Seven Ways We Effectively Reduce Our Food Budget

Sarah and I have three children. According to the official USDA statistics on food costs, the monthly cost for our family to eat per month assuming we use their “liberal” food plan is $1,337.80. On the other hand, if we use their “thrifty” plan, our monthly food cost for our family drops to $686.60.

In other words, if we were able to move from their “liberal” plan to their “thrifty” plan, we would save $651.20 per month.

For the most part, that switch mostly has to do with making more sensible food choices and being more logical about what you’re buying at the store. It doesn’t mean moving from filet mignon to beans.

Over the last several years, Sarah and I have figured out a lot of tricks to make this work for our family. Some of them are big tricks – and some of them are small tricks. Here are seven of the biggest tactics that really work.

Go as long as you can between grocery store visits – a week at the bare minimum. Every time a person goes to the grocery store, they end up buying at least a thing or two that they didn’t plan to buy. Grocery stores are simply full of temptation.

Our secret tactic is to make something of a game out of this. We try to last as long as humanly possible without a grocery store visit. When we’re at the store, we’ll buy underripe produce so that it will ripen on our countertop and be perfect in about a week. We also tend to buy a lot of staples so that we can easily construct meals as we go. We actually pride ourselves in finding ways to get another day’s worth of nutritious meals on the table for our family without a store visit.

Use a grocery list. Never walk into a grocery store without a clear-cut list of what you want to buy when you’re there.

Our secret tactic is to keep an ongoing grocery store list out on the table. Whenever we notice that something we need is gone or in short supply, we add it to the list.

Use a meal plan. A meal plan is the easiest way there is to make sure you’re constructing a sensible grocery list. A meal plan is just a list of the meals you intend to have over the next week or so. From that, you can figure out what items you need to make all of those meals possible.

Our secret tactic is to plan out at least two weeks in advance, but we don’t “lock down” meals onto specific days unless there’s a freshness issue. That way, we usually have some options as we go.

Use grocery store flyers when making that meal plan. The flyers from your grocery stores tell you what items are on sale this week. Use those sale items as the backbone for your meal plan. The more meals you have centered around items from the grocery flyer, the better off you’ll be.

Our secret tactic is to use recipe search engines like AllRecipes and search by ingredient using what’s on sale. I usually try to search using two complementary sale items at once to narrow down the search and take advantage of multiple sales.

Learn how to cook and how to use pantry staples effectively. If you know enough about cooking to be able to assemble something nutritious and reasonably tasty out of lots of different sets of items, then it becomes very easy to shop for groceries. You can just keep plenty of various staples on hand, such as beans, rice, spices, and so on, and they’ll make for the backbone of anything you might want to make.

Our secret tactic is to always have plenty of rice and frozen vegetables, as they combine together to make a very cheap and very easy meal. Just add some herbs and a bit of flavoring and you have a meal. Use different vegetables and different proteins and you can make lots of variations on this meal very, very easily.

Make meals in advance. If a meal can easily be prepared and then frozen at some later point in the preparation process, make two or three extras when you make the main meal and pop them in the freezer.

Our secret tactic is to take advantage of warehouse store prices on some items while buying tons of sale items at our regular grocery store when they all combine together to make a meal our family likes. We just freeze a few copies of the meal and then pull them out as needed.

Eat before you go to the grocery store. Going to the grocery store on an empty stomach is a giant mistake. Everything looks tempting and it becomes really, really easy to put stuff in the cart. If you’re full, this temptation becomes greatly reduced.

Our secret tactic is to have one of us – either Sarah or myself – make a solo trip to the grocery store after dinner while the other one handles our children’s bedtime routine. The person doing the grocery shopping is doing so on a full stomach and without the distraction of children.

Nothing about these tactics forces you to change the food you like. It simply finds ways for you to spend less on the food shopping routines you already have.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.