Learn how to save money on food without cooking every meal at home or only eat ramen.
When you realize just how much money you spend each month on food, it can be eye-opening. From the higher price of organic foods to the excessive cost of eating out with your coworkers every day, there are plenty of ways that food can be a runaway cost in your budget. But with a little planning, you can learn how to save money on food without cooking absolutely every meal at home or only eating discount ramen for the rest of your life. You can eat well, indulge your inner foodie and still stay on budget.
Step 1: Understand the cost of food
Know what food costs, so you know how to save
It’s common wisdom that when it comes to making meals at home versus dining out, at-home meals should save money. But is that always true? It depends on what you buy and how smart you are about shopping.
If you buy prepared meals from the grocer or frozen meals, the costs savings can be minimal… unless you use coupons. So, saving money on food usually requires a combination of cooking and smart shopping.
You also need to be aware of other factors that increase the cost of food:
- Organic produce and organic proteins are always more expensive
- Fruit and vegetables are cheaper (and often on sale) when they’re in season
- Store-brand or local products may give you a discount over national brands
- Preparation generally increases cost – for instance, block cheese is usually cheaper than shredded
TIP: Take some time to get familiar with when produce is in season, so you can cook meals when produce is at its cheapest. The USDA offers a basic seasonal produce guide.
Time: 5 minutes
Step 2: Check coupons and grocery store circulars first
See what’s on sale and where you can double up on discounts
Here’s a secret to shopping. In many stores, you can usually pair manufacturers’ coupons with in-store deals that you find in grocery store circulars. For example, find a coupon good for a dollar off on two pizzas. Then find a BOGO (buy one get one) offer on the same pizza. Now you get two pizzas for a dollar less than the price of one.
Couponing will help you get discounts on prepackaged meals, frozen foods, snacks and pantry items. This can be a big help for things like packing lunches and dinners for nights when you won’t have time to cook.
Tip: Don’t want to waste time clipping coupons and having them scanned in checkout? Go digital!
Tip: Gradually build your pantry by waiting for key ingredients to go on sale. Here’s Food Network List of Basic Pantry Items.
Time: 30 minutes per week
Tool: Debt.com’s Coupon Center
Step 3: Set a weekly meal plan that works for your schedule
Don’t get complicated on days where you’re short on time
Plan your meals for an entire week and be practical. Choose recipes that match your enthusiasm for cooking and with consideration for your schedule. Have a tough meeting every Wednesday afternoon that tends to run late? Make that a night you cook a frozen meal or do semi-homemade.
Meal planning allows you to make sure you use ingredients fully, instead of letting things go bad. If you buy meats for the week, freeze proteins for later in the week so they don’t spoil. If you’re buying something like heavy cream and one recipe will only use half the container, find another recipe that will use the other half.
Tip: Also consider tricks like making foods ahead of time on the weekends or prepping casseroles and freezing them. Any trick you can use to make weeknight meals easy is one less meal you didn’t mean to eat out.
Time to plan: 30 minutes per week
Time to shop: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Step 4: Take advantage of deals when dining out
Look for the apps, offers and credit or debit accounts that help you save money
There are plenty of ways to save money when dining out. You can find deals in apps like Groupon and Living Social to get discounts on meals. Many banks (and credit unions) offer cash-back offers if you use your debit card at certain restaurants. Or you can use a rewards credit card that offers cash back on your meal.
There are also restaurant apps that help you find places to eat and reservations. Many of these services, such as OpenTable, give you points for using their app. Once you get enough points, you can redeem them for a gift card.
Like using coupons and in-store deals, you can also pair savings on dining out. So, you find coupons for discounts on meals, make the reservations through an app that offers points, then pay with a debit or credit card that gives you cash back.
Tip: Restaurant apps and other finder apps like Yelp always list the average cost you can expect to pay. Check this while you’re choosing restaurants to avoid bills that are out of your budget.
Time: 15-30 minutes
Step 5: Only dine out to treat yourself
Meals out and lunches with coworkers shouldn’t be an everyday occurrence
This doesn’t mean that you should only eat out on birthdays and holidays, but it does mean dining out should be done in moderation. If you’re eating out for dinner 3-4 times per week, and then you’re eating lunches out with coworkers every day, you’re overspending on food.
In general, you shouldn’t eat out more than 2-3 times per week, including work lunches. If you’re budgeting to pay off debt or reach a savings goal, you should eat out even less. But don’t cut eating out completely! Make sure to treat yourself, so you don’t succumb to saving money exhaustion, which usually leads to overspending.
Step 6: Make any big meals at your home potluck
You can drop serious cash on a big dinner or party, so divide the cost
Big family meals and parties can easily bust your food budget. Just because you’re hosting, it doesn’t mean you’re the only one that needs to incur the cost. The best idea is to split up the cost by making things potluck or BYOB. Have guests bring a dish or bring their own alcohol. If it’s a party, you can provide the mixers, but everyone brings the hard liquor they want to drink.
Tip: Meal planning for big meals is essential. Count portions for guests carefully so you don’t overspend and end up with food waste. Only cook to feed an army if you have an army of people coming over for dinner!
Step 7: Be smarter about food when you’re on vacation
Food can end up being a big credit card expense when you travel
It’s not always possible to get away from using credit cards on your vacation. You may not want to carry a lot of cash, and if you’re traveling aboard, your debit card probably won’t work. But this doesn’t mean that you should just spend with a total disregard for your budget.
Here are a few tips for how to save money on food while traveling:
- Get a coupon book for restaurant discounts from the city’s visitor center or from your hotel concierge.
- Find a hotel that offers free continental breakfast.
- Consider getting a hotel with a kitchenette, so you can cook some meals at home.
- Take snacks and drinks or buy them at a nearby convenience store, so you can avoid vending machines.
- If you’re driving, pack food to eat on the trip, so you don’t have to stop for fast food.