Cutting back on costs is a great way to firm up your finances so you can save for things like retirement. But trimming your grocery bill can be tough — we all need to eat, after all.
Like everything else, the price of grocery items is rising these days. If high bills are driving you crazy, take steps to stop the insanity. Keep reading for practical ways to trim your food costs.
1. Use coupons
If you want to buy processed foods, definitely use coupons. After all, coupons are most easily found for processed items, and if you combine them with a sale, you can score some deep discounts.
If you order groceries online, try Honey, a browser extension that automatically applies coupons, promo codes and deals at some grocery chains.
2. Invest in half of a hog or a quarter of a cow
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 amount 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.
Also, read “7 Ways to Slice the Price of Red Meat, Pork and Poultry” for more money-saving ideas.
3. Make meat a side dish, not the main event
Regardless of whether you buy directly from a farmer or shop at the grocery store, meat is likely the most expensive part of your meals.
So demote meat from the starring role and use it as a supporting player instead in casseroles, soups, stews and side dishes.
You’ll find more suggestions in “8 Easy Ways to Cut Back on Meat.”
4. Stockpile the best deals
Stockpiling is one of the secrets coupon clippers use to stretch their dollars. If you buy 20 bottles of ketchup when you can get them for 50 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 will you use? 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.
5. Grab the generics
In the event that you need to buy something that isn’t on sale, just reach for the generic.
Generics are cheaper and often just as good as the name brands.
6. Consider a warehouse club membership
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 and found it’s saving me a bundle.
Not everyone will benefit from a warehouse club membership. In my case, though, it makes sense because I have a household of seven, including two boys who eat as much as the rest of us combined.
If you’re on the fence, browse the store for free to check out the prices.
Learn to get the best from warehouse clubs in:
7. Plant a garden
One great way to save money on food is to grow your own. Start planning in the winter to start your money-saving garden in the spring.
“How to Plan a No-Waste Garden” has great tips.
8. Head to a stripped-down store
Another 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, might not bag your groceries and might require you to deposit a quarter to use a cart. In exchange, you get low, 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.
9. Sign up for the store loyalty program and e-coupons
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. It’s a simple way to save without needing to do anything more than punch in my loyalty number during checkout.
Meijer certainly isn’t unique. Next time you go shopping, swing by the customer service desk and see if your store offers a loyalty or e-coupon program or app.
10. Learn how to cook
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, but it also can 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 heading to the library first. You’ll find all sorts of cookbooks geared toward beginners. My personal favorite for new cooks: Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything: The Basics.”
11. Plan menus based on ads or what’s in your pantry
It’s easy to say you should avoid processed foods and cook from scratch, but whole foods aren’t always cheap either.
Pull a random menu plan out of a cooking magazine, and you may have to pick your jaw up off the floor when you see the total in the checkout lane. It’s a mistake I’ve made. All those strange cuts of meat and fresh herbs really add up.
A better way to make your menu plan is to look at both the ads and what’s in your cupboards. If chicken is on sale and you have rice in the pantry, then you’re having chicken and rice for dinner one day this week.
12. Buy fresh ingredients in season
Cans and boxes will last a long time on your shelf, but fresh ingredients won’t. You don’t want those to go to waste either since 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 when perishable, whole foods are cheapest.
13. Salvage food about to go bad
Regardless of how carefully you plan, 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 makes great French toast. You can also use it for croutons and breadcrumbs.
Turn overripe bananas into banana bread. If you have vegetables you know you won’t get to in time, blanch and freeze them.
14. Make the most of your freezer
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.
At our local bread outlet store, I buy all sorts of breads, bagels and muffins to freeze. Thaw them 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 for storage in the freezer.
I’ve even frozen milk and used it later in baking.
15. Make a list and stick to it
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.
16. Don’t walk up and down the aisles
Some of us like to wander the aisles to scope out any great deals. True, there might be unadvertised sales in some aisles, but the chance is slim versus the likelihood you’ll be persuaded to buy something you don’t need.
Every extra minute spent in the store is time when you could give in to impulse-buy temptation. Get in and out as quickly as possible.
17. Look high and low
Another way to find the best deals is to look high and low on the shelves.
Grocery stores may place the biggest profit-generating brands at eye level. Stretching or stooping leads to cheaper brands and leaves more money in your pocket.
18. Check the ethnic foods aisle
If your store has an ethnic foods aisle, take some time to get acquainted with it.
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 low price.
19. Go to the store alone
This should go without saying, but you will spend less money at the store when shopping without a spouse, children or friends to convince, cajole or coax you into buying extra items.
20. Fill your stomach first
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, leading you to fill your cart with food you don’t need.
21. Shop for food in unexpected places
When it comes to groceries, don’t limit yourself to the grocery store. Sometimes, deals are to be 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 for deals on some of your groceries.
22. Check out outlet stores
If you throw stuff out 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 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 see 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 baked goods.
23. Eat less
One of the best ways to spend less on food is, quite simply, by 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.
24. Skip serving-sized items
Serving-sized portions are convenient. Individual yogurts, cheese sticks and chip bags make packing lunches so easy, but it also makes them more expensive.
Rather than buying small packages, buy bigger portions and break them down yourself. 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.
25. Skip buying processed foods
If you really want to make a dent in your budget, lay off the processed foods entirely. 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 and that box likely won’t get your family very far.
You might be better off investing that 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.