Your grocery bill is probably the only major expense in your budget that you have any real control over. The house payment is fixed, as are the car payment and any other debts you have. Insurance is generally fixed too, and while utilities have some flexibility, they tend to move within a very tight range. That’s why having a grocery budget is so important.

People have different attitudes toward grocery shopping, and that can make all the difference in how much you spend.

The Casual food shopper

The casual food shopper is someone who buys what ever they want and frets over the bill later—often not until the end of the month when there’s not enough money to pay for other expenses.

Most of us have a pretty good idea as to what we need and want, and it can be pretty stress-free to just sail up and down the aisles, pick out what ever you need and toss it in the shopping cart. Its grocery shopping with a minimum of effort—no need to prepare a list, no clipping and organizing of coupons, no preset limit on spending. Life has plenty of stresses all around, why create more when you go shopping?

As good as this method of shopping might feel, it’s also one of the best ways to spend more money than you need to.

The Budget food shopper

The budget food shopper enters a grocery store not only with a sense of purpose but also with a plan. There’s an absolute limit on how much will be spent, and a good amount of advance preparation.

This method of shopping is definitely more complicated, but it’s also an excellent way to save money on one of the biggest expenses in the typical household. If you normally spend $800 per month on food shopping, working with a budget can cut a hundred, or two hundred or even more from that cost. If you can cut $250 out of your monthly food budget, that’s $3,000 per year, and that looks like real money.

The budget shopper’s tools

If you shop with a budget, you never go into the grocery store unprepared. At a minimum, you have at least these four at the ready:

Shopping list. You never go shopping without a list, because not only does it remind you of what you need, but just as important, it tells you what you don’t need. When you prepare a list you should do a quick inventory of what you have at home, that way when you go to the grocery store you never have to guess about what it is you need—you know. That prevents the tendency to buy items you only think you need because you didn’t look before you left the house.

Calculator. This enables you to keep a running total of what it is you’ve put into your shopping cart. It’s important because food prices aren’t always stable. Prices on milk, eggs, meat and many other items can swing quite substantially from one shopping trip to the next. A quick tally with a calculator before going to check out will give you an advance idea what you’ll pay, and an opportunity to make adjustments if you’re going over budget.

Coupons. Couponing isn’t a one time event; since coupons vary in expiration dates you need to be seriously organized to take full advantage of them, and that has to be done before you get to the grocery store. You need to have an inventory of coupons for items you know you’ll be buying, if not this week then in the near future. They also need to be organized by product and expiration date that way you’ll be able to use them when needed. A well organized stash of coupons alone can save 10% or more on your typical grocery bill, and you should never enter a grocery store without them.

Resolve. Budgets always look good on paper, so you have to be fixed in your mind that you’ll stick by it when you get to the store. It takes some discipline to avoid buying budget-busting impulse items, or stocking up on items you really don’t need just because they’re on sale and the price is too good to pass up.

The buck stops here—at some predetermined number

Everything else about grocery shopping can go up in smoke if you don’t have a grocery budget target. If you walk into the store deciding that you’re going to limit your purchases to $200 then that number has to have final control over everything else you do. If you can’t limit your purchases then you can easily undo everything else you do to save money.

If you set a grocery budget and resolve to stay within it, you could put back enough items before check-out that you’ll be able to stay in budget. And it’s a funny thing about items that you don’t buy—when you don’t have them, you learn to live without them.

Set a budget, stay within it, and you have an excellent chance to control the biggest expense you have any real control over.

What strategies do you use to control your grocery budget?