How to save money on groceries and on food
We humans have this problematic characteristic of needing food every single day. That means that when people are looking to save money, they naturally look at their grocery bill or what they’re spending eating out.
It’s always a good idea to find ways to limit your grocery bill, but within reason. Did you ever see that news article that recommended that if people wanted to save money, they should stop eating breakfast? We find that to be unbelievably ridiculous advice.
There are better ways to save money on food than starving yourself. After all, food is a necessity, not a luxury. We know people who have survived on Ramen Noodles or kept their food budget to just a few dollars a day in order to save as much money as possible. You won’t find any of those ideas on our list. We believe in eating. We believe in taking care of yourself. But, we also believe that there are strategies that can help you save money on food within the pattern of your normal lives.
Make your own meals
A lot of people will roll their eyes at the suggestion that making their own meals will save them money. People will roll out with all the excuses: you’ve got to have a lot of different ingredients, I just don’t have the time, I’m not a good cook.
Let’s be honest, in the age of YouTube there are a lot of easy solutions for cooking simple but delicious meals that don’t even have to take that much effort. And honestly, if your intent is truly saving money then you don’t need to worry about cooking the special occasion meals with five courses. The real issue is saving money on the day-to-day meals that aren’t even all that special. When “food is fuel,” cooking the food yourself will always be cheaper. You’re unlikely to lament hitting that fast food restaurant one less time in a week.
Avoid prepackaged foods
Prepackaged foods can actually cost quite a bit per ounce. You not only pay for the convenience, but you pay for the packaging as well. If you’re interested in saving money on your groceries, one of the first things you can do is to buy less prepackaged foods.
There’s another reason why prepackaged foods can be so expensive. If the prepackaged food is highly processed, you actually need to eat more of it to feel satisfied. That means you’re spending more per ounce for food that you need to eat more of in order to be satiated.
Never shop when hungry
If you want to save money when you go to the grocery store, the first thing you need to do is never go shopping hungry. It’s amazing how many foods that you don’t really need actually look particularly tasty when you’re hungry. You end up putting a lot of things in your shopping cart that you didn’t really need.
This isn’t just an anecdotal point, either. Behavioral psychologist would call this shopping in a hot state. That means that your emotional state is ready to eat and so you’d be tempted in a way that you wouldn’t if you were in a cold state, or a state where you’re not emotionally charged.
Keep a running calculation when shopping
Here’s a little trick you can use when you’re trying to save money on groceries: as you put food in your cart, keep a mental tally of how much the grocery bill will cost. See how close you can get to predicting what the trip will cost you on checkout.
How is that going to help you save money on groceries?
There are two benefits to doing this. First, you become more aware of the things that you put in your cart and what they cost. It causes you to pause on items that you don’t really need. This can give you just enough space to avoid the immediate temptation. Second, engaging your mind with the calculations helps to avoid the distraction of the merchandising that would induce you to buy more than you need. Your mind is engaged in an exercise that keeps you from being easily swayed by the retailers’ tricks to get you to spend more.
Buy food for the meal plan
One of the most effective ways to save money when you’re grocery shopping is to only buy food for the meal plan you have set up for the coming week. If you have no plans to eat salad, don’t buy lettuce. Even if you know you should be eating lettuce, if you don’t have a plan for eating it, it’s most likely just going to go bad in your crisper drawer. That’s not to say that you can’t plan for snacks. Just be very aware of what you’re going to eat and shop accordingly.
Of course this tip is particularly difficult to do if you have children or teenagers in the house. They tend to eat whatever is in their path regardless of whether it is part of your meal plan or not.
Only eat when hungry
Have you ever found yourself opening the refrigerator door simply because it feels like it’s the time to eat, or because you’re bored, or you don’t even realize how you got there?
We live in a society designed to make sure that we can eat at any moment whether we are out running errands or sitting on the couch. There are foods for every occasion, including watching sports, out shopping, or just sitting around.
In order to save money on groceries, sometimes we just need to learn to rewire our brains. Stop looking at food as a way of dealing with our boredom. Many of us are trained to eat three meals a day even if we’re not hungry. On the other hand, some people would do much better eating six meals a day, but much smaller portions.
If we were a little bit more purposeful about only eating when we were hungry, we almost certainly would spend less at the grocery store filling up our cupboard.
Cook in large batches
One of the best tricks for saving money on food is to cook in larger batches. Leftovers make a great lunch the next day. Not only does it save you the trouble of eating out, it’s often better for you. Some even advocate grilling a lot of chicken on Sunday and eating it for the rest of the week. The added bonus to doing that is that you’re cooking the chicken when it’s most fresh and you’re not having to prepare repeatedly.
If eating the same thing over and over again bores you, you can take the grilled chicken and repurpose it into different meals. To make this even more efficient, portion out the leftovers in containers that you can just grab. It becomes an extremely convenient way to eat, and while helping you save money on groceries.
Avoid spoilage to save on groceries
The nonprofit organization, Feeding America, says that Americans spend $408 billion dollars on food that is thrown out. They believe that as much as 40% of all the food that we buy ultimately ends up in a landfill. The food that is thrown away is food that we don’t finish off our plates, food that we over prepare, or that spoils before we ever get to eat it.
Now, we’re not saying that you could drop your grocery bill by 40% by being more careful about not throwing food out, but you can certainly save quite a bit by just taking a little extra effort to ensure that your food does not spoil. That might mean resealing packages, paying attention to expiration dates, or freezing food that you know you can’t get to before it goes bad.
One trick is to peel and freeze bananas that are starting to turn for use in home-made smoothies or for use in banana bread. Bananas freeze so well, you probably should never have to throw a banana in the trash. Another trick is to not leave refrigerated food out longer than you need to. Food that changes temperature repeatedly loses its freshness faster.
Don’t over prepare
Most of us don’t cook when we’re not hungry. By definition, we’re actually making food because we’re hungry. And because you’re hungry, you probably overestimate how much you will eat when the food gets to your plate. It’s not uncommon for us to prepare far more food than we can eat. Many of us could prepare a lot less food at meal time.
This doesn’t mean that we have to risk leaving the meal unsatisfied. If we are still hungry after eating, we can top off our meal with food that does not need to be prepared. Making a conscious effort to make less food will also have the added benefit of learning better how much food constitutes a meal. You might find that you will be buying less at the grocery store.
Don’t buy drinks when eating out
One of the pleasures of life is going out to eat. It is fun to try new things, eat a favorite meal, or just not have to prepare the food yourself. If you don’t want to deprive yourself of eating out, but you do want to save money, a great strategy is to not buy drinks. Avoiding fountain drinks can decrease a restaurant tab by 10%. Decreasing alcoholic drinks could decrease a restaurant tab by as much as 25 or 30%.
A great way of saving money when you’re eating out is by not buying drinks.
Use a rewards card to save on groceries
Store rewards cards, or membership cards, can be a good way to decrease your spending on groceries. Many of a grocery store’s promotions are tied to their rewards cards. Using a reward card may be the only way to take advantage of the discounted prices.
But saving money with a rewards card is not automatic. Many times, grocery stores rely on their discounts to induce you to buy things that you wouldn’t have otherwise bought or in quantities that you wouldn’t have otherwise bought. As long as you can avoid those retail traps, always swiping your rewards card at the checkout stand can make sure that you’re saving several dollars every visit.
You can even save more if you pay attention to the deals on the things that you were going to buy anyway. Switching brands in order to save 30% can be a great strategy.
Commodities are resources that haven’t been improved which would allow a company to sell them for more money. The closer you get to buying your food at the level of commodity, the more you will save at the grocery store.
Here’s a good example: Suppose you are interested in beans. You could buy a precooked bean dish from the deli counter at the supermarket, but it might cost you $10. The grocery store is charging you for the ingredients, but also the prep time as well as cooking it. You could buy a pre-packed box that will allow you to cook a similar dish, but it comes in a box. This might cost you $5. You are still buying the convenience of everything in the box, but you have to cook it yourself. Now, consider buying a bag of beans. For $5, you can buy enough beans to cook that dish seven or eight times. Of course, you need to prepare the dish yourself from a recipe you might find online, but the amount of food you get for the price is significantly higher.
The closer you buy your food at the commodity level, the more you can save at the grocery store for the food that you are buying. Buying commodities is another way to save money on groceries. The following commodities are especially cost effective:
- Wheat (or flour)
- Ground beef
Buy frozen vegetables to save on groceries
The flash freezing process developed by Clarence Birdseye transformed the quality of frozen vegetables. Before Birdseye, frozen vegetables could be wilty and gray. The food was preserved, but the quality was low. Today, frozen vegetables can be an effective way to save money on groceries. Buying frozen food means that you are buying food that won’t spoil or lose freshness if you don’t eat it in a couple of days. The flash-freezing process can also mean that the vegetables can be harvested later, preserving more of the nutrients in the food.
When you are buying frozen vegetables, do what you can to avoid the much more expensive single-use packaging for microwave use. It is a slight convenience that isn’t worth the cost. Buy the bigger bags and use what you need over time.
Buy by the unit
Packaging can be deceiving. Looking at a bag of chips that are only half full can tell you that. When you are shopping for food, compare prices based on the unit, not the package. Many grocery stores will even post the price per unit of the items on the tag, so you don’t even need to calculate how much something will cost you per ounce or pound. Noting the unit will help you get the most for your money and save money on groceries.
More ways to save
If you’re looking for more ways to save money, here are a few more ideas. Here’s our artilce on saving while shopping. You can find ideas in this article on how to save on entertainment. And here are some ideas to help you save when you are managing your money.