Food is the average American household’s largest expenditure after housing and transportation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But unlike the top two expenses, there are a lot of ways to manage your grocery budget month to month to cut back on extraneous costs.
Welcome to Cheap Chow week! Food is more expensive than ever, and it may seem like your only cost-effective options are fast food or instant ramen. But it doesn’t have to the that way. This week we’ll be showing you how to buy, cook, and eat food in a fiscally effective manner, without sacrificing fun or flavor.
Here are a few tips to try.
To maximize your dollars, sign up for your local grocery store’s loyalty program for big savings (here’s Meijer’s, Publix’s, Safeway’s, Winn-Dixie’s). You can also sign up for email newsletters for more potential savings.
To cut back on costs, plan your meals around what’s on sale or ingredients you can buy in bulk. If you’re new to the meal planning game, sites like Budget Bytes offer meal tips and tasty recipes. If the store is out of the sale-priced food, ask for a rain check (in other words, when it’s back in stock you’ll get the sale price). Ask customer service or a cashier how to sign up.
And if you have food that’s about to expire, don’t let it go to waste. Use a site like SuperCook to craft recipes around the ingredients you do have. Here are a few resources we have on that:
Before you head out with your meal prep list in hand, take stock of what you have. You can use an app like Out of Milk to keep track (notebook and pen works just fine, too).
This includes forgoing temptations, like a 10 for $10 sale. Those might seem like a good deal, but make sure you check the unit price, so you know whether you’re actually saving money.
Stock Up on Cheap Basics
By keeping your pantry loaded with meal basics, you’ll save money in the long run. That includes things like brown rice, beans, dried spices, peanut butter, flour, eggs, canned tomatoes and tuna, oatmeal and frozen fruits and veggies (more on that below). That way, if you have to work late or are having a lazy weekend, you have staples around to make something easy and inexpensive.
Do a one-time comparison on your grocery staples at the stores you frequent, either with a paper list or an app like Basket (we’ve written about price books in the past). Apps like Favado and Grocery Pal also track sales and compare prices.
If you have a few really pricey items on your list, like a meat, consider swapping them out for a cheaper alternative. For example, you can trade Jasmine rice for Basmati and lentils for quinoa for some savings, or try dried beans instead of canned. For meats, Bon Appetit recommends beef shank in place of short rib, chuck steak instead of rib-eye and lamb neck rather than lamb shank.
Many credit cards offer cash back incentives for grocery shopping. Make sure you understand your card’s regulations and rotating categories—for example, some quarters Chase will give five percent cash back for grocery purchases—and maximize your spending. Likewise, apps like Checkout51, Ibotta and SavingsStar will give you cash-back if you have a copy of your receipt.
Learn Your Store’s Tricks
Your grocery store employs a whole host of tricks to get you to spend more. For example, food manufacturers pay to keep their food at eye level, or displayed around the store—look above and below what’s right in front of you for a better deal. Another tip: according to a study from IHL Consulting Group, impulse purchases dropped by as much as 32 percent when shoppers used the self-checkout lane, because there were fewer temptations.
And don’t be afraid to embrace frozen food. While you might think “fresh” produce is always healthier, that isn’t necessarily the case. It could have pesticides or have traveled a great distance, losing nutrients along the way. Reader’s Digest has a list of fruits and veggies you might be better off buying frozen, including berries and spinach. As for meat, ask your butcher what time of day it usually gets marked down, and read this for tips on saving money on meat.
Look for Alternatives to Chains
You’ll get fresher, cheaper produce at your local Community Supported Agriculture association than you would at your local chain store, at least during the summer months. With most CSAs, you pay a fee upfront, and then you pick up your produce from local farmers throughout the season. You may also be able to buy additional shares that are good for eggs, bread, cheese and more. Find out more here.
Similarly, you can start a bulk buying co-op with neighbors or friends, which we wrote about in-depth here. Ethnic markets, too, typically have cheaper prices and better varieties of spices and other staples, like rice.