13 Tips to Stretch Your Grocery Budget
Learn to Make the Most of Your Food Dollar
The economy is rough right now and many people have to cut expenses just to make ends meet. Food is a much larger expense than many people realize. A few years back it was enough for most people to cut back on dining out and to cook more meals at home. But for many people that's no longer enough. More people than ever are struggling just to put food on their tables.
These days, people need all the help they can get to save money on food. So I decided to share my tips and tricks for eating well on a tight budget. Please share any money saving food-related tips you may have in the comments at the bottom of this page.
1. Discount Food Stores
Don't forget to pay attention to prices, even in discount food stores!
I have found good quality food at such discount food stores as Aldi and Save-a-Lot. They generally carry such staples as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, rice, fruit, and potatoes at prices below average. My favorite discount grocery store is Aldi, mainly because of some of the imported European foods they carry on a regular basis. My favorite is an indulgent, silky textured 5.29 oz. dark chocolate bar made in Austria that sells for less than $1.50. I also love the 10-pound bag of baking potatoes they sell for under three bucks.
Dollar stores can also fall into this discount food store category but only for certain products. While their groceries are generally all under a dollar per unit, they tend to slip in items for a dollar that cost less than a dollar at the regular grocery store or dedicated discount food store. However, one category which they beat most other stores hands-down for cost on is herbs and spices. While the selection isn't always great, they often carry staple herbs like basil and oregano and spices such as cinnamon and peppercorns.
2. Save Money on Food at Ethnic Grocery Stores
Try something new and spend less
My major sources for more exotic, quality ingredients are ethnic markets. The labeling and packaging is a bit different but the quality is as good, if not better than similar products purchased at a regular grocery store. My theory on ethnic markets is that people buy the things they long for from their childhood or from their country of origin. They only long for what would be considered the "good stuff," so markets stock these things.
Asian markets often have surprising deals on high quality ingredients. For example, that package of roasted chestnuts at the gourmet market that runs $7 sells for less than $2 at the Asian grocery. A can of coconut milk often costs less than a dollar, less than half the cost of an often inferior product found at an average American grocery store. They also stock a wide variety of dried beans, a good, cheap source of non-meat protein. But, for me, the big money saver at the Asian grocery store is rice. You can buy a big bag of jasmine rice for far less per pound than white rice from the regular grocery store.
You can also find treasures at the Mexican grocery store or supermercado. I get many seasonings and sauces, fresh tortillas, tasty baked goods, and good quality meats from the local supermercado.
3. Don't Buy More Than You Will Use
People waste an awful lot of food. So when you stock up on things on sale, only stock up on non-perishable items such as canned goods or have a plan in place to preserve the extra food.
Bread can get popped into the fridge or freezer to extend its life and fruit can be washed, cut up and frozen, or cooked and canned. Vegetables can be blanched quickly in boiling water and frozen for later use.
If you can't freeze it, can it, or eat it inside a week, don't buy it.
To prevent waste, immediately package and refrigerate or freeze any leftovers in serving sizes. Clearly mark all leftovers and write the date on them so you'll know how soon they have to be used.
4. Farmer's Markets and Flea Markets
Buy local, buy fresh, and save money on quality food.
In season, local farmer's market and flea markets provide fresh produce at excellent prices. You can also feel good shopping at the farmer's market because the produce is mostly locally grown and hasn't spent days riding around in fuel-guzzling trucks to get to you. Shop local to save money on groceries and to be kind to the environment.
5. Pay Attention to Unit Prices
Most American grocery stores have labels on every shelf which not only tell you how much the items cost but how much they cost per ounce or pound. They've done most of the math for us! When comparing value between brands or sizes, use the unit price guide. Just be sure they are calculated in the same units.
Companies have gotten wise to shopping patterns and know that most shoppers think that a bigger package or "value size" package is cheaper per serving than smaller packages of the same product. But it's not always true—one large package may not be cheaper than two smaller packages. That is why checking the unit price is important.
6. Angelfood Ministries
Angelfood Ministries provides food relief for people struggling to make ends meet. Each month they sell boxes of assorted food items at roughly half the cost those items would run in a grocery store. I know Angelfood Ministries is intended to help poor people get food but if you are reading this, you probably aren't rolling in the dough—if you catch my drift. Food quality is good but the boxes tend to run a bit meat heavy for my tastes. You can check out what comes in their boxes and find out where you can buy and pick them up at through their website. They sell to people of any income and they even accept food assistance cards for payment.
7. Don't Shop When Hungry or Anxious
This goes double if you have kids along.
Have a snack or meal before shopping and get yourself in as relaxed a state of mind as possible. People are more apt to buy luxury food items if they are hungry or stressed out.
Play soothing music on the way to the store or even just take a couple of deep breaths before entering the store.
8. Buy Generic or Store Brand Products
Try store brand and generic products instead of name brands. I say try, because you might not like the generic as much as a name brand product. But in most cases, store brands are just as good, if not better than name brands. If you are fortunate enough to have Aldi stores where you live, they have some really excellent store brand products. In fact, I prefer their canned fruit (peaches, apricots, pears) to name brand products.
But if a name brand product you use and prefer is on sale for less than the generic—stock up!
9. Coupons Plus Sales
Only buy sale products that you normally use to make the most of your grocery dollar.
This part gets a little dicey. Cutting coupons can save you money but often coupon use can inspire you (or at least me) to buy unnecessary products sometimes. The thing to do is to make a strict rule that you don't even clip a coupon for a product you don't already use or didn't desire before finding the coupon.
But then there are sales. Check the sales fliers to your local stores online each week because many of them offer a search feature. That way, you can look at your coupons and search for those items as well as items you are out of. Whenever a sale item matches a coupon, savings are greatly increased. Combined coupons and sales can even sometimes get you free or nearly free grocery items.
10. Plan Ahead
Plan your meals before making your grocery list. Tailor your grocery list to your meal plan and do your best to stick to it. Only make exceptions if you discover that something you usually buy is on sale, then stock up on it if it isn't perishable.
Don't just plan your meals; plan what you'll use the leftovers for as well. It prevents waste and it saves money.
11. Clearance Racks
Save money on close-dated or seasonal groceries.
Check out the non-perishable clearance racks, especially right after holidays—Christmas cookies taste just as good in January and chocolate hearts are still delicious on February 15th. Also, there's no reason canned pumpkin or cranberry sauce can't be eaten at times other than the winter holidays.
Check out the day old bakery rack and the marked down produce in your grocery store. Our local Meijer store also has a discounted cheese bin in the cheese cooler. Sometimes, I can get wonderful fancy cheeses for just small change.
12. Replace Meat With Other Proteins
Save money on groceries and eat healthier, too!
Cutting out or drastically reducing your meat consumption can cut up to 50% from your grocery bill, depending on how much meat your family usually consumes. Pound for pound, ounce for ounce, meat is more expensive than vegetables, grains, and fruits. Eating less meat, particularly red meat, is also better for us and for the environment. Replace some or all of your meat protein with eggs, dairy, and legumes and you'll save big on groceries.
One of the big objections people have to eating more beans and lentils is that while dried beans are extremely inexpensive they take a long time to cook. My solution to this is to invest in a crock pot or slow cooker. If you can't afford a crock pot right now, simply bring the beans to a boil whenever you have an opportunity. Then, turn off the burner and cover the pot. Allow the beans to cool down then stick them in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them. This will knock a long time off of their cooking time and you can do this days ahead of when you need them.
13. Don't Pay for More Processing, Shipping, and Packaging Than Necessary
Buy in bulk and make your own single-serving packages.
Don't buy pre-packaged convenience foods. What you are paying for is not more or better food but more labor and packaging.
- Buy regular package sizes, whole vegetables, and ingredients rather than prepared meals.
- Invest in re-sealable sandwich bags to put individual portions of snacks in or better yet, be environmentally responsible and buy some small, plastic containers or re-use product packaging such as margarine tubs.
- Buy every member of your family a lunchbox, lunch bag, or bento box to take home made meals with them to work or school.
- Skip the bottled water entirely. Buy water bottles and a filter if necessary. Reusable bottles are better for the environment and it's cheaper to buy and use a filter than to buy water in a bottle. Besides, most bottled water is just filtered tap water from some municipal water supply.
How do you stretch your food budget?