Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dissect Your Budget - Part 4 - Food

Tip #240 - Dissect Your Budget - Part 4 - Food. Along with shelter, clothing, and water, food is the fourth item on the list of items that humans need to survive. Therefore, food must be in everyone's budget. But costs on food for the month can range from tens of dollars to thousands of dollars. Clearly, filet mignon is not a necessity but eating some kind of protein, over the long term anyway, is. So clearly we need to evaluate our food budget. Do we have money for the filet mignon or will ground beef serve the purpose? Along with it being a necessary budget line item, food is probably also one of our bigger line items. It is also one that has a lot of flexibility. In fact, there are hundreds of blogs dedicated to keeping your food budget low. Generally, the major ways to reduce your food budget is to do any combination of the following:

1. Cook from scratch
2. Plan your meals in advance
3. Buy at set target prices
4. Use coupons
5. Buy in bulk
6. Reduce meat consumption
7. Eat out less

These strategies are all very good ways to bring down your food budget. Some of these will work better for some people than others. Let's discuss each strategy as a way of lowering your food bill:

1. Cook from scratch - While cooking from scratch may sound daunting to some, it is not an all-or-nothing event. You may start small by just cooking one or two meals per week. Or perhaps start by buying cake mixes instead of the whole cake. Then once you've mastered that task, learn to bake the cake from raw ingredients. There are great websites on the Internet that provide lots of easy recipes. My favorite is which has people rate each recipe, so it's easy to pick out good ones. I also like tammysrecipes which is a blog of many basic, healthy meals. And smittenkitchen is a fantastic foodie blog that will excite you to start cooking, although some recipes might be a bit challenging. Even by incorporating some "scratch" cooking into your life, you should be able to cut down on your grocery bill.

2. Plan your meals in advance - It sounds so simple, but knowing what you are going to eat will cause you to be more likely to actually cook your meal rather than grab the phone for take-out. You don't have to be formal about it. Even just having ideas in your head for dinner for the next week will be a step in the right direction to cooking meals and cutting down on cost.

3. Buy in bulk - while this may not always be the cheapest way to buy, it is usually at least a fair way to buy. Sure you may do better by clipping coupons and matching them to price sales, but not everyone has time for that. Buying in bulk at Costco or other warehouse stores might be just the ticket to bringing down your food bill. This is especially true for basic ingredients rather than processed or prepared foods.

4. Buy at your target price - As you shop for groceries, get to know what the costs are. If you know that the cheapest you can buy chicken for $2 per pound then don't buy chicken until it's $2 per pound. And then stock up on those items when you find them at your lowest price.

5. Use coupons - Clip coupons from the newspaper and online. By using coupons and matching them to sales, you can reduce your food costs dramatically. They may not be available for all products you use, but unless you are completely strict about brands, you should be able to use some coupons in your grocery shopping. There are hundreds of sites dedicated to how to use coupons to their fullest. My favorite is moneysavingmom. She alerts you to new coupons and gives weekly posts on the best deals at many stores.

6. Reduce meat consumption - If you are serious about cutting your food bill, you may have to change what you eat. Eating meat every night is expensive. And it is not necessary for health reasons to eat that way. Try cutting meat out of some of your meals by having a few meatless dinners per week. Or, reduce the amount of meat you eat at certain meals so that it's not the main course but an add-in like meat sauce instead of meatballs. Lowering your meat consumption will reduce your monthly grocery bill.

7. Eat out less - This idea may be very hard for some people because eating out is very easy. But if you only do one thing on this list of ideas, this is it. Because eating out can cost more than four times what eating at home costs.

Using a combination of the above ideas should reduce your food bill. You might not have time or want to do all of them. But I guarantee that encorporating at least some of these ideas will save you money. But remember, that food is only one part of your budget. Once you have reduced your costs here, don't spend an inordinate amount of time trying to save a few more cents. There are many other budget items that can use your attention.

In Real Life (IRL) - I use a combination of all of the above ideas to reduce our food bill. I am reasonable about it, though. Since I have stopped working part time, I have been able to cook many more foods from scratch and I see the savings. But I don't cook all of our foods from scratch. I plan our meals in advance - usually in my head. If I have six ideas in my head for entrees for dinner for the week, we are good to go. I don't have an elaborate written plan. I do bulk shopping at Costco once per month for items that we normally eat and that are sold at consistently low prices. I do not buy large bags of potato chips or similar snack foods because that does not save us money!

Along the lines of buying in bulk, I have a target price in my mind for most items we buy. That is the best price I can generally get on regular sales or in bulk for the products we use. For example, I know I can get peanut butter on sale for $1.50 on a regular basis. So I only buy when it goes that low. (Again, however, I am not militant about it, if we run out before it goes on sale again, I will buy a jar or two for $2.00 until the next sale, and buy more the next round so I don't run out at the best price again.) I also use coupons to reduce our costs. I get them from a newspaper and online. I don't spend inordinate amounts of time clipping coupons and doing price matching, but I do spend some time before I go shopping for the week to see where I can get the best deals that week using sales and coupons. Combining coupons and sales usually result in better than my target price, and I view those as extra cheap prices but not my regular target price.

Eating less meat is normal for my family because I am a vegetarian. By default most of my meals are cheap. But since no one else in my family is a vegetarian they do get meat meals - just not everyday. When I buy meat at the grocery store, I realize how much higher the costs are. I have lived healthfully for 30 years without meat and know it is not necessary for a balanced diet. By eating meat only a few times per week, our food budget stays low. Also in an effort to keep our food bill low, we only eat out once per week. When we made a commitment to do that, it was hard at first. But now that I have been cooking from scratch more, I find that the foods I make are nearly as good as some of the restaurants we used to frequent. (Now if I can just get someone to clean up after me! That is what I miss the most about eating out.) I have found that eating out less was our greatest grocery saver. Sometimes when I'm in the market deciding between the $2 canteloupe or the $4 watermelon I have to laugh because that $2 extra I might spend doesn't come close to how much we spend if we eat out for the night. It's all relative.

As with all of our budget categories, I try to be reasonable about our costs but not militant about it. Of course, if you are in dire financial straits, then being militant might be necessary. Otherwise, there are many ways to reduce your food category and it will go a long way to saving money. For other ways to save money check out Frugal Fridays.


Leslie said...

Great post! I used to think that I cooked a lot from scratch but it really was mostly cookies, desserts, and bread. Lately, I've been experimenting a lot with recipes that are things I used to buy without hesitation from the store (english muffins, tortillas, refried beans, etc.) and I'm saving much more these days.

Mom2fur said...

Another great site for cooking from scratch is You type in what you have on hand, and it gives you back recipes. The more ingredients, the more recipes--either 'you can make this right now' types or they will tell you if you need something else. It's a great way to clean out your pantry and freezer!
Some store brands are great, but I learned the hard way that store brand razors are awful--at least T*rget's new Up and Up brand razors that are supposed to be like S*leil razors are.

Contemplative Mom said...

Wow! I really enjoyed this post. I'm looking forward to checking out your entire series. I am currently working on reducing our meat intake, but I am also going to take a hard look at cooking from scratch. Thanks!