This is part of an ongoing series about how to trim the budget of the average American. As this series focuses on such broad-based tips, some will work for you and some will not. You’re invited to mention in the comments the tips that you found to be the most useful for inclusion in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of this series.
Food – food at home – $3,465
Another $300 a month component of the average family budget comes from merely eating at home. This does not include food eaten outside the home, nor does it include household cleaning supplies, toiletries, and other items that typically are bunched together in a family’s budget (since they’re often purchased together).
I like cooking at home – in fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m passionate about it. As a result, I often talk about cooking and food on The Simple Dollar, so for you regular readers, many of the tips below will seem old hat.
Five years ago, though, I rarely cooked at home at all. I could barely fry an egg and most meals just seemed ridiculously hard. Instead of putting out all that effort, I’d just go out to eat – and that became an enormous money leak in my life.
Here are twelve big things you can do to reduce your food spending at home, regardless of whether you eat out a lot or if you eat primarily at home.
Learn how to cook at home. The actual ability to cook real food makes it much easier to simply make the choice to eat at home instead of eating out. If you have difficulty boiling an egg, eating out seems like a vastly easier and less time-consuming choice. It’s not. I recommend checking a copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman and just start at the beginning, trying everything suggested in there. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to a “teach yourself to cook at home” book that doesn’t overwhelm you in details right off the bat.
Make grocery lists. Keep a list on your refrigerator with a pen dangling from it. The simple way to do it is to take two cheap fridge magnets, a notepad, a pen, and a piece of string, and homebrew it. Just glue a magnet to the back of the pad and hang it up. Then, glue one end of the string to the other magnet, tape the other end of the string to the pen, and hang up that magnet. Whenever you notice something you need, write it down immediately. Then, when you go to the grocery store, trust your list. Buy only what’s listed. Don’t wander aimlessly and buy a bunch of impulsive things.
Make a simple price book to determine which store near you has the best prices. The easiest way to do this is to identify the fifteen to twenty-five most common things you buy at the grocery store, then shop at a bunch of different stores and compare the prices on these items. The store with the lowest average price on the things you buy should be the store you shop at regularly. I was surprised when I did this test myself, because I discovered that the store I thought was low priced was far from the least expensive option on the stuff I actually bought routinely.
Make a meal plan. Plan out what you’ll eat a week in advance before you leave for the grocery store. Know the next seven breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you’ll have, then make sure you have all of the ingredients for them. If you don’t, add that ingredient to the shopping list (it’s right on your fridge, right?).
Use your grocery store flyer. The grocery store flyer can be a great extension of the meal plan. You can use the flyer to see what items are on sale that week – particularly the fresh produce. Plan your meals for the upcoming week around these items. This will reduce the average cost of each meal because the meals are centered around an ingredient or two you got at a deep discount.
Buy fewer convenience foods. I don’t just mean frozen meals (I’ll get to those in a minute). I’m talking about things like pre-bagged lettuce and pre-cut apples. If you actually sit down and compare the prices on such prepared foods, you’re essentially paying $5 or so for about three minutes’ worth of work. Get some reusable containers, go home with the raw lettuce or apples, and do such things yourself.
Make more convenience foods. Instead of stopping each morning for breakfast, make your own breakfast burritos in advance and freeze them. Instead of just buying a premade mediocre overpriced casserole, make your own casserole in advance and freeze it. You can make your own convenience foods – and you’ll find that they’re both tastier and less expensive than the convenience foods you’ll buy elsewhere.
Drink filtered tap water as your primary beverage. Water from the tap is the least expensive beverage available to you – take advantage of it. Make it into your primary beverage throughout the day. You don’t have to give up whatever your favorite beverage might be – mine is vegetable juice, actually – but if you replace the majority of your intake with water, you’ll reduce your spending, reduce your calorie intake, and view that drink you like so much as a treat rather than a mundane requirement.
Eat (and enjoy) leftovers. When you have food left over, don’t just push it to the back of the fridge and forget about it. Have leftovers for dinner once in a while – and make it more flavorful by amping up the spices in it. Use leftovers as the basis for future meals, like transforming pot roast leftovers into a pie. Even better….
Brown bag your lunch. Take leftovers when you can. Even if you can’t, a simple meal made at home and taken to work is far, far cheaper than going out with the gang. Try doing it one or two days more a week than you do now and you’ll be surprised to see how much money you can save.
Have potluck dinners with friends. Many people socialize by going out to dinner. Why not do the same thing at home with home-cooked food and a much, much smaller bill? Start a series of potluck dinners with your friends by hosting the first one – make the main course and ask your friends to bring side dishes. It can be a fun social engagement, plus it’s a big money saver when it comes to food.
Appreciate (and utilize) the low-cost staples. I love beans. They’re incredibly inexpensive, very filling, and provide essential protein in your diet. I use beans as often as I can in recipes. Rice is another low-cost staple (though not as low-cost as it once was) that can provide an essential element to your meals. Look in the produce section of your local store over time and note the ingredients that are very low-cost. Seek to grow intimately familiar with how to make these items – and you’ll find yourself saving a lot of money.
I want your help! In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming these costs. I’ll include the top choices in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of the series.