I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Not because I’m a foodie or because I eat too much (although I do love carbs), but because I’m one of the 49 percent of Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck. This means that I regularly have to take my income and divide it up between the mortgage, the car insurance, the utilities, the groceries, and the many other surprise expenses that crop up when you’re raising tiny humans. But at the end of the month, there’s little else left over.
In a recent attempt to get financially fit and finally start saving some money again, I decided to take a cold hard look at our spending, and wasn’t too surprised to see that our food bill was the biggest chunk of that by far. After all, I have a growing family of five to feed, and we buy organic. But I was surprised to find that with some careful and deliberate planning, I could cut my monthly food bill in half. Yep — HALF.
Before, I was spending close to $300 a week on groceries, easy. But now, with some necessary changes, I’ve been keeping us at $150 or less a week. And no, I don’t spend half my week coupon clipping (it’s pretty rare that you can find them for organic foods, anyway). Here’s how I do it.
1. We buy in bulk — where it matters.
This year’s tax refund didn’t go to a fancy vacation or a new car — it went right to food storage. Since I live in a rural area, it wasn’t hard to find a few local farmers who I could buy meat in bulk from. For $1,200 I bought half a cow and a whole pig, which filled my 20 ft.-wide stand-up freezer with enough meat to feed us for the year, maybe longer.
But there are plenty of nationwide bulk suppliers you can stock up on food from, too, whether that’s for meat, frozen veggies, or other prepared meals. We use companies like Frontier’s Co-op where we buy dried goods like flour, sugar, and spices. Associated Buyers is also great for almost anything in bulk, including frozen foods.
There’s also the option to pay for something called a Community Supported Agriculture or CSA subscription. For around $300 a season (or 12 to 18 weeks, depending on the agreement) we can get a box filled with fruit, vegetables, and sometimes eggs and dairy all grown and produced by a local farmer. That works out to be around $25 a week.
If you live in a city you can join a co-op that will allow you to order items in bulk once or twice a month. Talk to your local health food store to find out if they have a program you can sign up for. If not, don’t worry, because you can easily set up your own through companies like Om Bulk Foods, which has options for families and friends to create a FBC or Food Buying Club.
2. We raise our own chickens to save money on eggs.
My husband and I got some chickens and started collecting our own eggs, which virtually pays for itself. A dozen eggs cost me $4.99 at the grocery store, but I get twice that in a week from home. A 50-pound bag of chicken feed costs me $16 and lasts for a few weeks. There have been many nights at our house when those eggs were the only protein we had. Needless to say, I can make a mean frittata.
3. We grow most of our own veggies and buy smart at the farmers market.
My husband has been an avid gardener since I’ve known him, so we use his skills to grow and store as much food as we can. This means freezing corn and peas, canning tomatoes, picking berries, and storing potatoes and squash.
We also hit up the local farmers markets, which are shockingly cheap if you only buy vegetables and stay away from the $300 hand-woven baskets and fancy jams — that stuff is for the rich housewives, not broke ones like me. You don’t have to live in the country or even the suburbs to find a good farmers market, though. Even big cities have awesome farmers markets if you know where to look. (Check out this handy locator to find one near you.)
If you aren’t signed up for a CSA, then you can still reap big savings by spending your hard earned money on root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and squash. These won’t rot right away quickly and you can buy those for dirt cheap — literally. A 5 lbs. bag of organic carrots costs me $3 and I can store those for most of the winter. It’s also worth buying up the broccoli and peas when they’re in season and then bring them home and freeze them. Salad greens aren’t as cost effective to buy per pound, so instead we grow our own. The seeds are so cheap and the plants so easy to grow (even in containers in a window) that we keep a variety of lettuces growing throughout the year.
4. I buy canned goods when they’re on sale, or can my own.
Here’s another trick I like to keep up my sleeve: Anytime I am at the grocery store, I’ll grab a couple of sale items from the canned foods section and store those in my pantry at home. I like to stick to items that I can use 1,001 different ways, like canned tomatoes, stocks, beans, and corn, which are all cheap and easy to store. I also have a few quart-sized Masson jars on hand in my pantry, to store the food we grow ourselves once canning season rolls around.
5. I meal plan like it’s my job.
Every Friday night, after eating leftovers from the week or breakfast for dinner, I sit down and make menus for the following week. I never include breakfast or lunches, because we all basically eat the same thing; oatmeal for breakfast (I buy that in bulk), and sandwiches with veggie sticks and apples for lunch. The list I come up with is what we eat by for the next seven days, no matter what. We rarely deviate from the plan, and if we want to eat “fun food” like cookies and brownies or granola bars and Fig Newton’s, then I do my best to make it from scratch because the ingredients go way further and are more cost-effective that way. (Plus, the kids get to try their hand at baking, so it’s kind of win-win.)
6. I don’t kid myself about what my kids will actually eat.
When I choose meals, I always have an eye for what’s healthy and what my kids will actually eat. The menus are built around what we have on hand and not so much what I saw on Pinterest or what we “feel like” eating. We’re poor. We don’t get to say, “Meh, let’s just order tonight.” When we get take-out it’s because we’re celebrating something, like when my oldest son ended his year of school with perfect grades, we went out for Chinese. My kids like typical kid fare, but since we make everything ourselves I get to sneak in healthy options from the garden. So instead of French fries, I make roasted vegetables. Instead of store bought Pop Tarts, I make homemade turnovers with whatever fruit we have on hand.
After just a few months in, this budgeting plan is really starting to work, and we have a teeny tiny nest egg started in our savings account, which for us is a huge deal. We’ve never had a nest egg before. And while right now that egg looks like more like a jelly bean and less like a future retirement fund, my hope is that by being consistent with our frugality we can grow those savings into something that will provide an eventual safety net for my family.
Our food budget and meal planning is something that we include the kids in, too. They each get a weekly allowance and are tasked with dividing up their money into categories like savings, donations, and spending. We have frank conversations about the value of things and the importance of planning. Being frugal in our house is not so much a virtue as it is a way to survive, but it is turning us into financially savvy people, and that alone is a great gift that I’m proud to give my kids.