450 or less.

So far this year we’ve managed to stay under $450 but it has required constant vigilance and discipline. Tough choices have had to be made each month, and the value of what we’d like to buy and eat have been weighed carefully with costs. My shopping routine has changed as well with new rules and no exceptions allowed. I basically went back to the way we shopped when we were traveling full time and it’s working for us once again.

Food shopping at the Tennessee Homestead these days means:

  • We only shop twice a month and otherwise do not enter a food store. I work at Trader Joe’s twice a week but don’t carry cash or a debit card when I work so I’m not tempted to shop (but I do get lots of good ideas for meals!).
  • We only shop with cash, and when it’s gone, that’s it. The change, $1 bills, and $5 bills leftover after food shopping each month are a strong, measurable reinforcement for us.
The menu and shopping list on my phone go through several revisions before I actually shop.
  • I start a menu plan for two weeks worth of meals (on my phone) a couple of weeks before the next shopping trip and create a shopping list from that menu. Before making the menu I go through the freezer and pantry and see what can be or needs to be used and start there. I check the menu and shopping list almost daily, adapting them as necessary to make sure we’ll get the most for our money and stay on track with our budget. The shopping list is divided into four main stores: Costco, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, and Publix. I don’t shop from their flyers but buy what I need to make what’s on the menu. It’s surprising how often what I need is on special anyway.
  • While shopping at Costco made loads of sense on Kaua’i, it doesn’t here, so we only go there now for a few items that we like and are a good value. Our self-imposed rule is no more than six items allowed per trip to Costco (because six items can quickly total $80 or more if I’m not careful).
  • Absolutely NO stocking up is allowed on any item, no matter how good the price. We don’t have room in our apartment to store extra goods, and Brett and I just don’t need to keep ten extra cans of tomato sauce on hand or three roasts in the freezer.
  • My 20% discount at Trader Joe’s is a game-changer, and we’re just starting to figure out how much difference the discount is going to make. I used to buy most of our food at Aldi, but have flipped that with Trader Joe’s, for the time being anyway.
  • We try very hard not to waste any food, or at least as little as possible.

For all this effort at saving, we eat well and although it may appear complicated, this system is really quite simple. We end up with a lot of variety in our meals, eat plenty of produce every day, enjoy both vegetarian meals as well as those with meat, and we have (healthy) prepared foods now and again. Neither Brett nor I eat large servings and that also helps our bottom line; there are almost always leftovers available. I make our own bread now, about once a week, although we are not big bread eaters. We can still fit a couple of “take and bake” items from Whole Foods into our budget most months. We continue to enjoy a small dessert every evening whether that’s a piece of cake, some ice cream, or another sweet treat.

Do I like shopping this way? At first, I hated it. As time has gone by though I am enjoying the challenge and look forward to menu planning and shopping strictly from my list. It’s making a difference to our bottom line.

All that change and those $1 and $5 bills we’re getting back and saving? We’ve got enough airline miles for two roundtrip flights to Mexico and our savings will help cover a vacation there next year!


22 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in 2023: Vigilance & Discipline

  1. Excellent advice, thank you! I especially needed the nudge to stop stocking up, since I also live in a small apartment and simply don’t have the room.


    1. If we had the space, stocking up would make sense, but for just the two of us in this tiny apartment, it doesn’t. It means I have to plan a little more, but unless or until we get a larger space I can manage.


  2. Wow – that’s a huge amount of spending for two! Although, to your point, when you are entertaining, things add up quickly. We are spending about $800/month, but that includes bulk purchasing, bulk cooking, etc. We have space, so Costco is still the best option for us, given how many people we are feeding. This week, we bought: milk, broccoli, bananas, cauliflowers, cucumbers, 2 baguettes, boneless chicken breasts, apples & breaded chicken for ~$71, with the chicken being the big expense. The cost of produce has dropped slightly here, which is a relief.

    We fill in gaps with trips to the produce stand, and store.


    1. I cannot tell you how shocked I was with that number! Of course, we always spend more when we set up housekeeping and have to buy staples, so that was part of the problem. Also the stocking up, which is something we had to do on Kaua’i. Anyway, a lot of things came together and I ended up spending w-a-y too much for a few months.

      Costco shopping made so much sense for us when the girls were all at home, especially when they were teens, and especially on Kaua’i. But now it seems almost everything is too big or too much for the two of us. We still buy our coffee there, blueberries, oat milk, and vitamins and other OTC medication, but that’s pretty much it.

      I know there are farmers markets around here so that’s something we have to learn more about this year.


  3. Wow, the fact that you have been able to shop for two for under $450 a month is amazing and inspiring. It makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong or if the food prices where I live are just much higher than yours. If you ever feel like publishing your shopping list with the prices that you are actually paying for things, I would love to read it.


    1. Food prices here are low, or at least way lower than what we were accustomed to before. That’s a good idea for a post, our bi-weekly shopping and what we paid. I’ll try to pull it together one of these days later this month or next!


  4. I always say I am going to work at Lowes or Trader Joes when I step off my career. TJs discount FTW! Nice perk. Great tips for keeping in budget. Don’t buy frozen pizza. I feel that is the most inflated in the grocery store. And chips too.


    1. The Trader Joe’s discount is fantastic. On our last trip we save just over $30, which is significant. Sadly, we don’t get a discount on wine.

      The only frozen pizza we buy are the Bambinos from Trader Joe’s. They’re great to have on hand for evenings when I’m too tired to cook (like last night), or when the kids are staying over and we feed them dinner. Otherwise, I am NOT a fan of frozen pizza! I don’t buy chips either, although the pickle chips at TJ’s tempt me.


  5. I’m so envious of your food costs in Tennessee. As you know food is so expensive in Hawaii. We are spending about $1400 a month on groceries here in Honolulu and that’s for 2 of us. We don’t eat much meat, are vigilant about food wastage and don’t but items to stockpile as we don’t have room in our apartment. Costs here have gotten insane the past 3 months to the point we rarely dine out, even 2 coffees will come to $12+


    1. When we first arrived here, whenever the total rang up at a store, I would look around to see if I’d won some sort of contest because it was so low compared to what we’d been paying in Hawaii. The expense of living in Hawaii was the primary reason we decided to leave. We could afford it, but it prices kept going up to where we eventually felt stretched to the limit. We were also completely priced out of the housing market, both purchasing and in some cases rentals (especially on Kaua’i). Stockpiling was a necessity there, and we were fortunate to have an (affordable) apartment with lots of storage room, so much more than we have now. Even then storage was problematic. I will always love Hawaii, and we talk about going back, but there are so many tradeoffs to consider.

      In August, Tennesse doesn’t collect sales tax on food, so we will probably do a bit of stocking up then. Hopefully we will be in a larger apartment then and have a big more room to store it!


  6. Interesting way of shopping. We have space and I find it works for us to stock up so that I never have to buy an item full price. We don’t eat a lot of meat, so a quarterly visit to a meat processing plant/market is all we need. We do have a small freezer other than the fridge freezer and I’ve become pretty resourceful in finding storage for non-perishable items. But whatever works, eh?
    One question, which I think I know the answer to….does your food budget include cleaning supplies, paper products, and other non-food items? And does your eating out come from this budget as well? Ok, that was two questions!


    1. I always use to stock up, but we had storage room, a small freezer, and three hungry teenage girls, so it made sense. These days, not so much because of the lack of space, but I also cook a lot less than I did then as well. If a larger apartment gives us more space, I may stock up a few things again.

      I do include paper and cleaning products in our grocery budget, but we buy most things at Costco, and with just the two of us most things like laundry detergent or paper towels last for seven to eight months! I think the box of fabric softener I bought back when we arrived will last until we leave. We stocked up on toiletries, tissues, and toilet paper before the end of last year, but when I need to buy again I’ll get those at Trader Joe’s using my discount.

      We rarely if ever go out to eat, but other than the Day of No Cooking, it does come out of this budget.


  7. Laura, we are similar in our budget amount for groceries for two people – I budget $125 a week, but am always under. I think we are also similar in how and where we shop. For the most part, I hit Aldi about every two weeks for deli cheese and meat, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, coconut milk, crackers, canned beans and tomatoes, salsa, peanut butter, apples, mini oranges and vegetables. I do not find there products as high quality as Trader Joe’s, but for the above it doesn’t really matter to us. From Trader Joe’s I routinely purchase ground coffee, eggs, salad dressings, deli ravioli, EV Olive Oil, frozen berries and burritos, and sparkling water, plus all our snacking cheeses.

    I tolerate Aldi, looooove Trader Joe’s!

    I buy only a few things from our surrounding supermarkets: Sandwich bread, and whatever proteins are on sale – chicken, ground turkey, pork, shrimp, and salmon – and flash freeze separately, before placing into ziplock bags for easy usage as needed. And I do grow my own fresh herbs.

    I generally spend closer to $100, leaving a nice amount that can be spent on splurge items like Farmers Market produce, fresh bakery bread, aged balsamic vinegar, special pestos, and the like, as the mood and opportunity strike.

    Very few prepared foods as I’m a more than decent cook, plus it ensures leftovers!

    It takes a little effort to get started with a routine of shopping just a little ahead, (we keep one backup of the items I consider essential) but once you get going, it is pretty simple.


    1. I love both Aldi and Trader Joe’s, but love Trader Joe’s more. I buy most of our meat at Aldi – I’ve found it to be good quality and a better price, even with the TJ discount.

      We are moving to more prepared foods, especially because of working – I definitely do not feel like cooking after a day at Trader Joe’s (!), but thankfully TJs offers some really good options in their prepared foods. But, I still cook a few days a week so mostly buy things I can use to create meals for the two of us.

      I agree that getting started with this routine was hard, but now it’s much easier. The hardest part is avoiding temptation, especially at TJ’s. I set $10 or so aside these days to cover those contingencies (some was used yesterday afternoon to buy a bottle of peach Bellini – it’s a limited buy at TJs and I wanted to try it before it ran out).


  8. Like you, the grocery budget is ~$400CAD/mo for the past 3 years. That’s for one person. It does include non-food items but they are a minimum. I do stock up b/c I have the storage space including a chest freezer & it’s a 20-30min drive to the nearest town. This includes entertaining & give-aways (baking is my currency). Limiting shopping trips has been helpful to my budget as well. I try to avoid looking at sale flyers to avoid the extras that usually end up in the grocery cart.


    1. Like you, I would probably be spending a similar amount if it was just me, maybe a little less because I’d buy more prepared items for just me.

      Limiting our trips to the store made a huge difference in our spending. Being at Trader Joe’s means I’m in the store more, but mostly I make a note of things I want to buy or try and add them to my list. And, I don’t carry my debit card or cash when I work – too many items are too tempting!

      I only look at sales flyers but don’t use them to make my shopping list.


  9. I’m impressed by your grocery budget. We struggle to keep it in the $500 range, and I’m sure we could do better. Like you, we really watch what we buy at Costco and have honed in on what we can use in a timely manner. But we do have storage for paper products and canned goods. Their blueberries are the best and I often stop by just for them if I’m going by or buying gas. 😊


    1. Like the title says, it takes constant vigilance and a whole lot of discipline to stick to our budget. I go over my list almost every day to tweak it, and take things off that we really don’t need. It’s a constant effort, but we are enjoying the payoff. I’m grateful for my job at TJ’s, not only for the discount, but for the opportunity to check out and try so many of their great products.

      We stocked up on some paper items at the end of last year, but mostly buy those at Costco – a package of their paper towels will last us for seven to eight months. Same for laundry detergent, and we get four months from a big container of dishwashing detergent pods – I can’t find that value anywhere else. Going forward I’m going to start buying our toilet paper and tissues at TJs using the discount.

      I too love Costco blueberries – I have a bowl of cereal for breakfast every other day, always topped with Costco blueberries!


  10. I always love hearing about other people’s approach to food. I would enjoy working at a grocery store to see what everyone buys. What are some of the most common items that people buy? I think a post on unexpected items that are popular with customers would be a fun read.


    1. I don’t think I could pick out the most popular item – I see EVERYTHING go through when I’m on the register. Mandarin orange chicken is very, very popular and sells out quickly. I think if I had to pick one popular item that surprised me it would be frozen rice. Apparently besides being convenient it’s delicious.


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