13 Ways to Slash Your Grocery Costs
Does it seem like groceries are taking a massive chunk out of your paycheck each month? If so, you’re not alone. Food ranks as the third-biggest expenditure for American households, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If you or anyone in your family is on a special diet like gluten-free or paleo, it can start to feel like your food costs are starting to rival your mortgage or daycare expenses. After all, items like coconut oil and cassava flour aren’t cheap — and not all of us have time to sit around clipping coupons.
Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey recommends allotting 10-15 percent of your take-home pay towards food, including groceries and dining out. But as food prices continue to rise, that goal may seem out of reach for some people. For a family of four with two children between 6-8 and 9-11 years old, monthly at-home food costs range between $642 for penny-pinchers to $1,281 for bigger spenders, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
So how can you whittle down some of those costs and start spending less at the grocery store? Read on for things you should do to cut your grocery bill and free up more of your cash flow each month.
Plan Your Food Week
A shopping list will not only help you save time, but also quite a bit of money. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t have a list and you’re walking blindly down store aisles, you’ll end up buying a bunch of items you don’t need.
Map out your menu at least a week in advance. If it goes smoothly, push it even further and plan ahead for two or even three weeks. I like to use Google Calendar to plan out my weekly and monthly menus. It’s easy and free, and the list is readily available both on my desktop and my iPhone.
Plenty of apps and services are also available to help you plan your meals. Marketing consultant Ahuvah Berger-Burcat likes to use the Milk for Us app (iOS only) but notes that you’ll need to pay for multiple users. “You can create any store you'd like and customize the items on the list (and the amount of the items like three bananas),” she says. “I find it really helpful.”
Similar services include Wunderlist (available on iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire) and AnyList, which will sync with Alexa.
Don’t Waste Food
Keep track of sell-by dates on the items in your refrigerator so that you don’t have to toss out perfectly edible food before someone in your household has a chance to eat it. Up to 40 percent of our food ends up uneaten and rotting in landfills, according to the National Resources Defense Council. That’s approximately 400 pounds of food per person each year.
Likewise, sort through your pantry and take stock of all the uneaten cans and boxes of food that have been sitting idly in the dark recesses of your shelves. Are there multiple half-empty bags of dried pasta hiding in a corner? Combine them and use them for a meal before going out to purchase yet another new bag.
Rescue Some Produce
Find out if your area has a “rescued produce” delivery service. Such services take the edible produce rejected by supermarkets (think funny-looking curly cucumbers) and distribute it to people at a fraction of the cost.
Stephanie Kibler, founder of personal finance blog Poorer Than You, uses one such service called Hungry Harvest. It “allows for customization, which is great because sometimes the standard box would include something my husband is allergic to,” she said. “They tell us every week why each type of produce was rejected — most of the time it's just that the supermarket over-ordered or the food isn't amazingly perfect-looking — and they deliver it to our doorstep.”
You can find out if there’s a food rescue group in your area by searching Sustainable America’s directory, or just type “rescued produce near me” into Google search.
Use Amazon Subscribe & Save for Household Items
Toothpaste, toilet paper, deodorant, vitamins — anything that you use on a regular basis in your household can be had for a decent discount with Amazon’s Subscribe & Save. Purchasing at least five items in a single month will save you up to 15 percent (up to 20 percent if you’re an Amazon Prime member).
It helps to add a lot of items to your Subscribe & Save list since you save more when you subscribe more. Be sure to add in filler products that you don’t need on a monthly basis. It’s easy enough to ask Amazon to skip or cancel a delivery, or you can change the delivery schedule to every four or six months.
Plan Meals by the Deals
Take a look at recent advertisements and sales before you plan your meals, not the other way around. You don’t have to spend all your free time clipping coupons, but you should hunt around for deals before you shop, which can end up saving you a significant chunk of change.
So how can you find savings without sitting down for hours with a newspaper and a pair of scissors? Thankfully, snipping coupons is a thing of the past. Instead, use rebate apps like Ibotta and Checkout 51, which let you upload a receipt to get cash back. Just scan the list of weekly updated products before shopping, and keep them in mind as you’re walking through the aisles. Once the app matches the items on your receipt, it’ll credit your account and send you the cash back.
Become a Warehouse Club Member
Buying in bulk at a place like Costco or Sam’s Club might not make sense for every family. Empty nesters or couples may find that the cost of the membership just isn’t worth it (unless you have a chest freezer that can hold that 12-pack of steaks).
Keep in mind that an annual Costco membership costs $60, BJ’s is $55, and Sam’s Club is $45 — and if the store is far away from you, you’ll need to consider the cost of gas and the amount of time wasted in getting there.
But if you do have multiple family members or the ability to store large quantities of food, warehouse stores can mean big savings. According to a survey by Consumer Checkbook, Costco’s prices beat Safeway by 33 percent; the savings were around 27 percent for both BJ’s and Sam’s Club.
One caveat: Always, always have a list and stick with it. If you don’t, you’ll just end up spending more on items you don’t need. Don’t veer from your list, skip the snack aisle and focus on the basic things you really need.
Invest in a Chest Freezer
If you do become a Costco or Sam’s Club member — or if you want to purchase meats and produce in large quantities and save some for later — it’s a great idea to buy a chest freezer. They’re not as big of an investment as you might think. You can buy a 5-cubic foot freezer at Target for less than $170, and you can find cheaper used ones on Craigslist. Sometimes you might even come across free ones on Freecycle or Nextdoor.
Some people worry about the electricity costs associated with freezers. While this is a valid concern, you’ll need to do some math first to figure out how much you would save by buying in bulk versus how much it will cost to run your freezer each month.
You can find out how much energy your freezer uses by looking at the tag on the back, which shows the wattage usage. Then check out your utility bill to figure out your baseline kilowatt hour rate.
Shop at Your Local Farmers’ Market or Join a Farmstand CSA
I shop at my local farmers’ market on a weekly basis and find that hands-down the produce is much cheaper than store-bought, and the quality is far superior. After all, an apple grown 40 miles away and picked that morning is going to taste a heck of a lot better than a Granny Smith that’s been in storage for several months and trucked across the country.
I always buy three pints of raspberries from my favorite berry farmer. It costs me $8, and he’ll usually throw in an extra pack for free. That’s between $2 and $2.67 a pint. Compare that with an organic pint of raspberries from my local store, which is currently advertising a price of $4.89.
You can also join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, which typically isn’t quite as cheap as the farmers’ market due to delivery costs, but you’ll still do pretty well compared to the grocery store, and you’ll know exactly where your food comes from.
Freeze Fresh Fruits and Veggies
Not only do fruits and most vegetables taste better in the summer, but if you buy them in large quantities and freeze them to use during the winter months, it will cost much less than buying them at the store.
Freezing tip: Remove as much moisture you can out of the fruit and vegetables and pat them dry with a paper towel. Then, place them in a plastic bag, squeezing out all the air to ensure they stay fresher longer.
Buy an Instant Pot
If you haven’t heard of everyone’s favorite kitchen appliance, you’ve been living under a rock. Still, it’s not too late.
This countertop pressure cooker has been quickly gaining a cult following — and for good reason. Making things like beans and tomato sauce from scratch is a lot cheaper than buying cans and jars of them at the store. It also makes cheap cuts of meat taste delicious.
Plus, it will save you quite a bit of time and energy in the kitchen. For instance, with the Instant Pot, you can cook dry beans in less than an hour without soaking them. Compare that to the stovetop method, which can take anywhere from three to 24 hours (with soaking).
Use Plant-Based Alternatives Instead of Meats
Not only is eating more plants and cutting back on meats healthier for you and better for the planet, but it will save you quite a bit of money. You don’t necessarily have to be a vegetarian, but it’s easy enough to reduce the amount of meat in your diet and replace it with other proteins.
Mark Bittman’s “The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living” offers plenty of recipes that show you how to replace meats with other flavors like beans, whole grains and fresh vegetables. Bittman suggests cutting meat out of your diet entirely for breakfast and lunch and having a small amount at dinner.
Grow Your Own Herbs and Salad Greens
Herb bundles at the store cost at least $2. And if you like to throw in a bit of basil or sage into your recipes, that can add up fast.
Growing herbs and salad greens is relatively easy, and you don’t need a spacious garden to be successful at it. A variety of herbs and lettuces will happily grow in container pots or vertical planters. And as long as you have the right amount of light (a windowsill or a grow light), you can cultivate them yearlong.
Buy in Season
Prices for produce can vary dramatically depending on the time of year at which you buy it. For instance, tomatoes tend to be ridiculously expensive in the winter but cost considerably less at the height of summer. If you don’t know which produce is in season at a particular time, check out the USDA’s seasonal produce guide.
And don’t be shy about talking to the farmers at your local farmers’ market. They can tell you exactly what they’ll be harvesting over the next few months so that you can plan your menus ahead of time.