It’s no secret that food prices are not what they used to be. This year, you might be paying anywhere between 5 to 14% more for certain food items than you did at the same time last year.
In general, food prices have steadily increased over time, but the increase over the first half of 2022 has left some people wondering how they are going to stay within their allocated food budget while eating healthy.
In this article, we’ve compiled tips and suggestions from financial and nutrition experts. Implementing these tips may help you stay on budget and continue to eat healthy meals, whether at home or out and about.
Keep a Budget
If you don’t have an expenses budget yet and you’re looking to save money, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get a budget.
A budget is a plan for money allocation on different items and activities. In short, anything you spend money on in a month should be reflected in your budget. This includes groceries, rent or mortgage, streaming services, transportation, gifts, gym memberships, contribution to savings and retirement accounts, and outings.
Some people don’t budget because they have no idea what they are spending monthly. Even if you try to be conscientious of prices and food needs and be mindful of what you are spending on outings, it is very difficult to know where your money is going and how you can save unless you have a budget.
If you have a budget—that’s great! Learn how you can make the most out of your budget by creating subcategories and updating it every time you spend money to know how much you have left to spend in the budget.
Are you still not convinced that you need a budget? Finance expert Amy Bell proposes six reasons why making a budget is essential to achieving your personal and family goals.
- It helps you figure out long-term goals and work toward them.
- It helps ensure you don’t spend money you don’t have.
- It helps you plan for retirement.
- It helps you be prepared in case of emergencies and unexpected expenditures.
- It helps shed light on bad spending habits.
- It keeps you from guessing where your money is going.
If you don’t have a budget, you can start by tracking all of your expenses for a month or two. Learn about what you are spending money on and how much you are spending. Based on that information, you can set goals for how much you want to be spending in these categories.
There are numerous budgeting apps out there, including YNAB and Mint, while some prefer a plain old Excel spreadsheet.
Track All Your Food Expenses
Having a budget is great, but it’s no use unless you are tracking all of your expenses. Keep track of each coffee and vending machine purchase, impulse buys, and big grocery store stops.
Luckily there are tools that will help you keep track of your expenses. You can download apps like Expense Manager and Money Manager that allow you to input your immediate expenditures or save your receipts and check your card transactions to input your expenses at the end of the week. Most budgeting software also has an integrated expense tracker.
Remember, if you forget to track even one transaction, things won’t line up at the end of the month.
Make a Weekly or Monthly Menu
Whether you call it a weekly menu or a monthly meal plan, knowing what you are going to eat each day is a useful way to plan your grocery trips effectively. Make note of the days you’ll eat out and what meals you’ll make at home.
After you’ve decided what you will eat, make an inventory of what you have at home and what you need to buy for those menu items. The menu items you don’t have will automatically go on your shopping list.
Pro tip: Leave one or two days’ worth of “free choice meals.” Here you can choose to eat leftovers, try out a new recipe, or order out. This will allow you to have some flexibility within your meal planning and make you more likely to continue meal planning.
Always Take a Shopping List
When you take a shopping list, you are less likely to make impulse buys and forget that must-have ingredient.
Your shopping list—ideally linked to your meal plan—can keep you focused and save you time. Also, if you are a person who often forgets to use those $6 berries you bought, it can help to reduce food waste.
For the best results, take your shopping list, and vow to stick to it.
Take a Calculator (or Open a Calculator App) When You Go Food Shopping In Person
Once you are aware of your monthly food budget, you now have to do your best to stay within that budget. No matter how much mental math you’re doing, it’s likely you will get to the cash register only to have your eyes widen at the total. You either swallow your tongue and tell yourself you’ll figure it out later or remove some items from your cart.
The best way to know what the grocery trip is going to cost is to calculate the total of your goods yourself. You can do this as you go along or, if the items have sticker prices, at the end of your shopping trip before getting into the checkout line.
Sign Up for Grocery Rewards and Membership Programs
Most grocery stores have loyalty rewards programs that are free to sign up for and use. Others have membership access with significantly low prices on some items. Every program is different, but it may allow you to access special savings, get coupons to help you save on some of your favorite foods, or accumulate points to use as cash in-store later.
Pro-tip: Read the fine print before signing up for anything! Make sure there is no hidden cost. If there is a membership price, make sure the savings on the items that regularly appear on your list make the cost worth it.
Order Groceries Online
The COVID pandemic made ordering groceries online more popular than ever, but many people have gone back to shopping in person as they have adapted to the “new normal.”
However, you might want to consider shopping for groceries online to save money. Shopping for groceries online can help you to:
- Compare prices across items and across stores
- See your running total
- Prevent over-buying or forgetting items. You can check your pantry while you are putting items into your virtual cart.
- Save time and money on transportation you would use going to and from your grocery store
- Easily delete items you no longer want in your cart and adjust amounts to fit your budget
- Set recurring grocery deliveries for the essentials. This is useful if you have a handful of the same items you buy weekly or bi-weekly.
- Purchase items that are often out-of-stock in-store
Note that most grocery stores have a convenience fee associated with delivery. For many people, the amount of money and time they save buying online instead of going to the store makes the extra cost worth it.
Eat Seasonal, Local Produce
Eating produce that is produced locally and in season generally costs less than eating imported and out-of-season produce. This is because, typically, if produce demands can be met by local farmers, much of the transportation costs are cut out. If food needs to be imported from other regions of the country and the world to meet demand, however, prices increase.
For example, one study found that cantaloupe costs 36% less in peak season than in the off-season.
Another plus: Purchasing local produce supports your local economy.
AFPA has an article on the benefits of eating locally seasonal produce here. We also have a produce shopping guide by season.
Consider Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Did you know that frozen fruits and vegetables have almost the exact same nutrients as fresh fruit and vegetables? In fact, frozen fruits and vegetables often have more nutrients than fresh produce because freezing them at peak freshness preserves the nutrients, while storing them on the shelf or in the fridge may cause produce to lose nutrients over time.
Another important reason to consider frozen produce is that they help care for your wallet. Frozen produce tends to be much cheaper by the pound. Since you can use just what you need, it also helps to prevent food waste.
Frozen produce isn’t suitable for all dishes, but it sure is something to keep on hand for convenience, budget, and nutrition.
When You Eat Out, Have an Idea of Portion Size
Some restaurants are famed for having huge portion sizes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you think frugally.
If you know the restaurant tends to serve portions you can rarely finish on your own, plan to take half of your meal (or whatever you don’t eat) home to eat for your next meal. If you aren’t someone who likes eating leftovers, find a meal buddy who is willing to share the meal (and split the bill!) with you.
Choose to Eat Out for Lunch, Rather Than Dinner
If you enjoy eating out, consider making lunch dates instead. Dinner options tend to be significantly more expensive than lunch options. Sandwiches, wraps, soups, and lunch buffets may be your ticket to eating well on a budget while out and about.
For more saving tips on eating out, you can check out The Penny Hoarder’s website.
Eating a plant-based diet isn’t your automatic ticket to saving on your grocery bill at the end of the month. However, when you are a conscientious plant-based buyer, you can save significant amounts of money. A recent survey revealed that plant-based consumers save an average of $23 a week on groceries. Considering family size and local pricing—that’s about $100 a month!
The reason is simple: Plant-based protein-rich foods, like beans, lentils, chickpeas, and tofu, are significantly cheaper than chicken, pork, beef, and fish. The difference is even greater if you buy dried legumes and pulses rather than canned ones.
Heightening the costs of living can make us shift our attention toward how much the food we are eating costs.
While there is nothing individuals can do about inflation, they can make smart choices at restaurants, at home, and at grocery stores that can help them continue to eat well while also being mindful of their budget.
In this article, we suggested twelve proven tips that can help you save money on food without sacrificing nutrition, joy, or taste.