Money & Career

How A Single Mom Manages To Spend Just $600 A Month On Groceries

Marissa is frugal, but she doesn’t shop with a budget. Here’s how she can save on groceries.

grocery budget-feature image of full receipt.

Name: Marissa Abrams*
Age: 40(ish)
Location: Toronto
Occupation: Teacher
Feeding: Herself and two young daughters
Take home monthly income: $6,380
Monthly grocery spending: $575 (approx.)
Grocery budget: none
Percentage of take-home pay spent on groceries: 11%

Marissa doesn’t try to stay within any sort of spending limit when shopping for herself and her two girls, aged seven and 10. Rather, she “has never been into budgeting. I always felt that if we need something, then we need it.” she says. “I don’t think constantly about how I’m spending my money on a daily basis.”

Luckily, Marissa is naturally frugal and doesn’t carry any credit card debt. Besides, she’s already noticed a significant decrease in the amount she spends per month since her and her husband, Teri, split two years ago.

Teri was a diabetic and a bit of a foodie, so their grocery bill previously included a ton of meat and more gourmet items. Things have since changed.

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“Just having me and my two daughters, I’m not eating a steak once a week, or spending $30 on prosciutto, or going to the deli and buying cheese,” Marissa says. “I don’t have anyone to share that with so that’s not something I think of much.”

Instead, she now tends to prepare simple, low-prep meals that also happen to be wallet-friendly, like mac and cheese, tacos, and rice and chicken. Starches, one of the cheapest food items available, make up much of her meals when she’s solo. “I get so tired cooking for my family so when it’s just me, I eat popcorn,” she says.

All this adds up to why her monthly grocery shop only totals around $575 for the three of them. At around 10 percent of her take-home income, that’s well within the levels experts recommend. This time around, Marissa spent $160 at No Frills, getting $20 off with her PC Points, paying a total of $140.

Still, by paying just a bit more attention, she can easily shave at least a hundred dollars off that bill.

Here’s how:

grocery budget- PC optimum points

Rethink her PC Optimum strategy

Marissa is addicted to seeing points rack up on her PC Points program. The psychology behind loyalty cards is too deep to go into here, but it’s clear the reason so many businesses now have them is because they work — shoppers spend more money than they would otherwise.

Look at Marissa, who purposefully shops at Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Mart in order to maximize points, even though those are some of the most expensive stores around for groceries. If she really wants to save money, she can easily save 30 percent off her bill simply by choosing a discount grocery chain. She happened to do that this week, at No Frills, but she admits that’s an anomaly because it’s out of her way on her drive home from work. It’d be best to make that a habit. No Frills, in fact, is the best of both worlds: she’ll get the points she craves and the lower prices she needs.

She may have saved $20 on this grocery bill through PC Optimum points, but shopping smarter and buying bargains would likely save her much more in the long run.

grocery budget-baked goods

Bake more at home

Starches have the potential to be some of the cheapest food stuffs available, but not the type that Marissa bought. The cheapest starches are those that come from the ground, like rice. Then we have the minimally processed kind, like pasta.

Then we have the kind that Marissa spent a total of $20 on, which have been researched in a lab, and assembled, sweetened and preserved with various corn derivatives. For the cereal bars, English muffins and tortillas she bought, she’s not only paying for the product, farmer, and transportation, but also the effort that went into creating it, and figuring out how to sell it to you. All that marketing just so that Marissa would pick it up off the shelf and choose to feed it to her family costs money.

Using some of the flour she bought, she can easily make these baked goods at home, and the end product will be far healthier, too.

grocery budget-produce

Pay attention to unit price

Marissa admits she doesn’t care much about unit price. “If I want a chicken breast, I want a chicken breast,” she says. But she’s convinced once she hears the actual price disparity that exists. A chicken breast is almost two and a half times more expensive by weight than a whole chicken, at $15/kg versus $6.15/kg, respectively.

Although she purchases little meat, she does buy $25 of some of the most expensive produce available. Spending over $8.75/kg for peppers and $7.65/kg for apples is just unnecessary when there are so many healthy and flavourful fruits and vegetables for a quarter of the price. To get more bang for her buck she should look at carrots, ($2.15/kg), cabbage ($1.5/kg) organic bananas ($1.92/kg), tangerines ($2.80/kg), long eggplants ($2.80/kg) and melons ($2.80/kg).

grocery budget-maple syrup

Skip ‘multi-buy’ offers and wait for a real sale

Marissa has a habit of buying things in pairs. On this bill, for example, she spends almost $20 on maple syrup and $10 on guacamole (luxury items by any measure, that, if eliminated, would save 19 percent on the grand total).

“I love buying the two-for-$5 fish crackers for the girls’ lunches at Loblaws,” she says. “Whether that’s a better deal or not, I sort of know my prices, but I just feel like it’s a better deal.”

This is exactly what the marketing masterminds at Loblaws HQ want shoppers to think. When an item has a yellow sign in front of it that says “buy two for $4, or one for $2.29”, it seems like a no-brainer. Why buy one, when you’ll probably need two anyway, and then also save a bit?

But it’s just pushing you into potentially buying more than you need, and spending more than you would otherwise. If you truly need two of the item, and you need it today, then okay, fine. But it’s far better to wait and watch the flyers until the item goes on an actual sale, and then stock up.

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Bottom Line

Ultimately, Marissa prioritizes convenience above all else. But whittling down a bill doesn’t require a huge investment in time. Knowing which foods costs more and why is the first, essential step. Often just knowing that a product is three times more expensive simply because the butcher peeled the skin off is enough incentive to do it yourself. An additional way she could save with barely any effort is by driving an extra five minutes to a discount-grocery chain for ingredients and spending Sunday afternoon baking with her girls, a hobby she already enjoys. By paying a bit more attention, and changing a few habits, we’re confident Marissa can hang on to more of her hard-earned funds.

*names have been changed

grocery budget-full grocery bill

This post is part of Spend It Better, a personal finance collaboration between Chatelaine and MoneySense about how to get the most for your money. You can find out more right here.

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