How much do you spend on groceries each week? Each month? How much do you spend on eating out or take out? These numbers are important, and ones that I’ve been overlooking too long. How about you?
Over the last year, my income has been on a roller coaster. It’s up, it’s down, it’s doing a loopy-loop. And while I have tried to keep everything in our daily lives level, it’s meant that some months were leaner than others. I focused on cutting back on energy use, driving, unnecessary purchases. But what I didn’t tackle was our food consumption problem. Stressed, I gave into takeout too many times. Groceries? They haven’t seen a budget in way too long.
But now, it’s something I need to face. It’s time to conquer our out-of-control food spending. In some ways, this is a completely overwhelming undertaking. There are certain foods I can’t just stop buying — as a professional recipe developer, I can’t just stop buying for work. But what I can do is manage my family’s food purchases. By ignoring this, I am perpetuating the problem — and holding myself and my family back from moving ahead. The money we’re wasting on food could be doing us greater good elsewhere.
So where do we start?
7 Ways to Spend Less on Groceries
Saving money on food always begins with planning. While you don’t have to meal plan for the week, it’s a great idea and does work. But if that’s not for you, you can still save big by shopping smartly. I’ve been reading up on tips for spending less at the grocery store as well as frugal recipes. And this helps. But what’s helped more are these tips from experts on some ways to cut back and eat well.
1. Look in Unconventional Places
Confession: I usually check some unusual places for my favorite specialty ingredients like special salts and oils. Turns out I am not alone. “Some things can be found in unlikely places. Unprocessed sea salt can be found in TJ Maxx and Marshalls. It is cheaper than I can buy it wholesale. To make the trip worth while, we will purchase several bags or bottles at a time,” says Jonathan Steele, RN.
2. Choose in Season
You’ve probably heard it a billion times, but if you buy in-season fruits and veggies, you will spend less. And they are likely to have better flavor. “Strawberries and watermelon may be tempting in the winter months, but you’ll pay top dollar, too! Buy fruits and veggies when they’re in season. Coming into fall, your best bets will be apples, cabbage, kale, pears and pumpkins to name a few. Enjoy all that the seasons have to offer,” says Traci Mitchell, a healthy living and fitness writer.
3. Invest in Bulk
Eating healthier foods can result in less spending, but you have to know how to buy. Packaged ingredients naturally come at a premium, but you can save by hitting the bulk bins. “Rather than spending your money on a five pound bag of potato chips or super sized sodas, put your cash toward healthier bulk items, such as oatmeal, brown rice, dry beans, lentils and even flours. Even higher end food stores offer these foods at a much, much lower price than their traditional size counterparts,” says Mitchell. Plus, since these ingredients can make bigger dishes, they’ll go a lot farther than the snack foods would, says Mitchell.
4. Skip the Convenience
These days, you can get your cheese already shredded, your chocolate milk already mixed and your PBJ in a convenient ready-to-go sandwich. That doesn’t mean you should though. When you buy the convenience items, you spend more and get less. “Convenience has a price! If you buy shredded cheese and pre-cut fruits and veggies, your grocery bill will add up quickly. Opt for do it yourself foods and enlist the help of your spouse or kids during meal prep. Also, a Presto Salad Shooter is a wise purchase than can save you money and time,” says Karen Hoxmeier, who writes the couponing and bargain shopping website MyBargainBuddy.com.
5. DIY is a Saver
Here in the U.S., the emergence of boneless chicken, pork and beef has been a big convenience. But even though the cost of this convenience is small, you lose out on the ability to make use of the bones — which are valuable for making your own ingredients for other dishes like stocks. “Save chicken bones – keep them in a bag in the freezer – and when you have enough of them, make stock. Reduce the stock so that it’s really concentrated and save in pint jars in the freezer. Great stock, doesn’t cost a thing, other than maybe a carrot or onion for the stock,” says Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes. Likewise, you can do this with beef bones, shrimp shells and unused portions of veggies.
6. Know Your Store’s Specials
Back when Will was an infant, our grocery budget was tiny so I stretched my dollars by picking up big deals from the store’s produce mark-down rack and in the meat counter. This technique still works great — especially when you can freeze the items for later. “I love finding manager’s special deals at my grocery store. In fact, I create nightly meals based on these deals. Usually any fresh foods, meats, fish, milk, yogurt, etc. nearing the expiration date will be marked down. … Often times, your bakery may also sell day-old bread at a discount–so check in the evening for these savings. Bread that seems a stale, makes for delicious croutons or stuffing,” says consumer-savings expert Andrea Woroch.
7. Don’t Forget to Stock Up
One more thing … when fruits and veggies are in season, buy extra to freeze. This works particularly well with peppers, berries and other easy-to-freeze produce. “Perfect example – we picked blackberries when they were ripe – enough to last us all year long. We ate what we could and froze the rest. Now I have delicious blackberries on hand for smoothies, pies, etc. and I certainly am not paying the current price of $4.00 a pint,” says Pam Howard of Be Healthy. Be Happy. You can also use this tactic when cereals, oatmeals, crackers and pantry staples go on sale too. But always be sure to buy what you will use — otherwise you’re wasting money on whatever doesn’t get used.
This is Just the Beginning
A longtime reader suggested that I create a link up and talk more about this regularly — and I think she’s right. Being budget-conscious in the grocery store is important. Times are still tough, and we could all use that savings somewhere else.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. She is the author of four cookbooks including The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta, both from Rockridge Press. A single mother to a tween and a teen, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.