University of Idaho Extension

Stretching Your Food Dollars

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Planning a Food Budget

Why Plan?

Watch for sales on bulk items; if you can use the item before it gets old and have space to store it, these sales are a good time to stock up.

Planning is key to saving money on groceries:

Preparing a budget + planning menus + shopping wisely = nutritious, low-cost meals

Not only does planning ahead save time, but it's the most important step in stretching your food dollar. It involves making a menu, writing a grocery list based on that menu, and sticking to the list while you shop.

Assess What You Need

  • Step 1. Keep track of all the money you spend in one week on food. Write everything down. Multiply the total by four. This will tell you approximately what it costs to feed your family monthly. For example, if you spend $75 each week, that comes to $300 a month ($75 x 4 = $300). If your income is very limited and you receive $154 in Food Stamps, you would need to add $146 to buy your monthly groceries ($300 - $154 = $146).
  • Step 2. List the staples you need each month. Staples are foods that help you avoid a bare cupboard and aren't going to go bad. For a list of basic foods for your cupboard, fridge, and freezer, see Take an inventory and see which ones you have on hand.
  • Step 3. If you subscribe to a newspaper or pick one up for free, check the ads. As you look through them, put any foods that you're already—or almost—out of onto your shopping list. Newspaper ads will give you ideas of what to cook. As you read them, jot down ideas for future menu plans. Watch for sales on bulk items; if you can use the item before it gets old and have space to store it, these sales are a good time to stock up.

Note: Clip coupons wisely—only for items that you use regularly, such as family favorites. Be aware that you can sometimes buy store-brand items for less than you can buy brand-name items for which you have coupons.

Planning Menus

Get Good Eatin' Ideas

You can get great ideas for thrifty meals by sharing or trading recipes with friends or family, referring to cookbooks or newspaper/magazine articles, or visiting such menu-planning Websites as or or such recipe Websites as

Ready, Set, Plan

  • Step 1. Schedule a time to plan menus.
  • Step 2. Classify menus into Beef, Chicken, Seafood, Vegetarian, Freezer Meal, Slow Cooker Meal, Mexican/Chinese/Italian, Breakfast for Dinner, Sandwich Night, Soup, Salad Bar, Leftover Night, or other categories.
  • Step 3. Review guidelines for planning healthy meals at  and Building Healthy Families.
  • Step 4. Use our meal-planning form. For each day of the week, fill in the main dish/meat first, then the starch/bread, fruit, vegetable, and beverage. Preparing a main dish of soup or salad once a week is a great way to use leftovers. For times when your family is particularly busy with activities and appointments, plan quick meals like Mexican pizza, spaghetti, pasta salad, French toast with fruit, or a make-ahead casserole.
  • Step 5. Evaluate the menu you have planned:
    • __Have you included three or more food groups from in each meal?
    • __Does each meal include a variety of shapes, colors, textures, and temperatures?
    • __Could you save time by cooking some items once but serving them twice—or even preparing two entire meals at once?
    • __Who among your household members can help you fix this meal?
  • Step 6. Save your menus and reuse them as you desire.

Shopping Essentials

Make Your Shopping List

  • Make a shopping list.Step 1. Once you've planned your menus, it's time to make your shopping list. Keep a notepad on your refrigerator or other handy location so you can write down an item when you run out of it—before you forget.
  • Step 2. List all the foods and amounts you need to prepare the meals from your menu.
  • Step 3. Cross out items you already have on hand.
  • Step 4. List foods by category or store layout to speed up shopping times.

Tips for Shopping Day

  • Eat before shopping for food. This will help you avoid buying impulse items when you're hungry.
  • Shop alone, if possible. It will save time and also help curb impulse purchases.
  • Learn the layout of the store so you can find foods quickly.
  • Check a product's Nutrition Facts Label to get the best nutrition for your food dollars. Read How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label  to learn how these labels can help you make wise, healthy choices.
  • If stores display unit pricing, use it to save money. Unit pricing tells you how much food costs per ounce or pound. Unit price stickers are displayed on the shelf below the food item.Check the nutrition labels
  • If you can't find a friend to babysit and must shop with children, try to take only one child at a time. Go only when children are rested and fed. Keep toddlers in the cart and use safety straps. Bring a toy or a book.
  • Teach children to be good shoppers. They're more likely to eat foods they help choose. Give young children a choice of two acceptable items, such as red grapes or green grapes. Teach older children to compare nutrition and prices of products.
  • Be aware of how stores tempt you to spend more money. Be wary of the "sales" at the ends of aisles [Hint: the items may not really be priced down] and resist checkout-aisle magazines and trinkets.
  • Watch for scanning errors, coupon deductions, and correct change.

Getting Help

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides various food and nutrition assistance programs that can help you make ends meet. You may qualify for some or all of these programs:

Developed by:

Rhea Lanting
University of Idaho Extension Educator-Twin Falls County
246 3rd Avenue East
Twin Falls, ID 83301
(208) 734-9590

2014 Update by:

Nancy M. Porter, Ph.D.
Extension Personal and Family Finance Consultant
University of Idaho
(864) 650-8289

Other credits:

Educational Communications,
University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences:
Editing: Marlene Fritz, Communications Specialist, Boise
Web Design: Jacob Peterson, Web Designer, Moscow

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