One of the biggest recurring battles I have with my personal spending comes down to one of life’s necessities: food.
Every month, before I muster up the funds to pay my credit cards, I make myself look at every single charge from the past 30 days and admit whether or not I needed to buy it. I consistently overspend on food.
My monthly statement is filled with charge after charge for comforting restaurant dinners, quick to-go lunch spots and a morning coffee that adds up (over just a few months) to cost more than a top-of-the-line coffee machine would.
Spending a lot of money on food is not just something I regret, but something that’s not so easy to change. I don’t enjoy cooking, and I don’t always have the time to meal prep. But I enjoy having money in my savings account and using it wisely.
Last month, my credit card bill was over $1,000 and 75 percent of the spending was for groceries, meals out and snacks. That was way too much to be spending on food. I decided to use a food planning hack that helped me to get the most out of my groceries and the meals I did eat out.
Here’s what I did:
I made the most out of grocery shopping
The very first rule I made was to spend less during my weekly visit to the grocery store.
In order to get out of the store as quickly as possible, I rarely eyeballed prices, searched for coupons or put much thought into what I was grabbing off the shelves.
When I’d go home, I unpacked my food and then got back to my busy to-do list, struggling to figure out what to eat. I never felt like I had enough food in the house to make anything — even though my grocery bills were over $75 most weeks.
The new rule was that my grocery bills could not exceed $50 per week. What I purchased had to last me for daily breakfasts, and lunch and dinner for four days of the week. This meant being smart about what I was buying. I made sure to hunt for the best deals, which often took me to at least two or three stores. I bought fruit and veggies from one spot that had the lowest prices and frozen and boxed items, plus bread and nuts, from another.
I made sure that before I entered the stores each week I did my research. I tossed as many coupons as I could find into my purse and found out what day each store had the best deals (since grocery stores offer different savings on items depending on the day of the week).
According to research from Ibotta, a shopping app that offers cash-back deals, weekends are the most expensive time to go food shopping, regardless of what city or state you live in. Ibotta also recommends shopping on a Tuesday for wine (it’s 4 percent cheaper), Wednesdays for bread (2 percent cheaper) and Fridays for produce and ice cream (1 percent cheaper).
I standardized a weekly menu
The second rule that helped me save hundreds of dollars on food in just one month centered around the actual art of planning out my meals. In order to make things easy on my schedule, and my lack of cooking skills, I kept one standard menu for the week. Breakfast would be the same every day that week. Here’s what I ate:
- Week one: overnight oats with fruit and peanut butter
- Week two: superfood smoothie
- Week three: cold cereal and milk
- Week four: fruit salad and yogurt
For lunch, I planned two meal options each week. My goal was to eat a home-cooked meal for lunch five out of seven days. Having two options was enough variety for me. For example, the first week, my two lunch options were pasta salad or a hummus and veggie sandwich. I kept the pasta salad prepared in a big bowl in my fridge, and on the two days that was my lunch option, I easily put it in tupperware and took it to work. On days when my mornings were slower, I made the hummus and veggie sandwich, fresh for that day, and took it with me to work.
I used the same plan for dinner and ate at home four of the seven nights of the week. I also bought less expensive food items like zucchini and squash instead of pricey avocados or asparagus.
The combination of smart food shopping and meal planning took my grocery bill for the month down from $300 to $200.
I cycled in leftovers
I decided to allow myself to eat out for two lunches a week and three dinners. In order to stick to this limit it was important that I planned ahead.
Every Sunday, I assessed my plans for the week and picked out the few meals I would not meal prep for. After deciding on the days, I would then attempt to pick restaurants where I knew the prices were fair and the portions were huge. I always made sure to take home leftovers to use for lunch or dinner the next day or as a snack (if the leftover portions were small). I saved several hundred dollars while still allowing myself to eat out by avoiding food waste and making better decisions when ordering my meals.
In total, planning out my meals and food spending for the week helped me to save over $450 in a month, eat healthier and avoid decision fatigue when ordering my food — and I’m definitely going to continue using this plan moving forward.