Off the top of your head, do you know how much you spend on food every month?
Unless you have a budget to keep you in line, monthly food costs can quickly rise to hundreds of dollars. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends more than 12% of their income on food.
I’ve written about my own budgeting plenty, but one of the hardest realizations I had was seeing my food budget. I spend almost the equivalent of a month’s rent on a month’s worth of meals – but that’s for two people, and is surprisingly cut down considerably from the amount I used to spend.
To save money on food, I started thinking about why I eat, when I eat, and of course, what I eat. I looked at receipts from the previous two months, from dinner out to a quick coffee to groceries, and found the most significant costs. Seeing a week or more’s worth of groceries cost the same as dinner and drinks for just one night helped reset my priorities when it came to food.
If you want to learn how to save money on food, first ask yourself which changes you’re ready to make. You can cut your food budget – and even be healthier – when you commit to staying focused on these 12 tips.
1. Know The Prices
Saving money on food is all about comparisons and preparation. You don’t want to pay more when there are cheaper options elsewhere, but you do want to plan your shopping in advance as much as possible. I found that starting to know the relative prices of the foods I buy most often helped me make informed decisions faster, as I could quickly compare items when shopping.
2. Learn To Cook
One of the easiest ways I learned to save money on food was starting to cook. Skim cooking blogs for recipes, and you’ll be able to find out nutritional values and difficulty before you get started. Finding recipes will also help you decide on shopping lists, and you’ll likely find yourself with leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. Nowadays, I cook fresh meals nearly every night and have a plethora of recipes to choose from.
3. Plan Your Meals
Another reason to start identifying recipes you like is that you’ll be able to plan your meals ahead of time. I like to think a week at a time, and then I head to the grocery store for any needed items. You don’t have to worry about making decisions about what to cook, and you’ll cut down on food waste with your shopping.
4. Keep An Inventory
Do you know what’s in the back of your pantry or freezer? If you know what you have on hand, you won’t spend extra money. I love to make lists, so I printed out a list of all the items we had, sealed it with a laminating sheet, and hung it next to the pantry door. When I used the last of an item, I made a checkmark next to it, and erased it when I put a new one away. It was simple enough that I kept it up, and I stopped doubling up on things I didn’t know were there.
5. Use Coupons
If you’re not using coupons, even casually, you’re not taking advantage of more money to save; there’s a reason some of the world’s wealthiest people still use them. Particularly with groceries, coupons will knock down the price of items and also help you decide where to shop and what to shop for. If you pick up three coupons from a single store, for orange juice, peanut butter, and shampoo, you’ll have three items to add to your shopping list, will know where to shop, and you’ll have an idea of what you’ll save. I find coupons regularly in my weekend paper and on couponing sites.
6. Shop In-Season And Local Food
My world changed when I realized that shopping for food while it was in-season was much more affordable than foods from out-of-season. Buying food grown from local farms means you’re eating fresh, reducing your environmental impact, and saving money. I started buying a CSA box from a farm outside of the city; every week I receive a container with a massive selection of fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, and cheese for less than $20.
7. Get Creative With Extras
My biggest surprise with my CSA was the sheer amount of each type of food I received – what could I possibly do with three cases of cherry tomatoes? The most exciting part of learning how to save money on food was getting creative. Use extra produce to make sauces, marinades, or preserves, or freeze them to have a supply of smoothie ingredients ready.
8. Skip The Meat
The idea of being a vegetarian might frighten you, but it’s also a surefire way to cut your food budget down significantly. About two years ago I became a vegetarian – not for money saving purposes initially – and it cut out almost half of what we paid every month for food. Speaking from experience, splurging on a tofu steak at nice restaurant results in a very different check than splurging at a steakhouse. If the idea of giving up meat isn’t for you, try making a couple of nights each week meatless to eat well and save more.
9. Buy In Bulk Strategically
Buying in bulk is a great way to save money on food, but only if you do it the right way. I started freezing extra veggies and quickly ran out of space for other items that needed to be frozen. You only want to buy in bulk what you can reasonably store; I could have used another freezer, so if you have space, consider giving yourself more storage. Another critical thing to remember about buying in bulk is to be careful on products with expiration dates. If you can’t or won’t use it before then, you’ll end up wasting food and money.
10. Compare Online
You probably have a smartphone, so use it to help you save on food costs. When you’re shopping, look at advertised prices for other stores to see if you could save on that food item elsewhere. But what if you don’t have the time to look up each item? At Walmart, you can do all of your grocery shopping online and then pick up your items from a local store. It’s quick and allows you to compare items online from the comfort of your home.
11. Eat Before Dining Out
I love going to restaurants, and living in a city makes it hard to avoid them. But I don’t love the costs that quickly add up for a night out. A trick that helped me out was snacking and sipping cocktails before leaving the house – when I get to the restaurant, I eat and drink less, keeping our bill reasonable. If you can avoid appetizers and dessert, you’ll have a good time without the added cost.
12. Stop Stress Snacking
The easiest way to cut down on the extra costs of snack foods, most of which you should skip for health reasons anyway, is to stop stress eating. I used to grab a bag of chips or a pack of candy when I was feeling overwhelmed, and the truth is, those snacks often made me feel worse. Instead, I tried taking a walk whenever I was feeling stressed, which gives me some exercise, fresh air, and a clear head.
If you implement these tips, or even if you only apply some of them, will be able to significantly cut your food budget. You don’t need to cut out all of your favorite foods to start saving money on your monthly expenses, but you do need to be conscious of what you are spending, and when. Think of the good you’ll see in both your waistline and your budget every time you avoid splurging on food items.