With a little will power and planning, it's actually not as hard as you'd think.
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There’s nothing that will bring the harsh reality of adulthood into focus faster than attempting to create a realistic and achievable monthly budget. After cruising through four years of college with seemingly endless cafeteria swipes, or leaving your parents’ house—which was magically always fully stocked with your favorite foods—for the first time, creating a food budget that will work with your starter salary can be a major challenge.

However, whether you’re just cooking for yourself, a crew of roommates, or your family, a pre-set grocery budget can save you and your bank account lots of grief. But how do you calculate that budget—and, more importantly, stick to it?

As a general rule, your grocery budget should take up 12-15 percent of your income. Take whatever you’re making per month, multiply that by 0.12-0.15, and that is the set amount you should be spending on food and drink. Depending on if you shop for groceries weekly or bi-weekly, simply divide that monthly amount into two or four to calculate your exact budget for each individual shopping trip.

Of course, certain months will require more or less budget than others—in July you could be throwing a big party that will require lots of drinks and snacks, but in August you’re leaving town for a couple of weeks and won’t be needing groceries over that time period. Keep track of the surplus—or deficit—and work that into your budget for future months. Once you’ve got your perfect budget figured out, use these basic rules to dictate how you spend your food allowance.

Stock up on the essentials

Though it takes a bit of an investment upfront, having a pantry stocked with essentials, such as pasta, rice, spices, and oils will make your week-to-week grocery budget go much further. Luckily, basics like pasta and rice are inexpensive and can be used in countless ways. And spices and oils, though slightly pricier, will come in handy in just about any recipe and will typically last you for a while. Check out our list of all of the pantry essentials you should stock up on for your first kitchen, and start dreaming up some creations with these pasta recipes and fried rice creations.

Have a plan of action

Before you even hit the grocery aisles, map out every dish you’re planning to make over the next week or month, as well as what ingredients it takes to accomplish each dish. In order to get the most bang for your buck, try to choose recipes that require overlapping ingredients, so that you’re making the most of your purchases. If one recipe calls for mozzarella, find a couple others that also utilize the cheese. Make sure you make a detailed grocery list with the amount you’ll need of everything, so that once you hit the store you’re ready to hunt down the exact ingredients you need and begin comparing prices from brand to brand.

Stick to the list (and never shop hungry!)

Having a detailed plan of action and grocery list only benefits you if you don’t let your eyes wander to superfluous snacks, sweets, beverages, and other unexpected purchases that don’t fit within your budget. Though it takes some willpower, your new life mantra should be: Stick. To. The. List. If that carton of ice cream or case of sparkling water wasn’t on the list originally then it shouldn’t go in your cart. Once you’ve rounded up all of the ingredients you actually need, if there’s money leftover in your weekly budget, then you can spend on some of the unexpected stuff that has caught your eye.

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Shop Seasonally

When it comes to your produce purchases, sticking to recipes that require in-season vegetables and fruit will save you some serious coin. If you’re attempting to make a salad that calls for strawberries in the dead of winter, you’re going to end up spending a lot more on the fruit—and getting a lower quality—than you would in July. Be mindful when searching through recipes of what you’ll be able to purchase affordably that time of year. For a breakdown of some amazing summer produce, check out this list.

Become a coupon connoisseur

Though clipping coupons might make you feel like your grandmother, these days there are tons of apps and online resources that can help you hunt down and organize coupons so that you can stretch your budget as far as it will go. Download one of these super helpful apps, and start to save coupons for ingredients and products you know you’ll get use out of. If there’s a great deal on one ingredient, try to find multiple recipes that incorporate it, saving you cash in the end.

Meal prep is your friend

A great budget saving strategy for day-to-day breakfasts and lunches is to meal prep for the week, cutting down on the time you have to spend in the kitchen every day and making the most of that week’s grocery haul. Pick one designated meal prep day and use it to do all of your grocery shopping and prep for the week. For some awesome lunches to prep with minimal ingredients, check out this guide.

Leave some room in the budget for fun

At the end of the day, we’re all human, and while ideally we’d all have the willpower to stick to our perfect budget and never slip up, you’ll want to leave some wiggle room for fun and impulsive purchases. Set aside a little nest egg of fun spending money at the start of the month and subtract that from your overall budget. That way, when you get the sudden urge for some tortilla chips, queso, and cold beers on a Friday night, those unexpected purchases won’t be a hit to your overall budget, because they’ll already be worked right in.