If you’ve overindulged over the holidays, you might need to do some “belt tightening” to get back on budget. Here are a 12 ways to slash your food grocery costs.
We’ve all been there – the New Year comes & when we sit down with the bills we wonder what we’ve done. Or at least, if I’m being honest, I’ve been there. And then it’s triage time. While some items might not be totally in your control, your food budget is. Most of these ideas are very doable all year long, a few are only for the short term and couple are not good strategies at all unless you’re in a place of desperation. I’ll explain that, more below. In the meantime, here’s how to put your thumb in the dike & slash your food grocery costs.
None of these changes are that difficult to make, especially with a little planning & effort. Maybe it will help to think of that time and effort as time you are being paid for. Essentially, every penny, dime & dollar you save by your time and effort pays you back. Grab your receipts (You do save them, right? I told you to back in 2010! Okay, maybe that wasn’t fair, lol!) and take a look at what you’ve spent on groceries and eating out and decide where you can make some cuts.
1.) nix restaurants – cook at home:
Over the years, I’ve found that the cost of eating out, whether you’re ordering off the dollar menu at a fast-food place or the highest end restaurant is about four times that of what you’d pay for a comparable item at home. Keep in mind, when you make things at home, you may have a few extra items you’ll need to use elsewhere in your future meals.
That 4x more figure is not counting salads, drinks or desserts. These items are usually 10 times or more at a restaurant than they would be to make or have at home. Eating at home is a great way to slash your food grocery costs!
Yes, up above, I said salads, for those of you that don’t think anything of going through a drive-through to pick up a “healthy” salad because it’s easy and you’re worried about buying & wasting ingredients. $7.00 to $10.00 can buy a LOT of ingredients. You are usually ahead if you buy all the ingredients for a salad (at a decent price) & make one salad, then toss all the rest of the perishable veggies in the trash. Shocker, huh?
2.) pack your lunches:
This goes hand and hand with the above, cook at home. That same amount you’ve spent for your burger meal or Chinese take out you’re grabbing for lunch can feed four adults a similar meal made at home. Or can feed you for four days. Or feed a family four for literally days if you shop right and cook a budget meal, instead.
That might mean planning your lunches, or planning on cooking more of a meal and setting a little aside for lunches. Oh gosh, you’ve just become trendy! You are “meal prepping.” The payoff for planning can be tremendous.
If you’re sitting with your receipts, add up the amounts spent on lunches out. You might be surprised. And you might realize, especially if you’re on a budget and always trying to be as cheap with your options as you can, that you don’t really have as much of a sense of satisfaction as you might think you should for the amount of money spent. When you’re wanting to slash your food grocery costs, both sasifaction and satiety are good things to keep in mind.
3.) eat breakfast & make coffee at home:
While you’re at it, make breakfast, don’t buy it. Take it along if you need to. And let’s talk coffee – it might not, alone, save you for a budget emergency in January, but coffee makes me crazy. Sorry to be so judgmental (I have my own wasteful things) but think about environmental waste, alone in takeout and K-cups! By the way, for years my daughter bought cheap coffee & put it in her husband’s canister of expensive coffee. He never caught on and he considered himself quite the coffee connoisseur and even bragged about his good taste from time to time. Oh, gosh – whatever you do, don’t tell him!!
Make your own coffee, refill your own Keurig filters if you use them. A budget Folgers runs about 8 cents a cup. The cheapest Keurig cups run about 25 cents on the best sale at Costco (in December & January when coffee is at a low – coffee IS seasonal and cheaper in season) and can run up to a dollar a cup at the grocery. And a cup of joe at Caribou, Starbucks or anywhere else? The sky’s the limit.
Don’t think there’s much difference in cost between 8 cents and 25? There’s not, but it is the little things we use that add up. If you’re a couple and each of you drinks a large, 16-ounce coffee a day, the difference is $250 over the course of a year. It’s closer to $500 if you pay a good sales price of 50 cents each for your Keurig cups. And it’s $1,000 a year if you’re paying a dollar each. How hard have you worked to save that amount of money on other items? Maybe you’ve shopped and done comparison pricing for weeks and/or put off the purchase of an appliance or piece of furniture? Maybe you’ve had to put off a vacation?
4.) eat breakfast for dinner:
It’s not going to kill anyone to have pancakes or waffles or eggs for dinner once a week and might be a fun change-up for the family, especially families that have two working parents, or one, or one parent working two jobs, who don’t have time in the a.m. to make a fun breakfast. I think this can be a fun strategy to work in your meal planning.
Adapt it to your diet. Low carb, gluten-free or vegetarian is always easily adapted for breakfast. Vegan might (and always does) have a few more challenges.
Nix the mixes, pancake mix is one of the biggest ripoffs, ever, next to cereal. And syrup. Make your own syrup from brown sugar or even better, white sugar and molasses. Cut your own potatoes for hashbrowns. Skip the premade breakfast sandwiches – as a matter of fact, skip the premade anything. Take a look at oatmeal and when you’re tired of that, your own homemade granola. Skip the individual yogurt containers. Buy it (or make it) and divvy up your own. (Making your own is always a great strategy to slash your food grocery costs, but more on that, below.)
5.) plan a meatless meal or meals:
Vegetarian meals are generally less expensive and usually better for you than a standard American meal. This is a great strategy to implement now and in the future. Start once a week, maybe even twice a week and see how it goes. It’s a myth that vegetables are expensive – unless you are buying expensive, out of season vegetables. Shop the sales and work your meals around what’s on sale.
It’s a myth that most frozen vegetables are less expensive than fresh, too, unless you’re talking out of season vegetables and probably using coupons; coupons can always skew those numbers. Compare the prices, always. And don’t be fooled about frozen broccoli – a pound is 10 ounces of broccoli and 6 ounces of water.
Fill out those vegetarian meals with healthy grains and dried beans and legumes. Yeah, it’s not a myth that beans are cheap. Try to embrace them as a great source of cheap protein; they can be fab! But maybe your vegetarian meal is a pasta based one. Buy it on sale and make your own sauce from canned tomatoes. For someone that was a vegetarian for years, and still eats quite a few meatless meals, I’ve not posted many, but I do have a few Meatless Meals on my site.
6.) cook from scratch:
This is always a great budget strategy, and will just about always save you money. In all my years, I’ve only ever found two prepared, grocery store items that were cheaper than homemade. One is a boxed cake mix and the other is Betty Crocker Scalloped Potatoes. They were a few cents cheaper than homemade – but then neither is as good.
Not any mix, not macaroni and cheese, not canned soup, not prepared pasta sauce, not hamburger helper, not frozen french fries, canned Chow Mein, not ANY food considered to be “cheap” has ever beaten a comparable homemade version in price, other than those two items, the cake mix, and the scalloped potatoes. I haven’t compared every single item sold, but I have compared literally hundreds of items.
But factor in the fact that homemade is so much better, that if it is do-able for you, make it at home. If it’s not do-able, just for this tightening the budget time, consider if you can eat something else that IS easy to make at home. This homemade bread requires an initial investment in yeast but runs about 35 cents for a pound and a half loaf, takes about five minutes of active time to make, and is out of this world delish.
7.) cook super simple:
While you might not always want to cook super simple meals, it’s a great way to shave off a little cost short term and slash your food grocery costs. If you don’t grow your own, skip the fancy herbs. Skip the fancy condiments and sauces, too. Skip sour cream, maybe a lot of your cheese. I know when I was on a severe budget I often skipped a lot of the extras that really brought vibrancy (and micronutrients) to the table, and discounted how important those things are, but short term, it’s not going to hurt ya to go without.
Maybe you can have grilled cheese & tomato soup, simple Down Home Casseroles. Tuna salad sandwiches or tuna melts. Think of what your Grandma might have made, especially meals that don’t revolve around a big protein and 2 sides. Think of “ethnic” type meals, too. A simple Thai Curry, maybe Bean Burritos and Mexican Rice. Take a look at my Sandwich Menu, too.
Pick your busiest night, the night you’re tempted to run through the drive-through or order in and make something super simple. But satisfying. Snack later on popcorn (freshly popped, homemade, of course) while you’re watching that Netflix movie.
8.) cook slow:
Buy and make larger, budget on sale proteins, the kind that needs to cook long and slow (pork shoulder comes to mind, and so do dried bean dishes, or you might just cook a lot of something on sale) and cook on the weekend, in the slow cooker or the Instant Pot. Use that to spin off multiple meals and/or lunches throughout the week. This has been something I’ve done most of my life.
So here we are, meal prepping again! I have a lot of “slow meals” and quite a few posts on how to use the leftovers, to refashion them into something marvelous. If needed, divide the original meal in the kitchen, rather than bringing it to the table. My son, in particular, could make a pretty huge dent in just about anything, but if only a portion of it was served, was always more moderate.
See my leftover menus for some great ideas to refashion your meals. Access it by clicking here or in the right sidebar, or go directly to Inspiration and Recipes for Leftover Beef, Leftover Steak, Leftover Pork, 12 Days of Turkey (or chicken), and/or 12 Days of Ham. These only scratch the surface of my leftover pages; if you like them, click around for more. I’m always adding.
9.) think soups, chili, and chowders:
There’s hardly anything more frugal than a big pot of soup, especially if it’s hearty and filling. Add some crackers, biscuits, bread or cornbread and you have a meal. Many soup recipes can be doubled and divvied up, saving time and maximizing ingredients (and frozen if you want) and toted along for lunches. I am a huge fan of soup and have quite a few on my site. Check out my Soup, Chili & Chowders.
When you make soup, you can incorporate a lot of the above suggestions. You’re covered for lunches, you can go vegetarian, you can cook low and slow or keep it fast and simple, you are cooking from scratch and you can meal plan/prep with soup. Some of my soups are even made from leftover items. You just can’t go wrong with soup!
Many soups are heavy on veggies, and some are heavy in a sneaky way. For the best budget soups, think vegetarian, minestrones, chilis, soups with cabbage, beans or legumes or pasta. Many soups use a little meat or chicken but generally, it’s a small amount compared to the total amount of soup, so it’s a great way to stretch a protein.
10.) use meat as a condiment & think of the per pound price:
Think meals full of vegetables and lighter on the meats. Stir-fries, ramen bowls, fried rice, simple curries, like this Thai Chicken Curry with Vegetables. If you are into a higher protein meat-based diet, consider larger less expensive (and often tougher cuts) and braise, slow cook or pressure cook them into succulent meals.
Usually, any type of meat is the most expensive part of the meal. When you’re under a tight budget, really be aware of the sale prices, use less of it and be aware of the per pound price, once cooked. If you’re making a dish or a meal, compare the per pound price of the components (even if only in your head) in what you’re eating.
Budget chicken breasts might be $1.29 a pound but is really more expensive when prepared as it shrinks a bit when cooked. Ground beef probably costs more & might shrink a lot. Pasta might be on sale, 99 cents a pound, but just like rice and beans, increases when it cooks. Vegetables, except for waste, of course, usually stay pretty much the same. If you’re having a potato with the skin on, you are getting a better value per pound than say, an artichoke that’s pricier to begin with and has a ton of waste.
11.) make a list of basics and stick to it at the store:
Check your fridge and pantry and use your sales ads to complete meals from what you have, relying on any perishable items in the fridge that need to be used up asap as a starting point. If you have enough in your budget, pick up any items you use regularly that are at a rock bottom price. Do try to get the best bargains of items you normally use, even if you’re not using it this week.
Do shop weekly, so you can pick up the best sale items each week. It’s a myth that you’ll save money with once a month shopping. Or maybe to be more specific, if you don’t impulse buy, it’s a myth. If you’re an impulse buyer and can’t seem to resist, then it might be advisable to shop less. You’ll have to figure out the math. Check your receipts. If you save $30.00 a week by shopping for weekly sales prices and buy $10.00 worth of impulse items you don’t need, you’re ahead. It’s never too late to dump those impulse items. Even at the checkout, hand it to the cashier and say, “Sorry, I changed my mind.” Even as you are walking out of the store, you can go to customer service.
Don’t shop when you’re hungry, tired or in an emotional state. Don’t shop while you’re feeling resentful that you can’t just buy what you want. Those are key impulse buying times for many people. Make little positive notes on your list, to buoy yourself up or give yourself a reminder about what’s important. Be accountable to yourself, or other family members. Making saving money a family project is a great way to make it fun. Put it on the whiteboard, make a sketch of thermometer like they do for fundraisers & fill it in as you save money. Make it a challenge.
Updated: Don’t forget to use your store cards to your advantage, download coupons, shop with your apps, take advantage of price matching and any current money back offers, especially now when so many stores are offering a discount for shopping online with pickup or delivery. Those specials won’t go on forever.
12.) check alternative stores:
Almost any town of any size has some sort of a dollar store. Shop them, using their ads, and you’ll find great bargains. Be careful, though, that what you are paying for is actually a bargain. A friend recently told me she bought multiple cans of tuna for a dollar each. I buy the same tuna at my grocery or my pharmacy, during a great sale, usually Lent or Advent for around 69 to 89 cents each.
Aldi, if you have one, is a great place to pick up items at a discount; I can’t rave enough about Aldi, but do be aware that they’ve recently done some upgrading and with some of those fancier products, comes a fancier price. I notice Brussels sprouts are now in a microwaveable bag and they were more than at my grocery. Always compare prices if you can, and shop accordingly. Do check their bags of onions and potatoes carefully, too.
If you live in a city, you may have access to ethnic markets that often beat out your grocery store prices. Explore them. You may have a program available to you called Fare for All. It is worth checking to see if their discounted prices are better than you can get at the store. Sometimes they are, and sometimes not. And if you need it, and don’t have other resources, don’t be ashamed to check a food pantry.
The two strategies, below, go hand in hand
& are best to use only in desperate times; both are BAD IDEAS on a regular basis, even though they are recommended by many budget blogs.
13.) shopping your pantry first:
For the most part, you do not want to shop your pantry first. Your pantry is an investment of (hopefully) budget-priced food that you’ve bought on sale and will want to rely on in ways that are going to give you the most bang for your buck and sustain you with budget-priced food now AND in the future – even when the food you want to use is not on sale.
If you are going through your “stash” of food without replenishing, in a way that just uses it up, cobbling together meals out of desperation, you may be not spending your money now (notice I didn’t say “saving your money now”) but instead, you may be leaving yourself in a situation where you have to pay more for that food in the future because you need it and it’s not on sale. If you don’t have a choice, by all means, go through everything in the house if you need to, just be aware that it really isn’t the best strategy for saving money in the long run.
Ideally, your grocery list should barely reflect what you want to eat that in any particular week and be comprised of the best bargains of the week; you should be constantly stocking the pantry with sales priced items, constantly stocking your freezer with the best budget proteins and making meals based around what’s fresh along with any items needed to complete meals.
14.) picking an amount of money to spend per week and sticking to it:
This might work for the stock market. It’s called Dollar Cost Averaging. In the food “market” you want to be a bit like a day trader. Or maybe a week trader, since the new prices come out every week. And you want to follow another stock rule, the hardest one. That’s buying low. Since food does not cost the same amount every week, it makes no sense at all to spend the same amount of your hard earned cash on it every week.
I only recommend budgeting a set amount if the amount of money every week if the amount you have to spend is so low, its all you can do is set aside a minuscule amount and buy items on a subsistence basis – or in other words, you’re just buying the cheapest possible thing to just sustain you and not “investing” in the many bargains that might be available that week.
So, to be clear – you should NEVER shop your pantry first or spend only a set amount per week or month for groceries unless you are desperate and really in an emergency situation. The first is not sustainable in that it will cost more in the long run and the second is not going to give you the best bang for your buck. There is only one way to compound that loss of shopping your pantry first (and not replenishing it with bargains) and that is to spend a set amount and not be purchasing the most amount of food with the least amount of money (which you cannot do on a set amount.)
When you have a bit of time, check out my 12 Strategies to Keep Your Food Costs Low and Quality High. It’s a bit of reading, I know but sums up pretty much what I’ve learned about shopping (and eating) well. I just don’t think it’s enough to make cheap food; it’s more about making great food and staying in budget, whatever your budget may be. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed my 12 Ways to Slash Your Food Grocery Costs and found some inspiration! Happy New Years, all!