Shutterstock / igor kisselev
A shocking truth about becoming an adult is how quickly a paycheck can disappear at the grocery store. I learned this the hard way when I found my paycheck wouldn’t cover my existing loans while paying for my seemingly endless grocery list. While food is one expense that you can’t eliminate, I discovered that you can most definitely adjust your spending. (And following these quick, money-saving tips is always a smart move.)
Though I occasionally give in to the siren’s song of a fancy cup of coffee, I’ve dutifully (if begrudgingly) paid down student loans and eliminated car payments, and now I’m working toward living debt-free.
Here are the secrets of how a little time, effort and know-how can help you stick with a food budget that fits your financial goals.
Start with the Numbers
Have a look at what you’ve been spending on groceries, either through your bank’s online tools, credit card statements or good old-fashioned receipts. Then head to the USDA’s guidelines for food planning. They list options by family size and spending preferences so you can see how your spending lines up with the national averages.
For planning ahead, aim for the USDA’s “thrifty” option. Heck, even if you choose a spendier category, you still might be able to reduce your grocery bill just by setting a budget to which you hold yourself accountable.
And if it’s not realistic for you to be super thrifty, choose a budget you can stick to rather than an unrealistic one you’ll be tossing out the window in a week. It will pay off in the long run.
OK, so meal planning is not always as glamorous as your friend on Instagram makes it out to be. But neither is owing your paycheck to a lender. Of course, eating at home is more economical than dining out, but meal planning also works because it can help cut down on food waste. Choosing recipes (with serving sizes) will take the guesswork out of shopping—and the food out of your trash. Flip through a magazine or check these budget-friendly recipes for inspiration.
Brown Bag It
Dining out for lunch adds up. Think: $10/day for five days a week…that’s around $200 a month. Multiply that by additional family members and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of unnecessary spending. Networking over meals can be important to professional relationships, but it doesn’t require eating out every day. Plus, a beautiful side effect of meal planning is leftovers, so packed lunches don’t have to be limited to PB&J or frozen food.
Still craving food from your favorite cafe? Try these Panera Bread copycat recipes.
Some things are just more economical in bulk. Yes, toilet paper. Canned goods. Frozen foods. Some discount clubs like Costco offer rewards that basically cover the cost of membership. (Check out their crazy-amazing perks, here!) If you’re not already a member, stop by your local warehouse store to see if it might work for you. Bonus: Fewer trips to the store can also mean fewer opportunities for impulse buys.
Sure, it can be time-consuming, but it can also save you money. Couponing helped me nearly memorize the prices at local grocers, so I learned how to look past the promotions and know when something is truly a good deal—and when it’s not. You can, too. Know your prices per pound, or ounce, and you’ll be a super shopper (and saver).
Cook What You Like
Think of it as a debt diet: If your meal plan includes things that you actually want to eat, you’re more likely to stick with that plan. Fill your at-home menus with your favorites and you’ll be less tempted to ditch the plan and dine out.
Invest a little time upfront to master your food budget and you’ll be better equipped to eliminate debt and start saving toward the lifestyle you want. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be a meal-planning maven. As for me, I may not coupon as much as I once did, but I still keep my budget in line with the USDA’s “thrifty” numbers, and everyone in my house is happier when Momma has a meal plan.