My Secret Weapon In the Fight Against Grocery Overspending


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“Ha, I did it again!” I exclaimed to myself.

My total was illuminated on the screen of the grocery store checkout register: $110.57.  It was the third week in a row that I was within just a few dollars of my estimate, and right on budget for the week’s groceries.  I had certainly done all of the pre-shopping steps to ensure success at the grocery store. I meal planned for the week, made a list of the items I was going to buy, and yes I had even estimated the prices of all the items.


Unfortunately, I’ve followed these exact steps before, and ended up with a total well over budget.

I can do all the grocery shopping prep in the world, but when I’m walking through the isles of the grocery store, just as in life, the unexpected usually happens. I find something not on the list that’s on sale, or see something that suddenly sounds very good that just has to go into the cart. I also discover items that are the list are currently out of stock, causing me to throw out a whole meal, and add something else in on the fly. I do the math in my head and think I even things out, or that the one or two (or ten) items that were added to the cart won’t add up to much, only to end up $25 over budget.  That may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of life, but when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, $25 may be the difference between having enough gas in your car to get to work and back all week, or not.

What am I now doing differently that makes me so confident I’m right on budget?  I’ve been using a weapon that we likely all have in our homes. If you have a cell phone you certainly have one of these.

I’m talking about a calculator.

As I go through the grocery store I keep a running total of everything that goes into the cart. I went into the grocery store with a budget of $110 for groceries for the week, and a list that added up to roughly $108. As is not uncommon, I had to make some adjustments. They were out of vanilla coffee creamer and Sunny Delight so cross those things off the list. Soda was no longer on sale, so that will be extra. Oooh, pork chops are on sale. Yum, let’s switch up the meal plan a little bit.

When you play a life sized game of Tetris with the grocery budget you can see how you might end up with a surprise when you roll into the checkout lane.

When I was done filling the cart with the revised list of items, and even some extras (chips and salsa, this is me giving you the stink eye), the calculator showed a total of just over $128. I looked through the contents of the cart scanning for unnecessary items. After putting a few items back, I was at $108 and change. Add in tax for some non-food items and we were right on budget.

I’m certainly not the first person to use a calculator to add up my purchases while shopping. But how many people actually do it? I thought about that as I was roaming through the store with my list sitting on top of my bananas, and my calculator resting on the top of a container of strawberries. I stopped for just a minute in a major isle of the grocery store and looked around. You know how many people I saw with a calculator handy?


I wonder how many of them will have a surprise waiting for them in the checkout lane.

Author’s Note:  Thanks for reading my post today here on Enemy of Debt!  I have a special bonus post for you today over at The Budget School.  I did an interview with them in which I gave them an inside look at my struggles with debt.  I also describe how a new outlook changed the way I approached my personal finances as I began to budget to improve the quality of lives of my entire family. 


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34 Responses to “My Secret Weapon In the Fight Against Grocery Overspending”

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  1. JMK says:

    I can see that if a bag of apples is on sale for $2 you can predict how much you will spend. But if apples are on sale for $1/lb do you stand at the scales for several minutes adding and removing apples of different sizes to get exactly two pounds so it matches what you planned to spend? This week I planned to get pork chops on sale. As a family of 4, I picked a package of 8 to get enough for two meals. I also picked a package that had chops of various sizes (the 11 daughter will not need one the same size as the 18yr old son…) Beyond that I don’t worry if the price was exactly a certain amount. As it turns out it was a few cents over $4 for the package I chose. When I freeze them I’ll mark 50 cents each on the bag. I try to have a dinner for 4 come in somewhere between $5-7. With only $2 for 4 chops I can either add a costly veg (asparagus), or just do the usual and come in way under budget for that meal, which balances out for a night when we had a more expensive meal.

    I budget the same amount for groceries every week and some weeks I do go over budget and others I have enough in the house that I only need to pick up dairy and fresh produce. Separate from my budget/spending plan I also keep a list of just my grocery spending and a running weekly average all year. It’s my way of confirming that my estimated weekly amount is still a valid assumption. For 2012, I planned on $180/wk and came in at $179.43. When meal planning, if I know there is a sale on cheese for example, and I’ll be stocking up (~$30), I purposely plan a few meatless or other inexpensive meals for the week to compensate for the cost. It always seems to work out to the budgetted amount – perhaps I have some sort of mental calculator? 😉

    • Travis says:

      What I normally do, JMK, is put “fruit” on my list, and I don’t decide what to get until I get to the store and see what produce looks the best (you never know until you get there and see it). If I do buy something by the pound, I just find something that gets close to the # of pounds that get to approx the price I want. I always go “under” though just to be sure.

      It certainly sounds like you do have a mental calculator..coming in at $179.43 for the year with a budget of $180? That’s amazing!

  2. We don’t take a calculator, only because I keep track in my head. I know, I am just a BIT of a nerd, but I am usually within a dollar of what the final bill actually is. Doing either that or taking a calculator is a great way to keep track and staying within your grocery budget. You can do all the planning in the world, but if you’re not implementing it buy watching your spending then it’s all for naught.

  3. Glad to know I’m not the only nerd walking around with a calc. I’ve never seen anyone else walking around with a calculator besides myself. It is a lot embarrassing than having to put something back at the checkout stand when you go over budget.

    • Travis says:

      That’s a great point, Brent – given the choice between going over budget and putting something back, I wonder how many people would just choose to go over budget???

  4. Gina Helton says:

    Glad to know I am not the only person that uses a calculator to keep a running total while grocery shopping! I use the calculator on my phone though, just because it is more convenient than carrying an additional item. A lot of people just probably think I am texting in the aisle or something 🙂 Using a calculator has definitely helped me stay under budget.

    • Travis says:

      I did try to use my phone…..but when my wife inevitably called I hit the wrong button and lost my calculation. So, from then on I take my $3 calculator from Office Depot. 🙂

  5. Caesar F says:

    You ever tried checking out the coupons? I didn’t knew for you $25 makes that big of a difference.

    • Travis says:

      Great question, Caesar – I do use coupons, and they are accounted for when I do my price estimate. The point of this article is not how to get the most for your money grocery shopping (as that is a separate subject matter). The subject matter here is how to ensure you don’t end up going over budget by knowing ahead of time how much your bill will be to within a dollar or two.

      $25 per week can make a huge difference for some families – if you consistently overspend by $25 a week, that adds up to $100 a month!

      thanks for reading, and for your comment – great discussion!

  6. Petunia 100 says:

    I keep track in my head, but I round everything up to the nearest dollar. Easy peasy. 🙂

    • Travis says:

      I’m glad it works for you, Petunia100, my scattered brain can’t help but start thinking about other things between items, and then I lose what my total was. 🙂 Nice to hear from you again, it’s been awhile – hope you are well!

  7. Cassi says:

    I always keep track in my head when I’m on a budget. I really like to know exactly how much I have left to spend when I am shopping.

    • Travis says:

      Whether it’s in your head, or on a calculator, it definitely does help to make sure you don’t go over budget. You’ve got good financial sense, Cassi – I wish I could have been more like that when I was your age. 🙂

  8. Paije says:

    Good to hear this strategy again. Back in the day, when we were young and poor, we used the calculator method of grocery shopping. And it worked. Fast forward 26 years, with a one income family of four, it’s time to bring out the calculator again! Inevitably, I cringe (most) every time when seeing the final tally at the cash register. We have to tighten up our belts and this would help tremendously!

  9. Leslie says:

    I used to close my eyes while the total was being rung up at the cash register or tell the cashier not to tell me what the damage was. Now I do the meal plan and never shop when I’m hungry…I also never bring my husband LOL. My budget is set for what we require in my house and I rarely go over more than 5% which is okay (I have it in my reserves). I don’t use a calculator typically, but I do price check a lot!

    • Travis says:

      Your comment that you “never bring my husband” made me laugh, Leslie. I used to have a similar situation with my wife. She is much more apt to stray from the list and make impulse purchases. However if we go to the store both knowing the budgeted amount, and use the calculator, the end result is usually pretty good. 🙂

  10. Kevin Watts says:

    Grocery shopping is something that I don’t budget for. I eat buy what’s necessary and don’t look at the cost. I follow the paleo diet which has vastly improved the quality of life. I don’t eat out and if I don’t spend more than $10. That said I do spend around the same amount of money each week on groceries.

    • Travis says:

      I have some friends that are doing the paleo diet as well, and they’re really happy about it. As long as your system works for you Kevin, more power to you. However, for my family, the question of what is necessary varies a lot from person to person in our family – thus we need to have some guideline in place to keep us from spending too much. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. Anna says:

    I read your post, but I am not seeing coupons. Coupons are a form of payment in the grocery store and when done right, you can easily get your grocery bill down to $50 a week for a family of 4 and be well stocked. I know because my husband and I started looking for a place to pull extra money to pay down the credit card bills and I was able to free up $400 a month using coupons. It just takes determination which by the article on yahoo I read, I see you have!

    • Travis says:

      It’s true that coupons are not mentioned….but I’m working on that too! I’m a coupon newbie, and getting incrementally better at finding and using them. I’m hoping eventually I can reduce my grocery bill by 20% by using them – but I’m not there yet – but with some of that determination I know I’ll get there! I’m glad to meet you Anna, I’m happy you popped over here from the article on my wife and I at yahoo!

  12. Jeanne says:

    Have you tried the supermarkets that have a scanner that you carry with you and scan items as you put them in the cart? I bet this would be a great way to make sure you stay on budget, while also getting you through the checkout line fast. The Giant supermarkets near us in the DC area have this feature.

    • Travis says:

      That would be AWESOME, Jeanne….unfortunately none of the grocery stores in my city use that technology – if it were available I surely would use it though!

  13. Lisa says:

    Just found this website and love it, so be ready for me and my comments. This post just brings up a strong memory for me of my Mom having a “clicker” sort of gadget. (back in the 70’s) where you clicked it to add up dollars and cents. It was not a calculator but just added. I was always amazed at how much groceries cost .
    I suppose that gave me the first glimpse into what later would lead me to a bookkeeping and tax preparing career.

    • Travis says:

      LOL, Lisa – welcome! I’m glad you like EOD and I sure am ready for your comments….hope to hear from you often! I agree – it’s amazing how much groceries add up to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled into the checkout lane with a fairly empty card and have the total ring up to triple digits!

  14. charliecheerio says:

    I do use a calculator, but I also use my store’s weekly circulars (which are available online for just about every store) to decide what to buy. I know that many people plan their families’ weekly meals around what’s on sale. (And if you use coupons when an item is on sale, you can really score a good deal.)

    I also try to stick to a list. I saw years ago (on Oprah, maybe?) that one way to curb impulse buying is to make a list, and leave 3 empty spaces at the bottom for things you weren’t planning to buy. This gives you a little wiggle room.

    • Travis says:

      LOVE the idea of leaving 3 empty spaces at the bottom for things I wasn’t planning to buy, charliecheerio! I think I’d also have to put a placeholder amount next to them too though – so that some amount of “wiggle room” was also available in the budgeted amount. Thanks for the great suggestion!

  15. Amber says:

    I used to be a train wreck at the grocery. I would routinely go in for one thing and walk out with $250 worth of food. Now I use cash and a calculator. Our budget is now $140 a week for 4 people. It helps a ton to have a calculator with me and I’m usually the only one walking around tallying my total. On the upside, I am now routinely putting money into our savings from our “found grocery money”. 🙂

    • Travis says:

      I know people that were similar “train wrecks,” Amber. They’d walk out with $250 worth of stuff…..and I’d see them unpacking it and couldn’t find more than 2 actual meals – it was all junk. $140 a week for family of four is very similar to my budget as well (also a family of 4). I always wonder how much other families of the same size spend on groceries and if I’m out of whack with the normal.

      We’d better be careful adding things up with our calculators though……if we’re in the same store, heads down adding up stuff we might bump carts. LOL.

  16. Jodie says:

    I use a calcular, but the biggest trip is I take my weekly budget in cash. It is all the money I have available. No debit card in my wallet, no checks. Can’t spend what you don’t have. With the price of groceries on the rise it is becoming difficult to stay within my $125.00. I do the same with my bills. Pay as much on line and the rest in cash. Working a extreme debt reduction.

    • Travis says:

      I agree Jodie – we do the same thing (most of the time…trying to be diligent about only taking cash into the grocery store). It definitely WORKS. It’s one thing to see the number on the calculator and try to get as close to the target number as possible. It’s quite another to only have X amount of dollars in your pocket and you absolutely cannot go over that number! Thanks for sharing, Jodie!

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