The biggest chunk of my flexible spending each month is definitely food, whether that’s groceries or eating out. I love food, especially really great food, so it’s worth it to me to spend a little more sometimes. I want to make sure I’m getting the most bang for my buck though. Here are some ways I maximize my food dollars each month. This post has my grocery rules, and part 2 will have tips for eating out on a budget.
- Buy whole foods. This is pretty simple. Buy things that only have one ingredient: the thing you are buying. My list tends to include produce, meat, tofu, eggs, grains, beans, etc. To do this, though, you have to…
- Learn to cook. I feel very fortunate that my mom taught me how to cook when I was young so that I’m not dependent on frozen and boxed food now. Not only do we eat healthy because I’m cooking with whole foods, I can find ways to use up all the food I buy so that we’re not wasting anything. Cooking is also cheap therapy. I love cooking because I can zen out in the kitchen and not think about anything else, so it’s ends up being like a daily meditation time. I’ve learned that if I try to multitask while cooking I will probably burn the house down. About a month ago I put 18 eggs on to boil and then went to weed the yard for a few minutes. Two hours later, I had weeded most of the front yard, but then was reminded about the eggs by the smoke alarm and the most acrid smell I’ve ever smelled. It took an entire scented candle and three sage smudgings to get the smell out of the house.
- Leftovers. I try to cook dinner most nights and then we eat leftovers for lunch. Buying lunch out is a huge expense. I know people who eat out every day and I honestly don’t know how they do it. Near CSU you’d pay roughly $8 a day for a meal on average for a fast-casual meal. That’s $40 a week, and $160 a month to eat. If you’re eating at a sit-down restaurant, the cost goes up to around $240 a month. For $160, I can buy groceries for two people for three meals a day for at least two weeks.
- If you need to buy processed foods, look for better options. We buy frozen burritos. A lot of them. I could make burritos and freeze them, but I generally don’t have time and they would all be consumed in two days. I know this from experience. But we used to buy the “fancy, healthy” burritos, until I realized that a) they were averaging $3/burrito, and b) they were filled with preservatives and junk. I can buy a package of La Favorita burritos for $7/pack of 6 and the ingredient list includes things like “tortilla,” “beans,” “eggs,” “green chiles,” etc. They are also a Colorado company so we’re supporting a local business, getting better food, and saving almost $2 per burrito!!!! There are quality convenience foods that will save you money if you shop around and are smart about what you buy.
- Coupons. I am not a crazy couponer. I don’t have time for it and people who coupon like it’s their job end up with processed garbage food like a pantry full of Hamburger Helper or 47 bottles of steak sauce. But I shop at King Soopers with our membership card so they track our purchases and send coupons for things we actually buy. My personalized coupons usually include things like mushrooms, spinach, avocados, Greek yogurt, chicken, fish, etc., and I get some in the mail almost every month. I have a little coupon file that I put them in and throw in my purse before I go grocery shopping. They usually send a couple of coupons for free things each time. We generally get free eggs or frozen vegetables, but this last time we got a free bag of whole wheat bagels (The Boy loves bagels and it saved us 4 bucks). I also make sure to log on to our King Soopers online account and load any e-coupons that are available that I might buy. They will usually have something from the produce, dairy, and meat departments available. There are so many times when I’ll forget I loaded a coupon and it will magically save me money at checkout.
- Shop generics and sales–always look at the price per unit! I do a lot of comparing costs while I’m shopping. For example, if I’m buying beans or oats or coconut milk, there is usually a generic brand and a name brand and a lot of times they will be in different sizes. If you look at the cost per ounce, you’ll figure out how to get them most bang for your buck. Most of the times the cheapest per ounce is the generic, but not always, especially if the name brand is on sale. This is usually in tiny type on the shelf price tag. Sometimes the units are different so you may need to do math. Luckily for us, we all have calculators on our phones so it’s not so bad.
- Bulk bins. There are some things I almost never buy at our King Soopers because the one closest to our house doesn’t have bulk bins. I will go to Sprouts for things like old fashioned oats, nuts, chia seeds, nutritional yeast, and spices because I can almost guarantee that the bulk price will be less than what I would pay for that item in a package. Curry powder in a small shaker can cost up to $8, but I can buy a sandwich bag full from a bulk bin for less than $2.
- Rewards cards. This means two things: membership card and rewards credit card. I use our King Soopers membership card to get sales and coupons and gas points (10 cents off per gallon for every $100 you spend on groceries…not a lot, but it helps). I also have an American Express Blue Cash Rewards card because it pays 6% cash back on up to $6000 of grocery purchases a year. That’s up to $360 back on things I’m already buying to live. It pays 1% on all other purchases and 3% on gas. There’s a $75 annual fee, but I typically earn that back in the first three months.
- Get a CSA share. We purchase a CSA share every spring. It’s an investment up front, but will save you in the long run and support local agriculture. It’s also really nice to not have to pay for produce during the summer–it feels free, but we already paid for it. I’ve shared this before, but we have a market share through Native Hill and it is the greatest.
- Freeze things. We can get bulk boxes through our share for things like green beans and roma tomatoes. Last year I prepped green beans and tomatoes and froze them for use over the winter. An afternoon of effort means no shopping later on and you’re essentially locking in the best price. If I find something at a store for a really good price, like BOGO Red Bird chicken, I’ll buy as much as I can fit in my freezer. Last summer I purchased a 30 lb box of Hatch green chiles from Whole Foods when they were on sale for $14.99 a box and then Whole Foods roasted them for me for free. My mom helped me package them in individual freezer bags and I am still making green chili with them. It definitely beats $3-5 a baggie at the farmer’s market or buying canned green chiles.
- Stock up on pantry items when you find an unbeatable price. I buy Kroger whole grain pasta. It’s healthier than regular pasta, it tastes better to me than regular pasta, and the only ingredient is whole wheat (some brands’ whole grain pastas are only 51% whole grain). It typically is priced at $1.00-$1.20 a box. Last month I found “closeout” prices for $.75-$.88 a box so I bought all the spaghetti and rotini they had. We’re going to buy it anyway so might as well stock up while I know the price is unbeatable. And I swear, Kroger, if you actually stop carrying whole wheat pasta, I will never forgive you.
- Use it all up. When I chop vegetables, I save the odds and ends in a bag in our freezer for making stock. If I cook a whole chicken, I save the skin and bones for stock as well. It all goes into the crock pot together and I know that I REALLY got my money’s worth and I don’t have to spend $8 on the equivalent amounts of aseptic box broth later.
- Eat your pantry/freezer. I am often tempted to just pop over the the store to pick up new items for dinner. This adds up. My solution is to try to come up with meals entirely from what we have on hand. It’s fun, in a frugal weirdo sort of way, to try to go as many days as possible without buying something new. If you have a stocked up pantry and freezer, it’s easy. But when you’re getting down to the odds and ends you have to get a little creative. I have a can of salmon that I’m terrified to eat because the last one I opened had an entire spinal cord in it. I also have a bag of frozen figs that I really want to use and I don’t know what to do with. We’re probably eating fish spinal cord fig salad or something at some point.
While I could be saving more money on groceries, I know a lot of people “playing the grocery game” end up buying a lot of processed garbage or things they’ll never use, simply because they are free or dirt cheap. These methods save us money on healthy items we will actually use and don’t take up all our time.
How do you make your grocery budget work? What tips do you have to save a little extra but maintain your life?