How To Shop On A Budget – from A Girl Called Jack

These are the handy hints in the front of  my first cookbook, A Girl Called Jack and are as useful now as they were then – it’s advice I give readers all the time, old and new, so I thought it would be handy to pop it here too:

WRITE A LIST AND STICK TO IT. It sounds obvious, but I only generally have two kinds of shopping experiences. Those where I walk into the store, list in hand, doggedly stick to it and come out with everything I need and no money wasted. And those where I run in in a hurry, flail about, grab things I don’t need, and berate myself all week for wasting money and forgetting certain essential items. The first few times may feel awful. Many a time, as a single mum on benefits that were suspended or delayed, with no spare money in my bank account and just a handful of change, I found myself standing in the freezer aisle staring at luxury ice cream. Picking up the posh coffee and just remembering what it smelled like. Calling a friend in tears, beaten, because I didn’t have any money for butter. Not even the value brand butter. I didn’t have any money for butter. It’s the small things that can be the most defeating, sometimes. A list, to me, was a triumph. I could get to the end of it and feel I had achieved something. I ticked things off. I doodled joining-up lines between the beans and the tomatoes and wrote ‘chilli?!’ in the margins. I could create my way around the supermarket with a tiny goal and feel at the end of it that I had done something right. If nothing else, make a list for the sense of achievement. Make it by category ‘Proteins, Carbs, Fruit, Veg, Storecupboard’ so you know at a glance that you are getting something akin to a balanced diet. Make it for your sanity. And stick to it.

INVESTIGATE THE TINNED AISLE. Tinned fish, tinned potatoes and tinned fruit are usually all cheaper than their fresh counterparts – and with far less pressure to use them up by the end of the week, so they reduce food waste, too. In my worst days I ended up turning off my fridge. It was empty anyway. Tins are a godsend. I still panic if I run out of tinned kidney beans or tinned tomatoes. Get yourself some tins.

BUY FROZEN GREEN VEGETABLES. Green veg, folks, is expensive. You’d think it would be dirt cheap to try to encourage us to eat it, but it’s expensive. And leaves go limp at the turn of a day. According to Love Food Hate Waste, leafy veg is one of our most-thrown-away items. Sod it. Buy it frozen and use it at your leisure. Some of it even comes pre-chopped, like a sous chef in a bag.

GET ON YOUR KNEES. Supermarkets spend eye-watering amounts of money analysing shoppers behaviour and positioning things accordingly. Expensive items are generally positioned on higher shelves, for the posey kudos of having to stand on your toes and stretch like a cat for your Charlie Bighams £7 macaroni cheese, I guess. By contrast, the plain value branded labels can generally be found near the floor. Get down there and scrabble if your knees will let you. Nobody cares. Nobody is judging you. Nobody is even looking. You’re buying beans. They’re buying beans. Let’s just all get on with it.

DOWNSHIFT ONE BRAND AT A TIME. If you normally buy a premium brand of a product, drop down to the one below. If you buy the supermarket own brand, try it in their value range. And so on. Just buy everything slightly more price-consciously than you did last week, and notice the difference at the checkout. Then see if you notice a difference in your cooking. If you really can’t stomach one thing or another, then switch back next week. It’s just a week. You might just be surprised by how good some of the value brands are… I can’t bring myself to buy anything but basic chopped tomatoes, veg, fruit, pasta, etc these days. Plus the orange-and-white tins have been repurposed as pen pots and plant holders around my little flat, so I need to keep up my collection – it matches.

TAKE A WALK. I have moved house thirteen times since my now-five year old boy was born (mostly under difficult circumstances – I’m hoping this one is . Every time, one of the first things I do is go for an amble around the streets around my new front door, and poke my head into every shop that I can find. You’ll be surprised where the bargains are – I have found chickpeas cheaper than the supermarket’s own in a little fags-and-booze shop, cheaper toilet paper in the hardware stores, and things marked down for quick sales in the most surprising places. Ethnic food stores are excellent – supermarkets are expanding their ‘world food aisles’ to compete with their prices up and down the country. I am lucky enough to live near some competitive fruit and veg stores that sell more exotic wares cheaper than mainstream stores, with fat green plaintain cheaper than bananas, but apples are a side-eyeing 50p each. Wander, explore, note down, smile, say hello, make friends. It’s not always practical to shop around the entire neighbourhood, but is useful to know where the emergency cheap loo roll is, or the big bags of spices. My old butcher used to love a chat, too, despite me never picking up much more than the odd heart or liver and occasional chicken. Be friendly, and there’s no harm in asking for bones or scraggy bits. They can only say no, after all.

BUYING IN BULK DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN IT’S CHEAPER. Most shelf labels in major supermarkets will now give you the price per unit, or price per 100g, as well as the larger product price. If a big bag of pasta is 40p/100g, but the value stuff is 10p/100g, buy a few bags of the value stuff. It’s hard work at first but quickly becomes second nature.

WHAT HAVE YOU GOT? I make a shopping list divided into four sections: Protein, Carbs, Fruit/Veg and Storecupboard – and before I leave the house to go shopping, I rifle through my cupboards, fridge and freezer and note down what I already have in those categories, before drawing a line under it to make my list. It helps to plan meals, keeps in mind what needs to be used up, and stops a pile of useless tins accruing in the cupboard.

WRITE A MEAL PLAN BEFORE YOU GO SHOPPING. Plan meals using similar ingredients (use the search bar tool on my blog to help) and incorporate anything you already have in the cupboard, fridge or freezer.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO SUBSTITUTE. Use one green veg instead of another. Any vinegar will do, or lemon juice, where vinegar is called for in a recipe – it’s just a bit of acid to lift some flavours, don’t worry about keeping several kinds. Pasta is pasta, rice is rice. Red wine in slow-cooked dishes can be swapped out for strong black tea – yes, really – as it’s the deep tannin taste you’re after in a casserole, risotto or bourgignon.

TAKE A PEN OR CALCULATOR WITH YOU. I keep track of costs as I go, marking them next to the item on my shopping list, and totting them up to avoid nasty surprises at the checkout. In the darkest moments when I would get to the till and realise my shopping was more than the cash in my hand, it made deciding what to leave behind a little easier (it’s never ‘easy’, but you hopefully get my drift). Shoe on the other foot, occasionally there would be a completed list and a little left over, so I knew exactly how much I had to treat myself, too. Usually a tin of Basics custard, or a jar of lemon curd, but it’s the little things that make all the difference sometimes.

If you have any shopping tips for tight budgets, or any money saving ideas to share, please share them below so we can all learn from each other – thankyou.

Taken from my book A Girl Called Jack and adapted for the blog. November 2015.

Jack Monroe. I’m on Twitter @DrJackMonroe and Instagram @MxJackMonroe

Categories: Blog, NEWS, Recipes & Food


  1. Excellent tips. I’ve had a list system since I was a single mum with 2 little ones and a very limited budget. Things are easier financially, and my kids are adults, but the list habit is ingrained. Mine is in subsections of type – frozen, tinned, fresh (that was a tiny list when money was tight), store cupboard and sundries. I ‘shop’ my cupboards, work out what I need to supplement in order to create meals, and write down that week’s recipes on the list. I never feel in control of the food budget or a balanced diet if I just nip in the shops and buy in a hurry – although working long hours that happens more often than I’d like. The family laugh at my list but my son instinctively used exactly the same system when at Uni!

  2. Hi Jack, didn’t really want to leave this as a comment but I can’t find an email address for you so… Just to let you know that on Bloglovin you are still coming up as A Girl Called Jack. Thanks for the interesting blogging – I always look for a post from you. Best wishes, Rose

  3. If you don’t have a car its well worth doing a monthly online shop (not always possible if you are paid weekly but even those on benefits often get monthly payments now). Look for cheap delivery slots – £1 on Wednesday afternoons! Buy all the heavy and frozen stuff plus the first weeks fresh stuff. I find it easier to keep under budget as I can go back and take things out if the bill gets too high, and more to the point there’s no impulse shopping. Only downside is no yellow stickered items but they aren’t the deal you thought they were if you didn’t need them. Because I make the vast majority of food from scratch, just getting 12 cans tomatoes, 4 bags bread flour and lots of mixed beans is helpful – they bring them into my kitchen too!!!

  4. I absolutely love your foods blogs jack. In tough times financially it was inspirational and a complete godsend. It revolutionised the way I looked at shopping and cooking and although I am no longer quite so skint, I have habits for life now which continue to save me loads! I always look for the cheaper basic ingredients as I always cook from scratch too.
    Not sure where this idea came from but I often cut up and freeze any fruit that’s going soft to make frozen smoothies by whiz zing it up with basics orange juice. My mum has a good tip to reduce waste too, she makes a lovely veggie soup with anything that’s not being used. Just soften the chopped veg in whatever oil and then cover with stock and cook. At the end take off the heat and slowly add some milk and finely grated cheese and it’s lush either chunky or blended.

  5. If find my local market (Chrisp Street) very cheap to buy most vegetables, and they give you large amounts of them. Plus it feels nicer than shopping at soulless supermarkets. 🙂

  6. This might be silly, but when my big kids were little,and we were on the tightest of tight budgets, I would shop on the day there were “tastings”, or free apple or cookie days for kids. While I was trying to do my aisle calculation, they thought it was an adventure-easier to stay to the list, and not feel bad about saying “no” when the kids are getting a little something special.

  7. I never write a list I know what I want and stick to it, there is the odd exception though. the butcher does a special offer and if I think it’s worth it I buy it his rump steak is really good when on offer at £11 a kilo so I usually buy 4 or 5 Kilo at a time. It may cost over £50 for 5 kilo but that’s 10 meals

    • It’s lovely that there are still shops that aren’t supermarkets in some places, but is it really worth saving 10p by going to the butchers on a £2 bus, when you can walk to the supermarket? Most of the grocers and butchers and so on round our way lost the fight to stay open a long time ago. Mind you, so did everything else.

  8. If you have a printer write your list and print it out one A4 sheet can be used many times just put a diagonal line next to it when you buy it and another diagonal line through the first line so you have a cross when it’s used keep repeating until you fill the paper then you will find out what you use a lot of and what you use little of.

  9. Thank you, Jack! This is such good advice. I never used to do meal planning — I looked at all the cutesy, pre-printed results that came up in a google search and decided that it wasn’t for me. But I’ve been using a cheap composition book, two pages at a time. One side for a series of lists (what we have, what we have to use up, what’s on sale, what to buy), and the other side for a day-by-day meal plan. There’s plenty of space to scribble in substitutions or arrows to swap days around. When it’s time to go buy food, I just cut out the corner with the appropriate list and take that with me.

    One thing I do (I live in the US, though): the local supermarket often sells a few things for really cheap each week — much cheaper than usual. Around here, it can be more than half off for certain meats, though they do make you buy in bulk. It’s why I always check the ads and make a separate list for what’s on sale. We can get two weeks of meals and a ton of frozen gyoza off a pork shoulder ever since I learned to make ground meat in the food processor.

  10. I use to find where my list is cheapest, then print it out with the list split between the two cheapest shops (e.g. I can’t get uncooked beet at Lidl!). Not only does it help by having the list and a total price, but it also has all the item prices on it, so you know what you’re baseline is if there are any offers.

  11. I make what I call bottom of the draw chilli. Usually I start with a base of mince (unless I have made a roast on a Sunday then that left over meat goes in) courgette peppers and tinned tomatoes then what ever veg I have in my bottom draw chopped up some times I add some water depending on what brand of tomatoes I get sometimes I need some more liquid. Cook on a low heat for about an hour or until it looks like chilli consistency with half a teaspoon of chilli flakes. I then portion it out and freeze them for my dinner or if my husband is working late a couple of portions make a tea.

  12. Reduced French bread pizza. At the end of the day French bread is often reduced down to 10p or 20p. I slice it lengthwise smear each surface with tomato ketchup and then put anything I have left in the fridge on top. A sprinkle of mixed herbs and a bit of grated cheese if you’ve got it finishes it off. If I’m pushing the boat out I’ll buy budget mozarella at 50p. Put the “pizzas” on a baking tray in the oven for 10 minutes – crispy and delicious and a large French stick serves 4.

  13. Jack – I think you are amazing,.I absolutely love your first cookbook and its the one I use more often than not ad on a weeklybasis when im barch cooking and pantry prepping. Im on a tight budget and have totally stripped back my spending on what I would call ‘food crap’ and now do a lot of baking – my own bread, sweet treats for when ive got cravings, and soups. Thank you for your simple cost effective yet tasty recipes.

  14. I’ve found loose bananas are the best value fruit and basics apples. They are very versatile because you can put apples in salad and sandwiches and spaghetti bolagnaise. Apples don’t go off very quickly either. Bananas ripen quicker of course but then they are good in cupcakes and you don’t need eggs then.

  15. Apples and bananas for me are the best fresh fruit to buy. Bananas are versatile for cakey type things (i’m not good at making proper cakes) when they inevitablely go mushy and apples last a long time before mouldy time occurs. Apples can be used in a lot of savoury dishes too which makes them more versatile aswell. Loose bananas and basics apples are the cheapest fruit too.

  16. As I get paid monthly, I tend to buy large packs of things like mince and make a massive load of either bolognese or cottage pie then freeze it in batches for the month ahead. Saves time too.

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