Today I want to talk about how to save money on groceries. And who doesn’t want that?!
We are a larger-than-average sized family (2 adults, 5 kids) and we go through A LOT of food. Groceries are by far our biggest expense besides our mortgage each month. We recently went through a difficult season when our oldest son spent several months in the hospital, and due to our reliance on convenience food and eating out quite a bit during that time, our food budget got completely out of control! I don’t feel guilty about it, we had to do what we needed to do to get through that time. But once we were in a position to get back on track, we really buckled down hard. In the months since, we have saved at LEAST $400 every month on groceries! Now we feed our family on less than $3 per person per day.
At one point I looked at our bank statement and it seemed like every single purchase was food-related. I actually sat down and made a list of all our purchases for the month, and was shocked when I realized we spent over $900 just eating out that month and we went through drive thrus or to restaurants 49 times! And that did not even count the money I spent at the grocery store. (Like I said, that was not a picture of a normal month for us, we had to do what we had to do. But still. We needed to really cut back.)
What to Do
Set a realistic budget. The very first thing I did to get us back on track was make a list of affordable foods like pasta, chicken drumsticks, frozen vegetables, etc. I realized I could pretty easily set my budget to $1 per person per meal, or $3 per person per day (slightly less than a SNAP budget, which averages to be about $4 per person per day). Because we have 7 people eating three meals a day, I aim for $21 or less per day or $150 per week. That includes all of our groceries, toiletries, paper products, and if we eat out, so it’s not just our grocery shopping. Our budget is significantly below what is considered average for a family our size, but it still allows us to be very comfortable and not feel like it is a burden for us to eat this way. Here’s what we do….
Reduce the shopping. I found that bi-weekly shopping works best for me. I buy less impulse items when I’m not constantly in the store. And I limit myself to two stores. I go to Aldi and Target, rather than wasting my time and resources clipping coupons or driving all over town for different sales. I base my budget on everyday prices at our local stores. Aldi has amazing everyday prices, and I buy the majority of our groceries there. But they have a very limited selection (our Aldi does not carry dairy-free butter or lasagna noodles, for example) and I do like to stock up on certain things at Target. I actually buy most of our frozen vegetables at Target because they have a greater variety (hello edamame) and their bags of frozen cauliflower, corn, and mixed veggies are only 89 cents. We also like Target’s store brand pasta sauce, which is less than $1. I do buy lots of fresh produce, but if we run out before our two weeks is up, then oh well. I do not go back to the store for anything but milk. We just use frozen vegetables or fruit for a few days. If the worst thing that happens is that we have our fruit frozen in smoothies or our veggies in a soup for a few days, then so what? If we run out of snacks, then either we don’t snack or I’ll make something from scratch. I do keep things like popcorn kernels on hand so it’s never been a problem.
Use Cash. I’m not a huge fan of the envelope system promoted by experts like Dave Ramsey because I feel very uncomfortable carrying large sums of money. I like the loss prevention insurance my debit card allows in case my wallet ever got lost or stolen. But it’s true that using cash works when you are trying to save. It hurts worse to hand over $200 in cash. Plus we can see exactly how much is left in our budget and there is no temptation to dip further into the pot. When the money in the envelope is gone, it’s gone. I make it a game to stay as far under our $300 bi-weekly budget as possible. If we have any left over, that’s what we use to go to restaurants.
Meal plan (ish). I’d say my version of meal planning is more like ingredient planning. I buy the same ingredients almost every time I shop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m making the same things. I buy a pack of chicken drumsticks (because I can get a pack of 12 for about $3 at Aldi), but I don’t always make the same thing. One week I might make fried chicken, the next time I might bake them in a sauce. Similarly, I always buy chick peas, but sometimes they become “meatballs” and other times they get added to a soup or become a sandwich spread or hummus. Have a list of two weeks’ worth of affordable go-to meals you know everyone likes, then just rotate through it. Your family won’t even notice they are eating spaghetti or cheese quesadillas twice a month. Plus you’ll be able to stockpile extra ingredients (there will be times you bought two cans of beans but only used one) and there will be weeks you can make some of those go-to meals for free out of the excess in your pantry.
Save scraps. I’d estimate that I can get at least two full days of meals each month out of our food scraps. I keep a mason jar in the freezer for vegetable peelings and when it gets full I use them to make veggie broth or soup. We also freeze bananas and other fruit as they start to go a bit past their prime. They can be used for smoothies, nice cream, or baking. Leftover rice can be thrown into a pot of soup, fried, or mixed with different vegetables the next night. My girls like to put frozen fruit into their water bottles to make flavored water. If there isn’t very much left at the end of dinner, I save small components left over from each meal (such as a bit of mashed potatoes one night, a few spoonfuls of a vegetable the next night) and piece them together to make frozen meals to send to my grandfather.
Don’t get fancy. It’s easy to look at Pinterest and think you are supposed to make a huge fancy dinner every single day. There’s no rule that you have to do that. One of my kid’s favorite meals is plain ol’ boiled noodles with broccoli. It costs about $2 for a box of noodles and a bag of frozen broccoli and can feed our entire family. We eat it for lunch pretty often while the kids are home on summer break. We also roll just about anything into tortillas. The kids LOVE peanut butter and banana grilled between two tortillas. I drizzle them with honey.
Think vegetarian. I don’t eat animal products, but the rest of my family does. However, I still present vegan options as often as I can because not only are they healthier, they are also usually cheaper. Using beans instead of meat in your favorite chili recipe will save you about $5. Ditto using chickpeas instead of beef to make “meatballs” or lentils for sloppy joes. If you make those kinds of swaps a few times each week, the savings (and health benefits) really add up!
Buy Whole Foods. Not the grocery store chain, this just means whenever you can try to buy food in its original, unprocessed form. There is no reason to buy a box of instant potatoes and a bag of frozen french fries when it’s healthier, more affordable, and more environmental friendly (due to the reduction in packaging) to buy actual potatoes and make those things yourself. Almost anything you buy in a box or get from the freezer section you can make from scratch and most of the time it is more affordable to do that. When we buy pre-packaged foods we are paying a premium for convenience and the planet is paying for all of our extra packaging. (Although this can be more difficult in areas that do not have access to fresh produce.)
Eat Your Left-Overs. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But I do find that we sometimes forget to eat our leftovers and end up wasting a lot of food. Now I add one or two leftover nights into our meal plan each week. Having those nights planned in saves us money so I don’t buy as much food, and we waste a lot less. These often end up being the kids’ favorite dinner because I just put a bunch of random stuff on the table and they can make their own crazy plate. You want a pickle with your lasagna sandwich? Great. Leftovers also make great lunches for us throughout the week.
Freeze. Freeze. Then freeze some more. This has been the single biggest difference for us, and it’s such a no-brainer. I now buy meat in bulk, cook it as soon as I get home, and freeze it in one-pound portions. Frozen vegetables are very affordable (a bag of frozen cauliflower is less than $1 in our area, but a head of fresh is about $4). It saves money and time and keeps us out of the drive thru because I always know I have what I need at home to throw together a quick supper. And I already told you about freezing our fruit and veggie scraps. I freeze chopped onions and peppers as well to make meal prep easier on myself. I also pack up our leftovers and freeze some. Most of the time Eddie takes them to work as his lunches. But if we have a significant amount left, I freeze it and send it along to my grandfather so he has a few home-cooked meals. We have so much less food waste now and it saves us a ton of money! There are times I can extend the shopping an extra week because we have enough stashed away in the freezer.
Buy less. I mean, duh. But seriously, I never realized how much we were over-buying! I think I can still reduce at least $200 a month from our current food bill pretty easily if I start making some things myself. We all usually have a few basic pantry staples like flour and sugar, right? We can probably make so much from what we already have. For example, why am I buying Bisquick when I already have flour, baking soda, and salt? Is it really that much more convenient? It would probably take me less than two minutes to make a homemade biscuit mix myself out of stuff we already have. Ditto cookies and granola bars. Why am I buying canned tomatoes and tomato soup? I plan to start asking myself “Can I make this out of things we already have?” before I put anything into my cart. But, yes, it does take more time to make homemade versions.
Plan for convenience. No matter how hard we try to fight it, life still happens. Emergencies pop up or construction traffic stops you on the highway for hours. Those were the times when we would run through a drive thru. Now I just assume there will be a few of those nights, and make sure I grab a few frozen pizzas or nuggets to have just in case. I also try to freeze breakfast options. We keep bagels in the freezer, and I like to freeze a large batch of pancakes. That way I know we have options for the kids in the morning, or in a pinch I can always throw together breakfast for dinner or use the bagels to make quick individual pizzas.
Slow Cookers or some families prefer pressure cookers. This goes along with planning for convenience. On days I know we have activities in the evening, I try to throw something in our slow cooker in the morning before we leave. My kids love the garlic chicken recipe from my friend Amy! This saves us from scrambling to figure out dinner at 5pm and just ordering pizza. Although that totally still happens sometimes, and that’s okay!
Don’t leave empty handed. Get in the habit of taking reusable water bottles with you and keeping a snack in your bag or in the car. (Here is my Amazon affiliate link to our water bottles. We like them a lot because they are dishwasher safe and we have a different color for each family member.) We found we were stopping at the drive thru often just to make the kids stop whining because we were out running errands and they were hungry or thirsty. Or I’d be out by myself and only realize I hadn’t eaten breakfast when I walked past a restaurant that smelled amazing. Plan ahead to keep the kids (and yourself) comfortable and you will make your life a lot easier. I also stared buying affordable snacks and drinks for my husband to take to work. He now keeps a bag at this desk filled with his favorite snacks. It keeps him away from the vending machine and if he happens to forget to bring his lunch, there is always something he can eat without having to go to a restaurant.
Use what you have. Don’t go to the store just because it’s Thursday and that’s your shopping day. Really look at what you have and try to get creative. Chances are, you can make at least another day of meals out of it. I once sat down and tried to see how many meals I could get out of what we had. I thought we were “low” on food and it was going to be about 5 meals, tops. I ended up making a list of over 30 different meals I could make without doing any shopping at all! Sure, you might want to supplement with some fresh fruit or greens, but use what you have in the pantry or freezer. That’s what it’s there for! This also works when you are trying new recipes. Instead of going out to buy a new ingredient you won’t use very often, try to substitute something you have on-hand.
Stop at the grocery store instead of a drive thru. There will be times you need to stop, like a long car trip. Go to the grocery store instead of opting for fast food. They have restrooms, and you can get healthy options that are much more affordable. Grab a jug of lemonade or tea to pour into their water bottles and a bunch of bananas and you have an easy, healthy pit stop for less than $5. If you’re alone and need something healthy and fast, hit up the salad bar. Plus you won’t be taking home junky plastic toys from kids meals.
Pack a cooler. Last weekend we went to an amusement park. We packed a cooler full of peanut butter sandwiches, grapes, and other snacks. It cost us about $5 for all of the food in the cooler to feed 7 people. (Bread was 89 cents at Aldi, peanut butter $1.29 at Target, grapes less than $2 at Aldi, snacks like crackers and dried fruit about $1 per box at Aldi. And water from home for free.) We left it in the car and instead of eating dinner at the park we just went out to our car and ate in the parking lot. Because it usually costs at least $50 to take our family of seven out to eat, this saves us quite a bit of money over the course of a year! We have also started taking a large drink cooler filled with ice water in the car (here’s my Amazon affiliate link to the one we have). It’s healthier for us to be drinking water and we don’t need to buy drinks for long car trips, we just refill our water bottles during our pit stops. When it gets low, add a bag of ice from a gas station or grocery store and as it melts it will refill the water.
Sometimes store bought is cheaper. In our area we can get a loaf of bread at Aldi for about 85 cents. I could make it cheaper by using a sourdough starter, but if I’m buying yeast I can’t bake it much cheaper than that and I do place a value on my time as well. For me, bread is one thing that is worth the “convenience tax” for us right now.
One of my favorite things about these tips is that not only will they save you a whole bunch of money, time, and energy, but they are also better for the environment because of all the reduced waste.
If you have some great tips of your own, please leave them in the comments!
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