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18 Sep 2017

How I Slashed My Food Spending Once & For All

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by Erin Lowell

I’ve shared before about how my food budget has been an ongoing struggle and source of frustration. For a loooooong time, I thought it was just me. But the more people I talk to, the more I realize EVERYONE struggles to keep food spending under control.

What is about food? Goodness. I do have a few theories though:

This year, I decided to take another stab at lowering my food budget, and I’ve finally made some progress I feel good about.

What’s in my groceries category?

The only thing not included: Pet Supplies. I have a small collection of pets and budget for them separately. If I had one cat, I’d probably just count cat food as a part of groceries. Use your own judgment there.

What’s in my eating out category?

Any food I buy to eat outside out of the house. That includes a nice sit-down meal, a coffee Coolatta from Dunkin Donuts, or even a pack of gum at a convenience store.

Who am I feeding?

Me and occasional guests.

Let’s start by reviewing 2016 from January through August, so we can compare it with the same time frame this year:

So that’s a total of $3767.44 for eight months, $470.93 a month.

Grocery Average: $325.71 a month
Eating Out Average: $145.22 a month

Now let’s compare it to the same point this year:

My food costs for January through August 2017 totaled $2612.08 for eight months, $326.51 a month.

Grocery Average: $253 a month
Eating Out Average: $73.50 a month.

That’s a decrease of $144.42 a month. If I can keep it up over the course of the entire year, I’ll save $1,733.04, which is awesome!

My Biggest Win: Eating Out Less

My biggest win was cutting the cost of eating out by almost half.

You’re probably wondering how I did that. Honestly, the bloom is off the rose for me when it comes to eating out. I just don’t enjoy it as much anymore and when I weigh it against the cost of eating in, it just feels really expensive. It’s no longer a priority.

And if I’m being honest, a lot of the remaining spending on eating out is simply the result of poor planning when I’m away from the house for the day. (The Coolattas are so delicious!) Liz over at Frugalwoods did a great post on this phenomenon and it really resonated with me. She inspired me to do better and l’ll continue to work on it.

The Joy Of Cooking

Here’s another thing I learned: I found out I really enjoy cooking at home. Who knew?

I’m working hard on eating less processed foods and cooking for yourself is the best way to do that. What I found interesting about this, is that for years I struggled with eating out and couldn’t get it under $100. I would focus on it like crazy and blow it every month. It dropped when instead of focusing on “not eating out,” I began to focus on “eating in.”

Now in case you’re wondering what I’m eating, no, it’s not all lentils and ramen noodles. It’s a lot of fresh fruit and veggies, some meat, pasta, rice. I feel like I’m eating healthier than I ever have, truly.

More Disciplined Grocery Shopping

There are a few things that made a big difference:

  1. I paid more attention to the budget.
  2. I should know this by now, right? I refer you back to the list of reasons why food spending is hard at the top of this post.

But seriously, if it was the 26th of the month, and there was $14.76 left in the grocery category, I was very mindful of what I already had in the house that I could eat. This helped me prioritize at the store and spend no more than $14.76 on what I absolutely needed.

I got into the habit of making sure I checked that category before stepping into the store, and if it was the end of the month, sometimes I’d open my calculator app and tally things up as I shopped. So simple, it almost seems unnecessary, but it really helped.

Ruthless Leftover Management

I was wasting too much food, and that’s the same as throwing money in the trash. I’ve really been trying to cut back on waste, and frankly, I’m far from perfect, but I’ve gotten better. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Leftover management starts in the grocery store, not the fridge! I stopped buying a bunch of bananas; instead, I bought two or three. I forced myself to really think, “Will I really eat that this week?” The intentionality made a huge difference in my waste overall and went a long way toward reducing my spending overall.
  2. When I was hungry and ready to eat I shifted my question from “What do I want to eat?” to “What is there to eat?” This was a pretty big shift, and I’m still working on it. If you’re new to the world of leftovers, I highly recommend The Use It Up Cookbook. It’s a great little book, full of concrete strategies.
  3. Buy and eat things you will really eat. It sounds so logical, doesn’t it? But I often didn’t really give it the thought it needed. Will I really eat this? Do I feel like cooking this during the week? Will I be too busy to get to it? I’m much more honest about that when I shop.

Sunday Prep

On most Sundays, I cook one or two meals for the week. This saves time as well as money. Prep includes cutting veggies and fruits for the upcoming week. I cut up the watermelon and pineapple. I dice the green peppers and onions I’m planning to use during the week. I’ll even cut up a loaf of garlic bread and freeze the slices! I do all that work at once. It saves time and makes it much easier to cook later in the week. Everything is just ready to go.

A Well-Stocked Selection of Emergency Meals

This one is a game changer. Seriously.

We want to save money for unexpected and even expected expenses that aren’t regular. We save for emergencies, right?

Prepare for food emergencies, too. You know, that feeling of “oh-my-gosh-I’m-too-tired-and-stressed-to-think-about-cooking-let’s order-take-out.”

It’s a slippery slope and it adds up quickly. So what’s an emergency meal and how does it help? Emergency meals should be:

An emergency meal is something that is both 1) delicious and 2) easy to make.

If you are always glad to eat it and you can throw it together in a snap—you need more of that. Maybe it’s pasta and garlic bread. Or cheeseburgers. Or frozen pizza. Whatever those meals are for you and your family, have half a dozen of those meals on hand at all times.


My sister has three children. She keeps frozen chicken nuggets and french fries in the house. I do not judge her, no, I salute her! Figure out what works for you. It’s important to remember, your emergency meals don’t have to be super cheap, they just need to be cheaper than takeout or the restaurant alternative you’re hoping to avoid. For me, it looks something like:

English Muffin Pizzas: (My father’s claim to fame. Thanks, Dad!) Make a bunch, freeze them, pull out as needed.

Dragon Noodles: Cheap and spicy! Not for those who hate the heat! (Budgetbytes is my FAVORITE food blog, so check out her other stuff. She can not make a bad meal, I swear.)

Garlic Spaghetti: Saute a bunch of veggies in olive oil and garlic. Toss with cooked spaghetti. Add parmesan cheese if you are so inspired. You’re welcome.

The Secret Is In The Sauce (That You Planned For)

Reducing your food budget is directly related the effort you put into planning ahead. After all these years budgeting, I’m not sure why I’m surprised. Being intentional and engaged in the details. Making a plan ahead of time. Sticking with the plan. It’s the same formula. And, when you stick to it, it works. Planning ahead will save you money on food—period. Priorities, priorities, …


Related Articles

Adventures In Meal Planning

September 15, 2016 | by Ryan Lewis

Is Food Eating Your Budget?

November 16, 2016 | by Erin Lowell

5 Unexpected Outcomes Of Our Blue Apron Experiment

June 1, 2017 | by Lindsey Burgess

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Remember, budgeting is not restrictive. You won’t be spending less, you’ll be spending right. You can do this! Today. Right now. What do you have to lose? Except all that debt and stress. (Ok, so kind of a lot.)


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