30 Tips to Save on Food

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 (the most recent year data was available) the average American household spent more than $6,000 on food. Since the average household spent just over $48,000 that year, that means more than 12 percent of the average family’s budget was eaten up by food.

So taking a bite out of your food budget is a worthy goal. And achievable – food offers tons of ways to save. Slice just 10 percent off that food bill, and you’ll free up $600 for things that are more appetizing – like slicing and dicing debt or beefing up savings.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson shares his five favorite ways to save money on food. Check it out, and then read on for 30 tasty tips.

Now let’s provide more detail to those tips, and add a bunch more…

1. Stop paying for names

Stacy tells the story of years ago standing in a Walgreens with a camera and microphone and asking people why they’re buying name-brand drugs like aspirin when inches away sits an identical generic version for half the price. Note that these aren’t similar items – a quick glance at the label will reveal they’re identical.

Answer? Either “This is what I’ve always bought,” or “If it costs more, it must be better.”

We all think advertising doesn’t affect us, but if your pantry and medicine cabinet are stuffed with name brands, advertising isn’t just affecting you – it’s costing you. Are there situations where name brands actually deliver quality or taste that makes them worth the extra money? Of course, and that’s when you should buy them. But if you’re paying 30 percent more for sugar, salt, flour, bleach, or other simple staples, wake up and smell the (generic) coffee.

For more, check out 7 Things You Should Always Buy Generic and More Good Reasons to Go Generic in the Grocery Store.

2. Bulk up

If you know you’ll use all of it, buy it in bulk. For example, I can buy 1 pound of rice at my grocery store for $3.15. Instead, I buy 25 pounds at Sam’s Club for $9.99. By buying in bulk, I save $2.75 per pound. Can’t begin to use it all? That’s what friends and freezers are for.

Just because something’s available in bulk, however, doesn’t automatically make it a smart buy: Generics are often cheaper than bulk-packaged name brands. Don’t ever buy in bulk without comparing prices.

3. Shop salvage grocery stores

In Saving Money With Salvaged Groceries, Stacy showed how to save 30 to 50 percent shopping salvage grocery stores – stores that specialize in things like dented cans and odd lots. Unfortunately, they’re not everywhere, but here’s a list of salvage grocery stores by state.

4. Use coupons everywhere

The routine for grocery shopping used to be to clip coupons from the newspaper, then head to the store. These days it’s hitting the Web before hitting the store.

Always use an online coupon search engine to find deals before you shop. Another good source is manufacturers’ websites. But the simplest thing to do is to plug the names of the items on your list into your favorite search engine along with the word “coupon” and see what comes up. Learn more by reading Internet Coupons 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Printable Savings.

5. Price match

Some retailers – like Walmart – will price match any store’s weekly ad. I collect weekly ads for every grocery store in my area and ask Walmart to price match anything I buy. I save money two ways: first with lower grocery prices, then with less driving.

6. Substitute cheaper ingredients for expensive ones

Just because a recipe calls for the fancy cheese doesn’t mean you have to use it. You can substitute cheaper ingredients in most dishes – or use substitutions for an ingredient you don’t have on hand. Check out The Cook’s Thesaurus for a list of substitutions.

7. Make your own

Homemade is not just cheaper than pre-made and pre-packaged, it tastes better and is probably healthier. So buy fresh ingredients and do it yourself: not just for the obvious things like pasta sauce, but also even condiments like salsa and jam. For ideas, check out Professional Cooking on an Amateur Budget.

8. Extend meat

My mother used to stretch meat packages by adding a little oatmeal to chopped fish or cottage cheese to hamburger meat. Oatmeal and cottage cheese are cheaper than fresh meat, and you won’t notice a difference in most recipes.

9. Stop buying bottled water

ABC’s 20/20 asked scientists to analyze five different brands of bottled water. The result: There was no difference between the bottled stuff and the tap water in New York. Buying bottled water is just a waste of money. If you think you can taste a difference, buy a filter and fill up your own bottles for a fraction of the cost.

10. Buy whole fruits and vegetables

You can buy a whole pineapple on sale at my grocery store for $2.50 – or a smaller container of cut pineapple for $3.50. Don’t pay people to do your chopping or grating for you: Buy things whole and cut them up yourself.

11. Buy in season

Fruits and vegetables are cheaper when they’re in season. The Produce for Better Health Foundation has a list of fruits and vegetables available by season.

12. Plan your menu around ads

The simplest way I’ve slashed my food bills: I plan my weekly menu around the grocery ads, not what I’m in the mood for at the moment. It takes a little creative thinking, but I’ve saved up to 50 percent this way.

13. Go vegetarian

Vegetables, beans, and soy products cost less than meat. If you can replace even one meal a week with a meatless one, you’ll save money. I’ve cut down to two meat dishes a week. Instead of buying four packages of chicken monthly at $8.50 apiece, I now buy one, for a savings of $24.50.

14. Replace sodas

Sodas are expensive, empty calories, but I get it – sometimes you just want something sweet. To satisfy my sweet tooth, I buy Kool Aid, tea, or drink powders. They’re all cheaper than Cokes. For example, my local grocery store often runs 12-packs of Coke on sale four for $11.00, or $2.75 apiece. That isn’t a bad deal, but for that price I can make gallons of powdered drinks or iced tea.

15. Shop the bottom shelf

Grocery stores put the most expensive products on the upper shelves and endcaps – right at eye level. You’ll typically find cheaper options on the bottom shelves. Get some exercise and save some money.

16. Look for manager’s specials

Grocery stores offer deep discounts on food near its expiration date. I recently purchased a pound of organic chicken tenders for $2.18 on manager’s special – $6.32 cheaper than the usual price of $8.50. As long as you eat or freeze the foods before they expire, it’s perfectly safe to buy food close to expiration.

Check out this interesting article on food expiration dates: When Does Food Really Expire?

17. Start a coupon swap

I don’t need diapers, but I do need dog food. To maximize our savings, a couple of friends and I swap coupons.

18. Pay attention at checkout

Specials change weekly, and prices don’t always ring up correctly. When you’re checking out, watch the register and double check your receipt. If you notice an error, ask the cashier to correct it.

19. Compare unit price

Larger sizes aren’t always cheaper and sales aren’t always the best deal. Most grocery stores list the per-unit price on the price tag. Compare the unit prices for everything you buy.

20. Send off rebates

Send away for every rebate you’re offered – even if it’s only for $2.00. Those small amounts will add up over time. I’ve made $47.00 so far this year off rebates from Sam’s Club alone.

21. Freeze leftovers

One reason people give for buying expensive, pre-prepared food is that they don’t have the time to make things from scratch. Really?

I invested in a few dozen plastic containers. When I cook, I make enough for two or three more meals and freeze individual portions. When I don’t feel like cooking, I have plenty of frozen dinners on hand for a fraction of the cost of the boxed kind.

22. Use a list

Want to slice your food bill by 10 percent? Use a list. As Stacy mentioned in the video, that will help you avoid impulse buys. Another tried-and-true method of avoiding buying things you don’t need: Whenever possible, shop without kids or spouses who act like kids.

23. Get membership cards everywhere

Most retailers have their own membership card – and you’ll get access to the most sales and best prices if you sign up. In some stores – like CVS Pharmacy – you can earn cash back by using the membership card.

24. Check expiration dates in the store

Check expiration dates before you put something in your cart. If you get home and discover that yogurt expired a week ago, take it back and ask for a refund.

25. Get a rain check

If your grocery store runs out of a sale item, ask for a rain check. Then you can come back and buy the item later at the sale price.

26. Use everything in the fridge

Wasted food is wasted money. In 4 Free Tasty Food Apps for Foodies, I mentioned the BigOven app. If you enter in three ingredients you have, the app will give you a recipe idea.

27. Save free condiments

Save those little condiment packages you get with your takeout. In a pinch, they’ll save you from having to run out and buy condiments at full price.

28. Start scrap containers

I keep scrap containers for leftover vegetables and fruit in my freezer. When the containers are full, I use the scraps to make vegetable broth, add them to a soup, or in the case of fruit, make a smoothie.

29. Don’t buy snack foods

One of the most expensive things in the grocery store – especially when you consider cost vs. nutrition – is snack foods. They’re not doing anything for your wallet – or your waistline. Fruit is far cheaper than candy, and much better for you. Not sweet enough? Make your own Popsicles with kool-aid. Still not enough? Bake your own cookies or cakes. The web is full of homemade snack recipes.

30. Shop online

Amazon.com sells everything – even groceries. You can also shop other sites online. Which is the cheapest? It depends. Check out The Cheapest Groceries Online: Walmart vs. Amazon.

Want more ways to save on food? Check out 7 Ways to Score Cheap Locally Grown Food for tips on shopping farmers markets. 5 Ways to Save Some Bread on Vegan Food has some great ideas for the vegan lifestyle, and 8 Massive Ways to Save at Bulk Stores will help you spend less at Sam’s Club or Costco.

Like I said at the beginning, our goal here was to create the most complete list of saving tips around. Is there anything you can add? Let us know by adding something below, or posting it on our Facebook page!

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Comments & discussion

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  • Sherrie Ludwig

    Bake your own bread! If you are at home for an evening, watching tv or such, bread takes a few minutes every hour or so 1. make dough, let rise 2. knead and shape loaves, let rise 3. Bake, cool, wrap. Ridiculous easy, 20 – 30 cents a loaf.