9 Easy Ways To Stop Pouring All Your Paychecks Into Feeding Yourself

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In my last post I discussed how “Challenging Everything” in your budget can create significant savings. As you go line by line in your budget and figure out how much you’re spending, there will most likely be certain recurring bills or other expenses that jump out at you as areas that can be improved upon. One of the most common areas of high spending, especially for millennials and families, is food. Food is a necessity, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay more than necessary.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we track our spending with Mint. It’s been a little over a year since we first started budgeting and looking for areas to improve upon. I was recently looking through our trends from the past 6 months and was surprised at how low we’ve been able to keep our food costs.

The purpose of this post is simply to dissect some habits that we’ve been able to implement that have helped us optimize this area of our budget. You can choose to apply 1 or 2 of these strategies or all of them, either way the goal is to provide ideas for cutting down food costs. Our diet isn’t perfect, and our methods aren’t perfect. We’re definitely still learning, but hopefully this will provide you some ideas. Cutting down our food costs was just one factor in helping us become more financially stable.

Here are 9 easy strategies we use to keep our food costs low:

1. Cook meals at home.

This is a simple idea that you’ve probably heard plenty of times before, but it’s honestly the most important. The statistics are insane, millennials spend an average of $174 per month on eating out. For the first time in history, average spending on dining out has overtaken grocery spending.

The average cost of a restaurant meal varies from $12-30, while a meal at home is around $4. The savings is staggering, and we discovered that cooking at home needed to be a priority for us. At first the allure of eating out was difficult to ignore, but over time the habit became easier and easier. Now we actually highly prefer eating at home rather than eating at restaurants, and we’ve gotten to the point where we eat out at most 1-2 times per month.

If you’re thinking “I could never do that,” let me walk you through a couple of the biggest keys to implementing this positive habit into your own life.

First, be sure to grocery shop consistently so you avoid the “there’s nothing to eat excuse.” Additionally, we use an hour on Sundays to meal prep for the week. I work a second job in the evenings and weekendsthat I bring dinner to, and my wife brings healthy lunches to work. Also, whenever we cook we make enough for 2-3 dinners of leftovers. This way, we only have to cook a couple times, while having plenty of meals to eat throughout the week.

If this sounds daunting, start small. Try to reduce your restaurant spending by $25-50 per month over the course of a few months. Instead of going out, invite your friends over for a home cooked meal and spend quality time together.

2. Plan ahead.

This tip goes hand in hand with the first one. By planning ahead you can save a significant amount of money. It helps to plan out a couple meals, so that you’re not trying to decide what to make at the last minute when you’re already tired and hungry. We have some “go-to” meals for which we almost always have the ingredients on hand. Planning ahead greatly reduces the temptation to feel lazy and grab takeout.

Another way that planning ahead can help you save is by basing your meal plan on the sale items in the weekly ads for the grocery stores you shop. I’m working on a post where I go into further detail on how planning ahead can save you money in a variety of areas, along with food, so be on the lookout for that!

3. Limit coffee and alcohol out.

Another simple strategy that you’ve probably heard before, but likely don’t utilize to its full potential. Thesesmall purchases add up more quickly than you realize.

4. Make a grocery list and stick to it.

Making a grocery list before you go shopping can be a big saver of both time and money. Rather than wandering around aimlessly trying to remember if you need anything else, you’ve got a written out plan of action right in hand. It also helps you avoid impulse buys, since you’ve already thought about what you’ve set out to purchase. If an item didn’t make it onto the list, just wait until next time before purchasing it. Chances are it wasn’t something you truly needed.

5. Buy generic, store brand for most items.

95% of the time store brand items taste just as good as name brand, while costing significantly less. Avoid a “brand loyalty” mentality and give the store brand products a try. If you find that it’s significantly worse, go back to the name brand for those specific items. You likely won’t notice much of a difference and you’ll have shaved off a lot of money from your grocery bill.

6. Buy in bulk.

You can save a lot of money by purchasing items you eat often, non-perishables, and household items in bulk. We buy a lot of chicken, brown rice, beans, eggs, and healthy snacks from Costco. For produce and other perishables we tend to purchase them from a grocery store to avoid waste.

7. Don’t waste food.

We like to cook a lot of extra food to eat as leftovers, but those efforts would be futile if we didn’t actually eat them. Be sure to keep a close eye on what you can in your fridge to avoid letting food go to waste. Americans throw out hundreds of dollars in food waste every year. Also, be careful not to buy too many perishables at one time, to ensure you have enough time to consume them all before they spoil.

8. Buy items on sale.

Check out the weekly ads of your grocery store, and also look to see what items are on sale when you’re doing your grocery shopping. These simple decisions can save you some money on every purchase.

9. Utilize rewards and cash back.

A lot of grocery stores have a rewards or loyalty program. By signing up for these programs you can receive exclusive coupons and offers to save on your food purchases. Also check to see if your store has a mobile app, making it even more convenient. We add coupons right to our rewards card via the Safeway mobile app. It takes 5 minutes and saves us money every trip. For stores that don’t have rewards programs, such as Costco, be sure to utilize a cash back credit card.

What methods work best for you in keeping food costs low?

A lifelong Bay Area native, Matt Spillar graduated in May 2013 from Fresno State with a Sports Marketing degree. He currently works on the Content Management team for DealsPlus.com and has worked four seasons with the San Jose Giants. You can read more of his writing on the DealsPlus blog, or his personal blog. He is also on Twitter

Image via Unsplash

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  • All of these are great tips, and I’ve seen every single one of them repeated on a dozen different posts across the internet. Always good reminders, but I can’t help rolling my eyes at the idea of “buying in bulk”. Of course it’s less expensive over time, but it requires a more significant investment of time (trekking to Costco which are not everywhere and rarely located in cities), money (the cost of the discount membership itself, the increased cost of purchasing multiples of something), and storage (not everyone has a garage or closet or basement or extra bedroom to accommodate this bulk).

    As someone living in 800 SF with a partner, a cat, and zero closets, I do my best to buy value-sized things when possible but I can barely fit the Costco-size toilet paper in my apartment (it hides on top of the stacked washer & dryer that is crammed into the corner of our bathroom) let alone the enormous sized snack containers and other household products that are far cheaper at Costco than anywhere else. There’s another level of complexity when you don’t have a vehicle in which to transport these enormous items.

    It’s a good financial approach for a lot of people but I’m kind of tired it of being touted as this “easy” thing to accomplish.

    • Anon

      For sure. There are lots of articles out there about how one of the hallmarks of poverty is the inability to do efficient things like buy in bulk because money is so tight.

      Also, these might be variations of the same tip. “Cook at home. But not, you know, inefficiently.”

    • Thanks for the constructive criticism Jenn, and sorry you didn’t find the article helpful. The main thing I’ll say is that not every article is going to help every person. This article is more geared towards those people constantly saying “I have no way of saving money.” It’s breaking down 1 category that people spend a lot of money on, and hopefully sheds some light on ways to save. I assume you read a lot of blogs and have a pretty good handle on your financial situation, which is awesome. You might be beyond the simplicity of these methods. The tips are simple and practical, and they’re what I actually do in my own life, so I know that they can be applied and will work. A lot of my friends/coworkers don’t do these things, and so they spend MUCH more on food than I do.

      We clearly differ on the buying in bulk strategy. Again, not every method is going to work for every person, but honestly a lot of those points you bring up could be worked around pretty easily. There are plenty of warehouse clubs, doesn’t have to be Costco necessarily. And the $45-55 per year for Costco or Sam’s Club is less than $5 per month….you’ll save that in literally 1-2 grocery trips.

      I live in the Bay Area as well, in a 700sq foot apartment with a wife and 2 dogs….not a lot of space. The key is to buy the food items you use most in bulk. Finding storage space for frozen chicken, a bag of brown rice, and a few other essentials is perfectly doable. “Bulk” also doesn’t have to mean 50 rolls of paper towels, it can simply mean a “larger quantity.” So maybe you have no warehouse club around, you could still find staple items on sale and purchase more of them, so that you’re avoiding paying full price when you end up needing them. People who are barely scraping by probably won’t be able to use this strategy, but that’s ok, there’s other possibilities out there.

      Maybe in your situation living in a big city with no vehicle, it isn’t easy for you. I’m not saying it’d be easy in EVERY situation. But ultimately for a lot of people it could be a good solution to buy bulk bags of staple items rather than pre-packaged food or takeout. Again, thanks for taking the time to read and critique, hopefully my next article will be more useful for your particular situation.

  • Shelby

    I have to admit, this article disappointed me too (I had high hopes reading the title alone!). I DO eat at home and it’s been months since I’ve bought alcohol as I try to save where/however I can. My cupboard’s full of generic, store items but since I live in a studio with a single cupboard, I can’t really buy in bulk.

    The one piece of advice that is actually useful here is the cashback/rewards: my grocery store recently joined an app program that offers cashback for a LOT of stores. When I’m shopping online, Ebates is my friend but the majority of my shopping is buying groceries and toilet paper! Using the app, I have already “earned” $12.00 this month!! If I get 25 cents off a loaf of bread and a generic loaf costs 89 cents…and I buy a loaf every week or so…

    • Shelby, thanks for reading and chiming in with your thoughts. It sounds to me like you’re doing everything right in the “Groceries” category then. Hopefully you can find ways to cut back expenses in other areas, or increase your income to get a little more breathing room in your financial situation. There’s only so much you can cut out. This article is geared towards the people who “never have any money to save” or “don’t have time for cooking” yet fail to see some of the simple ways to cut down expenses in a particularly expensive category for millennials. They’re simple and practical on purpose, to show how easy it can be for anyone, not just the financially savvy.

  • Caitlin

    One other thing that’s helped me a lot is utilizing my freezer more. When chicken thighs go on a SERIOUS sale, I will buy multiple family packs and then freeze them in pairs with marinade. Then dinner can be as easy as baking or defrosting and throwing in the crockpot (side note, I recommend crockpots to all of my friends who are super busy but looking to save money on food). It also helps prevent food waste. Sometimes I’ll make a big batch of something and then be tired of the leftovers before I’m through them all, but I can freeze a portion and a few weeks later I’m excited to eat it again.

    Thanks for the post Matt! These are great tips for getting started, and good reminders for me to stick with it 🙂

    • Thanks for reading Caitlin! Freezing leftovers and making meals in the crockpot are awesome tips as well, very helpful for busy people who feel too tired to cook a full meal when they get home!

  • Hell No

    These are all tried & true tips, nothing really astounding here. I challenged myself in August to only spend $50/week on food, and more or less succeeded – ending the month with $280 on food and $50 spent on eating outside the house. Last month I spent $700! I’m better at personal “challenges.”

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