If you’ve been trying to cut costs to stop living from paycheck to paycheck, the food category was probably one of the first to take a hit. You may have tried slashing your grocery budget to an unrealistic amount and clipping coupons to make ends meet.
If this approach is working, kudos to you. But if you're struggling with it or even failing miserably, don’t throw in the towel just yet. Establish a realistic figure and keep reading -- I'll offer you some creative ways to feed your family without breaking the bank.
Resolving to survive off $100 a month probably won't do the trick, especially you typically spend closer to $700 on food. But here are some tips that will help you cut costs and make room in your budget for the items you enjoy most.
1. Know When to Shop
Coupons and promotional offers found in weekly circulars aren’t the only ways to reduce your grocery bill. Knowing when to visit the grocery store in the first place can also work. A few tips on strategic grocery shopping:
- Shop on Wednesday: This is often the best day to shop because it's when many grocers release their weekly circular. You'll have first dibs on sale items for the week ahead and, if you're lucky, the store may still honor price reductions on items you forgot to pick up from the previous week's sale.
- Avoid Tuesdays and Saturdays: Tuesdays can be crowded as people try to take advantage of expiring deals, and the week's sale items may be sold out; Saturday is the busiest shopping day of the week.
- Shop early or late: The early bird gets the worm because clearance items are usually placed out in the wee hours of the morning and can disappear in a flash. Meanwhile, an hour before closing is when department heads or grocers get desperate, especially in the bakery and produce department, drastically reducing prices on items set to expire.
Because of the level of uncertainty that exists in my schedule, I'm not always able to shop on Wednesdays. However, when I do have some downtime, I try to visit the grocery store, followed by the fruit stand, as early as possible.
It never fails; the aisles are so quiet you can hear a penny hitting the floor, there's a handsome supply of meat on clearance, and I fly through the checkout line. As for the fruit stand, the selection is always fresh, and since I'm usually the first customer to arrive, there are plenty of options to choose from.
2. Hit the Meat Market
Several years ago, when I set out on a mission to slash food expenditures in half, meat was always problematic. We couldn’t get enough of it, but the price always made it among the most expensive items on our grocery receipt. (It didn't help that we refused to eat pork or red meat, which usually come at a far lower rate than turkey, chicken, and seafood.)
After countless hours perusing weekly ads and driving around town from grocer to grocer in search of the best deals, I came across a promotional flyer for a meat market -- and the rest was history. While we're conditioned to buy everything at the same big store, big chains won't always have the lowest prices on everything. Small and niche grocers -- like butchers -- can often offer better deals on fresher products: They specialize in one thing, do it well, and sell it cheap.
Another benefit of meat markets: They often sell in massive quantities, so when a good deal pops up, you can buy in bulk and freeze the rest to use later.
Unfortunately, the meat market I used to frequent shut it doors, so I currently rely on discounted meats from the local grocer.
3. Shop Local Produce Stands
Because of my love for small businesses, I’m always on a mission to shop local when possible. What better way than to buy fruits and vegetables at the local produce stand?
As we discovered with meat markets, specialized retailers are your friend. Not only are the items at produce stands usually fresher, they're often priced lower than you'd find at the grocery store. Even farmers markets, which have a deserved reputation for selling higher-priced organic fruits and veggies, can offer some great deals, especially on locally grown produce in season. Plus, you're supporting others in your community.
We are definitely a family of fruit fanatics -- it disappears more quickly than all the other perishables in our kitchen. Among our favorites are apples, grapes, mangoes, and bananas, and we save at least $5.00, if not more, on our weekly supply each time we visit the local produce stand.
One more general tip, whether you're at the farm stand or the grocery store: Buy produce in season. The basic law of supply and demand dictates that strawberries are going to be more expensive in late fall than in midsummer, when they're bursting on farms all over the U.S. Buying produce at the right time of year limits your recipe choices a bit, but ensures you'll pay less for produce that is far fresher.
And thanks to today's global economy, there are actually two seasons for most produce: the northern hemisphere harvest, and an echo harvest six months later in the southern hemisphere. So, for example, buy fresh American grapes, apples, and pears when they're bountiful in early autumn -- and their South American counterparts again in early spring.
4. Prepare it From Scratch
For those of us who are strapped for time or occasionally stricken by the laziness bug, frozen family-sized dinners are a cost-efficient alternative to eating out. But once the food is scarfed down, thoughts about preservatives and long-term health effects always linger in the back of your mind.
As a rule, we pay extra for convenience. So if you want to save money (and eat healthier to boot), trade in some convenience for cash.
The next time you’re tempted to pick up a frozen lasagna or pasta dinner, bail out of that section as soon as possible and head for the fresh veggie, seafood, and meat sections. Home-cooked meals cost a fraction of a dinner out and still come in much cheaper -- and healthier -- than frozen dinners, especially once you factor in leftovers.
And if you're extremely crunched for time, try making a dish that requires minimal preparation or attention and can be cooked on autopilot in an oven or crockpot. Websites like Crock-Pot Ladies and Food Network can help you get started with recipes.
5. Shop Online
Wouldn’t it be grand if you could have your groceries delivered to your doorstep? Depending on where you live, grocery delivery services such as Safeway, PeaPod, FreshDirect, Walmart's Grocery-to-Go, Schwan's, and even AmazonFresh make this possible.
And, counterintuitively, even though prices are usually a bit higher online, you can actually end up spending less -- because you won't be wandering the aisles, adding tempting but unnecessary items to your cart. Plus, you'll know exactly how much you're about to spend before you get to the check out, so you can adjust your cart to stay on budget.
Another major benefit is that you can take advantage of special pricing without traveling all over town. However, the service is accompanied by a delivery fee, and you miss out on the opportunity to hand-pick your own meats, produce, and veggies. But it still beats rolling down the grocery aisle and picking up every item that catches our eye. (Also: Did we mention that they bring the groceries right to your house? If a $7 fee frees up an extra hour for you to work or prepare a home-cooked dinner for your family, that's not a bad investment.)
6. Skip the Major Chains
You've been shopping with the same grocery store chain for years, so it’s second nature to head straight there when the pantry is growing bare or you need some ingredients for a new recipe. But have you ever given discounted grocers a chance?
Those in our area, including Aldi and Save-A-Lot, offer many of the same items as traditional grocers, but at a fraction of the cost. And several of the brands found on the shelves are familiar household names. To date, the only drawbacks I've found are the small fees assessed for shopping bags and the cash-only policy at select locations. But those definitely don't outweigh the cost savings, and anyway, conserving shopping bags is good for the environment and using only cash can prevent you from overspending.
7. Ignore Coupons
Confused by this suggestion? That's understandable, but it’s only geared towards those who are addicted to coupons and have a tendency to overdo it.
To slash your grocery bill, I’d like you to focus on sale items, and here's why: If you spot a rock-bottom deal on a particular item and happen to have several coupons that will enable you to stock up, not only do you run the risk of exceeding your budget, but you may end up with a surplus of items you can’t actually use.
During my days as a coupon junkie, this was all too common. I’d set a meager budget of $25 per week, spot a deal on Pop-Tarts or some other item my children enjoy, and blow the lid off the budget. Although I was saving a ton of cash, I was also spending much more than I should have, not to mention the countless hours I spent clipping and printing coupons. Nowadays, we focus on weekly promotions and spend $50 or so per week.
8. Use Smartphone Apps
Several grocers have digital coupon apps that you can download on your smartphone, but you can take things a step further. With apps such as Food on the Table, you type in your food preferences and the app will generate a comprehensive list of recipes based on the current promotions at your favorite grocery stores. This can drastically reduce time spent on meal planning (which we'll discuss in a moment) and add a little variety at the dinner table, all while ensuring you're getting a good price on your food.
And if you’re set on coupons, download apps from Push Pins, CardStar, or Shortcuts.com, just to name a few. Once you type in an item, they automatically display deals and load them onto your loyalty card.
9. Reduce Meat Consumption
Meat is expensive, and it's getting pricier. Now, I’m not suggesting you completely do away with your favorite cuts of beef, pork, turkey, or chicken. Instead, make it stretch by tossing it into other dishes where it's not the main attraction. Here are a few examples of meals that are tasty but don't rely so heavily on meat:
- Chicken and rice
- Crockpot stew
- Spaghetti and sauce with a quarter pound of ground turkey or beef
- Beans and rice with ham or sausage
- Bean chili with ground beef or turkey
- Chicken or shrimp alfredo
- Fried rice
- Mac n' cheese with ham or bacon
10. Don't Overdo it With the Produce
As a fruit and veggie enthusiast, I used to agonize over which items I had to leave behind in order stay within my budget, and then a light bulb came on in my head. Select just one or two of each for the week to reduce waste and cut costs. It may sound a bit boring, but there's plenty of ways to mix things up to tame your taste buds, and you'll move on to a new combo next week.
For example, if we select carrots and apples for a particular week, here are some ways we mix things up throughout the week:
- Diced apple slices
- Candied apples (on occasion)
- Apples with caramel or peanut butter dip
- Baked apple fries
- Diced carrot squares in soup
- Sautéed carrots
- Stewed or roasted carrots
- Raw carrots with ranch or blue cheese dip
11. Use a Meal Planner
Planning your meals ahead of time will make a huge difference in your food budget. When you know what's on the menu each day, there's no opportunity to linger around in the kitchen wondering what's for dinner, no last-minute trips to the grocery store, no desperate take-out orders, and less chance that you'll buy something only to let it go bad.
What you will have is consistency in your food budget and a detailed plan of what's on the menu each day. To get started:
- Step 1: Conduct an inventory of the food you have on hand
- Step 2: Grab the sales circular from your favorite grocer
- Step 3: Circle any items that pique your interest and complement what you already have in the fridge or pantry
- Step 4: Narrow the list down to include items that are under budget
- Step 5: Plan out your meals for the week based on those ingredients
And you're all set. Head to the store -- just make sure to stick to your list to avoid the temptation of unnecessary purchases.
Although I've mastered the art of strategic grocery shopping, I still use a meal planner and it continues to work like a charm. Plus, my kids don't have an excuse to beg for pricey take-out options during the week since they are well aware of what's on the menu for each evening before the week even begins. (From what I've heard, this tactic also works with teenagers, who tend to think money grows on trees.)
12. Make it Stretch
In other words, get creative. If you've already consumed a bulk of the items in your kitchen, think outside the box to see what you can do with what remains. And don't forget about any leftovers hanging out in the fridge or freezer that are still fit for consumption.
A few nights ago, I prepared a large pot of rice with shredded chicken and green beans. The veggies disappeared in minutes, but we had plenty of rice left after dinner. Unwilling to spend too much time in the kitchen the next night, I steamed a few clusters of broccoli and tossed the chicken from the freezer into the oven. Served with the leftover rice, we had ourselves a scrumptious meal using just one fresh ingredient.
In fact, I do this often if we have more food left over than initially expected. Each time we do, it creates more wiggle room in the budget to indulge in a few extras the following week.