Food is one of those things none of us can live without. You might be able to save money by skipping cable TV or avoiding expensive travel, but cutting food expenses has to be weighed against survival — not to mention health and day-to-day satisfaction.
Still, those meals don’t need to be expensive. Are you ready to stop the insanity? Then keep reading for 25 ways to trim your food costs.
1. Skip serving-sized items
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Individual yogurts, cheese sticks and chip bags make packing lunches easy, but that convenience usually comes with a higher price tag
Rather than buying small packages, buy bigger portions and break them down. Invest in reusable containers to dole out yogurt from a big tub. Buy chunk cheese and cut it up. Get the big bag of chips and pretzels, and divide them up in baggies. It doesn’t take much time, and it will save you dollars.
2. Don’t buy processed foods
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If you really want to make a dent in your budget, lay off the processed foods. They typically provide poor value.
A box of macaroni and cheese might not seem expensive when you can buy it for a buck, but portion sizes are dwindling — that box likely won’t get your family very far. You might be better off investing the dollar toward the ingredients for homemade macaroni and cheese. You might pay a little more upfront, but you’ll get a meal that will feed the family and maybe even leave you with leftovers.
3. Use coupons
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If you plan to buy processed foods, at least use coupons. After all, coupons are most easily found for processed items, and if you combine them with sales, you can get some items practically free.
Look for the coupons that work on Coupons.com — a website and mobile app offering free printable and digital coupons. There are lots of similar sites, as you will find with a quick internet search.
4. Sign up for a store loyalty program and e-coupons
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Even if you don’t relish the idea of clipping paper coupons, sign up for your grocery store’s loyalty and e-coupon programs.
For example, as a Midwest shopper, Meijer is my go-to grocery store. Its mPerks program lets me clip virtual coupons and sign up for personalized rewards. Meijer certainly isn’t unique. Next time you go shopping, swing by the store’s customer service desk and see if your store offers a loyalty or e-coupon program.
5. Stockpile the best deals
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Stockpiling is one of the secrets coupon users use to stretch their dollars. If you buy 50 bottles of ketchup when you can get them for 10 cents each, you’ll never have to buy them at regular price.
Of course, you don’t want to go off the deep end: Just how much ketchup does anyone really use? But when you see a good sale, pick up a couple of extras at the bargain price.
A good rule of thumb is to buy enough to get you to the next sale. Traditionally, sales run on 12-week cycles, so you could buy three months’ worth of an item to avoid having to pay full price next time.
6. Learn how to cook
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You can also spend less on food if you learn how to cook. Not only will that keep you from heading to the drive-thru as often, it can also help you avoid overpriced, processed foods and make the most of the ingredients you do buy.
If you don’t know where to start, I recommend bypassing the grocery store and heading to the library first. You can find all sorts of cookbooks geared toward beginners. My personal favorite for new cooks is Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything: the Basics.”
7. Plan menus based on ads or what’s in your pantry
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It’s easy to say you should avoid processed foods and cook from scratch, but whole foods aren’t always cheap.
Pull a random menu plan out of a cooking magazine, and you may have to pick your jaw up off the ground when you see the total in the checkout lane. It’s a mistake I’ve made. The cost of all those strange cuts of meat and fresh herbs adds up.
A better way to make your menu plan is to look at the ads and what’s in your cupboard already. If chicken is on sale, and you have rice in the pantry, then it looks like you’re having chicken and rice for dinner one night this week.
8. Buy fresh ingredients in season
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Cans and boxes will last a long time on your shelf, but fresh ingredients won’t. Fruits and veggies, in particular, can eat up a big chunk of your food budget. Train your taste buds to like what’s in season.
9. Salvage food about to go bad
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Regardless of how carefully you plan a menu, you may end up with food that’s about to expire. You can resign yourself to pitching it in the trash, or you can come up with creative ways to salvage it.
For example, slightly stale bread can make great French toast. You can also use it for breadcrumbs. Turn overripe bananas into banana bread. If you have vegetables you won’t get to in time, blanch and freeze them.
Check out: “21 Tricks to Make Groceries Last Longer.”
10. Make the most of your freezer
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A freezer is your best friend when it comes to saving on food. You can freeze practically anything, which means you can buy extras of dirt-cheap groceries and not worry about them going bad.
I go to our local bread outlet store to buy all sorts of breads, bagels and muffins to freeze. Let them thaw on the counter overnight, and they’re as good as new. When berries are practically being given away in the spring, I place them in a single layer on a pan to freeze before transferring them to baggies. I’ve even frozen milk and used it later in baking.
11. Invest in half of a hog or a quarter of a cow
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One of the best ways to use your freezer is to buy a half-hog or a quarter-cow and freeze the meat. Expect to shell out some serious money upfront, but your per-pound cost will likely be lower than what you’d pay for a comparable number of cuts in the grocery store.
Check with your local butcher shop or area farms to see where you can buy meat in bulk this way.
12. Make meat a side dish rather than the main dish
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Regardless of whether you buy directly from the farmer or shop at the grocery store, meat is likely the most expensive part of your meals. You can spend less by demoting meat from its starring role at the table and using it as a supporting player instead.
Casseroles, soups and stews are a few of the ways to give your family the meat they crave without breaking your budget.
13. Make a list and stick to it
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When you go to the store, take a list with you. Don’t be swayed by impulse purchases. If it’s not on the list, it stays on the shelf.
14. Don’t walk up and down the aisles
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Some of us like to wander the aisles to see if there are any great deals. Sure, there could be unadvertised sales, but the chance of that is slim compared with the chance you’ll be persuaded to buy something you don’t need.
Remember, every extra minute you spend in the store is an extra minute when you are vulnerable to impulse-buy temptation. Make it your goal to get in and out as quickly as possible.
15. Grab the generics
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In the event you need to buy something that isn’t on sale, you should probably always reach for the generic first. Generics are cheaper and often just as good as the name brands.
16. Look high and low
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Another way to find the best deal is to look high and low on the shelf. Grocery stores often put the biggest profit-generating brands at eye level. Stretching or stooping can get you a cheaper brand — and more money left in your pocket at the end of the day.
17. Check the ethnic foods aisle
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If your store has an ethnic foods aisle, take some time to get acquainted with it. At my store, I find some spices, beans and canned goods are cheaper there than they are elsewhere in the store.
For that matter, if you cook a certain cuisine frequently, see if there is a dedicated ethnic market in your area where you can stock up on essentials at a lower price.
18. Go to the store alone
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This should go without saying, but you will spend less money at the store if you go without spouses, children or friends who can convince, cajole or coax you into buying extra items.
19. Fill your stomach first
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You’ll also spend less money if you eat something before heading to the store. Shopping on an empty stomach may guarantee that everything looks delicious and lead you to fill the cart with food you don’t need.
20. Consider a warehouse club membership
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Where you shop can be as important as what you buy when it comes to saving money.
Personally, I finally jumped on the Costco bandwagon a few months ago and found it’s saving me a bundle. However, not everyone will benefit from a warehouse club membership. In my case, it makes sense because I have a household of seven, including two boys who eat as much as the rest of us combined.
21. Shop for food in unexpected places
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When it comes to groceries, don’t limit yourself to the grocery store. Sometimes, deals are found in unlikely places.
Drugstores are one place where you can occasionally find nearly free groceries if you combine coupons with sales. You don’t want to buy at regular price, but keep an eye on the sales circulars for CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens. All have a couple of great buys each week.
Dollar stores and online retailers such as Amazon are other unexpected places to find deals on grocery goods.
22. Check out outlet stores
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If you throw stuff out on the day before the expiration date stamped on the label, this option probably isn’t for you.
However, for everyone else, look and see whether you have a salvage store or other outlet store nearby. These stores sell items that are either imperfect — think dented cans — or nearing their expiration date. It’s hard to find cheaper groceries than what you’ll find at these stores.
I’m not lucky enough to have a scratch and dent store nearby, but I do have a bakery outlet that practically gives away its goods.
23. Head to a stripped-down store
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A final store option may be to head to a stripped-down retailer. Aldi may be the best-known store in this category, but Save-a-Lot is another option in my area.
These stores offer a limited selection, and they might not bag your groceries. In addition, they might require you to deposit a quarter to use a cart.
However, in exchange, you get low prices.
Aldi has a loyal fan base, but I must admit my experiences have only been so-so. Still, if you have a store nearby, it’s worth a trip to see if you can save some money.
24. Plant a garden
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One great way to save money on food is to grow your own. For more on this topic, check out “Enjoy Great Food From Your Own Garden — and Save Money.”
25. Eat less
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Finally, you can spend less on food by simply eating less.
Yes, I know those of you with teens think I’ve gone mad. I have teens myself, so I’m well aware how hard it is to rein in the appetites of growing kids. My strategy has been to put enough of a main course or meat on the table so everyone can have a serving.
Then, I make sure to have a large amount of rice, potatoes or another inexpensive side dish available for when the chorus of “I’m still hungry” begins. And if they don’t like it, well, then I guess it’s tough being a teen in my house.
Which money-saving strategies did we miss? Share them in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Christina Majeski contributed to this post.