When it comes to money there remains one common denominator between the spenders and the savers. We all have to eat.
And unless someone dares to channel Bear Grylls and live off of roadkill and strained urine, food is gonna cost an arm and a leg. Come to think of it, trying to be like Bear might cost an arm or a leg too – in a more literal sense.
So I wasn’t surprised when two different friends posted Facebook frustrations about the costs of groceries. I knew that I wasn’t the only one eating away my income.
Time for a change . . .
That’s when I challenged myself to find a way to save money on food without starving to death or feeding my family a load of crap (healthfully speaking).
After a few months, I figured out small steps I could take to save money on food here and there. The changes were subtle, but they really added up after a while, saving us approximately $200-$300 a month in total food expenses (i.e. groceries and restaurants).
Here are a few simple changes I made to save $250/month on food.
1. Plan ahead
Yes, I realize this sounds about as appealing as eating Ramen Noodles every night. But that might be what happens if you fail to plan ahead but insist on saving money. Taking time to plan is so worth it.
(And, trust me, I know about limited time. Otherwise, I would not have started writing this on my iPhone in the hallway of my daughter’s dance studio. . . . True story.)
Tonight we’re getting Chick-fil-A, which was planned. But more on that in a bit. The point is to have a plan so that you won’t aimlessly run through a drive-through and waste money.
It’s Wednesday and we don’t have time to run home before church to eat. However, I put ribs in the crockpot earlier today so my husband doesn’t have to eat out before he meets us at church. That brings me to my first part of planning:
- Crockpots were my lifesaver during baseball last spring. My kids go to school in a rural area, which means there aren’t any fast food options. That meant either gas station chicken or eating at home after weeknight practices and games. Cereal and grilled cheeses got old after a while, so I dusted off the crockpot. It was great knowing dinner would be waiting for us when we got home. (Except for the day I forgot to plug it in.)
- Making a meal list probably helped me more than anything. This was an offshoot to using the crockpot. Each week, I would come up with four or five meals we could eat for dinner. I made sure I had the ingredients or added them to my shopping list. Knowing what I could make saved so much time and kept my grocery shopping in check.
- Planning to eat out is sometimes helpful as well. If we have a practice that ends at 5:30 and church that starts at 6:15, then a drive-through is our saving grace. However, knowing when and where you plan to eat out will save time and can save money. The kids can think about what they want to keep from over-ordering, and it can give you time to find coupons or discounts.
- Packing snacks is another mindless way to save money. Grab some snacks from home and fill a cooler of ice and your favorite drinks before heading to the ballpark or on a road trip. You’ll avoid the markup prices at concession stands and gas stations, plus have what you really want to eat and drink on hand.
2. Do discounts
- Coupons can be a great resource. Yet, like in many areas, some people go overboard. If you enjoy buying 8,000 bottles of bleach and selling half on eBay only to dress your messy kids in white so you can justify having a garage that looks like a Meth lab, then more power to you. For everyone else, it makes more sense to just use coupons for what you would buy anyway.
- Store cards are another great option as lots of retailers now offer QC codes or physical cards for shoppers to use. Most of these earn rewards toward the store or restaurant. Speaking of Chick-fil-A, the app scored me a free cup of Mac and Cheese for one of my kids. That’s $4 saved. Another example is how Target offers a Red Card that links to your bank account. Every time you swipe it the total bill goes down by 5%.
- Receipt rewards are something I normally overlook. Who wants to do a survey for a sandwich? Well, sometimes I do. If I’m not driving, then I will do this going down the road. Or, if I’m stuck in a waiting room after having a meal and get one of these receipts, I will take the time to fill it out.
3. Grow your groceries
- Literally, grow your food. A lot of my friends and neighbors planted gardens this summer and had an abundance of fresh vegetables in no time. So much that they shared with others (like me – thanks!) and canned or froze the rest for later. If you don’t garden, buy local from the farmer’s market to save money and get healthier options.
- Limit the list each week. If you can’t grow your own food, you can limit how much you spend by limiting how much you buy. Think of several dishes your family likes that works around the same ingredient. For instance, buy a larger size of ground beef one week for spaghetti, tacos and hamburger steak. The next week, you might do the same with chicken or potatoes or pasta. This keeps a variety without giving foods time to spoil.
- Ease into something new. You wouldn’t plant a full row of an unknown crop before you ever tasted it, would you? So why buy a huge bag of something you’ve never eaten? Buy a single serving size of a new drink or snack before you commit. Otherwise, you will end up with half a dozen undrunk yogurt smoothies fermenting in the back of the fridge just because Spider-Man was on the label and your son was with you. (Don’t ask how I know.)
4. Know your habits
- Store versus online shopping is a big debate for many. For me, it usually comes down to time. There are pros and cons to both ways, so it’s best to know your tendencies.
- I’m a big fan of Walmart grocery pickup for several reasons:
- It saves me so much time not having to physically go to the store and shop.
- I can run to the kitchen and check the pantry and refrigerator while I make my list. Otherwise, if I’m in the store, I might see something and assume we need it and then buy it only to come home and find a shelf full of it.
- Substitutions cost the same or less. If they give you 24 ounces of something because the 8-ounce bottles were out of stock, you still pay the 8-ounce-bottle price.
- Unlike having the food shipped, pickup is free.
- Shopping in the store has other advantages:
- Some sales are only in-store and not offered through pickup and delivery services.
- Most of these pickup services (Walmart included) do not allow you to use coupons.
- You might miss out on quality people-watching entertainment.
- I’m a big fan of Walmart grocery pickup for several reasons:
- Buying in bulk is another debatable topic. It’s good for some and not for others. Some people save a lot of money shopping at Sam’s Club and Costco. On the flip side, we personally don’t buy in bulk enough to justify a membership. Although, now that I have more storage in my current home, I will buy larger packs of water and toiletries, since they last a long time.
- Eating preferences are perhaps the biggest consideration. If your family likes to eat out, and you know you will end up eating out, factor that into the planning. Don’t buy enough groceries to bring up Bates when you only have two kids and plan on ordering takeout three times a week. You’ll end up with rotten bananas and wonder where your money went.
- Leftovers: take them or leave them? Some people are fine with eating lasagna three nights in a row. In that case, it makes sense to cook big batches of food a few times a week. Yet another way to save time. Others won’t touch a microwaved meal, so there’s no point in cooking more than you need for one meal.
5. Beat the system
Speaking of eating out at restaurants, there are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years to save money and still enjoy your favorite foods:
- Drink water to save money instantly. Who doesn’t need to drink more water, right? Plus, it’s free. Soft drinks, tea or anything else can add $2-$3 a glass to the bill. If a family of four orders sweet tea, then $10 just went to liquids.
- Choose in-between places. It doesn’t have to be lobster or fast food. Lots of sitdown casual restaurants offer good food at decent prices.
- Eat out earlier. Lunch prices are often less than the dinner menu at nice restaurants. Having a lunch date could save you a lot of money. Especially if it means the kids are in school during that time. (Hello, no babysitter’s fees!)
- Get it to go. I learned this trick after my first child was born. We would want to go someplace nice but didn’t have time or want to worry with taking a newborn. So, we would call in steaks and salmon, then one of us would pick it up. That immediately eliminated drinks and tips from the bill. Places like Outback and Olive Garden give generous bread portions in to-go orders. And online coupon codes can be found for everything from pizza places to sushi bars, saving more money.
- Control your kids. Easier said than done. But you can pack them extra snacks for traveling without you, put a limit on their lunch account spending and make them drink more water. And as a mom of two, I sympathize with you.