10 Practical Tips For Saving Money In Your Food Budget

By: Cassidy Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston & Wilson County Center

One of my favorite things about my job is working with the public. I never know what cultures, socioeconomic status, or personalities I will interact with during a workshop. One thing I pride myself on is eating healthy while on a budget and passing those tips onto consumers. I am a self-proclaimed ‘penny-pincher.’ One of the greatest misconceptions about healthful eating is that it has to be expensive. I am here to tell you that eating well does not have to be costly!

Before the Store

  1. Collect coupons & circulars

I have never been a coupon person until recently. It always seemed like there was never a coupon that applied to things I needed or didn’t seem to make a huge difference in my grocery bill. If I did have a coupon, I forgot to use it. There are many strategizes to couponing. If you are a beginner, review your coupons weekly and plan based on coupons. If you don’t use a coupon this week, save it until next week or until it expires. Do not purchase items simply because you have a coupon. If you don’t actually need item on the coupon, it isn’t a good coupon to use. It is perfectly acceptable not to use a coupon if that means saving you more money by not purchasing the item and reducing food waste! If remembering to use coupons is challenging, wrap the printed coupon around your card or paperclip them to your payment method.

Many stores print or post weekly sales circulars with a variety of foods on sale. If you don’t receive paper copies, download the store app. My grocery store posts their weekly sales flyer to the app, and this is typically my starting point to plan meals for the week.

  1. Plan meals

Meal planning isn’t just for food and fitness junkies! Meal planning is a huge step towards becoming mindful of your eating habits, ensuring you eat a nutritious diet, and meal planning is a key strategy for saving money. Any financial wellness article or book you read will tell you to eat foods prepared at home to save money. The costs per portion of foods prepared at home are significantly less than from a window or restaurant. Meals prepared from home are better for you and better for your wallet.

Planning meals doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Start by listing the days of the week. I typically plan Monday through Friday given my family’s schedule, but do what works best for you. It is okay to start with three days of meals at a time. Once you’ve listed the days of the week, fill in your commitments that take you away from home (dinner at a friend’s house, church, work, etc.). Fill in those nights with “leftovers” or no-cook meal. Next, check your coupons and store flyers; plan meals based on foods that are on sale while also checking to see what items you have on hand.

  1. Make a list and stick to it

Tips two and three go hand-in-hand. As you plan your meals, assess what ingredients and produce you already have at home. By having items at home, this is less you have to buy, and it lessens the likelihood you end up with 3 bags of cheese that you don’t use before they go bad (again, reducing food waste! Food wasted is money wasted). Once you have a list of items you need, including weekly staples, you can begin to organize your list. Picture the layout of your store and organize your list based on sections or aisles of the store. I typically arrange produce, canned items, grains, meats, dairy, frozen veggies and fish, then eggs based on how my preferred grocery store is laid out. If you don’t need items from a particular aisle, don’t walk down that aisle! You should have everything you need on the list and stick to your list.

At the Store

  1. Be flexible

Sometimes, especially during a pandemic, stores may not have the items you are looking for. This is an opportunity to be flexible. In order to do this, I like to include my menu for the week on my grocery list. Then if I get stumped, I can remember why I needed an item and quickly think of a plan B. If you are planning to have pork chops as a protein, but pork loins are a manager’s special item that will be cheaper, change it up! If there is no spinach to add to spaghetti, choose another green leafy vegetable.

  1. Choose Store Brand

I like to include grocery store tours as a complement to some of our nutrition workshops. I lead consumers around the store to compare nutrition and prices of similar items. The store brands are always cheaper. These items are often packaged at the same facility and given a different label. This applies to all foods, including frozen vegetables.

  1. Check the unit price

The larger printed price, known as the retail price, is what you pay at the register for the entire box or package of food. The unit price is the price you pay per ounce, pound, or given unit. This is where you can see if buying an item in bulk is actually cheaper or not. I always select the smaller unit price when comparing similar foods. The unit price tells the truth about how much bang you get for your buck. (See photo)

  1. Shop like a Fresh & Frozen Produce Pro!

When purchasing fresh produce, you want to be sure the item is in season. Seasonality is a huge influencer of taste and price. Strawberries, for example, are not in season right now. If you buy fresh strawberries, you’ll be picking up the tab for added transportation costs and decreased availability all while selecting a strawberry that is under ripe and not as tasty. A better alternative is to check the freezer section. This applies to all of your fresh produce.

Another tip to purchasing produce is to focus on the food, not the buzzword. It is a misconception that you have to buy organic foods to eat healthy. In fact, a non-organic (also known as “conventional”) apple has the exact same nutritional content as an organic apple. Organic produce is not chemical-free, so don’t be misled by that hearsay either. If you like buying organic and it fits into your food budget, go for it! However, if you want the most bang for your buck without compromising nutrition, then perhaps non-organic produce is best suited for your family. Some consumers may follow a list of 12 produce items known as the “Dirty Dozen.” This list is released each year that claims to have the highest pesticide residue levels. All produce, whether non-organic or organic, will have some residue; This is why we suggest rinsing and scrubbing produce in addition to any pathogens that may cause foodborne illness. All produce pesticide residue levels, including the Dirty Dozen and regardless if organic or conventional, are strictly monitored and well below standards set by the Food and Drug Administration. My point: all produce is safe and equally nutritious, make the best choice for your family’s food budget!

After the Store

  1. Post your Menu

Posting your menu, whether on a cute chalkboard in the kitchen or in your weekly planner, helps remind you what to prepare and holds you accountable. It may also be a nice heads up to your family about what to expect for dinner.

  1. Schedule food preparation

Pre-washing and chopping produce can be a huge saver of time during the week. I like to shop and prep a few items on Sunday afternoon to help me get dinner on the table faster during the week. Food preparation could also include cooking a batch of chicken ahead of time to make into various dishes during the week. Asking your family to help you do these things can also increase their receptiveness to eating more vegetables! When you purchase pre-chopped produce or items that are more convenient, you are paying for convenience. You can save a little money by purchasing the whole food and preparing it yourself. All it takes is a little planning and knife skills!

  1. Love your leftovers

I meet too many people who claim they do not eat leftovers, yet they “meal prep.” Personally, I see no difference. Either word you call it, you are cooking once and eating the food later. I plan to have extras after my family eats dinner. Last night’s dinner becomes lunch for tomorrow- again, saving me money! That chicken you have been thinking about cooking to make into chicken salad, chicken quesadillas, and add to a salad later would be considered a leftover, but let’s call it a “planned over.”

If you are in need of food assistance, please call (919) 515-9568 or (919) 513-4565 (English hotline)/ (919) 515-9568 (para ayuda en espanol) or visit www.morefood.org.