Obviously, this isn’t an approach that works for everyone. But I cut our food expenditures from $500+ a month to an average of $164 a month. For two people. For every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day.
When my now-husband and I got engaged, we realized quickly that we were going to end up footing most of the bill for the wedding ourselves. Fortunately, we didn’t want a big, fancy affair, but we still needed to save up a few thousand dollars, stat. Complicating matters were our massive joint debt load. So I combined our finances and slashed spending to the bone. It was tough, but we were able to save the entire amount in five months and pay for the entire wedding in cash. (A shade over $10,000, and that included the rings, photography, and cross-country airfare.)
During that time, we had no life. We didn’t go out, didn’t buy anything, dropped our cable plan, and put everything on power strips that we then kept turned off whenever possible. (Cutting our electric bill from $70-something a month to $20-something a month.) It’s not as draconian as it sounds—we went to the beach a lot (free), walked to the library every week (free), and watched a lot of Netflix movies. It also means we didn’t buy groceries.
Fortunately, I cook. More fortunately, I had a very well-stocked pantry prior to The Saving Time. So until we got married, we ate solely out of the pantry. By the time we left for the wedding, I was sick to death of soup, and our pantry was almost completely bare. I think there may have been a tube of anchovy paste and some pickles left. (Let’s not even talk about the depleted state of the liquor cabinet.) But we ate well for those months, and we didn’t spend a dime on food or alcohol.
So when we returned, I decided to follow that template again. We had some money left over after the wedding, which I used to completely restock the pantry and liquor cabinet, in preparation for another three-month run. Here’s how to do it.
1. Shop in bulk wherever possible. I buy whatever I can at Sam’s Club and only then go to the grocery store.
2. Forget soda, convenience foods, frozen dinners, and brand-name loyalty. The plan worked because I cooked from scratch, with an eye toward using up leftovers and some sense of variety, in that order. We ate a lot of soup, a lot of variations on beans and rice, and a lot of pasta. But we also ate fresh-baked whole-grain bread, roasted beet pizza, butternut squash stuffed with Italian sausage and wild rice, and black bean and spinach enchiladas with cilantro pesto. I cooked enough so that every dinner yielded four portions, dinner plus lunch for the both of us the next day. I don’t buy canned soups or vegetables (other than tomatoes), bread or pancake mixes, breakfast cereals, soda, or anything processed. Basically, don't buy things in packages.
3. Join a CSA. We get a big box of fresh fruits and vegetables every two weeks, year-round (living in California is great for that). It costs $177 for six boxes (12 weeks), prepaid. Meaning our three-month supply of fresh fruits and vegetables is done, right there, with a new influx of fruits and vegetables every other Sunday. I don’t buy anything else—not bananas or grapes or whatever. I eat only what comes in the box. (Although I do buy onions, garlic and potatoes in bulk, as I consider those more cooking essentials than “vegetables.”)
4. Become one with your freezer. Because I only use milk for cooking (our breakfast is usually steel-cut oatmeal or homemade muffins, no breakfast cereal), I buy a half-gallon and freeze it in small amounts, taking only what I’ll need out of the freezer. Same for butter, cheese, and meat in bulk. I can buy a three-month supply of parmesan cheese, freeze what I don’t need immediately, and shred only small amounts at a time. You can freeze bread, cheese, milk, buttermilk, vegetable scraps for broth making (see $6), chopped fruits and vegetables that are about to turn, the list goes on and on.
5. I grow my own herbs.
6. I make my own vegetable stock from vegetable scraps. Occasionally I’ll roast a whole chicken; the scraps from that become chicken stock. What I’m not using immediately goes right into the freezer. A never-ending supply of free homemade broth = a never-ending supply of delicious homemade soup.
7. I use meat more as flavoring and less as the centerpiece of a meal. The traditional “meat plus sides” meal format is expensive and fattening. Usually I make one thing for dinner, and we both eat that one thing until we’re full. Risotto, spaghetti, salad, pizza, whatever. One thing.
Like I said, it’s not for everyone. But we eat very well, and we have completely eliminated the need for a second car. If we don’t need to run errands all the time, we can use our one car exclusively for commuting and then relax on the weekends. No fear of impulse shopping, or walking into the grocery store to pick up one thing and coming out with 12. Because I either have to make do with what I have or do without, my recipes have become a lot more inventive and a lot more versatile. (Out of parsley? Can’t run down to the store to get more…what can I use instead?)
I don't spend all my time in the kitchen, either. I spend an average of 30 minutes a night preparing dinner, and maybe an hour a day on the weekends to prepare breakfasts, bread, prep dried beans, cook in bulk, that sort of thing. Menu planning is much more precise than it used to be, but I also don’t have to worry about tracking sales or clipping coupons.
Bonus points: we’ve both lost weight (especially him, since he quit drinking soda and going out to lunch with his coworkers every day) and we’re walking a lot more.
Best of all, we can spend that money on other more important things (savings account; debt repayment; new car).