When I originally sat down to write this second post in the official Thrifty Living series, it was January. Yes, go ahead… Laugh.
Thing is, while I can generally keep my food budget within a reasonable range and feel pretty darn good about it, I was having a difficult time forming coherent ideas to share here. How could I help others to employ money saving tips and tricks into their weekly grocery trips? How could my family develop even better routines and savings strategies to reduce our own food budget?
The hardest part is narrowing down which tips are my favorite. Because truthfully there are a whole lot of ways to save money on food. No one version is the “best” and you are probably going to have a hard time doing all of the things to save all of the money all at the same time.
So what I’ve done is developed an approach to saving money on groceries that is both practical and super adaptable to a variety of lifestyles. Here are my top 10 tips for saving money on food – you can use a combination of these ideas, pick and choose one or two, or mix it up each month to see what works best for your family. You’ll probably have a tough time employing all of these money saving methods at the same time each week of the year, but if you can, I have major respect for you (we definitely can’t)!
Pretty much any article about saving money that you’ll ever read is going to have planning as an important first step to achieving your budgetary goals. Planning for success is obviously critical and planning for your food expenditures is no exception to this rule. Before you shop, take a few moments to develop a menu for the week – don’t forget to include breakfasts, lunches, and snacks – and list the ingredients that overlap across meals.
Then write your list, making sure to include both the ingredients you’ll need, as well as other items that you’ve run out of. Sometimes I get caught up with the basics for my planned meals that I forget to jot down flour, spices, or milk when developing my list. That’s always a bummer!
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can even write down rough estimates for the price of each item at one or two of your favorite grocery stores so that you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll be spending before you get to the register. I also like to further divide my list by section (produce, dairy, etc.) so that I can get through the store more quickly, but that’s totally up to you.
2. Shop Locally, Seasonally
Local produce, farm to fork meals, and farmer’s markets are huge trends in our food culture right now, and for good reason. Eating local and supporting small-scale agri-business, including farms, is a great way to add super healthy produce and meats to your diet and also support the local economy.
If you’re tempted to jump right in to the local farm culture, definitely do your research ahead of time. Learn what’s in season when, educate yourself on fair prices for specialty items like cage free eggs and grass-fed beef, and be prepared for a small markup on most products (smaller production = higher prices). Many farmer’s market, farm market, and co-op foods will be more expensive than their supermarket counterparts so plan accordingly.
The best way to avoid being nailed by extra costs is to purchase only items that are in season and to be willing to look beyond age or blemishes present especially in organic produce. Many farmers offer older produce (sometimes called seconds) for a discounted price, saving you more money at the register so be open minded about using less than perfect fruits and veggies and you’re sure to save a buck!
And while it may be tempting to go totally nuts over booths and bins stuffed to the brim with fresh farm delights, pace yourself. Use your menu and shopping list as a guide to avoid purchasing produce that will languish in the back of the crisper drawer or meat that will be less than fresh by the time you get around to using it. You will most likely see more that you wish to purchase than your budget can reasonably accommodate so be smart about where you spend your farmer’s market dollars.
Personally, I prefer a local farm market that offers a variety of items from the area. Each Saturday we opt into a CSA-style box and receive loads of seasonal goodies to use for the week. I also try to snag some local dairy products when I can (budgetarily) and prefer to purchase milk, ice cream, and eggs at higher farm prices. Here again, it’s important to be choosy – I’d love to bring home farm fresh yogurt, cheese, cream, and butter, but these purchases would knock our budget way off track. Plus, there are grocery store equivalents that are close to as good for about half the price.
3. Ditch the Meat
Here’s the deal: meat is expensive. Chop it from your diet, even part-time, and you’re sure to notice the savings on your grocery budget bottom line. We have eliminated almost all meat from our diet (with the exception of seafood, but that’s another story) and our wallets have been thanking us since day one.
There are plenty of reasons not to choose meat, which I may cover later in another post, but for families looking to save a buck, switching from a meat-based diet to vegetable-based one will pile on the benefits far beyond the checkout lane. Planning is key here, as it can be challenging to develop satisfying meals during the initial months of the meat weaning. Plan menus ahead of time and write down detailed lists to ensure that you purchase enough to last for every meal you need.
Don’t let your imagination run away with you in the produce aisle, and stick to inexpensive but filling basics like beans and sweet potatoes as cornerstones to creating all sorts of tasty meals. Also, avoid the temptation to purchase prepackaged meat substitutes that will certainly reduce time spent in the kitchen but are likely to be more expensive than the real deal. Unless your budget is large and you’re committing to an exclusive vegetarian or vegan diet, you will almost never need to purchase these expensive (and often unhealthy) substitutes.
4. Utilize Bargain Stores
One word: Aldi. If you are fortunate enough to live near one of these tiny wonder stores, I sure as heck hope that you’re taking full advantage of it! If you don’t know whether you do, find out now! Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I love to shop at Aldi. Actually, that’s not true. I HATE shopping at Aldi – I think the experience sucks, or maybe it’s the clientele that happen to have a similar shopping schedule to mine. BUT my cost-conscious self cannot permit shopping at any other store when I know that insane cost savings exist within the plain grey walls of my local Aldi. In a pinch, I can get a week’s worth of groceries here and spend less than $70.
When we’re not in a total pinch, I’m more selective about the products I purchase at Aldi. Because the entire store is generic branded items, there are obviously some products that are just inferior to higher end stuff. Their butter, for example, is cheaper than dirt but has a significantly lower milk fat percentage to competing products. Does it work? Sure. But I’d prefer to save on my canned goods at Aldi and splurge on my butter elsewhere.
There are other bargain stores that offer even deeper deals for shoppers who are willing to take the time to dig through the depths of canned good aisles and seasonal products. In our area, Big Lots and Ollie’s are good options for this type of shopping, though truthfully I haven’t had the opportunity to to much research in this direction. We don’t eat a ton of processed food so unless I needed something specific, like canned tuna, spending hours on this type of trip is not the best use of my time. However, for families who like to stock up or need quick options for meals and snacks, blocking out a few hours one day a month to comb bargain store shelves may pay off in a big way.
5. Buy in Bulk
Bulk stores, such as Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club, offer discounted bulk goods to members, who generally have to pay a small fee once a year to gain shopping access to these stores. Even for the small family or casual shopper, the savings you’ll find at a bulk store are well worth the membership fee.
Why, you may be asking, does an apartment dwelling family of three need a bulk store membership? And that’s a fair question. Even though we don’t personally purchase most of the products that American families find essential to child rearing (diapers, wipes, formula) and are available for deep discounts in bulk, we still find value in occasional bulk shopping. This alone makes a membership worth it for couples with one or two kids to care for.
Essentials like toilet paper and napkins are almost always cheaper in bulk and truly don’t require much storage space as you slowly work your way through them. Everyday kitchen products, including cheese, specialty flours, olive oil, and organic pantry products, if that’s your vibe, are also much cheaper per serving when purchased in bulk. My rule is that if we will definitely use a product or boxed set in its entirety before it goes bad, then we can sacrifice the storage space to reap the financial savings of purchasing in bulk.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules for saving with bulk shopping but with a bit of trial and error shopping research of your own, you’ll probably find a system that works for you. Some bulk products we can’t live without (and can’t afford to purchase in smaller quantities frequently from traditional supermarkets) are King Arthur flour, raw sugar, extra virgin olive oil, and Philadelphia cream cheese.
Bonus: many bulk stores also have gas stations, which are for member use only or offer special pricing for members. In some parts of the country, gas is significantly cheaper at these locations, so pursuing a membership may pay off in gas savings, as well.
6. DIY Some Things (But Not All Things)
I love DIY everything. When I set out to fix our food budget, I assumed that DIY would be the best way to pinch pennies on our grocery costs. And to a degree, this is true. However, it’s a rookie mistake to assume that homemade always equals a better deal. Often, it’s actually more expensive to make things from scratch – not to mention infinitely more time consuming.
DIY foods are a great alternative to the processed options that you find lining the vast majority of supermarket shelves. They’re often healthier, plus you can control the ingredients that go in to accommodate your family’s preferences or any allergy needs. You can definitely save money by making your own foods and should cost out the average price for ingredients you’d need to make homemade versions of your favorite staples and treats to determine what DIY items you should try first.
I find that making our own breads, including tortillas, helps us to eat better, even if it’s slightly more expensive than the bakery aisle. I’m also super picky and refuse to spend my hard earned money on the stale styrofoam cubes sold there. Bean creations from dried beans are always a money saver. Same with many canned alternatives, provided that you’re nifty with mason jars and can safely can at home (I’m not). You’ll also save on snacks by baking up batches of your own granola, cookies, and crackers – particularly as replacements for specialty items marketed toward children (I’m looking at you Gerber puffs and Quaker oat bars).
Lest you get carried away, always be sure to come back to your budget and price for items you want to make at home. I was recently on a butter making spree, which left us with delicious butter but was unfortunately a huge drain on our weekly food budget, with my continual purchases of quarts of heavy cream. Not to mention very time consuming for relatively small payout. We are purchasing store butter once again and honestly, I don’t notice much difference in the flavor. I still like to make my own for special occasions, but it’s definitely not worth the cost for everyday use.
7. Plan to Dine Out
Dining out is fun and often a nice break for the family’s primary dinner maker but is, of course, a costly affair. Most couples and families cut dining out immediately from their budget when that delightful “we need to tighten our belts” time comes around. And while dining out is often a frivolous expense and can usually be overcome by a laziness-deterring shot in the arm, sometimes it’s just necessary to get out of the kitchen for an evening.
I’ve found that the dining out expenses wreak havoc on the budget when they’re unplanned. They just have a tendency to pile up and we end up spending too much too fast. So we implemented planned dining out because, let’s face it, when we’re working a combined three jobs, putting Josh through school, raising a toddler, and the primary dinner maker (me) is growing a human, homecooked dinners just aren’t happening every single night of the month.
However, instead of throwing up our hands on a random Wednesday night and grabbing takeout, we mark dinner out nights on the calendar so that we have them to look forward to. There is an end in sight for the seemingly endless cooking and kitchen chores of the week. Someone else will make dinner and I won’t have to cook. Scheduling our dining out nights – and by dining out, I mean picking up food (90% of the time it’s pizza) and bringing it home – because, hello, toddler – gives me a lot more focus in the kitchen during the rest of the month because I have a small break to look forward to.
We can also budget for these expenditures accordingly and spend less at the grocery store to accommodate for our restaurant meals when they are coming up on the calendar. By doing this, our total food budget isn’t greatly impacted and dining out becomes a line item in our general food expense category, rather than an outlier that throws all the rest out of balance.
8. Use that Freezer
Freezer aisle staples like veggie sides, frozen fruit, and prepared meals are almost always cheaper when they’re prepared from home. Yes, they’re a bit of a pain to make and you’ll probably want to follow some directions the first time you freeze a meal or produce in order to properly preserve flavors and textures for future eating. But a well-stocked freezer is like a Christmas present to yourself whenever you’re hungry but don’t feel like cooking up a whole meal.
Pinterest is my favorite resource for finding guides to freezer meals or tutorials on preserving berries. With a few extra hours one weekend, you can transform your freezer into a very cold pantry of meals even the non-cooks in your family can throw together. Now I always preserve sauces, soups, and side dishes in the freezer when we have a little leftover. It saves both time and money later on down the road.
Stocking the freezer is a great way to prepare for vacation or planned downtime, such as when a new baby joins the family. Doing a big freezer stock up will be a bit more expensive initially during the weeks/months that you’re prepping, but will certainly save money when the downtime comes and you’re not constantly having to pick up prepared food from the store or call up the Chinese restaurant down the street.
9. Embrace Leftovers
Leftovers may be one of the most polarizing topics for a new marriage. One spouse loves them, the other hates them, and ne’er shall the two be in agreement. To leftover haters out there, I have one simple message:
Get over it.
Leftovers are hands down THE biggest way to save money on your food budget and cut down on the amount of time spent in the kitchen slaving over food prep. In case you haven’t noticed, most foods don’t come in a simple one-meal sized portion and if they do, I know you’re not buying them because you have better things to spend your money on (am I right?). Cooking in bulk is a great way to use ingredients before they spoil, as well as dish out a few meals for the coming days.
Leftovers make great lunches for toting to work and school. They’re also easy to convert into entirely new meals later on during the week. A side of fish or package of chicken breasts can easily be cooked up at the beginning of the week and taken off of to make salads, soups, casseroles, and more. Same goes for simply prepared vegetables and grains. Work smarter with your food and you may even persuade your leftovers-hating family members to come to the sane side.
10. End of Month Cheats
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, the end of the food budget rolls around before the end of the month does. And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty picky about sticking to that budget no matter what so when it’s gone, it’s gone. July was one of those weird months that seemed to totally outlast our budget, regardless of how tightly we kept our spending under control. The gap lasted from about a Monday to Friday – so roughly one grocery trip’s-worth.
Thankfully, I always keep some essentials on hand for times like these and after a very tiny market run, we were set. Not only did we get by, but we ate some very enjoyable meals, experimented with using plain ingredients in new ways, and even had leftovers to enjoy throughout the week!
Here are some of my favorite fridge and pantry staples to stock up on. They’re cheap and usually won’t break the budget, even if you purchase extras of these a couple of times a month:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Canned tuna
Throw in odds and ends of cheeses you have laying about, some spices, and a handmade pie crust or loaf of bread, and you’ve got a pretty versatile lineup for dinner main courses. Using these ingredients, plus a watermelon and some fresh lettuce from the store (BTW, watermelon is a super cheap summertime produce choice that’ll add some freshness to meals all week), I made scrumptious dinners for three. Here’s what we had:
- Monday: quiche with goat cheese and roasted veggie medley
- Tuesday: homemade gnocchi with sauce from leftover roasted veggies
- Wednesday: my parents invited us for a cookout 🙂
- Thursday: cheese quesadillas with sautéed onions and spiced black beans
- Friday (payday): pizza night
Hint: “Oh crap the budget’s gone” weeks are also a great time to break out those freezer meals, sides, and sauces. Stock up whenever you get a chance and future you will be incredibly thankful.