The #1 question I received from readers is how to spend $100 per person per month on food. Many think it can’t be done. But you may recall that we average $400 a month for food for a family of five. Here is how my family keeps our expenses down (and without clipping coupons or shopping at a warehouse club).
Our food budget includes diapers, wipes, dog food, and anything else you’d get at the store (e.g., detergent, toothpaste). I also included the food we purchased to host our extended family for Easter dinner and money we spend on casual dining.
Our food budget does not include dinners at sit-down restaurants (which I categorize under gifts/entertainment because they are reserved for birthdays or other celebrations). See my tips for saving money at restaurants.
Food is one of the few variable monthly costs. Whether you are trying to pay down debt or save money for your life goals, start by taking a look at how much you are spending on food.
Trimming your grocery bill is one of the easiest ways to reduce your expenses.
Here’s how we do it:
Before going to the store
look at your calendar
- How many days will you be eating at home? If you have meals out with friends or family planned, don’t plan meals for those days. If you will be hosted by someone else or attending a pot luck, plan what you will bring.
Look in your pantry, fridge, freezer.
- Take inventory of what you already have and plan your meals around that.
Next, look in your local grocery store fliers
- Some online newspapers have a weekly feature with the best prices in town
- The best deals are usually on the first and last pages of the ads
- I look for buy-one-get one free (BOGO) offers
- Remember that sales prices at grocery stores are often more expensive than you can get at a superstore (e.g., Wal-Mart) but getting 2 for the price of 1 makes up for the difference
Make a list of what meals you will make for each day, and every ingredient that recipe needs.
- Check for any ingredients you already have
- Identify things you can make yourself
- Identify things you can prepare yourself
- Shred your own cheese
- Cut your own vegetables
- Make your own salads
- Shell your own peanuts (and it’s fun for the kids!)
Plan meals and snacks around inexpensive staples
- dried beans
- nuts & seeds
- peanut butter/nut butters
plan meals that use similar items within the week
Examples of different uses of the same ingredients to save time & money:
- Rice, beans, and corn, can be used in different combinations to make
- south-western style loaded potatoes
- enchilada soup
- burrito bowl
- black beans and rice
- Chicken, spinach, carrots, and humus can be used to make
- chop up leftover chicken, carrots, and spinach for rice with chicken & veggies
- leftover spinach and carrots can be used for lunch salads
- leftover humus and carrots can be a healthy snack
- Marinara sauce can be used for
- French-bread pizzas
- leftover Mozzarella from the pizza can be used to make caprese salad
- Bell peppers, rice, and mushrooms can be used to make
- stuffed peppers
- rice and veggies
- Eggs can be used to make
- scrambled eggs with home fries
- hard-boiled eggs
Go to the store only once a week!
- Wait until you’ve eaten all the meals you have before going back.
- No matter how disciplined we are, we are always tempted to spend more.
- For example, last week I forgot that I had a potluck at work. My husband went to the store with plan to purchase something for the party, which cost $5.99. The master shopper he is, even he was tempted when he saw one of our favorite meals on sale. He left the store having spent 12.49. Twice as much!
- Never go to the store on an empty stomach.
At the store
Stick to your shopping list
- This is most important!
If you wouldn’t pay full-price for something, don’t buy it because it’s on sale
- This is spending money, not saving money.
Try generic brands
- They are often literally the same product with a different label.
When an item you use regularly is BOGO or deeply discounted, stock up!!!
- Staples like cereal, bread, and spaghetti are often BOGO.
- I’ve purchased as many as 8 loaves of bread and kept them in the freezer!
- You can freeze almost anything.
Compare price per ounce
- Companies caught on that people became conditioned to think that bigger packages were less expensive. Now they switch this up.
Look in the ethnic aisle
- Spices are usually less expensive here.
Just because something is on an end-cap doesn’t mean it’s a reduced price
- Sometimes companies pay for premium spaces.
More expensive items are kept eye level
- Look at the bottoms and tops of shelves for better prices.
- Avoid the aisles and stick to the store’s periphery
- This is where the fruits, veggies, meats, nuts, and cheeses are
- Choose fresh food with the least processing or packaging
- Basil plants are less expensive than packaged basil
- Whole chickens provide more meat (and you can use the bones for stock) than broken down pieces
- Pre-cut veggies and pre-shredded cheese are often more expensive and include additives to keep them fresh.
Don’t buy it, you don’t need it
- I’ve previously posted on a number of things I don’t buy anymore
- e.g., paper towels, napkins, plastic baggies, household cleaners other than vinegar and rubbing alcohol
- This has saved us a ton of money! We used to spend $40 a month just on soda!
When you get home from the store
- Freeze any meats you won’t use in the next two or three days
- Freeze your bread
- Wrap celery in foil to keep it crisp
- Put fresh cilantro in a cup of water in the fridge to keep it longer
- If you shopped at Wal-Mart, use the Savings Catcher app to get a refund for items that can be found elsewhere for a lower price
- Note: we just started doing this so it is not reflected in our food costs
- Eat meals that use the perishable items first.
- Pastas, potato dishes, rice and bean dishes can be eaten later in the week.
Grow your own
- Tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapenos, herbs, and lemon and lime trees can be grown in relatively small spaces. This can save a lot of money!
Avoid Food Waste
- Turn old bananas into banana bread
- Save vegetable scraps in the freezer and use them to make broth.
- This saved us $6 a week ($27/mo) during the winter when we ate soup every week
- Save black bean cooking water in ice trays and use it to flavor other dishes or soups
- Hard boil eggs that are approaching their expiration date
- This is really fast in a pressure cooker!
Food Finances Fridays
I hope these tips are helpful. Remember that it’s the combination of these things that has the biggest impact. If some of these tips seem obvious, then why might not you being doing them?
If you’re thinking you don’t have the time, remember that you’re talking to a working mom with two full-time jobs (psychologist and yes, blogging has been taking more than 40 hours per week) and three small children. My husband may stay at home, but believe me when I say he doesn’t get a spare second to himself – and now he’s also working behind the scenes on our blog.
What changes you can make to your shopping habits? How much will you save over 1 year? 5 years?