In my last post that focused on how to allocate your income throughout your budget, I briefly mentioned that you really can eat well on a small amount of money. But the example chart that I shared allocated an entire 12% of take-home income to food, and I also stressed that food was not the place to drastically cut back in order to put money toward other budget categories. Living off Ramen noodles so that you can pay your rent or mortgage is no way to live. To me, eating healthy is extremely important. So how is my own grocery budget accounting for a mere 7% of my total take-home income? Isn’t this a bit hypocritical of me, to preach not skimping on food while my own budget would seem to say that I do?
No way. Let me tell you, I LOVE food. Eating is one of my favorite things to do, and every meal is something I get excited about, just like every other twentysomething I know. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus two or three healthy snacks every single day. I stay active – running, biking, swimming, hiking, camping, plus working out at the gym – so I consume quite a bit to keep up with all the energy I use. Skimping on groceries is simply not an option in my house, and neither is eating a bunch of processed junk. We’ve got organic produce in the fridge and tasty, healthy staples like natural peanut butter, quinoa, and a few products from Annie’s and Bob’s Red Mill in the pantry. It’s absolutely possible to eat really well on less. In fact, it’s not only possible, but easy when you’re keeping the following 5 guidelines in mind.
1. Eat Real Food
The number one thing you can do to for your grocery bill is good for your health, too. Eat real food. Real foods are whole foods. Michael Pollan‘s “food rules” come in handy here for defining what real, whole foods are: don’t eat anything your grandma wouldn’t recognize (seriously, what is GoGurt anyway?), don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or that contains ingredients that you can’t pronounce, and don’t eat anything that can’t go bad (we’re talking Little Debbies and soda here, not the very few real food exceptions like honey). If you keep your grocery list limited to whole foods like produce, meat, dairy, and staples like pasta, rice, beans, and other grains and legumes, you’re going to immediately save money.
This is because you’ll be cutting crap out of your grocery bill and your diet. Following these food rules, processed foods will be serious no-nos. And processed food is expensive. Imagine how much less you’d spend at the store if you quit buying processed crackers, cookies, chips, sodas, frozen meals, everything on the breakfast aisle including sugary cereals, PopTarts, breakfast meal bars, premade baking mixes, and boxed ready-to-cook meals like Hamburger Helper, Pastaroni, and instant mashed potatoes. If you buy only real, whole foods, you’ll be amazed at how much healthy stuff you can actually take home for less than it costs to buy a cart full of processed food products. Keep up the real food habit long enough, and you’ll see benefits for your health, too.
2. Know the Difference Between Clean and Dirty Produce
When every single item in your cart at the grocery store is slapped with the “organic” label, you’re spending too much. Yes, organic produce can be, in many ways, superior to conventional produce. But when you don’t have an unlimited budget, it’s also unrealistic to purchase the most outrageously expensive mangoes in the store. Don’t worry, there’s a compromise here, thanks to the Environmental Working Group. For the second year in a row, the EWG conducted tests on popular produce items to determine what foods were most exposed to pesticides used on conventional agricultural farms (in other words, the farms that produce conventionally-grown fruits and veggies, not organic farms). They published their findings in two lists: the Dirty Dozen Plus and the Clean Fifteen. These lists show what produce is most contaminated, and what produce is the cleanest. If you’re set on buying organic but have a limited budget, compromise and buy conventional versions of the foods on the Clean Fifteen list. Buy organic only where it really counts: when you’re shopping for produce on the Dirty Dozen Plus list. This allows you to prioritize where it’s truly important to go organic so you can save money on the clean foods by sticking with their conventionally-grown counterparts.
3. Get Creative in the Kitchen
It’s common sense: eating in is much cheaper than dining out. Cutting your overall food costs starts with preparing your own meals 99% of the time. Eating out should be seen as a fun treat or a great way to do a date night, not as your main source of food. It’s not difficult to make really delicious (and healthy) food at home. If you’re not already doing this, it just takes a little practice to make it a habit.
If you do regularly cook at home, thumbs up. You’re doing it right. But there may still be ways you can continue to reduce your food costs. By getting creative with cheap, staple ingredients, you can continue to have interesting, flavorful, and tasty meals at home with minimal expense. Take rice, for example. It’s super cheap and there are so many ways to prepare it that it’ll never be boring. It can be a side dish to other foods or it can be incorporated into a main dish. It can be served in a variety of different styles, including Indian, Mexican, and Asian. As long as you avoid white, bleached rice (which is essentially devoid of nutritional value), it’s a staple you can easily and cheaply add to your lunches and dinners. Same thing applies to beans, which you can buy canned or dry depending on what you prefer. Find type of bean you like and a way that you enjoy cooking them and just like that, you’ve got cheap vehicle for healthy food.
Get creative and hunt for recipes that utilize cheap staples that you enjoy eating. I’ll give you one to get you started: Corn Cakes with Black Beans that I got from No Meat Athlete. Utilizes cheap ingredients, simple and quick to make, and is freakin’ delicious.
4. Use Coupons (Without Going Crazy)
Thanks to the garbage that is reality TV, I can’t say the word “coupon” without feeling slightly insane. It conjures up images of beefy ladies barreling through grocery store aisles, multiple carts full of processed crap in tow, with wallets stuffed full of hundreds upon hundreds of coupons. This is so not what I mean when I say you should use coupons to save money on your groceries. What I do mean is to take 10-15 minutes of your time about every two weeks to skim through sites online that let you print out coupons and check the websites of stores you frequent to see if they’re offering any coupons to print and use. If you already receive a newspaper with coupon inserts, browse through that as well. Print or clip coupons only for things you already buy. Here are the sites I check when I’m doing my bimonthly coupon run:
- HealthyEssentials.com (this is for personal care items, not groceries, but it’s still a good place to check)
- KrazyCouponLady (this is the most time-consuming and intensive site, because it has a huge list of coupons you can print and use)
I also check Kroger’s website and Target’s website, as those are the two stores I shop at for groceries and personal items (toothpaste, deodorant, etc). Again, I only spend about 15 minutes browsing through the coupons – I don’t go nuts, but I do want to make the most of the savings opportunity that manufacturers and stores are going to offer me. In July, I saved $40 total off my grocery bills for the month thanks to the coupons I printed out. I’ve only made one trip to the grocery store so far this month (I average about 3 per month), but just on that one stop I saved $15 off my total thanks to my coupons.
I never use coupons for items I wouldn’t have bought without a coupon, and I don’t go out of my way to use store-specific coupons if I don’t normally shop there. My free community newspaper gets coupon inserts for Dollar General and Walgreens, but these places aren’t in convenient locations to me/where I usually drive when doing other errands so I’m not going to waste time and gas just to save 25 cents of a box of snack crackers.
So, to recap, here’s how you use coupons to save some money on your grocery bill without turning into a crazy person: spend about 10 minutes every two weeks at sites that allow you to print off coupons for things you normally buy at stores you already shop at.
5. Break Up with Brands
This one is as straightforward as it gets: you don’t have to buy brand-name everything. Forget brand loyalty that was cultivated by clever marketing suits who banked on the rest of us being a bunch of sheep. Generics and store brands, 99% of the time, are just as good if not better than the brand name product. And they’re cheaper. Sure, there are some exceptions. College Me will tell you that Publix brand “Pizza Rolls” taste like cardboard and will make you sad. But Better-Eating-Habits-Now-Thank-God Me will also tell you that when it comes to staples and low-ingredient foods, like honey or pasta, there’s almost never a difference between the brand name and the store brand.
Bonus Points: Become a (Part-Time) Vegetarian
Being a vegetarian undoubtedly helps to keep your grocery bill in check. I’m a vegetarian and therefore I’m not spending money on beef, chicken, pork, or any other meats. I do, however, make sure I get the nutrition I need from everything else I’m eating. It’s easy when there are a mind-boggling amount of vegetarian recipes out there that use a huge variety of food. Don’t believe me? Hit up Google.
I understand if just up and dropping the bacon is unthinkable to you. And that’s okay! We can compromise. Heard of No Meat Monday? Or how about the folks that are weekday vegetarians and weekend carnivores? The point is to change the way you’re thinking about your meals, to understand that not every single one of them has to come with some form of meat to be complete.