Outside of housing and transportation, Americans spend more on food than any other category. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average U.S. household shells out $7,719 on food each year, including groceries and eating out.
While food is an essential expense (since we all need to eat), many of us could probably stand to spend less than what we’re currently spending on groceries, restaurants, and morning lattes.
Fortunately, with a little planning and some smart shopping hacks, you may be able to significantly cut the amount of money you spend on food but still eat well.
Here are 15 simple strategies to try:
1. Making More Meals at Home
Restaurants typically charge about a 300% markup on the foods they serve. That means spending $30 eating out would only cost you $10 if you made it at home.
Just swapping one or two restaurant meals with a home-cooked meal and/or brown-bagging lunch a few days a week, can add up to significant monthly savings.
Those morning coffees to go can also add up, so you may also want to consider brewing your coffee at home at least some mornings each week.
Recommended: Examining the Price of Eating at Home vs Eating Out
2. Learning How to Meal Plan
Eating out less is easier said than done. If you don’t plan meals ahead of time, the temptation to eat out or order in is real. To save both time and money, meal planning could be the way to go.
Meal planning entails thinking ahead and creating a menu for the week, then using your menu to create a shopping list. You don’t have to plan every meal to the letter, but picking a few simple recipes you can whip for dinner can save you from having to get take-out after a long workday.
Recommended: How Much Should I Spend on Food a Month?
Reducing Food Waste
The average household wastes 31.9% of the food it buys, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics . The total annual cost of the wasted food was estimated to be $240 billion or $1,866 per household.
Food waste is often the result of food spoiling before the household has had a chance to eat it. One way to reduce how much food–and money–gets tossed into the garbage each week is to only buy what you need (by meal planning and making a list) and also storing fresh foods property when you get home..
You can also increase the lifespan of lettuce, for example, by wrapping it in a paper towel to absorb moisture while it sits in your fridge. It can also be a good idea to place herbs in a jar of water and store lemons and limes away from apples (which release gases that can cause them to rot faster).
Another helpful strategy is to eat quick-to-spoil foods, such as berries, soon after your shopping trip and save hardier produce for later in the week.
Meat tends to be one of the most expensive ingredients in many meals. But there are plenty of tasty recipes out there that use other sources of protein, such as beans, eggs, and tofu, or make veggies and grains the stars of the dish.
Planning just one or two meatless meals each week can automatically cut your food spending–and also help you eat a little healthier.
Taking Advantage of Rebate Apps
When you’re searching for easy ways to save money, it’s worth checking out all the many grocery rebate apps that are now available.
Apps, such as Ibotta, Receipt Hog, Checkout 51m and Fetch Rewards, will often give you cashback for things you’d purchase anyway. While rebates don’t give you a discount upfront (like a traditional coupon), you should see savings in the long run.
Some apps send checks once you reach a certain cash-back amount, such as $20.
Outsmarting the Supermarket
Grocery stores employ a number of marketing tricks to get consumers to spend more. These include stocking the most expensive items on the shelves right at your eye level, using end caps to grab your attention, and placing staples like milk, eggs, and bread at the back of the store so you’re forced to pass through several aisles to get to them.
You can avoid falling for these marketing ploys by carrying a list (and sticking to it) and also by keeping your eyes on the upper and lower shelves, as this is where you’ll tend to find the more affordable brands.
Prepping Foods at Home
Bagged salads, pre-made pizzas, and cut-up fruits and vegetables can be enticing on a busy weeknight, but these conveniences come at a high markup.
If you don’t have time to slice and dice raw ingredients in the evenings after work, you may want to consider doing some meal prep for the week on Sundays.
Having your ingredients ready to go also makes it easier to throw meals together–and eating out or getting take-out less tempting.
Recommended: Does Buying in Bulk Save Money?
Brand name products in the supermarket can often cost 35 to 45 percent more than store brands. Yet many store brands offer essentially the same quality as their brand name counterparts, and in some cases are produced at the same facilities (just packaged with a different label).
While not all store brands are built the same, it’s worth trying a few if you’re grocery shopping on a budget. If you find that you can’t tell the difference, you may be able to enjoy some solid savings.
Starting a Kitchen Garden
Fresh herbs at the grocery store can be expensive, and often, recipes call for only a few sprigs or leaves, and then the rest goes to waste.
To avoid having to buy fresh herbs at the store, you may want to consider setting up a window sill garden containing the herbs you reach for most often, such as parsley, mint, thyme, or basil.
Start-up costs are minimal, and these plants tend to be easy to grow–no green thumb required.
Using Store Loyalty Apps
If you shop at a large grocery store chain or mass retailer, you can often get special promotions and additional savings by downloading the store’s app.
Target, Walmart, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and other major stores have apps that offer exclusive coupons to frequent shoppers. Often, taking advantage of these deals is as simply as letting the cashier scan a barcode on your phone as you’re checking out.
Hitting the Farmer’s Market Later in the Day
If you love shopping at the local farmer’s market but don’t enjoy the dent it makes in your wallet, you may want to consider showing up near closing time.
At the end of the day, farmers often don’t want to pack up their food and take it home with them. If you walk around and make a reasonable offer on a box of produce they have left, you might score a great deal on fresh (and delicious) fruits and veggies.
Dine out for Lunch Instead of Dinner
Cutting down on food expenses doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy your favorite restaurants. One way to get that experience for a cheaper price tag is to go for lunch, not dinner.
Lunch menus often offer many of the same entrees (in slightly smaller portions) for a lower price than dinner menus. You can sometimes also find affordable lunch specials or Prix fixe options.
Pruning Your Produce
Before you put fruits and veggies in the plastic bag, you may want to take a moment to remove any stalks, leaves, or stems that aren’t edible. Since you’re paying by weight, anything to lower the weight lowers the price.
Shopping In Season
Fruits and vegetables tend to be cheaper, and also taste better when they are in season locally. While you may be able to purchase fresh strawberries year-round, they’ll likely be more expensive (and less sweet) in the winter when they’re being harvested and shipped from somewhere far away.
You can check out this seasonality chart to find out when foods are in their prime where you live, and then adjust our menu planning accordingly.
Keeping an Eye on Unit Price
Comparing price and value can be tough when items don’t come in the same size. When in doubt, you can always turn to unit prices, which are often listed on the shelf tag.
Unit price gives you an apples-to-apples comparison, such as ounce to ounces or liters to liters.
For example, the cheapest bottle of olive oil on the shelf might not be the best value. If you bought a larger one, it might cost a few bucks more, but its overall cost per ounce is lower, saving you in the long run.
With a little planning and just a few habit shifts, you may be able to slash your food bills without sacrificing quality, taste, or nutrition. The cash you free up can then be put towards savings or something fun.
You may find that setting up a monthly food budget—and target spending amounts per week—can also help you spend less on food. Using a money management app can help you stick to your food budget.
SoFi Money® is a mobile-first cash management account that allows users to easily track their weekly grocery and restaurant spending right in the dashboard of the app.
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