Food is the third-largest expense in the average American’s budget, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And that says nothing of entertainment expenses that include alcoholic beverages.
Fortunately, because they’re such a substantial portion of our budgets, food and beverage expenses offer some of the most significant opportunities for boosting your savings rate.
In fact, many adherents of the financial independence, retire early movement focus first on reducing their top three expenses — housing, transportation, and food — rather than trying to save a few pennies here and there with coupons or other low-ROI gimmicks.
Try as many of these saving tips as you can to slash your food and beverage costs.
How to Save on Your Food & Beverage Expenses
As you brainstorm ways to streamline your budget, focus on ways to spend less on food and beverages without sacrificing your quality of life.
1. Drink Tap Water, Not Bottled Water
Bottled water is a multibillion-dollar industry thanks to what could be the greatest marketing hoax ever perpetrated by beverage corporations.
- Bottled water isn’t inherently safer — nearly two-thirds (64%) of bottled waters are actually tap water.
- Bottled water creates millions of tons of plastic garbage every year, and 70% of plastic water bottles end up in landfills rather than recycling plants.
- Bottled water costs roughly 2,000 times as much as tap water on a per-ounce basis.
- Bottled water uses 1,100 to 2,000 times as much energy in its life cycle as tap water.
2. Stop Drinking Sweetened Beverages
Sweetened beverages like sodas and iced teas are expensive and unhealthy.
A 2019 report by the American Diabetes Association found a direct link between the consumption of sweetened beverages and Type 2 diabetes. Yet the average American household spends thousands of dollars per year on soft drinks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Try brewing your own iced tea or making your own lemonade instead — and use a light hand with the sweeteners.
3. Buy Disposables in Bulk
Not everything on your grocery list makes for good bulk shopping. In fact, there are some things you should specifically avoid buying in bulk, such as spices and olive oil.
But you can buy certain products, including both food and cooking-related goods, at a bulk discount, and they don’t go bad.
Think paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags, zip-close bags, certain cleaning supplies, and household disposables. You can also buy certain nonperishable foods, such as canned goods, in bulk.
These products don’t expire (or take a long time to expire). The only reason to avoid buying them at a bulk discount is a limitation on your storage space.
4. Batch Your Meals
One way to save time and money is to cook all your meals for the week in a single cooking session. You can freeze the more perishable meals and throw the others in the fridge to reheat at your leisure.
Batch cooking saves you time and money in several ways. You can bake several dishes simultaneously in the oven, reducing energy usage and cooking time. And you can cook with the same perishable ingredients in several dishes, so nothing goes to waste.
Start brainstorming meals you can batch and freeze to reduce food waste and save energy, money, and time.
5. Swap Bulk Meals With Friends
Want to make your food batching even easier?
Instead of cooking a half-dozen different meals for the week, cook several households’ worth of the same meal. Then swap them with a few friends or neighbors who do the same.
For example, you and four other households can each cook enough of a single meal for all five family units. You can make several lasagnas while the other households provide Thai curry, mushroom-bacon chicken, Cajun etouffee, and braised lamb shank. Each of you only has to cook one meal, but you each walk away with five.
It’s fast, efficient, and cost-effective because it reduces the number of ingredients you need to buy and prep. Best of all, it keeps your meals interesting, exposes you to new dishes, and diversifies your diet beyond your go-to recipes.
6. Get Creative With Your Pressure Cooker or Slow Cooker
With slow cookers, you often just throw the ingredients in before leaving for work in the morning, and by the time you arrive home, your dinner’s ready and waiting.
And pressure cookers allow you to dump your ingredients in just after you get home and have a meal ready and waiting by the time you get changed.
They don’t release heat in your kitchen like an oven might, which is a nice perk in the summertime, especially if you’re looking to save money on your air-conditioning bill. You don’t have to crank the A/C to combat the heat emanating from a slow cooker or pressure cooker.
Slow cookers and pressure cookers also let you cook outstanding meals with cheaper ingredients.
For example, instead of buying expensive filet mignon cuts, you can buy cheaper short rib or chuck cuts and slow-cook them for a tender, juicy meal. Likewise, you can use a pressure cooker to soften and cook dry beans bought in bulk rather than purchasing the more expensive canned beans.
And you don’t even need separate appliances. Try the Instant Pot for a combination slow cooker, pressure cooker, rice cooker, steamer, and saute pan.
7. Learn to Make and Pair Your 20 Favorite Meals
A few months ago, I took my wife to an upscale restaurant to celebrate her birthday. She ordered a braised short rib served with gorgonzola polenta, and we shared a bottle of Chilean cabernet. She raved that it was one of the best meals she’s ever had.
Of course, we couldn’t go back anytime soon if we didn’t want a broken budget. While I’m no whiz in the kitchen, I learned how to make the meal myself, including the appetizers, and picked up the same bottle of wine at the store for a quarter of the restaurant’s price.
Whenever you come across a meal you love, learn how to make it. Learn to make your top 20 favorite meals and what wines pair well with them. Then you can stay in on a Friday night and enjoy a gourmet meal for a fraction of the price you’d pay for it at a restaurant, and it tastes just as good.
8. Learn to Make Your Favorite Snacks
People spend a surprising amount of money (measured in billions, per the USDA report) on salty snack foods. But you can often make them yourself for a fraction of the cost and have complete control over the ingredients that go into them.
For example, I recently bought a food processor to help me make my three favorite dips: salsa, guacamole, and hummus. All three recipes are extremely easy and fast, taste better than store-bought alternatives, and cost a quarter of the price I’d pay at the store.
Check out the Hamilton Beach 10-cup food processor for an affordable option under $50.
9. Shop for Groceries on Weekdays
Grocery stores are crowded on weekends, which is reason enough to shop on weekdays. But it’s also more expensive to shop on weekends. A Today report found that various foods and beverages cost measurably less during the week.
Because many grocery stores run weekly offers on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday schedule, Wednesdays often make the best day to go grocery shopping to capitalize on new deals before they sell out.
Often, you can also persuade employees to honor last week’s deals on Wednesdays if you ask them nicely.
10. Stop Meeting Friends at Commercial Venues
Most restaurants and bars mark their products up by about 300%, according to Funding Circle.
Equally problematic, a 2020 Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy study found that restaurant food is typically less healthy than home cooking. To maximize profits, restaurants cook with cheaper, less healthy ingredients. Their goal usually isn’t to cook healthy food — it’s to cook food that tastes good.
You’d be amazed at just how much eating out at restaurants costs over a year. The average American spends nearly as much on eating out ($3,526) as on groceries, per the BLS. It’s even worse if you add in your annual bar tab.
One of the best ways to save money on food and beverages is to go to restaurants and bars less often.
Start meeting up with your friends and family members in places that aren’t for-profit businesses, such as at someone’s home, the park, or a beach. Host a game night or potluck.
Keep more of your money in your pocket and less in the profit margins of commercial businesses.
11. Take Advantage of Specials When You Must Go Out
Most of us aren’t ready to give up restaurants and bars entirely. So when you want to get out of the house, visit establishments with specials.
When I was young and single, living in a vibrant downtown neighborhood, I kept a spreadsheet of nightly specials and happy hour specials for all the restaurants and bars within walking distance. It became a running joke among my friends — but they texted me every time they needed a recommendation.
You don’t have to go as far as I did, but keep a finger on the pulse of your favorite establishments’ discounts. Ask about any nightly specials, happy hour deals, or recurring bargains. Then plan accordingly to save money eating out at restaurants.
12. Plan Weekly Meals
Before going grocery shopping, plan exactly what meals you plan to make for every meal the following week.
Then spend a short time inventorying which ingredients you already have and which ingredients you need. Add the latter to your grocery list, and buy only those things.
No extras. No impulse buys. That’s how grocery stores make their best profits: They put nonessential, high-margin goods where you’re sure to see them to tempt you into spending more than you planned.
They don’t need to put chicken breasts or milk next to the cash register. They know you’ll go out of your way to find them in the back. So they put things that aren’t on your list, such as candy bars and tabloids, next to the checkout register.
13. Don’t Shop on an Empty Stomach
You’re far more susceptible to impulse purchases when you’re hungry — even on nonfood products, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
It’s old advice, but it’s good advice. Never shop for groceries — or anything else — on an empty stomach.
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to shop after eating a large meal, eat a healthy snack before you go shopping.
14. Order Groceries Online
Alternatively, do your food shopping online. That way, you aren’t tempted to buy products you don’t need.
Most people buy the same two dozen groceries repeatedly. Online grocery delivery services like Instacart and supermarkets’ own online platforms make it easy. They let you save favorite products, view previous orders, and submit new orders online for delivery or curbside pickup.
You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your living room.
15. Try Generic Brands
Generic brand foods can be a mixed bag. Some are identical to name-brand foods and may even be manufactured in the same food processing plant. The only difference is the packaging.
Others are legitimately different products. Some taste just as good or better than the original, while others taste inferior.
Before you shop for groceries, research where your store-brand foods come from. You might find your favorite name brand makes them. For example, Kraft makes Kroger’s American cheese slices, and Starbucks makes some of Costco’s Kirkland-brand coffee.
Some you’ll like. Others you won’t. But finding the ones you like lets you shave money off your grocery bill without having to use coupons.
16. Try Grocery Coupon and Cash-Back Apps
Technology can help you save money on groceries as well.
Rather than clipping coupons, try grocery coupon apps like Coupons.com and Coupon Sherpa. Other apps help you score cash back after you check out. Apps like Fetch Rewards and Ibotta let you scan your receipts to earn cash back on certain purchases.
17. Use Cash-Back Credit Cards
Rather than using your debit card or generic credit card, shop for groceries with a cash-back card.
Some cards offer multiplied reward points specifically on grocery purchases. Opt for one of the best credit cards for grocery rewards to maximize your reward points while shopping. Or look for a card that gets you cash back on restaurants.
18. Always Pack Your Own Lunch
I always aim to make enough food at dinner for our family to have enough leftovers for lunch the next day. It saves money, it’s efficient, and I don’t have to pack a brown bag lunch in the morning — I just grab a storage container and go.
That lunch out with co-workers every day adds up, and quickly. A turkey meal with two sides (regular size, not large, and no drink) costs around $10 at Boston Market (depending on your region).
At Chick-fil-A, a deluxe chicken sandwich with cheese combo meal with a side of fries and a drink costs around $8.
Even bottom-of-the-pricing-barrel Taco Bell’s cheapest meal deal is around $5, for which you get either nachos and a drink or two items, a side, and a drink.
And these are cheap fast-food options, which say nothing of sit-down restaurant lunch costs. Compare that to the pennies it would have cost to simply make a larger portion at dinner the night before or whip up a quick sandwich before you head out.
Paying someone else to make your food constitutes an entertainment expense, not a food cost. So pack your own lunch. It’s healthier and dramatically cheaper.
17. Eat Less Meat
A 2020 British study by analytics firm Kantar Group and vegan advocacy group Veganuary found that plant-based diets are 40% cheaper than meat-based diets.
So if you’ve been toying with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, now is the perfect time to try it for a month.
Even if you have no intention of giving up meat, you can at least try eating less of it. Try slimming down your meat portion sizes and scaling up your fruit and vegetable portions.
For example, I set aside bacon and eggs as a treat for weekend mornings. During the week, I start every day with a bowl of low-fat yogurt with nuts, fruits, and homemade granola.
18. Buy Meat Near Its Sell-By Date
Most grocery stores have a special section for meats nearing their sell-by date. Often, these meats sell for $0.50 on the dollar.
The next time you crave carnivorous luxuries like filet mignon, rib-eyes, or lamb tenderloin, check the sale section. Even if you don’t plan to eat it the same day, in most cases, these meats freeze well and keep for months to come.
19. Buy Frozen Fruits & Vegetables When in Doubt
Fresh fruits and vegetables spoil relatively quickly. That makes them obvious culprits among the 30% to 40% of the food supply the USDA estimates Americans waste each year.
If you have specific plans to cook with a fruit or vegetable within the next day or two, you can buy fresh produce. It certainly tastes better.
But according to Healthline, frozen food packs just as many nutrients.
So if you don’t have specific plans to cook with or eat a fruit or vegetable immediately, buy frozen foods instead. You can open it at your leisure, use some, and put the rest back in the freezer to use another day.
20. Buy Spices in Bulk
When you buy spices at the grocery store, do you buy them in the fancy little glass shakers? Or do you buy them in plastic bags?
The difference in pricing between spices in upscale retail packaging and spices sold wholesale is shocking — often 50% or greater. Then you can buy a 14-pack of glass spice shakers complete with labels for under $20.
You can even buy your bulk spices at farmers markets, where they’re fresher and cost far less than at grocery chains.
21. Grow Your Own Vegetables and Herbs
If you have a yard, devoting a small section to growing vegetables or herbs can make for a fun hobby that also saves you money.
According to The National Gardening Association, a $70 garden plot can produce around $600 worth of food per year. (See their sample garden for details.)
Don’t have room for a garden? Apartment dwellers can grow herbs or small vegetable plants in a container garden. True cooking enthusiasts can even create a “living wall” of small potted herbs to pluck fresh as they need them.
22. Buy Wine and Liquor in Bulk During Periodic Sales
If your alcohol consumption is relatively consistent, you can buy all your wine and liquor strategically throughout the year.
For example, in my last hometown, two of the largest liquor stores had a semiannual sale. One was a buy-one, get-one 50%-off sale, and the other was an even more intriguing concept: Every bottle in the store was marked up only $1 over the store’s wholesale cost. As a result, I bought all my wine and liquor for the entire year at a discount of roughly 25%.
Wine and liquor are ideal for buying in bulk because they don’t go bad, at least not for several years. Then you can stock an inexpensive wine rack with all your bottles and always have the right liquor for cocktails or the perfect wine to pair with dinner.
23. Stop Buying Coffee at Coffee Shops
If you spend $5 every day on a takeout Starbucks latte, that comes to roughly $150 per month. But you can buy a 12-ounce bag of Starbucks coffee grounds for $6 to $7.
That means you can have a tall (the company’s 12-ounce option) cup of the same brand coffee each day for roughly $10 to $13 per month — less than a tenth of the in-store cost.
If you want to get fancy, you can dress it up by spending slightly more on extras like flavored syrups.
All you need to make roastery-quality coffee drinks at home are the right gourmet home coffee recipes and coffee makers. Try a French press from Veken or a simple programmable coffee maker from Black & Decker for an upfront investment of less than $50.
Start making your coffee at home, and put yourself on a strict coffee budget. People often love going to coffee shops for other reasons, whether it’s lack of time, for a social outing with friends, or because they just like the atmosphere.
There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a coffee with friends on a Saturday morning, but remember it’s an entertainment expense and budget for it accordingly.
And for the days you allow yourself to buy coffee out with friends, leverage creative tips for free or cheap drinks at Starbucks.
24. Find Local BYOB Restaurants
Restaurants typically mark up their wines and alcoholic beverages by three or four times retail pricing. That $20 bottle of syrah you like can easily spike to $80 on a restaurant’s wine list.
Instead, research local restaurants with a bring-your-own-bottle policy. There aren’t many in most markets, so it often takes some digging to find them. But it’s worth it.
Rather than blowing $60 in markup on that syrah, you pay a $6 corkage fee for them to open it for you. Plus, you get to bring exactly what you like to drink rather than relying on the restaurant’s beer or wine selection.
25. Explore Second-Label Wines
Bordeaux has a long history of “second-label” wines: bottles that don’t represent a major chateau’s absolute best grapes but still taste great.
They sell for significantly less than the chateaus’ premiere wines, often with little difference in perceptible flavor. In fact, you may not notice any difference in taste at all.
Or perhaps the difference is in a characteristic you don’t care about. For example, the second-label wine might have slightly less complexity but be just as smooth or even smoother.
Find out more about second-label wines on The Wine Cellar Insider.
26. Do a Blind Taste Test at Home
Wine and liquor rankings are subjective. Some studies, including a 2012 Cambridge University study, have found even experts have trouble telling cheap wines from expensive bottles.
Grab some like-palated friends and host your own wine or whiskey tasting — but with a twist. It must be double-blind, like a proper scientific experiment.
Have someone not participating in the tasting bag each bottle and number them. Then go through and taste each, keeping notes about how you liked each numbered bottle.
When you’ve tried them all and reveal the bottles, you’ll likely be surprised. I have been every time I’ve done a blind tasting. And as part of the surprise, you’ll find several inexpensive bottles you liked along with some more expensive bottles that failed to impress without the benefit of their reputations.
Blind tastings let you find value wines you can stock rather than falsely assuming a link between price and quality.
27. Try Before You Buy at Public Tastings
Another way to ensure you like what you buy is to attend public tastings. Just beware — most are run by marketing reps trying to sell you the bottles they’re pouring.
Their job gets easier the more they pour. By the end of a lengthy tasting, you shouldn’t be making purchase decisions. So leave your credit card at home, and just bring however much cash you plan to spend on the bottles you liked.
Also bring a notepad, and write down the names of your favorite wines. If you drink wine regularly, you can buy them in bulk at the next big semiannual sale.
28. Preserve Half-Drunk Bottles
I love a glass of wine with dinner — but not the full four or five glasses in a single bottle. That presents a problem because wine oxidizes within a day or two and loses its freshness and flavor.
It can lead you to avoid opening wines when you want a glass or open a bottle and feel obliged to finish it.
But there are two wine preservation systems that can help. The first is a vacuum pump, which pulls all the air out of the bottle to minimize oxygen exposure. They’re cheap, and they work pretty well. Try the combination wine aerator and wine vacuum pack from Barvivo.
The second option involves spraying an inert gas into the wine bottle before recorking it. The gas is heavier than oxygen, so it blankets the surface of the wine and prevents exposure to oxygen. It’s just as affordable as a vacuum pump and works even better. Check out Private Preserve as an affordable wine preservation gas.
As for how long they preserve your wine, it depends on the wine, as some wines deteriorate faster than others. But in my experience, you can expect to prolong a bottle’s lifespan by about a week, particularly with gas.
29. Freeze Leftover Coffee and Wine
Many recipes call for wine, but it’s hard to justify opening a bottle you don’t plan to drink just for a few tablespoons. The solution: wine ice cubes. Just pour leftover wine you don’t plan to drink into an ice cube tray and freeze it.
You can do the same with coffee. Coffee ice cubes serve a different purpose, helping you create the perfect iced coffee. Watered-down iced coffee is the worst, but by using coffee ice cubes, you keep it cool without diluting it.
According to the BLS, the average American household spent over $11,500 on food and entertainment in 2021. Much of that entertainment spending was on food and beverages.
That means you have plenty of room for savings. Some ways to save include tricks and hacks, while others require discipline. But beyond the financial savings, you’ll also boost your health by cutting bad habits like sodas and caramel macchiatos.
But that’s what it takes to boost your savings rate and build wealth. Get serious about your financial goals, envision your life once you reach them, and commit to stop spending so much on food and beverages.