When we explore personal finance and living below our means, we consider which expenses are necessary and which are discretionary. It’s easy to identify our Netflix subscription, dinners with friends, and facials as discretionary. Without them, we’d survive — but they give our lives that extra bit of luxury or fun that makes everything better.
And when it comes to necessary expenses, it’s easy to list housing, groceries, and clothing. While it’s important to scrutinize your discretionary expenses to see if there are more frugal ways to entertain yourself, few of us look at how we can optimize our essentials. We know it’s important to try for a good deal on fixed expenses like housing, whether that means negotiating rent with our landlord or remortgaging our property to pay less each month, but when it comes to those necessary expenses that can fluctuate wildly each month, it’s easy to slack off.
My biggest expense after housing is groceries. While it’s an area that I have to spend money on, too often “we all need to eat” becomes an excuse for spending money on convenience foods and expensive meals that only serve one portion. In other words, we can fall into the trap of paying too much for groceries.
Here are the main reasons why your grocery bill is high:
1. Lack of planning.
You can’t walk into the grocery store without at least a basic plan and expect to easily stay under-budget. I get that doing a weekly meal plan isn’t most people’s favorite use of time, but what about planning what you’re going to eat today and tomorrow? You may have already planned to meet up with a friend for drinks tomorrow, so you won’t want to cook dinner. But could you make time today to put together a quick and easy brown bag lunch for work instead of buying a frozen meal to heat up in the microwave?
2. Not getting deals on staples.
The three items I buy every week are lemons, milk, and bananas. How do I know this? Aside from using these items nearly every day, I’ve written lists for grocery shopping for a decade, so I have a pretty good idea of what goes on the list every time. What do you buy regularly? Knowing our staples can help us make more savvy decisions when these items are on offer.
One of my friends from university used to insist that a meal wasn’t a proper meal without meat. Whilst protein is a fundamental part of a balanced diet, I’ve experienced the benefits of reducing my meat consumption. I’ve never been a vegetarian, but reducing my intake has helped me nail my hummus recipe, increase my bean consumption, and increase my confidence using spices like cumin, coriander, and paprika. Using spices and plant-based proteins can shave dollars off of your weekly shop and force you to get comfortable with a wider variety of ingredients.
4. Fridge/freezer neglect.
Every day, I think about how lucky I am to have a tall fridge and freezer (seriously — because in previous rentals, I’ve had no freezer and a tiny shared fridge!). Not only is practicing gratitude essential to frugality, it’s also essential to make the most of those great appliances that mean we don’t have to buy, cook, and eat every meal immediately. How much do you use your fridge or freezer to store leftovers? It’s not just a great place for ingredients. Fridges and freezers are the go-to appliance for keeping you stocked with delicious, homemade ready meals for those days when you would have otherwise ordered takeout.
5. Fridge/freezer overuse.
It’s great to use a fridge or freezer to help your food go further, but if you go too far the other way by overstocking it, you’ll often find you’re throwing food out. Not only is it wasteful and unhygienic to leave foods rotting at the back of your fridge, it also reduces the efficiency of your appliance, because fridges need adequate space to circulate air. Your goods will not all be keeping cool, and you’ll also use more electricity. Also, always make sure your food has cooled down some before putting it in the fridge. Your fridge and freezer have to work harder when you store cooked food before it’s cooled down.
6. One-time events.
When I was at university, I used to love making baked salmon with steamed vegetables and rice. It was a healthy and balanced meal, but it wasn’t cheap. Not only was I using one salmon steak per meal (salmon was and still is expensive where I live, especially if you don’t use it for batch cooking), but each time I made it I only made one portion. What a waste of my effort! Batch cooking has opened up a world of time and money saved. I’ve also learned what freezes well (chili, pasta sauces, stews) and what doesn’t (frittatas, fresh tomatoes). It’s also great having “ready” meals in the freezer for those days when I don’t feel like cooking.
7. Ignoring the seasons.
I’m still guilty of buying produce when it’s not in season. Most of the time, I google what’s in season (Eat the Seasons is a great site) so that I can be more intentional about the produce I use. Seasonal produce is also cheaper.
8. No back-pocket recipes.
Having go-to recipes makes it so much easier to make a quick trip to the store without having to think about it too much. Like keeping track of staples, I’ve collected tried and tested recipes in a handy folder on my Google Drive ready to be whipped out when I’m drawing a blank sitting in front of my meal plan. Just a few of my favorites include Taco Chicken Bowls, Microwave Fish Parcels, and Vegetarian Chilli.
9. Following deals too often.
Get 50% free. Buy 3 for 2. Red labels, bold writing. We all know a deal when we see one, but how many of us stop to question whether something is actually a deal? We’ve been conditioned to believe that a deal really is a deal, but more often then not, we find ourselves disposing of the excess food at the end of the week. If you want to take advantage of a deal on groceries, there are two ways to do so: know your cupboard staples and buy in bulk when they’re on offer, and beware of buying fresh food on offer unless it’s freezable, e.g. mincemeat, berries. Fresh food deals that you can’t freeze often end up in the trash. There’s also something to be said about food that we throw out. Not only are we spending way more than we need to, but we’re also paying the supermarket to throw out their food.
I’m not saying that your groceries and meal prep has to become this huge, laborious task to save a few cents (heck, I’m guilty of some the points raised in this article), but with a little more intention and planning, we can buy less, waste less, and save money. It’s a win-win-win.
This post originally appeared on January 2, 2018, and has since been updated.
Maureen writes on personal finance for millennials. At the beginning of 2017, she released her first book: Your Money, Your 20s. Since then, she has written several online courses on money management and investing. She is a big fan of index funds and started investing in the stock market aged 22. Since then she has invested in peer-to-peer lending, renewable energy, and crowdcube businesses. You can read more of her work at The Life-Life Balance.
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