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If you’re like most Americans, groceries make up one of your biggest expenses each month. The bad news is that it’s easy to overspend while grocery shopping. Really easy. The good news is that your food bill is a variable expense. That means you have control over what you buy and how much you spend and can, with not-too-much effort, cut your grocery bill significantly.
Here are 20 tried and true ways to hack your grocery bill and keep your grocery spending in check:
1. Make a budget
Your grocery budget can and should be be based on a variety of factors, including how many people you’re feeding, their ages, their activity levels, any special dietary considerations, and your location. Some people will tell you that your grocery budget should be a percentage of your income but that isn’t very helpful at all – if your income grows, this assumes you grocery spending will too.
Instead, I recommend checking the USDA’s Food Plans for guidance on what a nutritious diet actually costs (both weekly and monthly) based on family size and various age ranges. The plans are published monthly so pricing is current – since they list four different levels of food spending, I suggest you target the level just under your current spending and continue to cut expenses until you’re feeding your family at the Thrifty Plan level or below.
Using the Thrifty Plan numbers, my family should expect to spend $696.30 on groceries each month. Our actual spending consistently comes in around $600. We currently live in the Midwest but previously lived overseas, in the south, and in Alaska – we eat mostly fresh ingredients, often organic, and severely limit packaged foods in our diet. Despite huge variances in the cost of food for each area, we’ve always been able to stay within or below the Thrifty Plan limits for our family. It’s almost certainly possible for you as well.
If you don’t know how to cook – learn. Cooking at home is easily the most important thing you can do for your grocery budget. Prepackaged meals are more expensive than cooking from scratch, but both are better options than eating out. Eating out is expensive…
3. Eat at home more often
…which is why you should eat at home more often. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $7,729 on food per year. That’s roughly 13% of their after-tax income and 10.5% of their pre-tax income. Of that $7,729, $4,363 is spent on food at home, and $3,365 is spent on food outside the home.
If we were to very generously estimate that eating out costs roughly twice as much as eating in, then we could roughly assume that for every dollar we didn’t spend on dining out, we would spend $0.50 on food at home. Using the numbers from above, that means if we cut our dining out by half and only spend $1,682.50 ($3,365/2) per year, we could save $841.25 ($1682.50/2). That’s more than $70 a month.
4. Find cheap recipes
One of my favorite sites for cheap but delicious recipes is Budget Bytes. The recipes are simple to follow and comprised of easy-to-find ingredients, with the added bonus of having the cost per recipe, per serving, and per ingredient all listed for you.
Pinterest is another great resource for low-cost meal ideas, especially useful because you can easily save the recipes you want to try and can create a board for the keepers.
5. Eat less meat
Meat is an expensive source of nutrition. Compared to beans or tofu, bacon might as well be gold. I’m not saying don’t eat meat at all, but it’s a good idea to reduce the amount you eat if you want to save money. While you’re searching for cheap recipes, also search for recipes that are meatless or that can be made using less meat per serving than you’re used to. If you serve meat as a standalone protein, reduce the portion sizes in favor of more vegetables.
6. Develop a plan
After you have recipes in mind, you’ll want to use those to create a weekly or monthly meal plan. Meal planning isn’t the most fun you’ll ever have, but it’s absolutely worthwhile if you want to save money. I start by listing out the meals I want to make on one sheet of paper and then listing the ingredients I’ll need to shop for on another. I usually do this on a weekly basis, but will sometimes plan for two weeks or more depending on what we have going on. In my experience, creating a weekly meal plan works best if you buy the majority of produce fresh – if you opt for mostly frozen veggies then spoilage isn’t as big of a concern and creating a longer meal may work better for you.
Some people create meal plans around sales flyers. This is a great idea if you’re willing to shop around sales and able to plan recipes around them easily as well. For some of us – myself included – the additional effort isn’t worth the potential additional savings. Figure out what works for you.
7. Keep a running list
It used to be that I would make a shopping list, buy all the groceries, come home and discover exactly one hour later that I forgot to get something (or that I “forgot” to get something. You know, because no one told me we were out of it). Enter the running list. I’ve kept a small whiteboard on our fridge for years and now, any time anyone uses up anything, they write it down on the board. If anyone wants or needs something outside of what I would usually shop for, they write it down on the board. This has saved me so much time and hassle, you guys. I don’t necessarily buy everything that goes on the board – if I did, my kids would just list all of their favorite chip varieties – but it helps prevent underbuying and overbuying since I no longer have to wonder if someone used up all the dang mustard again. Spoiler alert: they did. They always do.
8. Use your list
If you’re going to go through all the trouble of making a list, for crying out loud – stick to your list. Don’t go into the store hungry and be swayed by smart marketing ploys. Also, you don’t need a candy bar or [other treat] as a reward for making it though the checkout line. (Maybe that’s just a me thing? In any case, it took me a long time to break that habit.)
9. Shop discount stores
If you have an Aldi nearby, you’re in luck – although I’ve bought a few items that ended up being disappointing (Aldi coffee gets a hard pass from me), for the most part the quality is comparable to any other generic brand (and sometimes better) and the prices are seriously hard to beat. Similar discount stores such as Ruler Foods may also be worth a monthly trip. Even if you’re not buying produce or meats from these stores, you may want to consider their nonperishable staples – sugar, beans, flour, etc. – and toiletry items.
10. Check discount bins
My favorite grocery store has a giant discount section that I frequent and almost always has a deep freezer full of discounted meats. I buy meat almost exclusively from that freezer, you guys. Ground beef for $1.80 a pound? I’ll take three, thank you very much. I know that not everyone is onboard with discounted food, but for most items this comes down to personal preference and not legitimate safety concerns. If it helps ease your mind, shop discounted items from stores you trust and get to know the markdown days and times.
11. Watch for sales
Figure out which grocery stores are in your area within reasonable driving distance and look up their flyers online. Pay attention to the weekly sales – these most likely rotate and repeat and if you watch the sales long enough you’ll get a good sense of the kinds of savings each store offers, on which products and when. I don’t recommend that you go out of your way to save a few cents per pound on apples unless you’re planning on making a few gallons of apple sauce – you should always consider the value of your time against the overall value of savings. When it makes sense, stock up.
12. Use coupons with discretion
I’m not much of a couponer. They can be a great source of savings, especially if your stores offer “double coupons”, but generally speaking you’ll need to be smart about their use. You’ll especially want to be careful using coupons that are:
- Offered for items that you don’t usually buy since it doesn’t makes sense to spend money to save money; or
- Offered for the higher priced version of an item you do buy but that won’t actually provide savings.
13. Watch the register
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped a cashier because an item rang up wrong. This happens all the time. Make sure that the price you expect to pay is the price coming up on the register – if it’s not, say something. It’s a lot easier and quicker to deal with the error then and there than it is to try and correct the issue after finding it on your receipt later.
14. Reverse engineer your meals
Instead of starting with a recipe, try checking your pantry or fridge with items that need to be used up first – then develop a meal from what you have on hand. This keeps you from having to run out for additional ingredients and can prevent food waste. If you aren’t confident enough in your cooking skills to try this without help, there are several resources available online. You can use Allrecipes to search for recipes by ingredients – the site lets you choose up to four ingredients you want to include plus four you don’t – or you can try similar options such as SuperCook or MyFridgeFood.
15. Use curbside pickup
Aside from the obvious benefits of curbside pickup – it’s (usually) free and means you don’t have to navigate the store or wait in line – this can be a hugely helpful service if you struggle with impulse buys. Shopping online for what you need before you hit the store can make it much easier to stick to your list (and only your list). Plus, it can help ensure you don’t forget any items since you’ll have plenty of time to prep your grocery cart with all the things you need (and none of the things you don’t).
16. Use apps and scan your receipts
There are multiple apps available that offer cash back grocery savings. These are great because they can be used in addition to coupons or other sales and discounts – they also operate entirely separate from each other so you may be able to collect cash back rewards on the same item two or more times from two or more apps.
Ibotta is one of the most popular grocery savings apps and one that I personally use and love. It’s easy to use, offers a ton of cash back opportunities across a huge number of stores and even has cash back bonus offers each month.
It works like this:
- Download the Ibotta app and create your free account;
- Choose your favorite stores and select from available cash back offers;
- Shop for your selected cash back items as usual;
- Use the app to take a photo of your receipt (you’ll need to submit it within one week); and
- Get your cash back via PayPal, Venmo, or gift card.
17. Collect credit card rewards
If you use credit cards responsibly they can be a great resource for saving money on groceries, and this can be especially true depending on the card you have. I use the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card for all of my groceries and earn 6% cash back (in stores coded as supermarkets only – this doesn’t include WalMart, for example). That’s a huge savings over paying with cash, debit, or another card with a lower reward rate. Even a credit card that only offers 1.5% in rewards is still a better option than paying cash or debit – so long as you pay the card off in full every month.
18. Store your food properly
Food waste is a huge issue, not just for the general food supply, but also for each of us at home. According to Forbes, a 2018 study by the USDA reports that we waste roughly 1 pound of food per day per person, 20% of all food we purchase, or roughly $129 worth of food every month.
Make sure you’re storing your food properly. This means tomatoes stay on the counter and potatoes in a cool dark pantry, but it also means knowing what’s in your fridge so it can be eaten before it expires and what’s in your freezer so it doesn’t end up freezer burnt and inedible. Choose appropriate packaging and label things that need to be labeled.
19. Eat your leftovers
Similarly, don’t waste already prepared foods. Last night’s dinner can easily become today’s lunch. Scraping your plate into the trash is no different than scraping your actual, hard-earned money into the trash. If you don’t like leftovers, learn to repurpose them into a new meal, or simply cook less at a time.
20. Shop less often
More trips to the grocery store almost certainly will mean more spending. Those extra runs create additional opportunities to stray from your plan and your budget. Avoid “quick” trips by planning your meals and your shopping well in advance and sticking to your list.
Questions? Advice to share? Let me know in the comments!