We’ve all got to pay the grocery bill. If you’re both busy and surrounded by restaurants and fast food places (as many of us are), you may be spending more on food than you’d like.
Even if you rarely eat at restaurants, preparing food at home can rack up a more deceptive bill. Throwing out uneaten leftovers is a common practice. The average family throws away $2,500 worth of food in a year, adding to the estimated one-third of food produced in the world that goes to waste annually.
You probably know the basics: less takeout, more cooking. And anyone who’s lived in a college dorm knows microwaved ramen noodles will do in a pinch. But what money-saving tips will keep you healthy and lower your food bill at the same time? We’ve compiled a few easy, doable changes below—no ramen required.
1. Track your food expenses for one week
Maybe you already know what and where your biggest food expenses are. It’s possible, though, you’re racking up unnecessary charges out of habit. How much is your daily coffee or pre-packaged sandwich costing you per week? The amount might surprise you.
Once you’ve tracked where your food budget is going, you’re more likely to see areas where you can scale back. Plus, you’ll have a handle on your daily meal patterns and be able to incorporate changes that work for your diet.
To make it easier: Most cellphones have a calculator function for quick addition. This function will also come in handy when you’re at the grocery store.
2. Get cash back on grocery purchases
One of the easiest ways to save money is to earn points for the money you’re spending already. A credit card, especially one with no annual fee, lets you cut costs without any extra work.
For example, the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card offers 3% on grocery store purchases (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®). So every time you load up on groceries, you’re earning money just for doing so.
Plus, you’ll also get 3% on dining and popular streaming services, making it even more valuable.
3. Make a shopping list and stick to it
Plan your meals ahead of time and know the ingredients for each meal. The time you spend planning will end up being time you save while you’re shopping.
Quick 2-minute video about ways to save money on groceries!
Grocery store chains research consumer habits, and they design stores to make sure shoppers buy as much as possible. The enticing display or recently relocated food section is intended for you to notice items you might have ignored—and rack up more purchases in the process. Candy and small items are located near the registers for the same reason. That’s why a grocery list is essential. When you know what you want, you’re less likely to grab impulse buys.
Stick with the generic or store brand of groceries whenever available. The ingredients are usually similar to the brand-name versions, but you’re not shelling out extra money for the brand.
Other tricks to keep your bill low at the grocery store include using coupons, paying in cash, calculating your amount as you go, and visiting the store less often.
To make it easier: You can write out a pen-and-paper list or use one of several handy grocery shopping list apps on your phone.
4. Buy non-perishable items in bulk
Non-perishable items (items that will last a long time) include grains like rice and pasta, nuts, beans, spices, and household products like toilet paper and paper towels.
These staples are cheaper in bulk—and the more you buy at a time, the less often you’ll have to remember to pick them up.
To make it easier: Look at the price per volume on items. This is especially helpful when comparing two similar items, since price per volume tells you how good a deal you’re really getting. The price per volume will usually be written on the left-hand side of the price display (the amount you’re paying is on the right).
5. Make your own versions of prepared and processed foods
Know when you’re paying for convenience and packaging. Try making your own version of certain pantry staples like spaghetti sauce, hummus, vegetable broth, granola, and more. You’ll cut down on the preservatives you’re consuming, and you’ll save cash.
Invest in a few cooking staples for the kitchen, like a nonstick pan, a cutting board, knives, and a blender. Even if you’re cooking only a few times a week, you’ll get your money’s worth.
To make it easier: Know what you have on hand before you go shopping for recipe ingredients. Take stock of the pantry and the freezer to make sure you’re not buying duplicates. Check expiration dates, though—especially on dairy products.
6. Pre-cook food for the week
Weekends can be a great time for meal prep. Prepare and freeze enough food for a couple of days or an entire week. Freezer breakfast sandwiches for busy mornings are a popular make-ahead recipe.
Also, think of a few simple, go-to meals you can make in 30 minutes or less. If your schedule makes it challenging to set aside time to cook enough for several days, quick meals are especially helpful. The key is to plan ahead in whatever way works best for you.
To make it easier: At least once a week, clean out the fridge and use up the leftovers. Still-good vegetables can go in casseroles, stir-fries, and plenty of other recipes. Mix with grains and proteins for a variety of meals.
7. Buy produce locally and in season
Fruits and vegetables tend to be cheaper—and fresher!—at a local farmer’s market. See if there’s a market near you. Another option is to sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture or CSA food share. With CSA you get a box of fresh, local produce delivered every week. Fair warning: you’ll get a lot of veggies this way!
Wherever you shop, in-season produce will be a better deal than out-of-season produce. Fruits and veggies are cheaper for stores when they’re in season, and as a bonus, better for the environment. Here’s a guide to what fruits and vegetables are in season throughout the year.
To make it easier: Frozen fruits and veggies also have a lot of nutrition, and they last longer than fresh produce. If your produce tends to go bad before you can use it, try buying frozen veggies instead and defrosting them as needed.
A few extra tips to keep your food bill budget-friendly:
- Going vegetarian, or just cutting down on the meat you buy, is a great way to save money on groceries. Meat can be pricey. For protein, try healthy non-meat sources like beans, lentils, tofu, peanut butter, brown rice and more.
- Reducing the frequency of an expense, instead of the dollar amount, can help you successfully scale back on extra food expenses. Instead of ordering less when you eat at restaurants, try going out fewer times in a week or a month. Or buy meat and processed food on fewer occasions.
- If you don’t have access to a car, trips to an inexpensive supermarket may be trickier. Find local markets, co-ops, or convenience stores where you can shop regularly, and plan a larger trip to stock up on essentials. You might need to shop more frequently, so be sure to stick to that list.
- Start small and think positive. Just like with a diet or weight loss plan, if you feel deprived, you’re less motivated to make permanent budget changes. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to cut down on your food bill without feeling like you’re missing out—and many have the added benefit of being healthier choices.
8. Use a meal delivery service
If convenience and savings are what you’re looking for, meal delivery services may be the answer. They offer ingredients, (and some offer fully-prepared meals) so you can skip grocery shopping and cook a quick meal from the comfort of your own home.
One of our favorites is Home Chef. They have a huge selection of meals, easy-to-follow recipe cards, and they aren’t terrible price-wise. Plus there are often promotions Try Home Chef - Get $90 off your first 3 orders! that are highly worthwhile to check out.
You may be wondering: Are meal delivery services cheaper than buying your own groceries? In most cases, no. But, there’s a lot more to it than the price of the food itself. For an in-depth comparison of meal delivery services vs. grocery shopping, check out our video below.
Food is a required expense that, unlike rent or bills, isn’t fixed. It can vary widely from month to month, and it’s often the easiest place to cut back. By tracking your expenses, creating (and sticking to) a shopping list, and making meals ahead of time, you can open up some serious space in your budget.
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