The Definitive Pain-Free Guide to Reducing Your Food Spending
If you’re here, two things are probably true:
- Your income and expenses are not quite perfectly aligned (or even a little bit aligned, for that matter), and
- Either you or someone you believe knows what they’re talking about has suggested that your food spending needs to be reduced in a hurry.
The idea of cutting your household budget sounds good in theory. The problem is that budgeting “tips” and “secrets” often require that you make fundamental changes to the way you behave. Even if it feels like you should be able to make those changes, the truth is that you spend the way you spend for a reason. Asking someone to change everything about how they spend money is an easy way to make that person feel overwhelmed and discouraged.
The focus of this guide, therefore, is not to change how you approach spending on food, but instead to adapt your current habits in order to reduce costs. By making only a few little tweaks, you’ll be surprised to see what a massive amount you can save from your food budget.
And it all begins with eating out.
Step 1 – Let’s Stay In Tonight
If you’re an average American (more or less), we can probably make two more assumptions:
- You eat out more than you ought to, and
- Those meals away from home are significantly more expensive than ones you could make at home.
There are quite a few very good, very valid reasons why you might prefer to have a trained stranger cook dinner for you tonight. You may be tired. You may not like cooking. You may be very bad at cooking. You may like cooking and be good at it, but hate grocery shopping.
If you dine out or stop at fast food restaurants regularly, don’t feel bad. As noted, Americans have been forsaking the kitchen for the local chain restaurant with increasing regularity. You’re not alone.
And on the plus side, however, we just found a very, very easy way to start reducing your food costs.
The 75/50/25 Plan
We established earlier that you probably have good reasons for dining out. We don’t want to ignore that. Instead, let’s make two pledges:
I pledge that I will continue to eat out.
I pledge that I will do it less often.
Eating out is not the enemy. It’s not the reason your budget doesn’t work. The problem is eating out more than you can afford. That’s an important distinction.
So here’s the first step on your journey to a trim and tidy food budget: look back over the last three months. You can go a little further if you like, but three should be the minimum. Find out exactly how many times you’ve eaten out over that period – this is fast food, sit down, take out, and pre-packaged take away – and then divide it by the number of months.
This number represents your RMPM – Restaurant Meals Per Month.
Take that number and multiply it by 75 percent. The number you get is the number of times you’re allowed to dine out this month.
Next month, reduce down to 50 percent of the original number. The month after that, take it down to 25 percent. And that’s where you’ll stay.
Your goal is to reduce the amount of money you spend dining out to 25 percent of what you spend now. You have three months to do it. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? You don’t even have to pick different restaurants or think differently about what you order. It seems like a fairly minor change, but the results can be massive, especially if you’re overspending at restaurants.
Will it come easy? Maybe not. For many, eating out is habit, and habits are hard to break. If you’re struggling, however, it may be helpful to take a step back and remind yourself of what you’re really trying to accomplish.
If the decision is between a steak burrito from Chipotle or a peanut butter sandwich, on merit alone the burrito probably looks a little more appetizing (especially if we’re splurging for guac).
But the decision isn’t between a burrito and a peanut butter sandwich – it’s between staying in debt or becoming debt-free; it’s between keeping that old, beat-up, could-die-and-leave-you-stranded-at-any-moment car and the brand new, under-warranty-with-free-roadside-assistance car you’ve been dreaming of for years.
Whenever you feel like you’re sacrificing something, just remember what that sacrifice is leading to. Because as hungry as you may be right now, there’s no burrito in the world better than being debt-free.
And just like that, we’ve begun! You’re now saving money and hardly changing anything. But while we’ve talked about what you aren’t eating, we haven’t really talked about what you will be eating. So let’s do that next.
A thought experiment:
Suppose you had two $1 bills. You take one and spend it on something useful. You take the other and throw it down the garbage disposal.
You probably feel a little bad about the fate of the second dollar, but it’s just a dollar. What’s a dollar in the big picture of life?
Now, suppose you had two $20 bills. You spend one (hey, you got some good stuff!) and you light the other one on fire, then bury the ashes in the backyard.
You probably feel quite a bit worse in this scenario, and not just because destroying currency is a crime (your secret is safe with me). Once you start wasting larger amounts of money, that waste becomes a bit more real. It’s harder to ignore.
So what if I told you that you are currently throwing large bundles of cash down the garbage disposal on a regular basis?
Step 2 – Waste not
We’re all guilty of wasting food. We buy food we don’t use. We make too much food and throw away the leftovers. Some food we forget we ever had in the first place.
Our next step on the path to pain-free savings is another simple change: we’re going to save money by not wasting money.
To begin, walk over to your pantry and take a peek. You may need a flashlight to see into the way, way back. What’s in there? What self-stable foods have you forsaken?
Now, let’s look inside your freezer. What kind of rainy day supplies are buried beneath the frost? How about your refrigerator – what’s in there? You may need to pull a few things out to see what’s in the back, but do it. It’s worth your time. (You may also consider cleaning out your refrigerator while you’re down there, but let’s not fly too close to the sun here.)
The key here is to be mindful of what you already own. The things you already have on hand should be first and foremost in your mind whenever you’re:
- Planning meals
- About to go grocery shopping
- Thinking about going out to eat
How do you integrate this change into your daily life? Well, everyone is different, so what works for one person may not work for another.
If you’re the meticulous sort, you could try creating a food inventory. Keep a log somewhere – on your phone, computer, or a piece of paper – of everything you have available. If you want to take this to the next level, you can even include expiration dates to help with your planning and prioritizing.
That’s a lot of work, though, so a good alternative is to simply take a picture of your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer once a week.
Occasionally, you should plan on skipping the grocery store altogether and instead make meals 100 percent based on the food you already have. This is an especially good idea if you’ve got a few irregular expenses on the horizon (like birthdays or holidays) and need to clear some extra space in your budget.
You can use a website like My Fridge Food to come up with meal ideas based on what you already have.
What does this all mean in numbers?
Let’s say you’re better than the average and only waste 20 percent of the food you buy. And let’s not try to be a hero and claim that you can cut all food waste. But what if you cut your food waste in half?
If you could save $100 a month just by paying a little bit more attention to what you already have, why wouldn’t you?
Just like anything else, waste is the result a habit. Thinking you need more food than you actually do and throwing away the leftovers is a habit. Buying food on sale and stashing it in the refrigerator until it expires is a habit.
Habits develop through repetition and positive feedback, which is also how habits are undone and eventually re-written. If you’re wary about the prospect of breaking your food waste habit, just remember that you trained yourself to behave that way. You are just as capable of training yourself to behave differently.
Take your time. Be patient with yourself. Celebrate the little wins and remember the big picture. Throwing away a half a carton of milk because it expired isn’t the end of the world, but the more you can do to avoid that kind of waste, the closer you get to your big picture goals.
Now let’s talk a bit more about what you’ll be eating. Namely, a lot of the same stuff you’ve already been eating – with a slight twist.
Step 3 – Grocery Game Theory
The best grocery gamers can do two things very well: they can plan meals and they can execute those plans.
If your grocery spending is little unbalanced, there’s a good chance you struggle with one of those two complementary skills. So here’s a plan that solves problems on both sides of the equation (Note: I realize that’s not how math works).
Here’s the concept:
Here’s the beauty:
- Fewer meals to plan
- Fewer meals to cook
- Less time cooking
- Save money buying large portions
What do you need?
- Storage containers (such as Tupperware or plastic, zip-lock bags)
- A microwave for reheating
And that’s about it. Most meals keep well in the refrigerator for up to three days. Meal preppers tend to do their cooking on Sundays, when they have a little more spare time. You can make one extra-large meal or a pair of medium-sized meals, if you prefer a little variety.
Freezing meals gives you the flexibility to make even larger amounts and rotate meals from day to day. Be careful, though – frozen meals don’t last forever.
You can use the meals you already love – just make double or triple-size portions. If you need a little inspiration, you can join an online community, like the MealPrepSunday subreddit on Reddit, or take a look at all the awesome meal prep ideas on Pinterest.
Will you get sick of eating the same thing three days in a row? Possibly. That’s why it’s important to pick meals you already enjoy and eat regularly.
More importantly, however, you should remind yourself of just how much money you’re saving through the simple act of eating the same meal a few times in a row. If the average meal at home costs $3-$4, bulk meal prep can shave an additional 25-50 percent off of your per-meal costs. When you add in all the time you save, it’s pretty easy to get past the occasional bout of meal fatigue.
If everything’s gone to plan so far, you are still you. You haven’t given up any of the things you like or behaviors that you enjoy. You are simply a leaner, meaner (in all the best ways) version of who you already were.
But is that enough?
You may want to pause this guide for a bit here. Live with the first three steps for a few months and see if you’ve trimmed enough fat from your budget. If you have and you’re satisfied, good! If you haven’t and you’re unsatisfied, so am I! If you haven’t, but you’re satisfied anyway, that’s worrying. And if you have, but you’re not satisfied, even better.
Because here comes the final step.
Prepare to be mildly inconvenienced.
Step 4 –Cutting the cost of convenience
We are constantly paying for convenience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you think about it, the simple act of buying groceries represents a cost of convenience – someone else harvested those crops and put everything in a package and drove it to your local food store.
But we do spend a lot on conveniences that don’t necessarily justify their costs, especially when it comes to our groceries.
Now what convenience is worth the money and what convenience isn’t? That’s a factor of your available time, your skills, and your comfort level with certain tasks.
You can save an enormous amount of money by always buying whole chickens instead of separated breasts or thighs, for example, but that can take a lot of work. If you’ve got the time and the knife skills, that may be a good way to save some cash. If the thought of carving a raw chicken makes you squeamish, then that’s not the best path for you.
Your best bet may be to consider what you already buy and see what sort of “inconvenience” has the highest rate of return in your area.
Try swapping out one “convenience” purchase at a time. Individually, none of them will represent an enormous swing in your financial favor. But over time, these changes will add up.
Best of all, you’ll still be buying the foods you’ve always bought – just a slightly less convenient version of those foods.
And once you’ve developed a taste for doing it yourself, all those pre-made foods will seem less and less convenient, and more and more like a waste of your precious money!
There you have it – a pain-free method for reducing your grocery bill. There’s a lot you can accomplish without breaking a sweat. All you need to do is make a few slight alterations to your usual routine and never forget why you started to read this guide in the first place: because you have plans.
If you made it all the way to the end, it’s not because you spend too much on groceries. Not really. It’s because there’s something you want – something much bigger than your weekly grocery bill. Never forget that Big Something, especially when the going gets tough and that steak burrito is calling your name. You have plans. Good luck!