How to Buy Groceries on a Budget Right Now

Credit - Illustration by TIME; source photos: Getty

Gina Zakaria, a mother of two based in Los Angeles, considers herself to be a savvy shopper.

As someone who has been making content about frugal living on her social media since 2017, she’s become an expert on finding deals at the grocery store—but as prices have continued to climb upwards in recent years, even she has been feeling the pinch when shopping for necessities.

“I always look for sales,” she says, “but I do feel the difference in my total.”

Prices in grocery stores across the country are now up 25% from pre-pandemic levels, data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics shows. Staring down rising prices at the supermarket checkout line, many Americans are feeling the impact. Within the last few years, 80% of Americans say they’ve felt a notable increase in the cost of groceries—and more than a quarter have said they’ve occasionally skipped meals as a result of rising costs, according to a study conducted by Qualtrics on behalf of Intuit Credit Karma.

“As prices continue to rise, people may be afraid to go shopping, which leads to them eating out more or not [making] the best decisions when it comes to cooking,” says Will Coleman, a chef and content creator who shares tips for saving money on groceries on his Instagram. Most recent USDA data from 2022 shows that Americans were spending an average of 11% of their discretionary income on eating both at home and in restaurants—the highest percentage since 1991. “With prices going up, there must be more resources and knowledge being shared about shopping and cooking [more accessible],” Coleman notes.

TIME spoke with experts about why groceries are so expensive and ways to keep costs down while you shop.

Why are groceries so expensive right now?

Rising prices can be traced back to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused major supply chain disruptions and worker shortages, says Ronald Hill, a Professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business. “It blew up the supply chain,” he says.

Global conflicts—including the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East— have also contributed to price increases. “We had grain coming through Eastern Europe and that became a problem,” he says. “Gasoline was coming from the Middle East, and that became a powder keg.”

How much does the average American spend on groceries?

Americans spend an average of $550 a month on groceries, says Hill, citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, grocery prices are likely to vary greatly depending on a family’s size. “If you're an individual who's working and you're spending $500 a month on groceries, it’s easier than for families that might struggle more… to keep your family going forward,” says Hill.

The data supports this. A Help Advisor study found that families with children spend 41% more than households without children.

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Are grocery store prices going to go down?

Hill says that it’s challenging to get grocery prices to go down after an increase. “Once prices rise, companies are loath to reduce them,” says Hill. “And consumers acclimate to those levels.”

But there is some hope. The recent Consumer Price Index report, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday, showed grocery prices haven’t increased since January. Major retailers have also recently announced their intention to slash prices as Americans struggle to manage high costs. In May, Walmart announced that it planned to roll back prices on more than 7,000 items. Soon after, Target said that it would lower prices on over 5,000 common goods including milk, meat, bread, fruit and vegetables, and household items like paper towels and diapers.

What is a reasonable budget for grocery shopping?

Grocery prices might be different depending on where you live—Californians and Nevadans tend to spend the most on groceries, while states in the Midwest report lower costs, according to the Help Advisor study. One study from Drive Research found that while most shoppers spent an average of $174 per grocery trip in 2024, the number greatly fluctuates depending on the number of mouths to feed: a single person can expect to pay around $131 per trip, while a family of five might face down a bill of $262.

Zakaria recommends spending an average of $125 to $130 per person per month—including for children. That figure has increased from the $100 budget she used to recommend as recently as last summer—and doesn’t include household items like detergent or toilet paper. “I’ve found that [prices at] the grocery store are about 20 to 25% higher than they used to be,” she says.

How do you stick to that budget?

“Always look in your pantry first,” recommends Theresa Gentile, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To avoid unnecessary waste, experts recommend following the “first in first out” rule, by keeping items closer to their expiration date at the front of your pantry where you’re more likely to see and use them.

Having a game plan when you go into the grocery store can also help you keep costs down.  Coleman created a 6 to 1 method to help people stay on track in the grocery store, instructing shoppers to purchase six veggies, five fruits, four proteins, three starches, two sauces and one fun item.

Coleman suggests staying clear of processed items. “It's way more expensive, and you can't really use it beyond that meal,” he says.

Instead, focus your meals on items that are in-season, which tend to be cheaper than those that aren’t. Coleman recommends buying items that can “stretch throughout the week” and be used in multiple different recipes. “It’s a gift that keeps giving.”

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What is the best day to buy groceries?

Experts say that the best day to buy groceries might depend on your local grocery stores—some have sale cycles that begin and end on certain days of the week.

Zakaria says that most sale cycles tend to begin on Wednesdays and end on Tuesdays, and suggests timing your shopping trip around the sale. “I would definitely go towards the middle of the sale just because people tend to flood the store at the beginning and end of a sale if it's a really great deal.”

“It's nice to have a connection with a store manager,” says Coleman, who says that they can keep you updated on the best days for sales or latest shipments of food. For the freshest produce, Coleman suggests shopping at the beginning of the week, in the first three hours a store is open.

Is it cheaper to go grocery shopping once a week?

While some people might be able to stretch their shopping trips to once every two weeks—or even once a month—shopping once a week is an attainable goal. Stretching the process out can quickly lead to overspending.

“Going out often could lead to an increase in impulse buying. “You might say, ‘I just need milk,’ and then come out with $30 worth of stuff, because [you think] ‘I can carry some other stuff too,’” Gentile says.

Zakaria also says that—contrary to popular belief—it’s better to go grocery shopping when you’re in a time crunch versus when you’re killing time.

“It’s a perfect time because you're not going to just stroll around and look at different things,” she says, noting that it’s a habit that can quickly lead to overspending. “You're going to go and get the things you need and go out.”

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When is it better to buy in bulk?

Some items might be cheaper to buy in bulk, which is why it’s useful to keep an eye on an item’s unit price to know if you’re getting a good deal. An item’s unit price, usually located on the corner of the label, tells you the cost per weight.

“[Looking at the item’s unit price] will help you compare prices between warehouse stores and regular stores,” Zakaria says.

How much do expiration dates matter?

Expiration dates typically refer to quality, not safety according to the USDA. Many food products are safe to consume after their labeled expiration date, but you should always inspect the food for quality before consuming.

What cheap food lasts the longest?

“Canned food might sometimes get a bad image,” says Gentile, but canned fruits and vegetables are often harvested at their peak, making them more flavorful than fresh options for a fraction of the price. Foods like lentils, beans, rice, pasta, and potatoes are also affordable, pantry stable solutions.

And don’t be afraid to use your freezer. Gentile says that anything from herbs to breadcrumbs to extra fruit can be frozen to reduce waste—and make an easy addition to a future meal. “It takes a few minutes on the front end to do it but it's so beneficial [the next time] you're cooking,” she says.

Read More: Why We’re Spending So Much Money

How does SNAP work and who qualifies?

While the income requirements differ by state, households typically qualify for SNAP benefits if their total income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty line and if their net income after deductions is at or below the federal poverty line. Households must also have assets below a certain limit. To apply for SNAP benefits, visit your state’s SNAP office and provide the income information as needed.

“Once an application is approved, the person or household gets an EBT card, which is basically like a debit card that is loaded with the household's SNAP benefits each month, and these benefits are, essentially, almost like cash that can be spent on food at most supermarkets, grocery stores, or other food retailers,” Erica Kenney, Assistant Professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told TIME via email. SNAP benefits can only be spent on food— hot food items and grocery products like diapers, toiletries, and paper products are not covered.

However, the strict qualification requirements for SNAP means that many families facing food insecurity aren’t eligible to receive help.“There are some people who don't qualify for SNAP though, even if they meet these income levels: most students who attend college more than half-time; immigrants who have been in the U.S. for less than five years; and undocumented immigrants,” says Kenney. "Some states have opted to raise the gross income limit…or relax some of the asset limits in recognition of the fact that many households whose incomes are a bit over the poverty line still struggle with food insecurity.”

Write to Simmone Shah at