I’m a Financial Expert and These Are the 5 Ways I Save Money on Groceries

published Sep 7, 2021
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Credit: Diana Liang

Optimizing your finances is all about knowing where to direct your energy. If you’re spending $500 a month on groceries, but you’ve got a $3,000 rent payment and a $1,000 car payment, food likely isn’t the trouble spot where you’ll get the most bang for your metaphoric buck. That said, food is the one area that I see fluctuate most wildly for people, and it’s the one area where nearly everyone underestimates their own spending.

If you’re struggling to get your grocery budget under control (and I’m guessing you are because you’ve clicked on this article!), I can help. I’m Katie behind Millennial Money with Katie, and I have a few tips that can help anyone save money on groceries. I follow all of these tips and think you should give them a try too!

1. Figure out how much you actually spend on food each month.

This one feels super obvious, but after examining hundreds of budgets over three years, I’ve learned that most people don’t really know. They might have a guess (that’s often way off-base) or no idea at all.

How to figure it out? For the next 30 or 60 days, manually record your food spending in two columns: Groceries and Dining Out (takeout and Uber Eats get included in dining out). Get intimately familiar with where your money is going. 

Proof that this is effective: When I was in college, my parents gave me free rein with a debit card for the first few weeks, so that I could get acclimated without worrying about money. What followed can only be described as a Jimmy Johns-fueled bonanza. When I went home after one month, my mom sat me down and slid a piece of printer paper across the table at me. In neat, penciled rows, she had written down a series of numbers. There had to be 150 entries. She had totaled it at the bottom: $758. I had blown $758 at restaurants in a month? How?

The point: Even those of us with good intentions have a tendency to overspend when we aren’t tracking. Using these columns will also help you identify whether “groceries” are your issue, or if you’re just overspending on dining out. Believe it or not, most of the people I work with spend just fine on groceries. The issue is that they don’t eat those groceries and, instead, overspend on takeout.

2. Find a store that enables you to shop with an app and schedule pickup.

Ever since the pandemic, most grocery stores allow for free curbside pickup. And I highly recommend using an app to do your shopping. (For what it’s worth, I live in the Rocky Mountain region and really like the King Soopers app by Kroger.) I bet you’ll be shocked by how much less you spend when you don’t even enter the store.

I stumbled upon this hack by accident. Short on time one day, I decided to buy my groceries and schedule an after-work pickup. I was used to spending $50, $60, sometimes $70 on groceries for myself for the week (which isn’t bad!), but I noticed when I bought online ahead of time, my bill was closer to $35 — because I was able to completely avoid impulse buys and I could compare prices far more easily. 

Shopping through an app basically extends the “stick to your list!” advice and makes it frictionless. When you’re wandering around your neighborhood grocery store, it’s way too easy to get browse-happy and throw things in your cart that you weren’t planning on buying. That’s fine from time to time, but making your list ahead of time and ordering everything online narrows your focus to the things you actually need. 

Plus, most apps have digital coupons readily available at the click of a button, so you’ll often be able to save that way, too.

Credit: Christine Han/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

3. Splurge on a few items to make sure you actually eat at home.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone grocery shopping on Sunday, but then found yourself way too tired to cook by Tuesday? So you end up going out and the arugula wilts in your fridge? Yeah, it happens.

Half the time, the issue with overspending on groceries isn’t that what you bought was too expensive or unnecessary: It was that you shopped with too pure of intentions and ignored the fact that real life has a way of swiftly kicking you in the behind by midweek. 

To make sure that I actually eat the food I buy — instead of abandoning it in favor of Five Guys — I buy a few things that are probably a little too costly, but that make me excited to eat at home. 

For example, I buy fancy candied walnuts and pecans to top my salads and crumbled goat cheese. That’s $10 in salad toppings. But it ensures I actually eat the salad instead of bailing at the sight of boring shredded cheddar. I’ll also buy a $15 bottle of rosé to pair with a fish dish, because it makes me excited to make the meal and reward myself with a glass or two while I’m cooking.

Speaking of fish, I like the wild-caught Pacific cod from Kroger/King Soopers (and no, this post isn’t sponsored, but I wish it were!). I buy it frozen in the “family size” bag, and it’s usually about $12 for 32 ounces of fish. I thaw the fish in the fridge the day before I intend to cook it, then sprinkle salt, pepper, and paprika on the fillet (I’ll usually make two at once so I can have one for lunch the next day). Then I sauté it in butter, lemon, and garlic, and it’s done! I’ll usually make some penne or angel hair pasta at the same time, and I’ll wind up with a fancy, restaurant-style dish that probably costs less than a dollar per serving. 

It’s all about setting that restaurant flair and ambiance at home, to the best of your ability. If your decision is between fancy restaurant salad with fennel and organic apple slices or a boring pre-assembled iceberg lettuce mess, you know what you’re going to choose … and the iceberg lettuce mess will sit uneaten in your fridge.

4. Buy less than you think you need.

This is one of the sneakiest ways we all end up wasting money (and food): We over-purchase. If you frequently find yourself throwing away food that’s gone bad, despite the fact that you were actively eating it, you’re buying too much. 

I used to buy six Honeycrisp apples per week because, well, there were usually six days I’d eat at home! Then I noticed I was only eating the apples on salads, and slicing up half an apple for a topping. I’d throw away two mushy apples at the end of the week and it took me months to realize I was just overbuying. Finally, I cut my apple purchase in half: three at a time instead of six. And what do you know? No more money down the drain.

The apple example is a silly one, but at scale, over-purchasing creates a lot of unnecessary waste. I’d challenge you to buy less than you think you need this week. Even if it means you have to go to the store again, that’s OK. Try it for your budget’s sake. You want to get a sense for how much you’re actually eating and avoid throwing any food away. 

5. Go out or get takeout once a week.

This one might surprise you! I like to grab food on Fridays (I’m more of a takeout type) and treat myself to a Netflix marathon and no cooking or cleanup. I look forward to it all week. Plus, I know I have to cook/eat what’s at home the rest of the week.

While that might sound restrictive, I’d argue it’s the opposite: Special stuff becomes decidedly less special if you do it all the time. Going out to eat was just as much of a hassle as cooking at home when I did it five times a week, because it required so much decision-making, driving all over town (gas is not cheap!), and feeling surprised and guilty when I’d look at my credit card bill at the end of the month. 

When it’s reserved for one night per week, it becomes special and fun again. And isn’t that what the balance between food and money is all about?

What are your tips for saving money on food and groceries? Share them in the comments below.