Get started on the road to a smaller food budget

Food Savings for Beginners

by Amy Burns

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A basic tenet of frugal living is that there is a lot of wiggle room in the family food budget. Yet there is also no expenditure area that has such a deep daily impact on our loved ones. Food is a huge part of family life. The shopping, the preparations, and even the reservations are all part of the love.

So, how do you save money without messing up the love? It can be intimidating for the beginning frugal shopper to change the way food is bought and/or prepared. Here are some beginner tips to cut the costs without becoming overwhelmed by bulk buying, visiting multiple stores, and price books. Those important skills can come later if you want or need to learn them.

I used these basic ideas when I first started my journey to thriftiness four years ago. I started gathering frugal tips from the usual sources on the Internet (especially The Dollar Stretcher!). However, I wasn't yet ready to completely revamp our food habits. Instead, over the course of about six months, I incorporated these ideas into my shopping and cut fifty percent from our food budget. Now, three years later, I generally spend less than $300 monthly on food for our family of four.

What I learned is that using one or all of these tips can make an immediate impact on your food budget. Most people don't become truly frugal overnight! It's better to master one tip at a time then to struggle with all six. If you have the luxury of a little time, you can evolve in to the frugal family you want to be.

  1. Planning: Weekly or biweekly, plan a list of menus and write a shopping list after checking your fridge/cupboards and your favorite grocery store's sale flyer. Meal planning is key. It will simplify your life and cut your costs. I usually make a biweekly shopping list because more shopping equals more opportunity to overspend.

  2. Flexibility: The general frugal advice (and it is correct) is that you need to cook at home to save the big bucks. However, the planning system will also work if you aren't entirely ready to live without convenience foods and restaurant meals. Take advantage of sales on frozen or prepared items. Note restaurant specials and clip fast food coupons from the weekly junk mail. Just incorporate the restaurant meals or convenience foods into your meal plan. The point is to save money no matter how and where you choose to eat.

  3. Fallback Position: If the above advice makes you cringe, promise yourself you will at least buy your meat on sale, because that alone will save you some major dough. If you are a vegetarian, figure out whatever costs you the most and shop the sales on those items.

  4. Simplicity: Don't make yourself crazy culling through cookbooks for elaborate everyday meals unless you enjoy it. Be simple and observant. Most families like ten or twelve "must have" meals, such as pancakes or casseroles. These are usually inexpensive to make. Complicated meals mean purchasing exotic, expensive ingredients.

  5. Freezing: Freezing things ahead is a really good idea. Try making a double portion of lasagna or some other casserole and freezing part of it. Even if you only do it once, it will save you some money because you won't be running to Applebee's for that $40 dinner.

  6. Kids: Don't assume your kids need special foods (except for small babies). Let them try your food, cut into appropriate sizes, from a very young age. I personally know people who spend a small fortune on Lunchables for their kids because they have become convinced that their children will eat nothing else. If you feel this way, get the Lunchables on sale for a while. However, kids will eat what you eat if no other choices are presented, and that will save you money.

These six tips will gradually get you on the road to a smaller food budget. Once you have mastered the basics, explore price books, bulk buying, and freezing ahead if you wish. Your family will still feel the love and so will your checkbook.

Amy Burns is a stay-at-home mother of two young children. Having recently survived a move from the Southwest to the much more expensive Windy City, she is enjoying applying frugal living techniques in a new environment.

Take the Next Step:

  • Choose one or two of these frugal tips and apply them this week
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