Food is probably the biggest proportion of our monthly budget in which we have complete freedom to spend what we want.
Our rent or mortgage, car payments, day care or taxes are non-negotiable on a month-by-month basis, but whether you dine like a king or eat ramen all month is entirely up to you.
For that reason, it’s one of the easiest places to find savings in an otherwise fixed budget.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to starve yourself in order to put more money into your savings account. There are some straightforward changes that can make a real difference.
For example ...
Plan your meals
Most of us expect that eating takeout every night would get pretty expensive. What more people don’t realize is that deciding what to eat on a daily basis, rather than planning ahead, can be almost as expensive. Those frequent trips to the store for ingredients often come with added extras - a bottle of wine, a bar of chocolate - not to mention the extra gas needed to get you there. It also makes it harder to take advantage of special offers, because you go with only one or two meals in mind.
Start by making a list of all the meals you like eating. Then make a list of the days of the week and add three of those meals each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Don’t forget to add on snacks and drinks. Before you know it, you’ve planned your meals.
Check your cupboards
The very first thing you should do, once you have an idea of the food that you want to eat, is check which of the ingredients you already have in your fridge, freezer or cupboard. Why spend money on food you don’t even need? Use up what you have before buying more.
At the same time, take stock of things you buy less often. Do you have enough dish soap, laundry detergent and aluminum foil for the week ahead? Make a note to look out for special offers on any of these longer-term items that you might need.
Take a list and only buy what you need
When you get to the grocery store, carry your shopping list around with you. The list serves as a guide through the store - if an item is not on there, you don’t need to look at it!
You might like a paper list, with a pen to cross out items you’ve bought, but a checklist on your phone also works well. If you have time before your shopping trip, try to arrange the list in the order of the aisles in the store to make it even easier to find everything. You want to get in and out quickly, without too many distractions.
Be prepared to buy in bulk
Don’t get too fixated on the lowest priced item without taking quantity and longevity into account. The smallest jar of coffee might be the cheapest in the strictest sense of the word, but often you’ll be able to get double or triple the amount for less than double or triple the price. If it’s a product you know that you’ll use, and the sell-by date is long enough, go for the better overall deal. When you check your cupboards before next week’s shopping trip, you’ll thank yourself for not having to buy the small jar again.
Be flexible on brands
Maybe there are some items you don’t want to save on -- for example, an expensive but delicious brand of spaghetti sauce that your family adores, or maybe you’d rather spend a bit more on your toilet paper.
That’s fine - if you’ve tried the alternatives.
But don’t be afraid to try cheaper, or even unbranded, versions of food that you pay most for. It’s just once, and if you don’t like it, don’t buy it again. But if you do like it, you could save yourself a lot of money.
In some cases, you'll probably realize there's very little difference. Fruits and vegetables (whether fresh, canned or frozen), condiments and store cupboard staples can often be swapped without much hardship.
Don’t shop hungry
It’s been said many times before, but there’s no harm in saying it again: You can have all the best intentions in the world, but if you go to the grocery store hungry, you are far more likely to buy food that you don’t need.
And, worse than that, you’re more likely to go for less healthy choices that will satisfy your cravings in the moment, but won’t necessarily be useful for the week ahead. Always try to go shopping after one of your main meals. If that’s not possible - if you need to go on the way home from work, for example - plan ahead and bring a snack with you to eat before you go into the store.
With these simple tips in mind, you can take hundreds of dollars off your grocery bill.
Sure, it might take a little more work each month, or maybe even each week, but your bank balance will thank you for it. There’s no need to live on beans and rice to save money. By planning and shopping with care, you (and your family) can eat more cheaply without having to make drastic changes to the way you eat.