For most people who would be considered middle-income earners, food costs comprise a substantial percentage of our total budgetary spending. Between feeding the kids, eating three meals daily, insuring proper nutritional intake, and treating ourselves to the occasional night out, there’s no question that our food expenses are necessary ones – but that they also add up quickly.
Fortunately, even though food is clearly a necessity, there is a wide range of spending that such a necessity may entail. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average family of four spent $1244.30 on food in January if they were adhering to a “liberal” plan. On the other end of the spectrum, a similarly-sized family following a “thrifty” model spent only $629.10. The considerable $615 difference between the two approaches means that a liberal family, conceivably, could save over $7,000 per year by reigning in their food spending and becoming thriftier in their approach. Savings this significant could help a couple plan for retirement or prepare for their children’s college costs.
So how could this be accomplished? How could a family cut down on their food costs without eliminating their food needs? Here are ten tips for accomplishing just that:
1. Forgo restaurant eating. The best place to start when reducing your food expenses is by forgoing restaurant meals. Eating out, after all, likely comprises a disproportionate share not just of your food budget but of your spending as a whole. While most of us are incapable of completely forsaking restaurants and fast food establishments, limiting yourself to one visit per week (of a few per month) can still go a long way towards saving you money when it’s all said and done.
2. Plan in advance. When heading to the grocery store, the average shopper is prone to making impulse purchases and buying items that he doesn’t need, even if he has a list in hand. All these surplus purchases, even if eventually consumed, can drag down your food budget. A better approach is to plan out your meals – not simply your products – before heading to the store. Determine everything you plan to cook for a 1 or 2 week period; then, buy only those items necessary for the meals.
3. Seek out low-cost, high-nutrition foods. Not all food products are created alike: some are high in cost but low in nutritional value, others are low in both or high in both, and some are heavy on nutrition but light on your wallet. This last group is the one to seek out when looking to save money. Products in this group include eggs, rice, beans, pasta, tuna, and a range of vegetables.
4. Buy in bulk. Buying in bulk can translate into discernible savings, especially when you are buying nonperishable products or food items that your family consumes at a rapid rate. Head out to Sam’s Club or Costco and take a look around; you may be surprised to see how much bulk savings can bring you.
5. Don’t shy from store brands. Grocery chains routinely offer store brand items that sell at a slight discount and compete directly with the name-brand products. While store items may be of inferior quality from time to time, it’s likely that your taste buds won’t notice any difference – but that your wallet will.
6. Use coupons. Most grocery stores will advertise coupons in the shopping aisles and provide discounts on the backs of carts, mailings, and receipts. Most people ignore such promotions; however, it’s not too hard to keep your eyes open for deals, especially when those deals may cut a few dollars out of your average purchase. Some people may also be eligible for SNAP, the federal food stamp program.
7. Go vegetarian. When it comes to price, not all foods are created alike: although the protein provided by beans, legumes, and nuts can be had at cost-efficient prices, it’s unlikely that a family can find a similar value when looking to red meat as their protein source. Meat is routinely more expensive and it comprises a disproportionate share of the average American shopping budget. Going vegetarian, then, can translate into substantial savings.
8. Make use of your leftovers. Depending on which study you choose to trust, Americans waste either 14% or 40% of all the food they purchase. Even at the low end of that range this translates into hundreds of dollars of uneaten food every year. While it’s impossible to scrape every scrap from every meal, a policy of keeping and reusing all leftovers can quickly minimize your family’s waste.
9. Reduce beverage purchases. Considering the cheap cost of tap water and the “empty calories” that most soft drinks provide, there are few beverage purchases that are worthwhile from a cost or nutrition perspective. We all want to buy beer and Coke from time to time, but the less often we do so the better for our bottom line.
10. Budget. Last but certainly not least, none of these above objectives can be feasibly accomplished (at least over the course of months and years) if you do not have a conception of how much money you want to put towards food and how much you actually spend. Keeping a detailed monthly budget is an excellent way to keep you informed – and keep you accountable, as well.
Following these ten tips can help you reduce your food costs in the short-term and realize substantial savings in the long run. Although food is a necessary component of our budgets and cannot be eliminated entirely, this does not mean that you can’t drastically reduce your expenses by following a responsible and carefully-planned eating approach.