A majority of food costs comes from spending on groceries, with the rest coming from eating out.
According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average American household earns roughly $6,250 monthly and spends about 10% of that on food. This makes it the third biggest expense behind housing and transportation.
Anyone looking to build up their savings or climb out of debt should be thinking hard about how to reduce this cost.
As someone who has never eaten at restaurants all that much, my recent efforts to climb out of debt found me spending a lot of time trying to figure out ways to reduce my grocery bill.
My efforts have paid off, as I now spend around $150 per month, or less than half of what the average American pays. I did this without sacrificing on nutritional quality or by forcing myself to eat less.
Here’s how I did it:
Creating a budget and making a list
I used to shop for groceries like I was part of the royal family.
I’d wander into a Whole Foods, peruse the aisles, and think, “Oh, I’ve never tried Jackfruit, how exotic!” Then I’d put it in my cart, not even considering the price, or thinking about whether it would fit into any sort of coherent meal plan.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach if you are the Duchess of York. But if you are trying to cut costs, it’s a losing strategy.
The only way for me to focus on spending less was to make a budget. There are plenty of tools available that can help you with budgeting, including popular smartphone apps. Personally, I found success through simplicity.
Once I had my goal of $150 per month, I made sure to always use a list when I went shopping. When you have a list, it’s easier to stay disciplined and to focus on just the items that fit into your budget. It also ensures you don’t forget anything critical, which might force you to pick up an expensive replacement later.
Besides making a list, there are other ways to curb impulse shopping. A big one for me was to start shopping on a full stomach. When I go to the store hungry, I’m apt to shop like I am perpetually planning a three year old’s birthday party — cupcakes, cookies, and frosting become irresistible.
With my new plan, out went the extraneous (I’ll miss you, chocolate covered raisins) and in went cheap but filling foods like potatoes, nuts, and eggs. I used lists of foods based on how satiating they are to help me build my new sustainable, healthy and affordable diet.
Buying in bulk
Like many people, I enjoy oatmeal. But, whether out of laziness or convenience, I used to eat single serving packets from a brand name company. They set me back about 25 cents per packet. That might not sound like much, but when you compare it to buying oatmeal in bulk those cents add up.
For example, if you eat three packets for breakfast (like me), that sets you back 75 cents and represents about 3.5 ounces of dry oatmeal. If you buy oatmeal in bulk, however, that same breakfast costs only 25 cents.
This is just one case, and I understand that no one is going to get rich saving 50 cents a morning on oatmeal (though over a year that’s $182, which is not nothing). It’s the accumulation of many savings that start to add up. Similar reductions in cost can be replicated across many different foods. Plus, with online options, it’s not even necessary to pay for a membership to Sam’s Club, Costco or another big-box savings store. I buy all my bulk rice, oatmeal, lentils and flour off Amazon and my spending has dropped dramatically.
Embrace the cans
Growing up, when I thought of canned food, I imagined a dusty cylinder of preservative laden mushroom soup that I would only dig out of the pantry if I was really hungry and desperate.
As it turns out, all canned food is not created equal. Just as you can go to a restaurant and make either a healthy or unhealthy choice, you can buy canned food of the Hamburger Helper variety or you can get a can of wild caught salmon that is loaded with protein and healthy omega 3 fats.
Now that almost everything comes in BPA free cans, there is really no reason to be scared of canned foods. In fact, studies show that canned foods have the same nutrient levels as their fresh counterparts. That being the case, when I became determined to reduce my grocery spending, I started by buying canned fish over fresh fish.
Going back to the salmon example, I now get a canned version from Trader Joes that sets me back about 3 bucks for a 6 oz can ($8 per pound). The same wild caught salmon, bought fresh, usually sells for at least $12 per pound.
I also buy canned beans, tuna, sardines, and shellfish. When I am in a hurry and tempted to buy an expensive take out meal, I can now whip something up that is quick and cheap using my canned foods. This has been a major money saver.
Finally, I get that some people might find the taste or texture of canned foods to be lacking, but to me it’s not a problem. It’s not like when I buy fresh salmon fillets I prepare them as if I’m Bobby Flay. I tend to throw things in a pan and hope for the best. That being the case, I am perfectly happy with the flavor and presentation of my canned foods.
The frozen aisle is your friend
I followed a similar path of with frozen veggies as I did with canned food.
One day I stumbled across this article out of the University of California, Berkeley about how frozen vegetables are not necessarily less nutritious than their fresh counterparts. Their experts point out that “frozen vegetables…may or may not taste as good as fresh, but the difference in nutrition is slight — frozen foods will still have plenty of vitamins.”
Importantly, frozen veggies tend to be much cheaper than their fresh counterparts. To take just one example, according to the most recent USDA data, a pound of frozen brussels sprouts costs about one dollar less than a pound of fresh brussel sprouts. If you are a brussel sprout fiend like myself, and you can easily go through three pounds per week, you can chop $12 bucks off your monthly budget just by going frozen.
So, don’t just use those frozen peas to ice an injury. They can be a tasty, affordable, healthy side dish in their own right.
With a bit of planning and foresight, I was able to slash my grocery budget. I also learned a lot along the way, and I am no longer fearful of anything that is frozen or in a can. With a budget, a list, and some new habits, I firmly believe that anyone can save a ton of money and transform their diet at the same time.