When my husband and I first met, enjoying great food was one way we immediately connected. We cooked each other new recipes, ate out often, entertained friends with fancy meals, and regularly splurged on tasty craft beers and wines. Add a large dog and two growing boys to the mix, and it’s no surprise our food and dining bill regularly exceeded $1,500 a month.
Part of me is embarrassed to put that number in writing, but as I look back at our spending trends in Mint.com, it was a regular occurrence.
What changed? We got serious about budgeting and organizing. Once we did, we cut our food bill in half from $1,500/month to $750/month.
How did we do it? Here are five big changes that worked for our family.
1. We Gradually Reduced Our Budget
Going from a $1,500/month budget to a $750/month budget can seem daunting. To make it more attainable, we reduced our budget over a couple of months.
The first month we reduced our budget from $1,500/month to $1,000/month. Then the next month, we reduced it from $1,000/month to $750/month.
This gave us time to figure out what worked for our family and to make changes more slowly. We also allowed ourselves to keep a few things we really loved – like eating Paleo (ish), enjoying wine or beer with dinner (that we find on sale), and budgeting for one or two meals out.
Side note – It might be helpful to note what our food budget includes. To make it simple, we include all food, beverages, and items we purchase at a grocery store including dog food, cleaners, laundry soap, toilet paper, etc.
2. We Don’t Go Out to Eat Regularly
Once we had kids, we naturally stopped going to the fancy, sit-down restaurants, but we were frequently blowing our food budget at sporting events, coffee shops, fast food joints, and casual family restaurants.
We knew this was an easy place to save money.
Pretty much cold turkey, we stopped going out to eat regularly… unless we were really in a bind (hangry kids!) or unless is was a planned family outing (brewery to play cards!).
With kids and a busy schedule, this is hard. Here are a few tips:
- Always (always!) pack snacks or a lunch to go. Pack what you think your family will eat. Then pack more.
- Pack lunches for all family members the night before.
- Bring a to-go coffee (or your beverage of you choice) to avoid those tempting mid-morning Starbucks runs.
- Keep snacks in your purse, car, or diaper bag – just in case you forget to pack something.
- Offer to entertain guests at home with a potluck versus going out.
- Don’t reward kids with fast food for good behavior.
- Eat a large meal at home before going to a sporting or community event.
- Budget one or two times to eat out, especially if that is a family activity you really enjoy together. Then, choose budget-friendly options. We go to our favorite local brewery where you can bring your own food.
3. We Menu Plan (and Shop) for the Month
Menu planning and shopping for the month really helped us reduce our grocery bill. Why? I tend to be an impulse buyer, especially when I am shopping hungry or with kids. Fewer trips to the store means fewer extra purchases – which can really add up. Also, buying in bulk saves money and there is less food waste when the menu is coordinated monthly.
I am not going to lie – this is a big project! It takes time to organize and shop at the beginning of the month, but it saves us so much time and money over the course of the month!
Here’s a quick summary on how we do it:
- Inventory your pantry and freezer.
- Brainstorm recipes – starting with the ingredients you have first. I love to use Pinterest or recipe websites for ideas. I also like to ask family members what they liked and didn’t like from last month.
- On a calendar (I use a google spreadsheet), add important dates or events that will impact meals on that day. Then, add a dinner for each day. I just plan out dinners for the month as our breakfasts and lunches are similar each day.
- Once you fill out the calendar, write your shopping list for each menu item. Don’t forget to add breakfast, lunch, and snack items.
- Shop (I usually shop 2-4 stores to get the best deals).
- Organize and process/prep the food for longest shelf-life.
This process usually takes me 3-5 hours at the start of the month, but then the bulk of the work is done for the month!
(Can we really make it the whole month without shopping again!? No. We do 2-3 more trips during the month for eggs, milk, and produce… mostly because our fridge space is limited.)
4. We Make Freezer Meals (and Buy a Few, Too)
One way to make menu planning for the month easier is to make freezer meals. I either put all of the ingredients in a freezer bag for a quick slow cooker or pressure cooker meal, or I make double the recipe and freeze the leftovers.
These are an easy dinner option for the end of the month, or for busy week nights. And, they are a great way to make fresh produce and meat last through the month.
I also buy a few pizzas on sale to keep in the freezer for the kids.
5. We Make the Basics from Scratch & Have a Small Garden
Bread, tortillas, and pizza dough are easy to make from scratch! While Mr. Saver and I eat (mostly) Paleo, our kids love the carbs. Instead of buying these items, we always have a large bag of flour and yeast on hand to make these basics.
We also have a small vegetable garden which helps with the produce bill in the summer.
Growing some of our own vegetables and making basics from scratch help our overall budget, and are both fun activities to do with the kids.
What About Coupons? Where Do You Shop?
Coupons are another great way to save on grocery and food bills. That being said, I have not become an avid coupon-clipper. Is it just me, or are most coupons for processed foods? We try to eat mostly non-processed foods (or make our own), so I haven’t found coupon clipping to be as fruitful. (Though, I’d love to hear if you’ve had success clipping coupons on a paleo/clean eating diet.)
Instead of coupon clipping, I keep track of prices at each major grocery store near our house (Costco, Fred Meyer, Winco, Trader Joes, Grocery Outlet, and Safeway). After each big trip, I enter the prices in a spreadsheet so I can compare prices and plan future shopping trips. I also look through store ads around menu planning time to see what is on sale.
That’s it! What Tips or Questions Do You Have?
Leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.