Four Real-Life Ways You Can Save Money on Food

There’s about a zillion lists of how to save money on food, because hi, food is hella expensive and not at all optional.

You gotta eat, pals, no matter how frugal or On A Budget you are, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat the fanciest, most expensive food, all the h*ckin’ time.

And I should know, because for a while, that was totally me. I was the person who spent $40 on meat to put in a stew.

A stew.

Literally, I took the meal that is renowned for being a cheap way to deliciously cook frugal af cuts of meat (I know this now) and bought probably the most premium meat I’ve ever purchased to put in it.

Thanks, the New York Times Cooking emails. (They’re great emails, to be honest, but they will not always be great for your wallet.)

Needless to say, no one would have been surprised to see our $800-for-two-people food budget a few years ago, especially since cooking was one of my favourite weekend activities. It still is, but it turns out, with a few tweaks you can enjoy cooking and simultaneously not spend $400 per person to satisfy a basic need.

So while this isn’t going to be a list of every thing you could do to cut down on your food budget – because that would be too long, and include really formulaic, boring advice that I’ve never personally tried – it is a list of everything I-slash-we actually did to get our food budget down to a much more reasonable $600 a month.

And spoiler alert, some of these haven’t even taken full effect yet, so it might go down to – I get goosebumps just saying this – $500 a month for two people.

Guys, an extra $100 in our budget! That is Big News around these parts. And it’s 20 extra lattes, give or take, and pumpkin spice season is almost upon us.

Literally Just Find New Recipes

There was a good solid two years where I thought, no joke, I was going to be the next Martha Stewart. I got the magazine, I bought the craft supplies, and my god did I ever go hard with the recipes.

Oh, this one needs seventeen ingredients, none of which we have in the house and all of which we never use? (See: we didn’t even have them in the house. I’d never heard of some of them. I still have an untouched thing of wasabi powder in my cupboard.) To the store!

Did I have a plan for how to use up the leftovers? Or how those ingredients would work in other things I wanted to cook?

You know the answer is no.

This is a deeply bad example, and you should aim to do the exact opposite. When you buy any individual thing – wasabi powder or a loaf of bread or anything in between – you should have a good idea of how and when you’re going to use the rest of it.

Plus, it helps if the recipes you choose in the first place don’t tick all of the following boxes.

  • More than ten ingredients.
  • At least one very costly ingredient.
  • At least one ingredient you’ve never heard of.
  • At least one ingredient you need to go out of your way to find.

So think a little less elaborate Martha Stewart cake, and a little more delicious and simple Minimalist Baker. Or a little less New York Times fancy-pants stew with $40 cuts of meat, and more Budget Bytes.

Seriously, you can make some hella delicious food without making it an all-day, dozens-of-dollars affair. If you’re looking to cut back your food budget, get yourself some frugal recipes that you actually like. (Other good options: anything with the word “crockpot” in it, anything from this book, anything vegetarian or vegan, and anything that you can freeze for later.)

Shop More Efficiently

I’m not about to tell you to become a hardcore couponer and travel halfway across town to get a good deal unless you’re already about that life. That said, there are ways you can add a bit of ruthless efficiency to your grocery-shopping game.

Check out your local options.

Yes, that one grocery store is a two minute walk from your house, which is lovely. But while I’m not going to tell you to trek across town to save two dollars, I am going to tell you that it’s worth at least shopping around to the options that are within a reasonable distance of your place.

What’s “reasonable”? Well, if you’re walking, it’s a much smaller radius, but it really all comes down to you and your routines – and how badly you want to find some savings.

And pro tip: Before you go scope out your other local stores, make sure you know how much your grocery staples run you at your usual store.

Anyone having a moment of horror that you don’t actually know any of them? Like how much an apple or a package of salad greens costs? Yeah. Me too, for most of my life.

Get thee a Costco membership, maybe.

Costco’s not for everyone, and I get that. If you live downtown and you don’t have a car, skip right on over this section. But if you routinely buy things like meat, cheese, dog food, pharmacy items, glasses, or just things in bulk, Costco might be worth the crowds and the cost of the membership.

Use Flipp, it’s so flippin’ easy.

I don’t have a cool hour to spend flipping through the stack of coupons and flyers that come with our community newspaper. I do have 60 seconds to search to see if something I’m going to buy anyways is on sale, and that’s what Flipp is great for. It amalgamates all of your local flyers and deals, so you can search for great scores on pretty much anything that gets advertised in a flyer.

Are you going to go out of your way to save $0.10 on bananas? Man I hope not. Value your time more.

Could you make a special trip if you’re cooking for ten and there’s a great deal on your main protein? Yeah, you definitely could. (I do this every time I make my famous dinner-party ribs, and no one has yet told me they taste like they were on sale.)

Yes, You Need a Meal Plan – And a List

On Monday this week – literally two days before I was set to publish an article on saving money on food – my grocery list and my kind-of-impromptu meal plan saved me from overbuying groceries.

Yeah, this still happens. And yeah, shopping lists and meal plans really are that magical.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, either. When you hear “meal plan”, your mind might go straight to Instagrams of hardcore meal preppers with muscles in places there maybe shouldn’t be muscles, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s literally just knowing what you’re going to eat, and when, and how much.

If that’s “I’m going to eat a whole bag of chips for dinner and catch up on Big Brother because I’m an adult and this is one of the perks of adulthood,” that’s fine. All you need to know is that no, you won’t need to make an extra mason jar salad for that night.

Balance, you guys. It’s all about balance.

Once you’ve got a plan in place, no matter how rough, you’ll be able to make a grocery list that accounts for how much food you actually need – and you’ll be able to cross things off the list that you know you won’t end up eating in time. (It goes without saying that you should know what food you already have in the house, right? Perfect.)

See? You’re already saving money and spending less. Look at you go.

Cut Back on Expensive Things (Like Meat)

Before we all get in a big internet fight about how dare I suggest giving up insert-expensive-thing-here, let’s take a breath.

You don’t have to give up anything you don’t want to give up. Team Latte until the day I die.

But…

A case could be made for cutting back, sometimes, on the expensive things you like to eat on a regular basis. It’s probably one of the biggest ways you’ll be able to find reliable savings in your food budget, and since that’s why we’re here, it’s something you’re going to have to reckon with.

You’re probably trying to shave down how much you spend on food to find more money for other things that are important to you, like paying down your debt, saving for a trip, starting your own business or a zillion other fun things you can do with money.

Spending money on that expensive thing you like to eat is great. Trust me, I know.

But so is being able to take that vacation, or retire someday, or being able to afford a dog.

To figure out a balance that works for you, I’ve got a super-simple first step.

Just start by actually reading your grocery receipts.

You don’t even have to start tracking your spending (yet, that is) but when you walk out of the grocery store with a $50 receipt or a $100 receipt, you should understand the breakdown of what each item costs.

For example, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a block of tofu I bought recently came in at under $2.00. And I am constantly horrified that we spend anywhere between $8 and $10 a week on apples, but it’s an informed $8 to $10, because when I try to buy the cheaper apples, someone accuses me of trying to poison him with substandard apples.

If you know how much your food items cost, then you’re in a good place to determine which ones are worth it, and which ones you could handle scaling back on a bit to find some extra savings.

Like if I really cared to get our apple budget down, I could stop eating them too, because they’re a take-it-or-leave-it snack for me. And for both health and budget reasons, I’m choosing to eat less meat, and our Costco bill is significantly smaller with meat for only one person on it.

What else can I do to save money on food?

I’ve left out a lot of other great options, in the interest of space and the interest of not reiterating every other standard save-money-on-food article on the internet. That said, those lists are out there, and they are worth reading! But for now, if you do these four things in a way that makes sense for you, you should be able to find at least $100 in monthly savings on your grocery bills.

  • Find new, cheaper recipes
  • Shop more efficiently
  • Make a meal plan and a shopping list
  • Cut back on particularly expensive things

Oh, and pack your lunch for work. There, now you’re all set.