Welcome to a column from The Financial Diet, one of our very favorite sites, dedicated to money and everything it touches. One of the best ways to take charge of your financial life is through food and cooking. A version of this post originally appeared on The Financial Diet.
When we explore personal finance and living below our means, we consider which expenses are necessary and which are discretionary. It's easy to identify our Netflix subscription, dinners with friends, and facials as discretionary. Without them we'd survive, but they give our lives that extra bit of luxury or fun that makes everything better.
And when it comes to necessary expenses, it's easy to list housing, groceries, and clothing. While it's important to scrutinize your discretionary expenses to see if there are more frugal ways to entertain yourself, few of us look at how we can optimize our essentials. We know it's important to try for a good deal on fixed expenses like housing, whether that means negotiating rent with our landlord or remortgaging our property to pay less each month, but when it comes to those necessary expenses that can fluctuate wildly each month, it's easy to slack off.
My biggest expense after housing is groceries. While it's an area that I have to spend money on, too often "we all need to eat" becomes an excuse for spending money on convenience foods and expensive meals that only serve one portion. In other words, we can fall into the trap of paying too much for groceries.
Here are the main reasons why your grocery bill is high.
1. You're not meal planning.
You can't walk into the grocery store without at least a basic plan and expect to easily stay under budget. I get that doing a weekly meal plan isn't most people's favorite use of time, but what if you just planned for what you're going to eat today and tomorrow? You may have already planned to meet up with a friend for drinks tomorrow, so you won't want to cook dinner. But could you make time today to put together a quick and easy brown-bag lunch?
2. You're not getting deals on staples.
The three items I buy every week are lemons, milk, and bananas. How do I know this? Aside from using these items nearly every day, I've written lists for grocery shopping for a decade, so I have a pretty good idea of what goes on the list every time. What do you buy regularly? Knowing our staples can help us make more savvy decisions when these items are on special offer.
3. You have a meat-heavy diet.
One of my friends from college used to insist that a meal wasn't a proper meal without meat. While protein is a fundamental part of a balanced diet, I've experienced the financial benefits of reducing my meat consumption. I've never been a vegetarian, but reducing my meat intake has helped me nail my hummus recipe, up my bean consumption, and increase my confidence using spices like cumin, coriander, and paprika.
Using spices and plant-based proteins can shave dollars off of your weekly shop and force you to get comfortable with a wider variety of ingredients.
4. You're not utilizing the space in your fridge and freezer.
Every day I think about how lucky I am to have a tall fridge and freezer. Practicing gratitude is essential not only to frugality, but also to make the most of those great appliances that mean we don't have to buy, cook, and eat every meal immediately. How much do you use your fridge or freezer to store leftovers? It's not just a great place for ingredients — fridges and freezers are the go-to appliance for keeping you stocked with delicious, homemade meals ready for those days when you would have otherwise ordered takeout.
5. You're overstocking your fridge and freezer.
As you just read in point four above, utilizing your fridge and freezer is essential for maintaining your budget. But if you go too far the other way, by overstocking it, you'll often find you're throwing food out. Not only is it wasteful and unhygienic to leave food rotting at the back of your fridge, but it also reduces the efficiency of your appliance (because fridges need adequate space to circulate air). Your goods, as a result, might not be kept at the right temperature and you'll also use more electricity.
6. You're not batch cooking.
When I was in college, I used to love making baked salmon with steamed vegetables and rice. It was a healthy and balanced meal, but it wasn't cheap. Not only was I using one salmon steak per meal (salmon was and still is expensive where I live, especially if you don't use it for batch cooking), but each time I made it I only made one portion. What a waste of my effort!
Batch cooking has opened up a world of time and money saved. I've also learned what freezes well (chili, pasta sauces, stews) and what doesn't (frittatas, fresh tomatoes). It's also great having meals ready in the freezer for those days when I don't feel like cooking.
7. You're ignoring the seasons.
I'm still guilty of buying produce when it's not in season. Most of the time, I google what's in season (Eat the Seasons is a great site) so that I can be more intentional about the produce I use. Seasonal produce is also usually cheaper.
8. You don't have any back-pocket recipes.
Having go-to recipes makes it so much easier to make a quick trip to the store without having to think about it too much. Like keeping track of staples, I've collected tried-and-tested recipes in a handy folder on my Google Drive ready to be whipped out when I'm drawing a blank sitting in front of my meal plan.
9. You follow sales or deals too often.
We all know a deal when we see one (get 50% free! Buy three for two! Red labels, bold writing), but how many of us stop to question whether something is actually a deal? We've been conditioned to believe that a deal really is a deal, but more often then not, we find ourselves disposing of the excess food at the end of the week.
If you want to take advantage of a deal on groceries, there are two ways to do so: Know your cupboard staples and buy in bulk when they're on offer, and beware of buying fresh food on offer unless it's freezable. Fresh food deals that you can't freeze often end up in the trash. There's also something to be said about food that we throw out. Not only are we spending way more than we need to, but we're also paying the supermarket to throw out their food.
Do you do any of these things in your kitchen?