My wife and I spend less than $225 per month on food (groceries and restaurants) on average. This comes out to less than $4 per day for each of us. We’re not malnourished. We don’t clip coupons. And we don’t feel deprived. How do we do it? These 10 tips form the basis of our plan. Use them and you’ll be eating cheap and healthy in no time!
1. Eat Out Less Often
If you want to eat as cheap as we do, you’ve got to stop eating out. I’d estimate my wife and I eat out maybe twice a month. And I’m including ordering out a pizza. The markup on restaurant food – fast or otherwise – is enormous. And it’s generally unhealthy to boot!
The secret to eating out less often without feeling deprived is learning to fix your favorite restaurant meals at home. We’ve done this with Olive Garden items, real Italian restaurant items, Red Lobster (mmm…Cheddar Bay biscuits), and ethnic cuisines. It probably won’t be perfect, but it’ll be close. Need some recipes? Check out some of these cheap meal ideas.
And if you don’t know how to cook, now is as good a time as any to learn! My recommendation is to watch as many Good Eats episodes as possible (but that’s because I’m a science geek, too).
And for those times you do decide to go out, always look for coupons and great deals from sites like Groupon.
2. Plan Ahead
Before my wife goes to the grocery store, we put together a list of meals we’re going to eat over the next week or so. We look over the grocery store flier to see if there are any good deals to give us ideas. Then we talk about other meals we’d like to have. She makes up a list and takes it to the store with her.
Why is this a good idea? We save money by limiting impulse purchases. We also save time throughout the week because we know what we’ll be making for all our meals. (No more umming and ahhing with your head stuck in the fridge.) And we limit waste by choosing meals with overlapping ingredients.
3. Focus on Simple, Versatile Staples
This tip connects very well to #2, but it flows into other areas of your food philosophy as well. Rather than stocking your cupboards with exotic, limiting foods, focus on versatility. You want staples that can play into a variety of dishes. Examples are rice, dry beans, onions, garlic, tomato sauce, celery, carrots, peppers, and pasta. We use these basic ingredients to create many great meals and most of them store well.
Afraid these things will get boring? Learn to use your herbs and spices, and keep a good supply of them; you won’t be disappointed!
4. Avoid Processed Foods
You won’t find any frozen meals, Cheez Whiz, or Hamburger Helper on our shelves. Convenience foods are not only bad for your health, but they’re also bad for your budget. Don’t believe the lie that these things are cheaper than their healthy counterparts. There are some awesome ways to eat healthy on a budget.
Keep in mind that not all “processed” foods are bad. Milk, frozen vegetables, and fruit juices are processed but can be great choices both health-wise and cost-wise. The key is to watch out for the overly-processed, highly-convenient foods with lots of sodium, sugar, or fat.
5. Use Meat & Dairy Less Often
This one can be hard for me and my wife because we both like meat and cheese. But these are often the most expensive parts of a grocery bill. I’m not about to tell you to cut them out completely. I like my steak as much as the next guy. What you want is to use meat and dairy less often in your meals – maybe only once or twice a week. As one solution, your other meals can be focused around vegetarian type dishes.
Don’t worry. I’m not talking tofu and bean sprouts (no offense if you like those). But there are plenty of tasty meatless dishes out there. Beans and rice, pasta with tomato or cream sauces (with veggies), and stir-fry are some of our favorites. There are also great veggie patties that imitate real chicken and beef surprisingly well.
Another tip: Learn how to prepare the cheaper cuts of meat so they’ll taste better. (Ahem…go watch Good Eats!!!) A little know-how goes a long way.
6. Buy Produce in Season
Peaches aren’t cheap in February so make sure you follow the important ways to save money on fruits or vegetables. Learn when the different types of produce are in season and buy them then. This ties in very well with planning ahead. Use what’s in season as the focus of your weekly meal plan.
If you need or want produce that’s out of season, consider dried, frozen, and possibly canned versions as an option. They can be just as healthy and tasty if handled properly. It won’t work for all fruits and vegetables, but many are just as good this way. You’ll just have to keep your eyes open when it comes to the nutrition of the canned stuff – sodium is often the killer there. In my experience, I’ve never been able to get canned corn to taste as good as fresh or frozen!
7. Buy in Bulk (When It Makes Sense)
Bulk purchases can save you a good bit of money over time – provided you have the room and don’t let them go to waste. You may have to do some repackaging (with family packs of meat, for example) but it’ll be worth it. I added the “when it makes sense” caveat because bigger is not always cheaper. This is why it’s important to learn how to calculate the unit price and compare your choices. Also, make sure to keep in mind the 5 things you shouldn’t buy in bulk.
8. Stock Up on Good Deals
If you find a good deal on an item that stores well (like canned foods), don’t be afraid to stock up. Obviously, you should only do this with foods you’ll actually use. Buying 20 cans of tuna because it’s on sale is stupid if you hate tuna! If it’s a really great deal on something that’s perishable (like fruits or vegetables), consider ways you can preserve them. Freezing, drying, and canning are all possibilities for those with the knowledge, equipment, time, and space.
9. Don’t Waste Leftovers
If you planned your meals well, this shouldn’t be a problem since you won’t have excessive leftovers. Try to plan to have a reasonable amount of leftovers that you can use for one or two other meals, but no more. If you let leftovers languish in the bottom of your fridge, then you’ve just wasted the money and time you spent buying and preparing that food. Would you throw the money in your wallet in the trash? I didn’t think so.
10. Don’t Eat Too Much
Over-consumption is a dangerous game – and one that we Americans excel at! But when you eat too much, the extra food just goes to waste. Your body will store it as fat or get rid of it. Eating too much not only takes a bit out of your health, but also your wallet. (Note: This doesn’t apply at family get-togethers. Well…the health implications do, but at least you didn’t pay for the food and it’s OK to let loose once in a while!)
These Tips Work! What Are Yours?
How do I know they work? Because I use them every day. There’s no secret to saving money on your groceries. You don’t need to spend hours trying to cut coupons in an effort to become an Extreme Couponer. You don’t even need to grow your own food (though it’s not a bad idea if you enjoy it). Just these few simple principles can help you slash your food costs to under $4/day. I guarantee it or your money back! The best part is, the money-saving tips are also life-saving tips when it comes to your health!
But what about you all? What are your tips for saving money on food? I can think of at least two I left out. Can you guess them? Let me know in the comments!
(photo credit: Masahiro Ihara)