Last Saturday I went grocery shopping. I only filled my cart halfway and didn’t buy any meat, but the total cost at check-out was roughly what I would have paid for a full cart several years ago. The cost of food continues to climb at the grocer, and costs are even higher when dining out. We are experiencing inflation at a level that we haven’t seen in 40 years, and high prices are hurting everyone. However, these increases are most difficult for folks on low or fixed incomes.
There are many videos on YouTube with titles like, “Eat for a week on ten dollars.” These videos are often an exercise in starvation and monotony. Usually, they consist of someone trying to stretch a pound of rice, a pound of beans, a bag of veggies, and a dozen eggs for 21 meals. Some people may have to resort to such extreme options, but most of these videos seem more stunt than substance.
In the mid-1980s, I was a medical resident and a divorced parent. Even when I became the chief resident of psychiatry, my take-home pay was low. Being chief resident of psychiatry gave me a lot of extra work, but only a $100 pretax bump in my monthly income.
Because my daughter often stayed with me, I needed my own apartment. In my case, it was of the basement variety. I also needed a working car. Finally, of course, I had child support payments. These three expenses pushed my small salary to its limit, and I had to learn how to stretch every penny. Sometimes I made the mistake of being too frugal with my grocery purchases and bought inedible items. At other times I blew most of my week’s food allowance on a single restaurant meal. Eventually, I established a pattern of spending that struck a balance between economy and reality. I developed a system that worked for me.
During my many years of medical practice, Julie did most of the shopping and cooking for our family of five. I didn’t worry about cost; if prices went up, I just worked harder. I have been retired for four years and on a fixed income for the last three. I have saved during my working years, and Julie continues to work. However, I know that I am at a phase where I am spending more money than we are earning. When Julie retires, we will only be spending. I still have three adult children at home (although two are at boarding college during some of the year). Feeding 3-5 adults is an expensive proposition.
After my retirement, I took over many household jobs, including grocery shopping and some of the meal preparations. I’m a good and confident cook, but cooking multiple meals a week can be a drag, so I use a simplified system that I’ll describe later in this post.
My goal for today’s post is to give you some practical tips that will save you money. There are additional ways to cut your food budget, but these tips work for me. That last point deserves highlighting. It is critical to find a system that works for you. For instance, I know that I could save even more money by clipping coupons. However, I hate clipping coupons and I always forget to bring them when I shop.
In our family of adults, individuals are responsible for making their breakfasts and lunches. Julie and I take turns making dinner. I’m accountable for dinner four nights a week, Julie makes dinner twice a week, and Saturday is either a carry-out or YOYO (you’re on your own) meal.
Carry-out food can be expensive, so why do we do it? This post is about saving money, but not about spending the absolute minimum amount of money. Our family likes a carry-out meal once a week. Lastly, we do go out to restaurants. However, as the cost of restaurant meals has gone up, our restaurant dining has gone way down.
To Costco or not to Costco, that is the question.
My friend, Tom, can go to Costco for a broasted chicken and leave with a broasted chicken. I go to Costco for a broasted chicken and leave with a $400 bill. That is not the way to save money. Costco prices are often excellent, as is the quality of their foods. However, the company uses shopping psychology to get you to buy more. If you want to save money at Costco, follow a few simple tips.
- Decide what you need, and stick to buying only those items.
- Make sure that you will use up an item before it goes bad. A massive bag of flour is only a bargain if consumed before it goes rancid.
Like other Costco shoppers, I have bought frozen foods that no one would eat. So they sat in the freezer, taking up space until I threw them out due to freezer burn. I’m now more cautious about purchasing untested items.
The vacuum sealer.
Meat and cheese are expensive, but you can save considerably on them when you buy them in bulk. However, if you toss a giant package into the fridge or freezer, you will likely waste a significant portion of your purchase. I have used a vacuum sealer for years (mine is at least 20 years old). Vacuum sealers use unique bags that can be expensive, but I buy generic versions, which are significantly cheaper. It is possible to wash and reuse vacuum bags, but I’m too lazy to do that. The quart and gallon size bags work the best for my needs. When I get home, I divide up bulk packages into meal-size units and vacuum seal them. For instance, I’ll split a 5-pound block of ground beef into 4 or 5 separate vacuum packs. I’ll then place these packs in a plastic grocery bag and stick them in the freezer. It is easy to look in my chicken bag or hamburger bag and know if I need to buy more.
In the past, I had used Ziploc freezer bags for the same purpose. They work, but food stays fresher longer when vacuum sealed. However, Ziploc bags are an option if you can keep on top of your freezer’s contents. I also know people who wash Ziploc bags in their dishwasher and reuse them, getting several uses out of a single bag.
The freestanding freezer
I bought a freezer about 25 years ago. It is a 14 cu ft upright model that needs to be manually defrosted. The freezer was inexpensive and has really served us well over the years. A frost-free freestanding freezer is not a good choice for long-term food storage as it has to heat up a bit when it auto defrosts. That process uses more energy and also shortens the storage life of frozen items. Freezers are energy efficient and use very little electricity. The chest-style ones are the most energy-efficient, but digging for things can be a pain.
I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy a freezer if you are struggling to buy food. However, you could consider slowly saving for one or checking give-away sites like freestyle. I do think that our freezer helps us save money; equally importantly, it is really convenient to have the extra freezer space. Having items on hand makes it easy to prepare meals. I have even froze milk that I purchased during a 2 for 1 sale. All I had to do was remove a little from the gallon so it wouldn’t burst when frozen.
Use less meat, cheaper meat, or no meat.
When we do use meat, we use less of it. Steak has gotten so expensive that it is a rare treat. When we make it, we will split a steak to serve two people. We are eating more hamburgers, chicken, and pork. We are also reducing our serving portions of these meats, often by combining them with other foods in one-pot meals. Lastly, we are moving towards more meatless meals. In fact, one of my kids’ favorite meals is my homemade mac and cheese, which I usually serve with cornbread and a vegetable. Eating less expensive food shouldn’t feel like a punishment.
In many cases, I buy house-brand items. Are they as good as brand names? Honestly, I have been buying them for so long that I can’t say. However, I can say that in most instances, they are good enough. It may be cheaper to buy a brand-name item with a coupon, but I have never been able to get into clipping coupons. Items like flour, sugar and canned tomatoes are usually safe bets. In addition, many other items are of good quality. I’ll go with a house brand first and only buy a brand name if the house brand doesn’t cut it.
There are a few brand-name items that my family prefers. Bread, cheese sticks, and lunchmeat are some of them. I accept this and buy those items.
Dairy and eggs.
When it comes to items like milk, cheese, sour cream, and eggs, house brands are almost always cheaper, and I can’t tell the difference between them and brand name. House brand white eggs are nutritionally the same as brown eggs or free-range eggs. You may think that cage-free chickens happily roam an open field pecking for grubs. That is not the case; cage-free is closer to caged. Don’t buy advertising hype.
Bargains on meat.
I already mentioned that you can save by buying family-sized packages and splitting them up. In addition, stores will sometimes run buy-one-get-one-free sales on meat. Many stores will sell meat reaching its expiration date at significant savings. These markdowns are usually done at a particular time of day. Ask the person in your store’s meat department for more details. Buy and immediately freeze for future use.
Where to shop.
I hate shopping at Walmart, but this is where I buy most of my groceries. They offer lower prices, and they are a full-service store. I prefer smaller Aldi stores, which offer slightly lower prices than Walmart. However, the closest Aldi is somewhat out of the way and is limited if I need to buy items like toothpaste, TP, or shampoo. I also like a small nearby store called Fresh Thyme. Fresh Thyme has excellent produce that is reasonably priced. Their grocery selection is complete but less expansive than most stores. That is a good thing as I’m less tempted to buy a lot of stuff that I don’t need. Find the store that fits your needs.
Use a list.
One of the most beneficial things that you can do to save grocery money is to use a shopping list and (within reason) stick to it. In addition, you won’t come home without the eggs or butter that you were supposed to buy. Any list system will do. I use the Notes app on my phone.
Having essential ingredients allows you to make a myriad of foods from scratch. A cake mix makes a cake, but flour makes a thousand foods. Items like flour, eggs, sugar, and rice should always be available in your kitchen. There are some more prepared foods that are inexpensive and good to have around. Pasta, peanut butter, and condensed cream of mushroom soup (as a casserole base) come to mind.
Certain foods can be good values when you buy them frozen. Items that we like to buy include frozen vegetables, frozen fruit, and frozen french fries.
Use less disposable items.
Reusable items save money. My daughter uses a Rubbermaid container for her lunch sandwiches, and I use small towels to wipe up kitchen messes. However, we still use too many paper plates. Progress, not perfection!
Pack your own.
I recently bought coffee for myself and a friend; it cost over 6 dollars. I could have made the same amount of coffee at home for well under 50 cents. Using expensive K-cups is cheaper than buying coffee shop coffee, and using a standard coffee maker is much cheaper than using K-cups.
Buying lunch can cost around 10 dollars. Investing in reusable containers and a lunch bag can save you a fortune over time. My daughter packs a sandwich, yogurt, and fruit/or treats every day for lunch. My wife stockpiles cups of dehydrated soups and other lunch items in an office drawer. She keeps an electric kettle at her office for these soups and tea. When I was working, I would take the previous night’s leftovers in a microwaveable container and heat them up at work.
Learn how to cook.
If you never learned how to cook, the prospect of doing so can be daunting. It is possible that you tried complicated recipes for an event or holiday and were left with frustration and a mess. There are an endless number of dishes that are both delicious and super easy to make. This is especially true if you have stock ingredients on hand. However, you have to accept that there may be a learning curve when you start. I guarantee that in short order, cooking will become easy.
I would suggest buying a classic cookbook like The Betty Crocker Cookbook or The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Go with a hard-cover version. Caution is advised, I just checked Amazon, and someone was selling a ring-bound BH and G cookbook for almost $80! At most, pay around $25. I bought our Betty Crocker Cookbook new in 1991, and we still use it all of the time! Don’t be afraid to buy a used copy for a few pennies at a thrift shop. These books use simple ingredients, have tried and true recipes, and obvious instructions. Once you are a confident cook, you can branch out to the internet and other recipe sources.
You need very few physical items to cook, and it is likely that you already have the basics. Are you just starting out and short on cash? Shop Goodwill or other resale stores. People get rid of cookware all of the time. All you need is a frying pan, a couple of pots, a pot lid, and a cookie sheet. Add a paring knife, a chef’s knife, measuring cups and spoons, a can opener, and a pancake turner and you are all set. Naturally, certain styles of cooking require additional equipment, which you can slowly buy as needed. You may need tongs, a vegetable peeler, mixing bowls, and more. However, you can often adapt what you have until you buy those items. I have turned meat with a fork and used a pot as a mixing bowl in my poor past.
Clean as you go.
I can’t stress this habit enough. As I cook, I clean up. When I use a measuring cup, I wash it as soon as possible, so it is ready to be reused or put away. If you clean as you go, you will have very little mess at the end of meal preparation, and you will want to cook again. There is nothing more disheartening than having to deal with a massive mess after you finish eating your dinner.
Use it up.
It is estimated that Americans waste 40% of their food. This means that if you used up all of the food that you purchased, your food bill could be 40% less! That is a considerable number. I already talked a bit about preserving food using a vacuum sealer and using up leftovers. Also, consider using what you have in the fridge creatively instead of cooking a meal based on what you have a taste for.
The other day I made chicken soup for the family. However, the day before, my wife made dinner that included a small broasted chicken. I used chicken pieces that I had already thawed, but I also threw into the pot the broasted chicken carcass. The end result was delicious.
Sometimes I’ll make banana bread using overripe bananas that I would normally throw away. Banana bread is simple to make, and my family thinks of it as a special treat.
Sometimes I add wilted salad greens or leftover rice to a soup. At other times I’ll use stale French bread to make delicious French toast. There are a multitude of ways to redefine leftovers or to use up food items that are still good but a bit past their prime.
I love one-pot meals. In fact, as I write this, I’m making one for dinner. This morning I drained some sauerkraut and added a little brown sugar, mustard, and a grated apple. I seasoned some pork chops and added everything to a slow cooker, which is now cooking on low. My wife made some excellent roasted cut-up sweet potatoes yesterday. I’ll reheat them for today’s side dish.
It took me less than 10 minutes to throw everything together this morning, and we will have a homemade dinner tonight.
One-pot meals can be made on the stove or in the oven. However, I like using small appliances, which I find to be more convenient.
There are an endless number of one-pot meals that use essential ingredients. Soups, stews, chili, casseroles, and much more. They are not only easy to make, but they are also economical. As a bonus, cleanup is a breeze.
Should you buy small appliances?
Only if you use them. I have an air fryer that I never use. I know some people love them, but their capacity is too small for my large family. However, I am always using my slow cooker and electric pressure cooker (An InstantPot knockoff). In addition, I often use a waffle maker-an item that many would never use. Figure out what foods you make, and determine if an appliance would be helpful. I don’t want to be bound to the kitchen, so a gadget like a slow cooker makes my life easier. If you are on a budget, check out second-hand stores for appliances. You can always find items like toasters and slow cookers for pennies on the dollar.
It is not a sin to use prepared foods.
Weigh the cost vs. benefit of your purchase. I’ll buy a frozen family-style meal, like lasagne or stuffed peppers on occasion. I find that the Walmart brand costs around six dollars and is tasty. For that price, three adults can eat dinner, and there are often leftovers for at least one lunch. I would never want an exclusive diet of these meals, but they are convenient when cooking motivation is low. I’ll add a salad, along with some bread and dinner is served.
In addition, we frequently have a frozen pizza for Friday dinner. It is an easy tradition that isn’t very expensive.
Make your own cleaning products.
Over the years, I have bought countless specialty cleaning products. Granite cleaner, stovetop cleaner, stainless steel cleaner, window cleaner, various toilet cleaners, mildew removers, you name it. All of these items are relatively expensive and come in single-use bottles.
I now use homemade cleaners. I also use powdered Comet (around a dollar a can) to clean my stainless steel sink. A little goes a long way, and it does a better job than dedicated products.
I use any liquid soap (shampoo, shower gel, hand soap) to clean my toilets. One pump is all that you need.
It is easy to make homestyle window cleaner (2 cups water, ¼ cup white vinegar, a few drops Dawn).
For Mildew removal, I fill about ⅓ rd (or less) of a spray bottle with bleach and then fill the rest of the bottle with water.
I use my homemade all-purpose cleaner for just about any surface. To make it, I add about 1 ounce of any all-purpose cleaner (Lysol, Fabuloso, PineSol, etc.), a few drops of Dawn dish detergent, to a 32 oz spray bottle, and fill the rest with warm water. I use this to clean everything from surfaces in my kitchen and bathrooms to the inside of the fridge and microwave, to the top of my glass cooktop, to my kitchen table.
You can reuse an empty Windex-type bottle (adjusting the amount of your ingredients). However, a high-quality spray bottle is an inexpensive purchase and will last longer.
Who cooks dinner when?
Monday Julie cooks
Tuesday I cook
Wednesday Julie cooks
Thursday I cook
Friday I cook (sort of)
Saturday Carry out or YOYO (you’re on your own)
Sunday I cook
I’ll leave Julie’s meals to Julie and only talk about what I make. I cook the way that I do because this pattern makes the task more palatable. In addition, I always involve my kids in the cooking process. This makes my job a bit easier, and it teaches them beneficial skills.
Tuesday- a light meal day. I’ll usually make something very simple for dinner. This could be breakfast for dinner (omelets with toast and sausage, waffles, and bacon), grilled hamburgers with frozen french fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, and tomato soup. You get the idea.
Thursday-a regular meal. This could be a one-pot meal, a meatloaf, homemade mac and cheese, and so on. Naturally, I’ll balance the meal out with vegetables and other sides.
Friday-Pizza night. I make sure that we have a frozen pizza (Home Run Inn is our favorite), but it is my daughter’s responsibility to pop it into the oven. Once done, I’ll take over and cut it up. A pizza costs around six dollars and will feed three of us, and there will usually be a piece or two left over for a late-night snack. We started pizza night when everyone was working. By Friday, we just wanted an easy-to-make dinner. Friday pizza has now become a family tradition.
Sunday-A regular meal. Many options here. Pot roast made in the pressure cooker and real mashed potatoes. Spaghetti with meatballs, garlic bread and a salad, oven-fried chicken, red beans and rice, and so on.
I try to make things that we have in-house so that I’m not throwing out stuff. I’m far from perfect, but I know that I’m saving money.
I know that some of you will be dismissive of our food choices. Perhaps you will think that we need to cook organic or reduce gluten or use less fat. Adapt your meals to your preferences. We love waffles for dinner, but they may not be your jam. You do you.
Finding your balance is key to making this system work. You don’t need to do everything that I do. However, You may want to do more. I still have financial resources, so my choices may be different from someone else’s. Use these suggestions as a starting point, not as scripture. When I started along this journey, I just did a few things and then added more behaviors as time went on. Currently, I’m trying to use less disposable items (like paper towels and paper plates). Honestly, that has been difficult for me. As I said above, progress not perfection!