The number one thing that people balk at when Mr. Countdown and I talk about budgets is our food budget. We loosened up our belts this year and have a $300 per month food budget for the four of us (2 adults and 2 elementary school kids). Last year we had a budget of $250 per month and regularly stayed at around $200 per month. How is this possible? Well, we’ve had more than a few years of practice. Today, I thought I’d share with you some insights as to how we do this and where you can look to trim your budget.
First things first: I can already hear the chorus of “Lucky for you! Try to do this in X City where I live!” Yeah, I understand that where we live, we can get certain foods cheaper than in other parts of the country, but I also know that we have to pay for a lot for other types of food. Potatoes? Yeah, they’re cheap. The joys of living in the West where there’s a state that has license plates dedicated to baked potatoes. Seafood? Not so much. It’s a special treat. We cook mostly with the cheaper ingredients and use the more expensive stuff sparingly. The point is you need to figure out what those things are in your area and work around them.
Cook at Home
This is the key to the food budget. You have more control over costs if you do it yourself. With YouTube and Google, there’s no reason why you can’t cook. I wasn’t born with a special powers of knowing how to cook, and my mother was/is an awful cook. I am self taught…or internet taught, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes (and terrible tasting dishes) along the way. True story: the first time I used a gas stove, I set the kitchen on fire and cowered in fear in the corner while trying to figure out what to do about those flames shooting out of my pan and up my cabinet.
As with most things, you get better at cooking the more you do it, and you also learn how to make it cheaper and how to sub certain ingredients that might be expensive or that you might not have on hand. With time you’ll also find a cookbook or blog that is your style of cooking. If you look through our meal plans, you will see most of our recipes come from the same blog, Budget Bytes. Her style of cooking matched mine, and I found it easy (and tasty) to follow her recipes. Following her blog gave me confidence to experiment and come up with tweaks and recipes of my own.
Eat Real Food
I’m not talking about going vegan, organic, paleo, etc. I’m talking about not buying things packaged as meals or “complete” or ready to serve. First off, it’s generally healthier and tastier. I promise that a homemade stew or soup is going to be a helluva lot cheaper and better tasting than a can of campbell’s. Second, you are paying a price for convenience with canned/boxed food. Type in whatever boxed food you like and the words “home made” into pinterest, and you will find someone that has already deduced how to make said food at home. Also, stop paying a machine to do your work; use your muscles and cut up your own dang veggies or shred your own dang cheese.
I admit it: leftovers used to terrify me when I was a young adult. To get over this fear, I would hold my breath and crack open the corner of a leftover container (being careful not to lay eyes on the contents), throw (literally) said container in the microwave, waft my hands around to clear the air of any possible cold leftovers smell, and then start the microwave. Only once it had cooked for a few minutes could I open up the container and stir everything up and see and smell what I was about to eat.
Why did I do this? Because leftovers are gold in your food budget! They are even a double whammy because it means that you don’t have to spend time making another meal. If you get bored eating the same thing, you also don’t have to eat leftovers the same way. You can re-purpose them into a new meal. Make last night’s pot roast a sandwich today. Put your fajita filling over lettuce or rice. A lot of things freeze beautifully as well. Throw your leftovers in serving size containers in your freezer and pull them out in a week or so, when you’re looking for something quick. Usually when someone complains that cooking at home is more expensive than eating out, I find that they don’t eat the leftover food from their meals and they don’t use the leftover ingredients from one recipe in another recipe.
No Food Waste
Everything get used up. Potato peels, onion ends, carrot butts, and the leafy part of celery get thrown in a pot with a chicken carcass and turned into stock. Too ripe bananas get turned into baked oatmeal or smoothies. Leftover rice or meat gets thrown into the freezer to be re-purposed into another meal. Bread heels get turned into breadcrumbs or used in meatballs. Things that can’t be eaten in time go in the freezer as well.
Expiration dates are also viewed as guidelines. We try to eat everything before it goes “bad” but sometimes things happen. Eatbydate.com is a great resource for finding out what can and can’t be used after the date on the package and for how long. We haven’t died or gotten sick yet. Just be smart.
Live by the Sales
My meal plans are based on three things in this order: what’s in my pantry, what’s on sale, what sounds good. If pork’s a great deal, a lot of our dishes will incorporate it that week, or I’ll buy some to stash in the freezer for next week. The fruit and veggies we eat for the week are largely determined by what’s on sale. If there’s nothing really great on sale, I try to keep it simple and eat more from our freezer and pantry or choose meals that use staples that are always cheap (I’m looking at you beans, rice, and pasta).
This also means perusing the clearance aisle. Usually thing are there because they are discontinued, the packaging has changed, or they are close to their expiration date (close meaning anywhere from a day to a few months). I get so giddy when I find something on my shopping list or an everyday item on the clearance shelf. Sometimes though, the clearance aisle does not equate to a good deal. It’s a good idea to have a feel for what things normally cost and how much they cost on sale.
Some deals are just way to good to pass up, and I sacrifice things in my food budget to get them. I came across boneless, skinless chicken thighs for 59 cents a pound about 18 months ago. I bought as much as I could possibly fit in my freezer…about 60 pounds. It was a real challenge getting things out of the freezer for a while. Those lasted us about a year because we didn’t eat chicken thighs every single day. I had them stashed away in my freezer and used them when needed. I also subbed them into recipes and gave us some variety on weeks where chicken wasn’t on sale.
Stockpiling foods that go on sale is a great way to help your food budget. The concept is simple: buy things when they are on sale, so you don’t have to buy them when they are full price. It doesn’t work for everything, but it’s great for things like canned tomatoes, baking needs, toiletries, and meat. Stockpiling can get out of hand. Take a look at some of those extreme couponing shows if you don’t believe me. My rule is that if I come across something great, I buy as much as I can afford, store, AND eat before it goes bad.
What's Missing: Coupons and a Garden
A lot of people advocate for couponing and growing your own garden to save money on your food bill, and I agree wholeheartedly. I just suck at both. I am a lazy couponer. Some of it is a time issue, but we also don’t get the newspaper. I do follow a website for our local Kroger store that shares great deals, and if it involves digital coupons, I’m all over it. Most of the time though, if I’ve used a coupon, it’s just because I happened upon it.
Gardening is something that Mr. Countdown and I have been trying to do for the last 3 years with moderate success. This year at the new house was awful thanks to a very large tree that shades our entire backyard. Everyone is shocked when I tell them that I have yet to successfully grow a single zucchini. We did get a few tomatoes, a couple dozen jalapenos, and the smallest carrots ever this year. We’re coming up on our second summer in this house. We’re going to move the garden over a bit to try and capture some more sun and hope for better success this year.
I’m going to start doing a monthly recap of food we bought and ate. I hope that it helps someone understand my process of meal planning and budgeting and in turn helps them lower their grocery budget. January’s is up and can be found here. For now, best of luck on your food budget slashing!