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Food isn’t the biggest share of most budgets by far – an honor typically reserved for housing.
It is, however, one of the easiest categories to reduce dramatically. It’s difficult to change your housing arrangements on a whim, but you can change your grocery habits this week!
Food is easy to overspend on because eating is necessary (and fun). But that doesn’t make it a fixed expense! These are my tips for drastically reducing your monthly spending on food.
But first, take stock of your current spending.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that simply recording your spending (manually, please!) can help you spend less.
Furthermore, how will you know if you're saving anything if you're not tracking it anywhere? Click here to set up a quick budget and start tracking.
With the obligatory make-a-budget griping out of the way, let’s get down to it.
1. Stop paying for additional labor.
When you see clickbait articles with titles like: “How I saved $1,000/month on food” — this is how they did it.
How I saved $1,000/month on food
Between buying a sandwich, soda, and chips everyday ($15 each workday), and a few date nights a week (at $50 each) and takeout a few times a month ($40), food was eating a hole in our budget.
Adding it up was a shock: $1,075/month!!!!!
Now we live like monks in the Himalayan mountains and eat nothing but turnips and porridge – home-cooked, of course!
- Yet Another Budget Blogger
Look, let’s be realistic. I'm not saying you need to cook everything from scratch. But it will take a little planning and preparation to bring the cost down.
The truth is, it takes a lot of human labor to get that sandwich to the deli downstairs just so you can rush down and buy it at the last minute.
- The ingredients are purchased by the food processing company.
- Someone is paid (likely minimum wage) to make and package the sandwich.
- Someone transports it to the store.
- The store is staffed to keep items in stock.
- And all of these businesses also keep managers, HR, and accountants on payroll to help operations running smoothly.
Just make the damn sandwich at home, and pay yourself.
Bring your lunch to work.
That same sandwich at the deli downstairs from my office is $8. A sandwich at the grocery store is $3. A can of soup is $1.18.
I’ll repeat myself: You do not need to cook everything from scratch.
It helps to plan out what you’ll eat for lunch before you go grocery shopping, that way you can buy what you need without running out of food mid-week. But that doesn’t always mean raw ingredients. Buy some pricey soup and freezer meals and heat them up at work.
You might over-buy in the beginning, but that’s okay. Keep tracking your spending and you’ll start to recognize your true needs over time.
Treat restaurants like a special occassion.
This goes for take-out, too. You’re paying someone to cook and package the meal, and deliver it to your door.
Instead of supporting the food industry (and remember, the industry is not the worker – but that’s another story), support yourself.
Try to make do with what you have at home. Learn to cook month-to-month things, and then actually cook them. Start a list of super-simple meals to make when you feel the urge to splurge.
And remember: Not every meal needs to be a 3-course event. Here are two of my favorites:
Is this a recipe blog? No. Go start a Pinterest board and get inspired.
Or check out Budget Bytes for some cost-per-servings.
If you’re on WIC (or food stamps), there’s also Good And Cheap, a cookbook for eating on $4/day.
2. Stop buying snacks.
It’s okay to be a little hungry in between meals.
Drink some water, have a stretch.
That’s probably the most frugal tool in the box. You can also try buying only the ingredients to make snacks, or snacks that you don’t like very much. If you’re not hungry enough to cook, maybe you don’t need a snack.
Once you go without snacks for six months or more, you’ll be amazed by how often everyone around you eats. They graze constantly, and every chomp is another bite taken out of their food budget.
3. Decrease your cost per meal.
If you really want to cut your grocery bill, you should check out The Prudent Homemaker’s 10-part series: Eat For 40 Cents A Day.
It boils down to three main parts:
- Know what things cost. Keep a price book, opt for in-season produce (when it makes sense), and compare price per pound of similar items.
- Use more filler ingredients. Use less of expensive ingredients (like meat), and proportionally more of the cheap stuff (literally anything that’s not meat). She recommends broths (or water), potatoes, beans, or rice. I would add that vegetables are also a lot cheaper than meat, so increasing the ratio of veg-to-meat will lower your cost per serving.
- Buy strategically. Buy in bulk (but don’t consume more), opt to make things at home, start a garden, glean produce from friends and family (I’d say this goes for leftovers, too!), and get smarter around your snacking habits.
Swap the spendy items for cheaper alternatives.
Opt for eggs instead of meat, and chicken instead of beef. An egg is only 6 cents, but beef is always over $2/lb. Treat it like the luxury that it is. You can often get chicken for $1.50/lb (sometimes $1.38/lb!), making it a simpler alternative.
People have been doing “meatless Mondays” (or Fridays, if you’re devout) for ages.
Spinach, kale, and broccoli are somewhat pricey per lb (although not as much as meat), but cabbage and carrots are dirt-cheap and still incredibly nutritious. You can roast them, saute them, shred them for salads – try it all!
Whatever it is - unless it's medically required - stop buying it.
Presumably you get water piped straight to your house. It costs literally pennies to drink and is actually quite good for you – so don’t make this complicated.
Milk, OJ, soda, cold brew – it’s unnecessary, so see if you can live without it.
Alcohol is not cheap but I’d be a complete hypocrite if I pretended I didn’t buy it. However I will recommend you check out the boxed wine selection – and don’t look down your nose! You may think you're too good for boxed wine, but that's also why you're hemmoraging money at the grocery store. Kill the attitude.
Were you listening? The trick to saving big on snacks is to not buy them at all.
4. Cheaper stores, fewer visits.
I can’t be the only one out there who does a post-mortem (complete with a highlighter and a pie chart) on every grocery store receipt, but I highly recommend it.
I’ve learned that 15-20% of my spending is almost always on impulse purchases, and this trends upward if I have fewer items on my list.
For example, this past week I only spent $32.81, but I bought a bag of Epsom salt and a few bowls of instant noodles on a whim, which totaled $4.86, or 14.8% of my total bill.
It’s not usually proportional; I just happen to throw an extra 1-2 items in the cart when I’m at the store. Fewer shopping trips means fewer impulse purchases.
Wholesale with caution.
Now that’s not a lot of money, but if I were shopping at CostCo it would be very easy to spend much more without realizing it, and over time this adds up. Wholesale stores like CostCo and BJ’s can be a great resource if you use them correctly, but almost no one does. And many people actually consume more when they shop in bulk, so pay close attention to your spending.
Just as snacking when you’re bored can eat up your grocery budget, so can shopping when you’re bored.
My golden rule: Never let the cost per unit affect your rate of consumption.
5. You don’t need every ingredient.
Learn to discern what ingredients are truly necessary in a recipe.
If the book calls for three types of pepper (black, red, and white) but you only have two, will the meal turn out fine?
Can you substitute table sugar for confectioners’ sugar?
Boil recipes down to their basic components to save money on (usually pricey) ingredients you'll only use a few times. Stock your pantry with staples, and don’t worry if you botch a meal here or there – it’s all in the name of learning.
Don’t make this complicated.
Find a few cheap things you like and stick to the plan. You will end up with fewer wasted ingredients, less time spent preparing meals, and more money to spend on things that really matter to you.
Don’t pretend that you’ll suddenly start spending hours every week slaving over the stove if you’ve never scrambled an egg. Start small, build steadily.
Bonus: Things I don’t recommend.
A lot of the “common wisdom” out there is anything but. Don’t believe everything you read, and always, always track your spending to make you’re actually saving money.
Here are some things I personally don’t do:
- Coupons It’s marketing, and you’re probably not doing it right, anyway.
- Buying the Bigger Pizza Are you really going to save the extra pizza, or will you eat it in the same sitting? Never let the cost per unit affect your rate of consumption!
- Meal Planning You don’t need to meal plan, although it can be fun and effective. I make the same 2-3 meals every few days, and just stock up on what I need each week. No waste, no want.
Try a few tips, try them all – good luck with your spending!