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April 10, 2016

How to Save Money on Food

I've heard a lot of people complain that food is too expensive, especially healthy food. I believe that couldn't be further from the truth. Good food is cheap if you follow a few rules.

Don't Eat Out
Eating out is the fastest way to increase your food bill. Restaurant meals are often convenient and delicious, but they are usually 5-10 times more expensive than home-cooked meals. This applies to lunch and dinner, so brown-bag it at work.
If you must eat out, here are a few tips to keep the cost down:
  • Pick a Cheaper Restaurant - You don't need five star meals every time. On Yelp, the one and two dollar sign options ($ or $$) are your friend. For example, if you want Chinese food, you can find options much cheaper and just as delicious as P.F. Chang's.
  • Order Water - It's free and probably the healthiest option.
  • Only Order What You Can't Make - If you are feeling like a good burger, steak, or even pasta, make it yourself. Those are pretty easy meals to prepare at home and it will cost substantially less. If you occasionally want some pad see ew or something else you can't easily cook, it's OK to go out, but remember you can probably find it at a very affordable restaurant.
Don't Drink Out
Going to bars is expensive. Alcoholic beverages have one of the largest markups of any product, so don't pay it. If you're going to go out, "pre-game" at home and nurse as few drinks as possible at the bar. Don't forget, water is free, and it will probably prevent your hangover tomorrow. 

Cut the Costly Coffee
Bars are't the only place you are overpaying for drinks. This advice may be a little cliche, but a daily coffee habit can be expensive too. Instead of paying $2 and up for your coffee, brew it yourself to save time and money.

Drink Smart at Home
While I certainly don't promote excessive alcohol consumption, I understand the desire to indulge on occasion, but it is important to keep it reasonable. Alcohol is relatively expensive even at the grocery store, so don't go overboard. There are obviously non-financial reasons not to drink excessively as well, but I won't go into that here.

When you do purchase alcohol, try to buy when there's a sale and think about whether you really need "top shelf" products. If you're drinking it straight, it make sense to buy the good stuff, but if you're making mixed drinks, you can probably get away with something more affordable.

Last but not least is wine. I recently tasted a $50 bottle of wine and it was wonderful, but it wasn't 20 times better than the "Two-Buck Chuck" (or equivalent) I normally buy. I may have low standards, but the cheap stuff is good enough for me, and it is probably good enough for you if you keep an open mind.

Use the Unit Price
Here you can see the regular and sale price per ounce (unit price) for my favorite Portuguese sausage, Linguica (pronounced lin-gwee-sa)
When shopping, it isn't always obvious which item is the best value. Due to variations in container size and price, things can get confusing. For example, if you're shopping for yellow mustard, should you buy the 9 oz. container for $1.29 or the 12 oz container for $1.89? In this case, the smaller container actually offers the better value when you look at the price per ounce. Lucky for us, most grocery stores actually show the unit price on the price tag. Sometimes it's price per ounce, sometimes it's price per pound, but there's usually some way to compare similar products on an even basis. Toilet paper even lists the price per sheet if you care to look.

When you Shouldn't Buy in Bulk
Buying in larger quantities is often a good idea because it allows you to pay a lower unit price, but that isn't always the case. You shouldn't assume just because you are buying the largest container of something you are getting the best deal. Sometimes stores are sneaky and actually have a lower unit price on the smaller containers. You need to especially look out for this if the small container is on sale and the large container isn't.
It is also important to know you like the product before you commit to buying a huge quantity of it. I will often try the smaller size of a product that is new to me before buying it in bulk. A good example of this is laundry detergent. When we started cloth diapering, we wanted to get the best, least toxic detergent to wash the diapers with. The most popular option seemed to be Charlie's Soap, but a small minority of people said it gave their babies a rash, so instead of jumping all in and spending $120+ on a 32 pound bucket of the stuff, we started by buying a smaller container to test it out. Once we confirmed it worked well and agreed with baby's bottom, we bought the huge bucket.

Only Buy the Basics
When people say groceries are expensive, it doesn't really make sense to me. Maybe some processed specialty stuff is pricey, but all the real, healthy food is outrageously cheap. Fruits, vegetables, bread, rice, beans, pasta, and most meats are incredibly affordable; usually $2 per pound or less.
If you stick to the basics and cook wholesome meals, groceries are not expensive. If you buy unhealthy, processed, junk food, you will definitely spend a lot more, on food and healthcare.

Stick to Your List
This one is pretty much common sense to me, but I see it come up time and again:  before you go to the grocery store, look through your fridge and pantry and make a shopping list. Once you're at the store, don't buy random stuff that isn't on the list. Simple.

Go Generic
I don't understand brand loyalty in most cases. Why would anyone insist on buying a product that is more expensive than an identical alternative just because they know the brand name? I will admit there are a few exceptions, but generic, store brand products are almost always just as good as the name-brand alternative, and sometimes they're actually better. My favorite example is Kroger Greek yogurt, which is affordable, yet doesn't use corn starch as a thickener like many more expensive brands.
It may be easy to just grab the brand you know, but pay attention and find the value.
There's absolutely no shame in buying generic, so swallow your pride, save your money, and get the store brand.

Whatever's on Sale
The biggest trick to saving money on groceries is to buy what's on sale. You can often save 50% or more just by holding out until what you need goes on sale. Nowhere is this more critical than at the meat counter. Fresh meat is genuinely expensive, until it goes on sale, which is quite often. The secret is to know what is a good price and to stock up when the price is right. Boneless skinless chicken breasts are a great example. The normal price is usually around $4 per pound for store brand or up to $6 per pound for Foster Farms. Luckily, chicken goes on sale quite often for $2 per pound or less. Pork can be found for similar prices, but it is getting pretty hard to find beef for under $3 or $4 per pound.
The same goes for other parts of the store. Don't buy avocados when they are $2 each. Wait until they are in season and you can pay $0.69. Spaghetti can be had for $1 per pound if you wait for a sale, and the biggest sales of all can be found on alcohol (which obviously isn't a necessity).
Do yourself a favor and get what's on sale. It doesn't take much effort, but it can save a bundle.

Your Freezer is Your Friend
This mainly applies to meat. As described above, when I see a great sale on meat I often buy 10 pounds or more. When I get home we break up the large packages and put single meal size servings into freezer bags and then pack them into the freezer. This strategy ensures you only buy meat when the price is right and you always have food on hand, which can reduce the temptation to eat out.

Stop Throwing Food Away
Most people throw a lot of food away. It's usually because it goes bad, but there are lots of other reasons as well. I will admit I'm guilty of this on occasion, but I really try to avoid it.
The easiest solution is to go through your fridge and pantry every couple of days and identify the items that are getting a little old. Make an effort to use these things in an upcoming meal so they don't spoil and get thrown away.
It's also important to eat your leftovers. I know a lot of people who hate leftovers, but I don't get it. Leftovers are the easiest, tasty meal you can find. I will take leftovers over a cold sandwich for lunch every day of the week.

Membership NOT Necessary
Member-only warehouse stores like Costco and Sam's Club definitely have good prices on many items, but your neighborhood supermarket has good prices too, especially on sale items, so don't think you have to trek to Costco every weekend for groceries. The vast array of interesting products on display will often cause you to spend lots of money at the warehouse store on things you didn't really need. I'm sure the five pound bag of jerky was a steal, but did you really need it?

Coupon Confusion
There's a lot of commotion about couponing recently, but I'm not really interested. I'm far from an expert, but it seems like way more trouble than it's worth, and even if you do get a great deal, it's often on something you don't really want or need. Don't get me wrong; if I come across a coupon for something I genuinely want, I will use it, but I won't go out of my way to save money on random items.

There you have it; my rules for saving money on food. Hopefully you found these helpful.
Let me know if you have any other tips in the comments.

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  1. When I can, I see the grocery store as a great place to save some money. A few tricks that have helped me cut my grocery bill:

    1) Use generic blades or dollar shave club for shaving.

    2) Invest in Tupperware and use it. Cook in bulk and then have left overs 2-3 nights per week.

    3) make your own coffee. I refuse to live a life without coffee. I like 1-2 cups at work, however, I found that instead of paying $1.75 for a cup at the coffee cart, bringing in a new coffee maker and stocking/making it myself at my desk was cheaper.

    4) Cut out most packaged foods and daily alcohol consumption. They're expensive and not healthy.

    1. Awesome tips!
      I'm probably going to incorporate them into the article.