A year or so ago, when my man and I decided to swallow the bitter pill and really start attacking our debt, we started by taking a good, hard look at where our money was going. Right away it was clear to me that one of the areas with the most room to save was our food budget. I’ve worked hard over the past year to break our bad habit of eating out at the drop of a hat, which has resulted in hundreds of dollars saved each month. And more recently I’ve been taking aggressive steps to reduce our monthly grocery bill.
With small changes here and there, I’ve been able to reduce our grocery bill from over $500 a month to under $400 a month for our family of four healthy eaters (my 4 year old and toddler can eat an entire box of spaghetti in one sitting).
Below are a few tips that have helped reduce how much I spend at the store each week.
Plan a menu.
This is so obvious and you’ve probably heard it over and over but I cannot reiterate enough how important it is to plan what you are going to make. For me, it is helpful to have a list of our family’s favorite recipes and rotate through that list each month. After several years of cooking for my family I’ve got a good list of about 100 recipes that we rotate through, so we rarely eat the same thing twice in a month. Utilities your friends who like to cook, your favorite cooking blogs, and Pinterest to find family favorites that you can cook over and over again. Planning ahead also helps you avoid those panicky moments at 5 p.m. when you have no idea what to make. This has been key for keeping me from heading out the door for a burger at the last minute.
Our local grocery store runs great sales, and I have learned to adjust my weekly menu based on what is on sale each week. If chicken is on sale then we are going to have chicken at least once that week. I challenge myself to get as few things full-price as possible.
This goes right along with number 2. When something you cook a lot goes on sale, stock up. Stick extra cuts of meat in the freezer or stock your pantry with sauces, pastas and dry goods that have a long shelf life. Last week my store had canned tomatoes on sale for half off. I use a variety of canned tomatoes in different recipes so I stocked my pantry on diced, stewed, crushed and whole tomatoes at a great price. I’ve been able to take advantage of sales and low bulk pricing to stock up on lots of items we use every day.
Compare unit prices.
I like to buy in bulk for a lot of our grocery items, but there are times when the savings are just not what you’d think. Most stores show a unit price on the price tag, which can help you make sure you are getting the best deal on bulk items. Many times buying in bulk will really pay off, though. For instance, instead of the individual yogurt packs, I buy a large container of plain yogurt and mix in fruit and honey for the kids. Frozen fruit, nuts, flour and paper goods are often a good bit cheaper in bulk.
Make your own.
I’ve spent some time mastering a few key skills that have saved us money on our grocery bill, such as making our own bread and sauces. I can make our own sandwich bread at half the cost of store-bought, and it tastes amazing. I make our own enchilada sauce (via Gimme Some Oven), alfredo sauce, teriyaki sauce (via The Adventure Bite), hummus, blueberry syrup, and jams. I also make several non-food items, such as laundry detergent (via Mrs. Happy Homemaker), surface cleaner and glass cleaner. You would be surprised how much you can save by making a few things on your own, and once you do it a few times it just becomes part of the routine.
Use Amazon Prime.
There are several items I order from Amazon Pantry and Subscribe & Save. Peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, flour, chicken stock, snack crackers and toothpaste are just a few of the items that I can find for a much better price through Amazon. The Subscribe & Save program offers deeper discounts for ordering five or more items at a time, and I often stack coupons on top of that price. By selecting a slower shipping method for other order, I can get a discount on Prime Pantry orders as well, which saves us even more. We order so much from Amazon the rest of the year that it more than pays for the cost of a Prime Membership for our family.
Use coupon apps.
I’m not into extreme couponing. I just don’t have the time to sort through coupon sites and sale papers. For me, using coupon apps on my phone is a much better solution. My favorites are Ibotta, which offers cash back on selected purchase, Cartwheel for Target purchases, and the Albertson’s grocery app for my everyday grocery purchases. I have seen significant savings by diligently utilizing these apps with each trip to the store.
Use what you have.
When I sit down to make a menu and grocery list at the beginning of each week, the first thing I do is take a survey of what ingredients we already have in the pantry and refrigerator. Very often I still have plenty of ingredients to put together a few meals for the week without buying anything else, or at the very least I can build on what I have on hand. I always try to incorporate leftovers to make sure nothing goes to waste, and I pay close attention to expiration dates to make use of what we have without throwing anything away. Using what you already have can make a huge dent in your shopping list for the week.
Freeze extra meals.
If I know a recipe will have enough leftovers for another meal, or if it can be easily doubled, I will often plan ahead to put the extra into the freezer. Then I always know if I’m in a jam or short on time I can pull a meal out and not have to worry about cooking anything that night. Soups, stews, casseroles, sloppy joes, cooked beans, cooked rice, even breads can all be frozen successfully. My husband often takes leftovers to work for his lunches but some days I don’t have time to get anything together or we don’t have anything left for him to take, so I keep our freezer stocked with homemade frozen burritos for him to grab and take with him. Twice a year, I’ll make a batch of 2-3 dozen burritos filled with rice, beans (pinto or black), diced tomatoes, chicken and cheese. This has saved us around $200 a month since he no longer has to buy lunch during the week.
Processed foods and convenience items can be easy and delicious, but when you are on a tight budget those foods are a luxury. We stay away from processed snacks, pre-packaged meals and convenience items (such as pre-cut vegetables, pre-marinated meats and frozen cooked meals) as much as possible. Yes, this does end up meaning I have to work a bit harder to prepare our foods. Instead of buying the sliced melon or pineapple I buy one whole and slice it myself. I buy the untrimmed chicken breasts and spend a little time trimming fat and putting them into batches to freeze. I cook our meals from scratch whenever possible. If you already know how to cook and love doing it, this isn’t a big deal to you. But I realize it can be intimidating if you are new to cooking or not skilled at it. Enlist a friend or mentor who is a good cook to give you some tips and teach you how to find short-cuts in your cooking.
I love to cook and do it often, so I’ve learned how to quickly make a sauce from scratch without a recipe. I feel confident putting together a meal using items in my pantry without any recipe to guide me. But it has taken time and practice to get there. Hang in there!
If you are committed to cutting your grocery bill and still making delicious and healthful meals for you family, know that you can do it!
Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and with a little practice and repetition some parts of your cooking routine will become second nature. You won’t miss all those cans, bottles and packages. And in return you’ll enjoy more freedom in your budget.