I don’t know about you and the folks at your house, but I used to be pretty stupid. When I was single, I ate out a lot and, lacking that great Futurama invention, Bachelor Chow, when I “cooked” for myself at home, I tended to buy food based on how many minutes were required to microwave it. Anything over three minutes was too much trouble. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a “foodie.”  Food cost me a lot more back then, and my health suffered in terms of elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Not only that, but I was wasting lots of perfectly good money on packaging and processing, which in turn meant that I had a lot more trash to get rid of, and that I was eating a lot of “ingredients” with long, polysyllabic names that I couldn’t pronounce.

Yes, I was a complete dope, but not an irredeemable one.  I learned that, like most anything else, there are ways to get by cheaper, tastier and healthier when you buy groceries.

Here are 49 (count ‘em) ways to get more, better food and spend less cash:

  1. First, Track Your Expenses. You can’t save money if you don’t know how much you’re spending to begin with.  Keep a list of everything you buy.  Once you’ve got an idea of what you spend each month or each week, then you can make a budget and begin to set goals.
  2. Grow Your Own. Obviously this is the way to achieve the greatest savings.  Make a garden this year.  Next year make a bigger garden.  If you own a freezer and know how to can and preserve you can do more financial damage to your local grocer than with any other method.  Not only that, but you can’t buy healthier food, and you’ll enjoy your meals even more when you produce them yourself.  A word of caution: growing your own food can also be expensive, depending on how cheaply you can arrange for irrigation, and rich, friable soil.  If you have to buy lots of tools, hoses, soil amendments, and the like, these can consume your savings.
  3. Cook. Without question, you can cook your own food more cheaply than you can hire someone to cook it for you.  This is not to say that you shouldn’t ever go to another restaurant, or order another pizza, when you want to celebrate, or when you just want to take a break, but if you’re out to save money, you need to be the one who prepares your meals.
  4. Keep a Running Grocery List.   When you run out of anything, add it to the list.  The more well-stocked your larder, the better you’ll eat, and the less you’ll spend.  Always take your list of the things you need when you shop, and only buy what’s on the list.  If it’s not on the list, then you obviously don’t need it.
  5. Use Discount Grocery Stores.   We’re talking about the types that buy surplus lots in grocery auctions, not necessarily the ones that have “discount” in their names.  We save a small fortune every year by shopping at our local discount grocery,   Not only do we save a lot of cash, but our diet is much more varied than it used to be because the discount stores wind up with lots of unusual items that may not sell so well in middle America.  For example, we frequently have lots of fancy foreign cheeses, Brie, Camembert, Gouda, you name it.  These apparently don’t appeal to the typical Midwesterner, or maybe the typical American, palate, but we love them, and we get them for less than the price of Velveeta.
  6. Buy in Bulk. As with most everything else, the more you buy, the cheaper you get it.  Ola recently brought home a 40-pound carton of green bananas from the discount grocery for which she paid $6.50 total.  That’s 16.25 cents per pound versus 60 to 90 cents per pound in regular stores.  Of course, you don’t save much if your fruit rots in the fridge. I prefer my bananas slightly green, Olia doesn’t like them until they’re slightly brown, and when we’d both had what we liked, she made many loaves of tasty banana bread.
  7. Cook for a Week, or Month. If you’ll cook up large batches of your favorite foods and put them away in the fridge, freezer, or pantry in single-meal portions, you’ll not only save money because of buying in bulk, but you’ll also earn yourself quite a bit of free time.  Try making a stock-pot full of soup or stew and freezing what you don’t eat. You’ll have a quick, tasty meal that the biggest clutz in the family, me, for example, can prepare for himself.
  8. Recycle Old Meals. A/K/A leftovers.  Don’t just keep them, make a meal from them.  Monday’s Casserole and Tuesday’s Roast can become Wednesday’s Stew with a little stock and some seasonings.  Like-wise a large piece of meat can be stretched a lot further, as well as be more tasty and healthy if you use it in several different dishes with many bite-sized morsels.  We rarely eat large pieces of meat alone, but often have meat mixed in a bowl of rice or buckwheat, or on a large salad.
  9. Don’t Throw Away Food. Save your bacon grease, make stock from your chicken carcass, save hambones to add to bean soups.  If you don’t have time to do these things after dinner, put them in a bag in the freezer.  Save everything you can think of a use for, and don’t forget the livestock/pets and the compost pile.
  10. Eat More Possum. Wild game is both healthier and more affordable than the fat-marbled meats  you find in the store.  Even if you don’t hunt yourself, if you live in a rural area, you won’t have any trouble finding hunters in your neighborhood to barter with.
  11. Avoid Impulse Purchases. These are the bane of all would-be frugal shoppers, so just don’t do it.  If you truly need an item, then it should appear on your list next week
  12. Make Fewer Shopping Trips. The more often you go shopping, the more you are likely to spend.  About half of all grocery shoppers go to the store three or four times a week.  This is probably less true of homesteaders who spend less time in town, but the principle still applies.  Try to make your shopping trip no more than once per week.  If that works, try for every two weeks, even every month.  This tends to focus you more on buying larger quantities more carefully.
  13. Investigate; Ask Questions. What’s the price difference between the bag of dried beans that sells for $.89, and the can of beans that sells for $.99?  Just a dime?  No.  The bag yields 7 cups of cooked beans, $.13 per cup.  The can yields 1-1/2 cups of cooked beans, $.66 per cup.  The canned beans—as inexpensive as they are—are five times more expensive than dried beans.
  14. Take a Calculator. Many stores have already calculated the unit prices of the items you buy, but many don’t offer this, and it’s information that you definitely want to know.  Also, if you’re being genuinely thoughtful about your purchases, you’ll probably want a little help in the brain department while you’re moving through the aisles.
  15. Food Only, Please. Paper goods, cleaning supplies and cosmetics are probably going to be less expensive at big-box stores like Target or Wal-Mart.  This also helps you to track your grocery costs separately from other living expenses.
  16. Avoid Processed Food. You’ll be wealthier and healthier if you buy basic commodities that only have one item in their list of ingredients—things like potatoes, beans, apples.  Not only will you avoid lots of chemicals and preservatives, but you’ll save a ton of money.  Just remember, if it has a trademark or a brand name, you’re paying more and probably undermining your health in the bargain.
  17. Cut Up Your Own Food. Consumer Reports found that two pounds of carrots cost $1.29, compared with $7.16 for the same amount of precut carrot sticks.  Also avoid “vegetable medley” packages.
  18. Don’t Buy Water. Everyone knows that bottled water is expensive, but fewer people know that it may be inferior, or at least no better than your tap water at home.  If you have your own well, the odds are very good that you have cleaner, better water than the brands from Coca-Cola and Pepsico.  If you have city water, yours may be, probably is, just as good.  You may want to invest in a reusable water-filtering pitcher.
  19. Don’t Buy Disguised Water, Either. When we were kids, Kool-Aid only came in an envelope.  You could add only the amount of sweetener you wanted, and your own water, and you spent a lot less money.  So why buy it by the bottle?  That’s a good example, but there are lot of other ways you pay more just for water.  Such as, cartons of fruit juice, canned broth or soup, canned, cooked beans, low-fat coconut milk, Jello cups, applesauce, popsicles, even chicken and pork injected with water and salt “flavoring”.
  20. Don’t Buy Designer Salt. Specialty spice mixes are usually 90% salt. You can just buy the basic herbs and spices, then make your own.
  21. DON’T Use Coupons. Ever see a coupon for bananas?  Apples?  Coupons may offer apparent savings, but they’re usually for some sort of processed food that still winds up costing you more.
  22. DO use Coupons. Okay, nobody’s perfect.  Sometimes you or your family will want to buy things even if they aren’t pure as the driven snow.  If you’re going to buy it anyway, having a coupon makes it cheaper.  It’s a no-brainer.
  23. Get a Store Card. These loyalty cards allow shoppers to get extra discounts on items without having to clip coupons.  If a store you frequent, even infrequently, offers a card, you should get one.
  24. Be Open to Store Brands. Most times, but not always, store brands are of equal quality to brand name foods.  Sometimes they’re the very same thing.  Not always though, so you need to try each one out, and see what you think.
  25. Take it back. Sometimes it happens. Something you’ve purchased is bad – soured, rotted, moldy, fizz-less, broken, or otherwise spoiled.  Don’t be afraid to take it back.  Food is simply too expensive NOT to get what you paid for.  Return bad items for credit or replacement.  Most stores will gladly oblige.
  26. Shop Several Stores. You’ll find that if you are familiar with several different groceries in your area, some will have consistently better bargains on certain items than others, and it’s not just a matter of one store having better prices.  We find that one local store always has the best prices on fresh meats, but never the best prices for produce.
  27. Buy Bagged Fruits and Vegetables. Bags of onions, potatoes, apples and oranges are often less expensive than the same items offered loose in a bin, although the latter may be larger and arguably more attractive.  That’s if you can use them up before they spoil, that is.
  28. Don’t Buy Anything in Individual Wrapping. This seems so obvious I almost hate to mention it.  If you buy anything in individually-wrapped, portion-sized packaging, be it potato chips, cookies, nuts or whatever, you only need to compare what these cost with bulk purchases to see the severe error in your ways.  If you need individual portions for the kids’ lunch-boxes, buy reusable containers and fill them yourself.
  29. Open Your Mind to a New Cookbook. In the typical U.S. diet, a pound of meat serves four because meat is an American luxury, but in Latin or Asian cooking, a pound of meat will serve eight or ten.  Asian cooking, in particular, uses meat as an accent, and I think you’ll find, as we do, that you’ll even feel better after a meal that makes heavy use of grains accented by small bits of meat as opposed to a plate covered by a slab of steak or roast.  Again, besides saving money, you’re saving your health.
  30. Try to Produce Your Own Staples. Do you eat lots of bread?  If so, a bread machine will quickly pay for itself.  Determine the items that your family uses the most, and see if you can’t reduce your purchase to the basic ingredients.  This is especially something to consider also if you use lots of ice cream, yogurt, or kefir.  Also, don’t forget snacks, which may make up a large part of your food budget.  Popcorn can be produced cheaply in large quantities and can be flavored with a number of low-cost items.  If you’ve never tried it, I suggest a sprinkling of nutritional yeast, which gives a richness reminiscent of butter, but without the cost or calories.
  31. Know a Good Deal When You See One. Of course, you probably can’t remember the price of everything, but most people buy the same food items most of the time, so make it a point to notice and remember what you pay.  That way you’ll know when you see it somewhere else for a lower price.  This may sound a bit tedious, but it’s actually rather fun when you discover a new bargain.
  32. Always Use the Produce Scale. Don’t try to guess how much a pound of mushrooms amounts to.  Weigh everything before you put it in your cart.
  33. Avoid Lavish Displays. Cheese is almost always less expensive in the deli than from the tantalizing display of hors d’ourves set in mid-aisle.  Don’t be a sucker for marketing.
  34. Buy Cold Cuts in the Deli. Plastic-packaged cold cuts are usually more expensive, generally a lot more expensive, plus you have less packaging to send to the landfill with deli or meat-market purchases, especially if you buy whole units and slice them yourself at home.
  35. Shop for Seasonal Produce. Buy fruits and vegetables when they’re in season. That’s when you’ll see them offered for sale, and that’s when they’re in their best condition.
  36. Watch the cash register. It is estimated that up to $2.5 billion per year is made in scanning errors.  That’s a lot of money left on the check-out counter.  Supermarkets often put items on sale at prices that don’t always get to the register.  Also, checkers can easily make mistakes when making entries.  Check your receipt carefully.
  37. Leave the Kids at Home. Even if you take them with you, you can easily find something your kids will enjoy more than following you around the grocery store trying to think of what new sugar-coated catastrophe to buy.  It’s not so much that a box of Puffy Sugar Bombs costs five bucks that irks, but that the little darlings develop the idea that Puffy Sugar Bombs are food.  This is not good for their health, not good for their teeth, and not good for your budget.  Children are only human, so of course, they want to choose a few of the things you buy when you go shopping, and they haven’t yet developed the native resistance to advertising that you have.  Drop them at a playground, or maybe the library.  Frankly, you’re probably better off leaving your spouse at home too.  The more people that go shopping with you, the more you’re likely to spend.
  38. Patronize Farmer’s Markets> Not only will you save lots of money at farmer’s markets, you’ll get fresher food and benefit your local economy.  Buying directly from the grower in-season is also a good way to get food items for storage that you may not be able to grow for yourself.
  39. Pack a Lunch. Going on a trip, or working outside the home?  Try taking food with you instead of stopping along the way to go to a restaurant or convenience store.  Again, you’ll eat better for less.
  40. Own a Freezer and/or Extra Fridge. This is a large expense that you may not be able to afford right away, but well worth the money if you can.  Finding a used freezer may be difficult, though, so you may have to buy new.  Equally as handy, and probably less expensive than a freezer, is a second or third refrigerator.  We’ve inherited two extra refrigerators from family members who were moving.  Since virtually everyone owns a fridge at least once in their lives, there are plenty of used ones available.  They really expand your ability to stock up.
  41. Stock up after Thanksgiving. November and December are the best months of the year to save on groceries.  There are more coupons issued in these two months than at any other time during the year.  The day after Thanksgiving, stores practically give turkeys away—if they have any left.  This is when a freezer or extra fridge comes in handy.  You’ll find some great bargains both after Thanksgiving and after Christmas.  A good time to stock up on bargains.
  42. Shop at Larger Stores. This may not always be good advice, but the bigger the store, the large the volume, so they can afford to offer better deals than smaller businesses.  Beware though, because larger stores also have more sophisticated techniques for getting you to spend more.
  43. Know Your Enemy. Modern supermarkets, indeed all stores, are designed from top to bottom to make you want to spend.  Nothing is left to chance.  Popular items like milk tend to be at the back of the store, cheaper items are placed low and high on the shelves, and the more profitable/expensive ones are at eye-level. Most stores advertise “loss leaders”, extremely inexpensive staple goods to get you into the store where it’s hoped you’ll fill your cart with normally-priced items.  Also, expect tinted lights above meat and produce, automatic sprinklers, and mouth-watering displays.  Remember that the basic foodstuffs are usually located along the outside walls and more processed foods are on the inner aisles.
  44. Volunteer. I do volunteer work at a local food pantry.   Many times at closing on Fridays we have large quantities of produce like strawberries or bananas that won’t keep over the weekend.  Rather than throw these items out, I take them home and we make preserves, breads, and other items that extend the shelf-life of the product.
  45. Forage. If you are a rural landowner like most homesteaders, then you have an unending supply of food for the taking.  Even a few acres of woodlot will provide nuts, berries, mushrooms, and even a few fruits and vegetables, like paw-paws, persimmons, ramps, and wild garlic, during the warm months.
  46. Barter. I purposely haven’t mentioned raising your own milk, eggs, and meat, because whether or not that proves to be money-saving option or not depends on  your management skills, and is the subject of another article altogether, but if you do keep livestock and poultry, the chances are good that at times you will have more milk, eggs and possibly even more meat than your family can use.  When you do, these are the gold standard of barter.
  47. Eat First, Then Shop. Never, never, never go into a grocery store hungry or tired.
  48. Avoid Items Sold at the Checkout Counter. Stores feature single serving pies, cans of soda and other items at the checkout that are usually much more expensive.  Relax, you’ll be home soon enough.
  49. Buy Frozen. Fresh produce is appealing, but items such as broccoli, green peppers and strawberries are considerably cheaper when purchased from the frozen aisle.  Most frozen items still carry the same health benefits.  If you can’t get it at a farmer’s market, you’re better off getting many items frozen.

 

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