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When I graduated from college, got my first full-time job and made my first big-kid budget (I’ve always been a nerd, for sure), I assumed I’d spend $200 every month on groceries.
I had no context for what it’d cost me to live — let alone feed myself.
“Help me, I don’t know how to adult.”
Six years later, and I have a more refined approach to budgeting for food. And I spend nowhere near $200 each month on groceries.
Spoiler: I don’t use coupons. And I don’t plan my grocery shopping trips based on weekly ads or sales.
These little money-saving hacks could make a big difference if you’re shopping for a whole family or you’re really watching every penny, but I just have myself to feed each week.
I’ve been able to save hundreds on food over the last six years by creating some solid shopping and dining habits, which allow me to take great care of my health, have a social life to be able to eat out with friends for up to $60 each month, as well as live within a reasonable grocery budget of $100-$135 each month.
- I learned to cook at home.
- I eat out at restaurants only a handful of times each month.
- I plan ahead, using simple meal planning.
- I know what I have, buy what I need and sometimes treat myself.
- I shop smart.
Now first, back to what I don’t do to save money on food.
I don’t use coupons for food, because coupons often lead you to spend money on food or items that weren’t on your shopping list — so that’s a waste of money, since you didn’t need that food or item to begin with.
Also, I don’t plan my grocery shopping trips based on weekly ads or sales. Instead, when I make my weekly shopping trip, I go to the same few grocery stores — usually no-frills stores. However, I know that when I step into HyVee or Trader Joe’s, I’m paying a little bit more, since they provide a more premium experience (*hearty laugh* I don’t go to Whole Foods ever). So when I don’t have time to run to my usual no-frills places, I consider the cost difference of running into these stores as the price of convenience — or going out of my way to get my favorite Trader Joe’s coffee, of course.
Save Money By Cooking at Home
The game changer for me was when I did the Whole30 Challenge in the spring of 2013. Since then, I’ve become significantly more purposeful with my time and money regarding food. Whole30 is a paleo diet: no breads, no artificial sugars, no dairy, yada yada yada. I did it to see if I could handle that kind of self-control — turns out, I can survive without ice cream for 30 days!
I walked away with a ton of benefits from my Whole30 experience. Following strict dietary limitations requires you be very proactive with meal planning and cooking your own meals. (Some people have to do this anyway, because of food allergies — bless them!)
It’s a three-way tie between what what most beneficial from my Whole30 experience:
- Learning to cook
- Learning to plan ahead
- Eating delicious, healthy home-cooked meals
I've curated a way of going about things involving food that look significantly different than pre-Whole30-Allea. It has evolved over time, but I'm happy to share the many ways I save on food! Once you start implementing some of these things, you'll feel even more in control of your budget (and perhaps your health as well).
Let's get started, shall we? First up...
01 | Learn to Cook
Learning to cook was a game-changer. At the ripe age of 22, I had no idea how to fry an egg or make a pancake. I actually called my dad, all, “What the crap, Dad, why didn’t you teach me this?” And — mimicking my sass — he replied kindly, “You just weren’t paying attention, Allison.”
But as I learned to cook, I figured out what kinds of spices exist, what kinds of dishes I like, how to simplify my shopping list and which ingredients to keep in my pantry at all times.
It took practice: trying new recipes, YouTube-ing things and calling my mom and dad when I didn’t know when something meant (it takes a village, even when your kid is an adult...).
02 | Plan Your Meals Each Week
I plan one or two meals each week. That’s it.
Then again, I’m a single gal who also considers cereal a meal when she’s too lazy to make anything on a Thursday night.
I pick one or two meals, take a look at what I already have in my cabinets and then make a list of the ingredients I need to buy in an app (I use Wunderlist because it syncs from my desktop to my phone), then I run to the grocery store.
It’s super important to check your pantry and fridge before you go shopping. One way to save a ton on food is by not wasting or forgetting about the food you already have.
As a rule, when I first started meal planning (heck, I do this now), I only pick recipes that have at most two ingredients I’ve never heard of. I was that girl googling “shallots” while at the store to know what they even look like. So hear me: That’s normal! No one knows what a shallot is unless someone tells them.
Extra frugal tip: Skip buying any ingredients or toppings suggested by a recipe, if you think you can do without. (Uh, I never buy cilantro. *gasp*)
03 | Eat or Freeze Leftovers
The upside of meal planning is that you know you’ll be having home-cooked meals throughout the week, because a whole recipe will last you multiple meals. You have to be cool with leftovers for this to work. Being okay with leftovers will save you so much money, so I encourage getting on board.
For instance, I know that a half-batch of enchiladas will last me four meals: Monday lunch, Tuesday dinner, Wednesday lunch, Wednesday dinner.
That’s right, I eat enchiladas for three days in a row. But they’re delicious, easy to heat up in the microwave and I’m all about that.
When I make enchiladas, I make two batches of 5 enchiladas each, instead of one big 10-enchilada batch. Why? Because SIX days of enchiladas is too much for anyone, even me. So I prep two smaller casserole dishes of enchiladas and bake one in the oven, while I freeze the other one to defrost and bake at a later time.
04 | Get a CrockPot
The slow cooker is my favorite tool in the kitchen, by far.
I like soups. Most recipes are very healthy, many freeze well — and let’s be honest, winter lasts pretty much six months in Nebraska, so warm soup is always a good idea.
A 6-quart slow cooker will be plenty big enough for most of what you’ll use it for. You place the ingredients in the base and let it cook for anywhere from 3-8 hours. It’s great to use for overnight cooking, while you’re at work, cleaning the house or running errands.
Pro tip: Even the night before you want to cook things up, put all the ingredients into the crock pot and store it in the fridge. That way, the next morning, it’s already assembled and good to go. You can set the crock pot full of ingredients in the slow cooker base and turn it on — voilà!
If you don’t already have a slow cooker, this is the one I have and I highly recommend* it:
*This an affiliate link, so I would get a small commission if you purchase using one of these links. Since I don’t advertise on my site, this is a way for me to fund the expenses to run Ask Allea. More on that here.
05 | Keep Quick Meals on Hand
Know what saves me between my carefully-planned meals? Keeping old favorites on hand.
So if you need something quick, or you’re maxed out on your grocery budget for the month, or you don’t have time to run to the store, I recommend having a few classics in your pantry that are ready-to-go at any time.
My go-to pantry meals:
- Canned soup: tomato, vegetable, chicken noodle
- Tuna with mayo (and chunks of pickle, if you’re into that) with crackers
- Quesadillas: white tortillas, black beans and shredded cheese
- Eggs & toast
- Ramen (I’m still a 20-something after all)
- Kraft mac & cheese (I’m also a 5-year-old)
- Chicken alfredo: canned alfredo sauce, pasta (even better if you get this yummy veggie pasta from Target)
I don’t rely heavily on these go-to meals, since they aren’t necessarily the healthiest — usually high in sodium — but they’re good to have on hand because they’re easy to whip up. So when you’re avoiding the McDonalds drive-thru, you can substitute that greasy McChicken with something at least slightly healthier that you already have at home.
06 | Pack Your Lunch for Work
I’m that girl, friends. I pack my lunch for work every day, unless I’ve made plans to go out for lunch with someone.
I work where there’s a fridge and a microwave, so I can bring with me just about anything: soup, leftovers, cold cut sandwiches, fruit and veggies and whatnot.
By packing my meals, even if a five-serving enchilada dish cost me $8 to make at home, plus any sides of fruit and veggies to round it out, that’s comes out to $2 per meal. What restaurant will serve you a healthy, warm, delicious meal for $2 total?
I work near our downtown in Lincoln, Nebraska, and when one of my best friends worked downtown as well, we’d both pack our lunch and often eat in the outdoor area at our local library or on the grounds of the local art museum. Another friend and I would go to a nearby park and picnic on nice days!
If we were going out to a restaurant each eat time we wanted to meet up, that would have really put a toll on our wallets. Instead, by packing our lunches, we got met up sometimes more than once a week and saved money in the long run!
By packing your lunch during the work week, you can avoid waiting in lines at restaurants, tipping a waiter or spending hundreds of dollars each month on eating out. Yes, it requires a bit of prep work and remembering to pack your lunch bag before you head out of the door — but if you’re planning your meals in advance each week, you’re on your way.
I have a lunch bag that I love. (The cute blue one above totally got stolen out of my car the very.next.day. Day ruiner.). The one I have is no longer available, but it's proof that lunch bags don't have to be ugly :)
My new lunch bag fits wide tupperware containers that I use for salads, while it’s also tall enough to hold a water bottle. Plus it has a zipper across the top and pockets on the sides.
If you're looking for a lunch bag, here are a few not-so-lunch-bag-looking options:
My Favorite Recipes
I rotate the same recipes over and over, just to make it easier for me to meal plan (aka, avoiding decision fatigue). Plus they are delicious, healthy and I don't mind that I've eaten the same kale & quinoa soup for the last three or four winters. It's so good!
(And praise the Lord for food bloggers, right?! Praise.)
These are some of my favorite go-to recipes.
Slow Cooker Chicken Enchilada Soup — 100% amazing fresh or after it's frozen.
Slow Cooker Quinoa, Chicken and Kale Soup — 100% amazing fresh or after it's frozen.
White Chicken Chili — This is my friend Olivia's site! Very food-allergy-friendly.
Easy Oven Fajitas — These I don't freeze — probably wouldn't turn out great.
Maple Sweet Potato Hash — Kristin essentially taught me how to cook. She was the food blogger who was there for me when I got started.
Superfood Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette — A great summer dish that requires no reheating, so great for picnics!
For more links to helpful articles and ways to save money, you can follow me on Pinterest.
07 | Save Money By Not Eating Out (as Much)
I don’t get to be the cool kid by telling you that eating out is probably ruining your budget. I get no fun from that. But is it true for you?
Ever since I did the Whole30 Challenge in 2013, I really only eat out with people now. It’s a little rule I created to limit myself from running through the drive through on my way home. I realized that I only have to feed myself — no kids, no husband — so even if I only have soup and crackers at home, that’s a fine supper for me. I can save money and eat healthier by going home instead.
By making a little adjustment to when you “allow” yourself to eat out, this could not only help your budget, create healthier habits. (I’ve maybe eaten at Taco Bell three times in my life? I’m not even sure. Runza, on the other hand…)
But I do eat out! I make lunch dates, go out with my friend group for sushi after church, the works. And when I do eat out, I’ve created some habits there too:
- I might just get the sandwich and not the whole meal.
- I always order water instead of a pop. And rarely I order a beer.
- I go to certain places only during happy hours (um, sushi is otherwise crazy expensive).
In many cases, fancy-pants restaurants have much more cost-effective lunch menus. This is a great way to get the experience of "going out" but saving on the premium price tag that comes with the evening restaurant-going crowd.
The experience of time with friends is when I consider it very worth spending that $12 to get slow time with them, eat a delicious burger and let someone else do the dishes :)
Frugal Grocery Shopping
08 | Know Your Money-Saving Stores
It took me years to realize that it’s not cost-effective to shop for groceries at Target. They up-charge fruits and veggies, when you really could get them next door or down the street at an actual grocery store for way less.
Target is great for grabbing one or two things while you’re there, if you’d like to save some time (and energy, let’s be honest), but I’d be wary of making Target your go-to grocery source.
I’ve gotten used to shopping at “no-frills” grocery stories like SuperSaver and ALDI. Both feel a little like warehouses, but that’s where you’re saving your money. I prefer to shop at ALDI first, because it’s quick, cheap and there aren’t too many options to overwhelm me. Then I’ll stop at SuperSaver if I need any ethnic foods — they have so many hard-to-find ingredients — and usually because ALDI doesn’t always have what I need, since their inventory rotates occasionally.
I recently heard ALDI referred to as “Costco for single people” and I’ve never heard anything more true in my life.
I can get a bundle of six onions at ALDI and that’s perfect for me; it’s more cost-effective than buying one onion at a time for my meals, but not too many that they’ll go bad before I can use them all.
Also, I can be in and out of ALDI in 25 minutes. (I timed it today when I went, actually.)
09 | Go Store Brand
Store brand items are often times the same quality and taste as name-brand foods, so you can save a lot by going with the off-brand option. (I draw the line with certain foods though, like coffee and tomato soup.)
Did you know that most people buy name brand cereal at $3+ per box? At the rate that I eat cereal, that’s not a good option for me at all!
So I’ve been buying the same off-brand cereal for at least the last three years. I usually got it at SuperSaver, but I’ve recently tried the off-brand version at ALDI and it’s just as good. Now I have two places where I can get my favorite cereal for super cheap — usually less than $2 per box.
I also go with the same cereal each visit so I literally don’t have to think through the options and pick what I want. I keep it simple by getting the same cereal, every week, for years now.
Pro tip: You'll need a quarter to "check out" a cart at ALDI. You get the quarter back, after you return the cart to the building. You'll also want to bring re-usable bags, because they don't give you any. NO FRILLS, man. None.
10 | Learn What it Costs
As you get more familiar with grocery shopping, you’ll begin to know what items usually cost. It takes practice, but you’ll get there.
Like, I know not to buy Cheez-Its for more than $2.50 a box. If I can get Triscuits for less than $2 a box, I’m all in. I'll buy two.
In many cases, grocery stores will sell you an item for a higher price because they offer a convenience with it. That’s something to look out for and weigh if it’s worth it.
For example, pre-chopped kale in a bag at ALDI is $3.50. A full head of kale at SuperSaver is $1.50. If I’m already going to be prepping my soup at home, I don’t mind saving $2 and cutting up the kale myself.
11 | Try Cash Only
For six months one year, I went cash only to help me keep my spending under control as I paid off debt. I would have a paper clip holding $35 in cash each week, which was my budget for that week’s grocery store trips. Anything left over would roll over into the next week’s allowance for food.
I suggest giving this a try. By having a limit on what you’re allowing yourself to spend, you’re more aware of what each item in your shopping cart costs. You’re more likely to put away some luxuries or things that weren’t on your shopping list to begin with.
BONUS | Treat Yo’self Sometimes
I rarely buy treats for myself. Sure, I have the impulse purchases of every peanut-butter-m&m-loving person, but I don’t make it a habit.
I don’t "make sure" to have treats at my house. Once in a while, I buy a bag of tortilla chips or dark chocolate almonds with sea salt from Trader Joe’s. Instead of it being an all-the-time thing, it’s more special when I get them every now and then — delayed gratification, my friend.
As a “rule,” I try and keep one type of snack at my house at a time. If it’s Cheez-Its, then I’m only eating Cheez-Its for so long before I get tired of them and switch to something healthier, like carrots or yogurt.
Rules on Food
There are no rules on what food you should or should not buy. I love food, but I also know that it’s largely a necessity to keep me healthy and alive, so I’m pretty cut-and-dry about having a plan in place to make sure I can keep being healthy and alive.
I like flavorful food and love eating out with friends, but I know that the cost of food is something that could get out of control if I don’t have some good habits in place. By making tweaks to my lifestyle, I’m able to save money in ways that I don’t even realize are pretty frugal. I’m entirely used to it now!