Get Real: Don’t Go Into Debt for Food


I recently received a reader question about my grocery budget.  I receive variations on this question on a regular basis.

How much do you spend a month on groceries?  How do you afford such expensive food?

She went on to discuss price of grass-fed meat and organic produce.

I will be the first to admit that quality, nutrient-dense food is expensive.  If you want quality, you are going to pay for it.  But there are ways to economize.  I afford high quality food three ways: I don’t spend on wants, I get the best prices I can or spend as little as possible on needs and I work hard to get the best prices on the food I buy.  The bottom line is that I sacrifice other things so I can afford better quality food. Beyond that, what I can’t afford, I don’t sweat.

I consider having the money for quality food extremely important for our health. My food budget usually varies between $200-500 a month if we don’t have a budget squeeze or temporary lay-off to deal with.  It’s that low and wide because we have a local salvage that carries organics and gluten-free foods.  The salvage is my first stop.  I get what they didn’t have available elsewhere.  Because the salvage is hit or miss, we never know what we’re going to find.  Some days it’s a jackpot.  A couple of times I bought a month’s worth of grass-fed meat and non-perishables for a knock-out price.  Other days I spend more in gas to get there than I do at the check-out register. We also garden in the summer, bringing our produce bill down considerably.  We bulk-buy our beef and the produce I can’t grow.  That is why we have so much flex in our budget.

When I switched to traditional foods, I made the decision to sacrifice on luxuries and non-necessities to afford better food.

  • I stick to my budget unless it’s a true emergency.
  • I do T-tapp as exercise.  One DVD purchase is all you ever need to have a challenging work-out for years.
  • No newspapers, magazines, gym memberships.
  • No movies or cable.  We have streaming Netflix for entertainment for $10 a month and will dump that if things get any tighter.
  • All dates are free or cheap, including one-on-one time we spend with the kids.
  • No paid entertainment except the rare occasion like the State Fair.  When we do paid entertainment, we take the budgeted amount in cash and leave the debit cards at home.
  • I don’t buy unreasonably expensive clothes, make-up or personal care.  I only purchase classic and well-constructed clothes on clearance that will last and not look dated a few years from now.
  • I work hard to keep the power bill as low as possible.  The house stays cool.  We use a programmable thermostat and heat the living area with wood.
  • We don’t waste leftovers.
  • We have one older model car and use my parent’s truck as needed.
  • I use the library instead of buying books.  When I do buy a book or DVD, I buy it used at the best price I can find.
  • We garden and keep chickens.
  • I cook from scratch, especially when my two are behaving like bottomless pits.
  • I re-use things until they wear out.  I recycle everything I can.
  • I use Pinterest for inspiration on creative crafts, new recipes, saving money and more.   Pinterest has saved me a ton on home decor, helped me learn to sew and given me awesome homemade gift ideas and tutorials.
  • I make my own household cleaners.
  • I use a shampoo bar and I make my own deodorant.
  • We use foaming soap pumps for washing hands instead of straight soap.  It cuts down on the kids wasting it.
  • When I do buy an item I need, I buy solid quality that will last at the best price I can find.  I’m not afraid to spend money on quality things that will last.
  • I don’t own a cell phone.
  • We use rechargeable batteries, silpats instead of parchment, resuable cloth ‘ziplocks’ and mason jars instead of plastic storage containers in the kitchen instead of disposable items.
  • My kids don’t have lavish parties or get a lot of money spent on gifts.
  • We make memories with family activities instead of spending unreasonable money on toys.  My kids talk a lot about our outings, but they don’t go on and on about toys as a general rule.
  • Instead of spending money to entertain our kids, we do activities that teach skills and character.  Boy scouts, 4H, debate team, and sports are good examples.
  • I knit, I sew, I make gifts.  No matter the occasion, I try to give something that is nice but handmade.  If I can’t do handmade, I go for unique and thoughtful from a local vendor.
  • I combine errands to save on gas.  Hubby does any errands that are near his office before coming home from work.
  • Hubby takes his lunch to work as often as he can.
  • I declutter and minimize constantly.  I take things to Goodwill and get a receipt so I can take the donation off of my taxes.
  • I’m not too good to accept hand-me-downs.  I’m not afraid to go into Goodwill or a consignment shop before buying something at retail.
  • When people have a need, I give freely if I can help them.  Good karma is important.
  • We do our own car maintenance.
  • We have a timer and a insulation blanket on our water heater.
  • We don’t keep up with the Joneses.  I couldn’t care less what my friends or my neighbors can afford.
  • I’m never afraid to invest in something that will save me money in the long-run.  A pressure canner, low-flow shower head, a sewing machine, programmable thermostats, reusable canning jar lids, a quality water filter, a freestanding freezer, the tools to change your own oil, power strip on your computer or TV outlet or a dehydrator are good examples.
  • We do not have any debt except our mortgage.  Dave Ramsey will teach you how to get out of debt.
  • I do a lot of thinking outside of the box.
  • I stick to my budget and pray when it seems impossible.

If you can’t find the funds for better food, especially if you have a health problem, look for non-necessities you can cut.  My list above is just a start on ideas, and your list will look different depending on your situation.  I hope it helps you find some things you could cut or re-arrange to free up more money for better food.

I have mentioned many ideas to reduce your grocery budget on the blog in the last couple of years.  Just a few of the strategies I use are:

  • Always calculate the cost of food based on price per ounce and pick the best deal.
  • Buy in bulk when you find a better price on large quantities.   Split it among multiple families, lowering everyone’s price per pound in exchange for a little work in breaking up the order.
  • Keep a price book.  I’ll post about price books next week.
  • I shop online for shelf-stable foods and always compare prices.
  • I joined Green PolkaDot Box and they should begin shipping shortly.  Their prices are better that other online sources.
  • For the items you buy at a store, only buy while on sale and buy enough to get you through until the next sale.  Keeping a price book will help you know how often they have sales.
  • Store the food correctly so it won’t go bad.
  • Know about the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen and base your money on organic produce with that.
  • Keep a list on the outside of the fridge or freezer so you don’t have stuff go bad.
  • Don’t be afraid to look in unusual places for food, such as ethnic markets or roadside stands.  The local Asian market has tapioca starch for 58% less than the health food store.
  • Find a local salvage, scratch and dent or discount grocery store.  Our local salvages carry organics.
  • Know which foods are most important to buy organic/grass-fed and which are less important.
  • Plan your meals.  When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask to barter with farmers.
  • Always be on the lookout for good recipes that fit your diet, are filling and don’t cost a lot.
  • Grow everything you can yourself.  Think outside the box- container gardening and other strategies help maximize small spaces.
  • Local farmers might not be cheaper in all cases, but their produce is likely fresher and therefore has more nutrients.
  • Can or freeze things that are in season.

If you follow the blog, you know we do the envelope method.  I budget $500 each month and any money we don’t use goes into my bulk beef purchase fund.  Once we have enough to fund the beef, any remaining money goes to savings.

Don’t go into debt for better food.  If I can’t afford it, I don’t get it.  I believe the stress from having to struggle to pay for the debt would negate the positive effects from the quality food.

You’ve heard me talk about eating white rice, tightening budgets and endless oatmeal breakfasts. Next week we’ll take a look at my price book and discuss some other things I do to squeeze the budget tight.

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I'm KerryAnn Foster. I live in the mountains of Western North Carolina with my husband, Jeff, and our two kids, a teen and a tween. I blog here at Intentionally Domestic (formerly Cooking Traditional Foods). I blog about Paleo, beauty, health, family, homeschool and lifestyle for women in their 30s and beyond. I have over sixteen years of real food and natural lifestyle and health experience.

I am also an It Works! Global Triple Diamond Independent Distributor. I love that crazy wrap thing! I have been extremely happy with how the It Works Products have tightened up my loose skin and healed my stretch marks after losing 179 pounds and having a 10-pound baby.

Read about my journey to health through celiac disease, PCOS, food allergies, obesity, adrenal fatigue and heavy metals.


  1. Karen Greenberg says:

    Many of your tips are things I do as well. I’ve got to tell you, as Dave Ramsey says, we are WEIRD. That’s okay, though. I think if we can get your message of ways to save money across to others we may be the change this country needs. I think as a whole we need to learn what is really important (quality) and what can be forgotten (cable). I’m so glad to hear I am not alone in some of these things. It’s hard to live this lifestyle sometimes, but I think it’s been worth it.
    Karen Greenberg recently posted..My Holiday Solution

  2. Shona says:

    We also do many of the htings listed here, so we must be ‘weird’ as well! We firmly believe in shopping around until we find the best price on items we need to buy.
    Shona recently posted..Sizing Shenanigans in Clothing Stores

  3. Annette Trnka says:

    Wow! I want to live at your house 🙂

    What great, great practical ideas for saving money (and raising children). I do many of them also. . . learned so many of them growing up with a ‘green’ mother who was born way before her time (thanks mom). You can only spend a dollar (or euro or pound) in one place, so make it count on something you value. . . for me, it’s my health, my loving the taste of real food, my feeling good. . .that always comes first for me and my family. Cheers to you!

  4. Bethany says:

    Wow–I’m so impressed with what you’re able to keep your food budget down to. Ours is more than that, but we’re not eating as high quality of food as you are. It’s a frustration to me that my husband is allergic to legumes–leaves us dependent on meat for protein.

  5. Write On, Jana! says:

    GREAT ideas and I commend you for your simple lifestyle. We follow the same principles as far as making do or do without… I’m so uninterested in keeping up with the Joneses, but very committed to giving my children a healthy foundation. That means long bike rides rather than expensive gym memberships (it’s better that they see us exercising and participate anyway) and library movies rather than cable (is anything on there worth watching?). I wish we could keep chickens and afford even better quality foods, but I do my best and spend any extras in the food budget on those little splurges.

  6. Rain says:

    I also want to emphasize that finding low cost quality food is a process. I’d been buying a regional honey from Costco because my local, raw honey was $20/qt. Just this week I found another source of local, raw honey for $20/gallon.

    We saw a sign on the side of a truck at a gas station for Natural, No Hormone, Local Beef and called it. Pasture raised but grain (barley) finished, nevertheless it’s local and within our price range — about $3.50/lb finished weight. Until then we’d been buying ‘natural’ beef from the grocery.

    We used to buy eggs at $3/dozen from a local man, then our budget wouldn’t allow it as we eat 3 dz eggs a week. We went to buying local, factory eggs from Costco in 5 dz packs. A few weeks ago, a girl from our homeschool group started selling their backyard chicken eggs for $1/dozen. I’m also looking at getting our own chickens.

    Zaycon Foods is a good, inexpensive source of natural, no hormone, no antibiotic meats though not grassfed or pastured.

    I don’t buy raw milk. At $10/gallon and 60 miles each way,it’s well out of our range. I do buy non-rBST milk.

    Another way to save on groceries is to cook in the ethnic matter that you have locally. I live in the desert southwest so we have whole grocery chains that are targeted to the Latin American market. By cooking primarily healthy, traditional Mexican food I still get traditional foods and great flavor but very cheaply. It’s also very possible to cook Mexican foods without an overly heavy reliance on beans, rice, and tortillas.

    The nearest salvage store is about 55 miles away, so it’s not worth the trip for us. Instead, I looked at both Sam’s and Costco. My local Costco carries organics while Sam’s doesn’t. By buying household goods in bulk from Costco, it also keeps me out of the local mega-mart on a weekly basis, saving me from impulse purchases there.

    I do not ever buy processed food. We don’t use mixes or buy junk food. The closest I get to buying processed food is jarred salsa when we’ve run out of our homemade, tortilla chips when our fryer broke, and cola for my dh for his mixed drinks.

    I’m not down to $200/month grocery budget, or even close. I’m feeding two adults, one a nursing mother (me), a teen girl, and often our grown son and his pregnant wife and other company. I’m getting to where I average about $400 month, including saving for bulk beef, chicken, and coconut oil, and our monthly Azure Standard order.

  7. lydia says:

    Totally wanna know more about the cloth ziplocs! Do tell? Just don’t tell me you make them yourself, cause this momma does NOT sew! 😉
    lydia recently posted..Lightbulbs and Mercury

  8. We also prioritize our food over other expenses, participate in and host bulk buys and farm direct buys. We go all over the place to get the best deals and never ever eat out. We make absolutely everything from scratch. We have a cowshare for our milk. We even raise some of our own meat and eggs and grow a big garden. However, we spend closer to $1000 a month to feed our family of 4!

    At first I thought that was an anomaly, what with the big purchases of fruit and veg to put up in the summer and meat to freeze in the fall and spring… but it turns out it has become more of an average. We are going to buy a bigger freezer because lately we have run out of meat before we can get more and have had to buy it in the store. We also would like to freeze more summer fruit. More freezer space will help with the cost, but not as much as I’d like.

    We do save a lot of money over regular grocery store prices for the quality of food that we eat. With our bulk buys of organic-but-not certified produce while in season, our prices are sometimes less than half what we’d pay in the store if we could even find that quality – but still lots more than buying the poisoned versions. We’re saving money over buying a processed crap diet, but not over a whole-foods-but-industrial diet.

    When we still ate grains and didn’t have to worry about gluten cross-contamination, we were able to keep the budget much lower than it is now. Another factor that raises costs is that since feeling better, the kids eat a lot more than they used to. This is great because they really are healthier and need the calories. But 11 and 12 year olds just eat more than they used to and our budget has paid the price.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that it really is very expensive to eat only pastured, organic meat, get all your calories without grains, eat all organic fruits and veg, and all that. However, our health is well worth it. It’s kept our son out of the hospital and has eliminated the need for his constant medication. That right there is worth it!
    Joy at The Liberated Kitchen recently posted..Blue Cheese Dressing

    • Joy, it’s definitely saving you money when you’re not having to pay for meds and hospital visits!

      I believe the final budget will also greatly be influenced by where you live. For some people in some areas, it’s expensive no matter how you eat. When I visited California on my honeymoon and parts of Canada while in college, I was shocked at the food prices. Canada had better prices than what I was used to in the states and California was painfully high.
      KerryAnn Foster recently posted..Betrayal: When Gluten-Free Companies Lie

  9. Oh yes, absolutely. I think we live in an area where food is in about the middle range. People from some areas think we’re so expensive, and people from bigger cities often think it’s cheap here. We’re in Portland, OR.


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