25 Easy and Creative Ways to Spend Less on Food
By Maryalene LaPonsie
If you're a family of four with pre-teens and consider yourself "thrifty," you may have spent $654.90 on groceries last month. On the other hand, maybe you live large -- or as the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, "liberal" -- and spent $1,303.20 for the month.
Those numbers come from the USDA estimates for the average cost of food at home in December 2014. The USDA apparently didn't even want to attempt to estimate how much those with teens spent on food, but I'm quite sure the monthly cost isn't going anywhere but up for those families. So here are 25 ways to bring the cost down.
1. Skip Serving-Sized Items
I have kids. I know serving size portions are convenient. Individual yogurts, cheese sticks and chip bags making packing lunches so easy. But it also makes them more expensive. Rather than buying small packages, buy bigger portions and break them down. Invest in reusable containers to dole out yogurt from a big tub. Buy chunk cheese and cut it up. Get the big bag of chips and pretzels and divide them up in baggies. It doesn't take much time, and it will save you dollars.
2. Don't Buy Processed Foods
Actually, if you really want to make a dent in your budget, you should lay off the processed foods entirely. They typically provide poor value. A box of macaroni and cheese may not seem expensive when you can buy it for a buck, but portion sizes are dwindling, and that box may not get your family very far. You may be better off investing that dollar toward the ingredients for homemade mac 'n' cheese. You might pay a little more upfront, but you'll get a meal that will feed the family and maybe even leave you with leftovers.
3. Or If You Do, Use Coupons
If you do want to buy processed foods, you should definitely be couponing. After all, coupons are most easily found for processed items, and if you combine them with sales, you can get some items practically free. Head to your favorite search engine and look up "couponing" to find a whole slew of sites that will teach you the basics.
4. Sign Up for the Store Loyalty Program and E-Coupons
Even if you don't relish the idea of clipping paper coupons, you should definitely sign up for your grocery store's loyalty program and e-coupon program, if they have one.
For example, as a Midwest shopper, Meijer is my go-to grocery store. Its mPerks program lets me clip virtual coupons and, even better, let's me sign up for personalized rewards. For example, if I spend a certain amount within a month's time, I get $20 off my next shopping trip. It's a simple way to save without needing to do anything more than punch in my loyalty number during checkout. Meijer isn't unique. Next time you go shopping, swing by the customer service desk and see if your store offers a loyalty or e-coupon program.
5. Stockpile the Best Deals
One of the secrets couponers use to stretch their dollars is stockpiling. It's the idea that if you buy 50 bottles of ketchup when you can get them for 10 cents each, you'll never have to buy them at regular price. Of course, you don't want to go off the deep end (just how much ketchup do these extreme couponers use?) but you can save cash by using a less radical version of stockpiling. When you see a good sale, pick up a couple extras at the bargain price. A good rule of thumb is to buy enough to get you to the next sale. Traditionally, sales run on 12-week cycles so you could buy three months of an item to avoid having to pay full price next time.
6. Learn How to Cook
You can also spend less on food if you learn how to cook. Not only will that keep you from heading to the drive-thru so often, it can also help you avoid overpriced, processed foods and make the most of the ingredients you do buy. If you don't know where to start, I recommend bypassing the grocery store and heading to the library first. You can find all sorts of cookbooks geared toward beginners. My favorite for new cooks is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything the Basics.
7. Plan Menus Based on the Ads or Your Pantry
It's easy to say you should avoid processed foods and cook from scratch, but whole foods aren't always cheap either. Pull a random menu plan out of a cooking magazine, and you may have to pick up your jaw off the ground when you see the total in the checkout lane. It's a mistake I've made. All those strange cuts of meat and fresh herbs really add up. A better way to make your menu plan is to look at the ad and what is in your cupboards already. If chicken is on sale, and you have rice in the pantry then it looks like you're having chicken and rice for dinner one day this week.
8. Buy Fresh Ingredients in Season
Cans and boxes will last a long time on your shelf, but fresh ingredients won't. Fruits and veggies, in particular, can eat up a big chunk of your food budget. Train your taste buds to like what's in season.
9. Salvage Food About to Go Bad
Regardless of how careful you menu plan, you may end up with food that's about to expire. You could resign yourself to pitching it in the trash, or you could come up with creative ways to salvage it. For example, slightly stale bread can make great French toast or be turned into breadcrumbs. You could use overripe bananas for banana bread. If you have veggies you know you won't get to in time, blanch and freeze them.
10. Make the Most of Your Freezer
Speaking of freezing, your freezer is your best friend when it comes to saving on food. You can freeze practically everything, which means you can buy extras of dirt-cheap groceries and not worry about it going bad. I go to our local bread outlet store to buy all sorts of breads, bagels and muffins to freeze. Let them thaw on the counter overnight, and they're as good as new. When berries are practically being given away in the spring, I place them in a single layer on a pan to freeze before transferring to baggies. I've even frozen milk and used it later in baking.
11. Invest in Half a Hog or Quarter Cow
However, one of the best ways to use your freezer is to buy a half hog or a quarter cow and freeze it. Expect to shell out some serious money upfront, but your per pound cost will likely be lower than what you'd pay for comparable cuts in the grocery store. Check with your local butcher shop or area farms to see where you can buy meat in bulk this way.
12. Make Meat a Side Rather Than the Star
Regardless of whether you buy directly from the farmer or shop at the grocery store, meat is likely the most expensive part of your meals. You can spend less by demoting meat from its starring role at the table and using it as a supporting player instead. Casseroles, soups and stews are a few of the ways to give your family the meat they crave without breaking your budget.
13. Make a List -- and Stick to It
When you go into the store, take a list with you. Don't be swayed by impulse purchases. If it's not on the list, it stays on the shelf.
14. Don't Walk Up and Down the Aisles
Now, I know some of you may be thinking you want to wander the aisles to see if there are any great deals. But you should have looked at the ads beforehand when making your list. Sure, there could be unadvertised sales in some aisles, but the chance of that is slim compared to the chance you'll be persuaded to buy something you don't need. Remember, every extra minute you spend in the store is an extra minute when you could give in to impulse-buy temptation. Make it your goal to get in and out as quickly as possible.
15. Grab the Generics
In the event you need to buy something that isn't on sale, you should probably always be reaching for the generic first. They are cheaper and often just as good as the name brands.
16. Look High and Look Low
Another way to find the best deal is to look high and low on the shelf. Grocery stores may put the biggest profit-generating brands at eye level. Stretching or stooping could result in a cheaper brand and more money left in your pocket at the end of the day.
17. Check the Ethnic Aisle
If your store has an ethnic aisle, take some time to get acquainted with it. At my store, I find some spices, beans and canned goods are cheaper there than they are elsewhere in the store. For that matter, if you cook a certain cuisine frequently, see if there is a dedicated ethnic market in your area where you can stock up on essentials at a low price.
18. Go to the Store Alone
You will spend less money at the store if you go without spouses, children or friends who could convince, cajole or coax you into buying extra items.
19. Fill Your Stomach First
You'll also spend less money if you eat something before heading to the store. Shopping on an empty stomach may guarantee everything sounds delicious and lead you to fill your cart with food you don't need.
20. Consider a Warehouse Club Membership
Let's shift our discussion to stores for a moment. Where you shop can be as important as what you buy when it comes to saving money. Personally, I finally jumped on the Costco (COST) bandwagon a few months ago and found it's saving me a bundle. However, not everyone will benefit from a warehouse club membership. In my case, it makes sense because I have a household of seven, including two boys who eat as much as the rest of us combined.
If you're on the fence, you can browse the store for free to check out the prices. You'll also want to read our articles on the secret tactics of warehouse clubs, best buys at these stores and a comparison of the big three in the business.
21. Shop for Food in Unexpected Places
When it comes to groceries, don't limit yourself just to the grocery store. Sometimes, deals are to be found in unlikely places. Drug stores are one place where you can occasionally find nearly free groceries if you combine coupons with sales. You don't want to buy at regular price, but keep an eye on the sales circulars for CVS (CVS), Rite Aid (RAD) and Walgreens (WBA). All have a couple of great buys each week. The dollar store and online retailers such as Amazon (AMZN) are other unexpected places to find deals on grocery goods.
22. Check Out Outlet Stores
If you throw stuff out the day before the expiration date stamped on the label, this option probably isn't for you. However, for everyone else, look and see whether you have a salvage store or other outlet nearby. These stores sell items that are either imperfect -- think dented cans -- or nearing their expiration date. It's hard to find cheaper groceries than what you'll find at these stores. I'm not lucky enough to have a scratch and dent store nearby, but I do have a bakery outlet that practically gives away their goods.
23. Head to a Stripped-Down Store
A final store option may be to head to a stripped-down retailer. Aldi may be the best-known store in the category, but Save-a-Lot is another option in my area. These stores offer a limited selection, may not bag your groceries and may require you to deposit a quarter to use a cart. In exchange, you get low, low prices on brands you may or may not recognize. Aldi has a loyal fan base, but I must admit my experiences have only been so-so. Still, if you have a store nearby, it's worth a trip to see if you can save some money.
24. Plant a Garden
A non-shopping way to save money on food is to grow your own. We won't go too much into this here because we have a whole separate article about how to save green by growing green.
25. Eat Less
Finally, you can spend less on food by, quite simply, eating less. Yes, I know those of you with teens think I've gone mad. I have teens myself, so I'm well aware of how hard it is to reign in the appetites of growing kids. My strategy has been to put enough of a main course or meat on the table so everyone can have a serving. Then, I make sure to have a large amount of rice, potatoes or other inexpensive side dish available for when the chorus of "I'm still hungry" begins. And if they don't like it, well, then I guess it's tough being a teen in my house.
There you have it: 25 tried and true ways to spend less on food. Which ones have worked for you, and which strategies did we miss? Share your money-saving tips in the comments below or on the Money Talks News Facebook page.
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