I have fantasies about being a homesteader, envisioning acres of land, room for an orchard, an enormous vegetable garden, and a flock of chickens. But mostly, I dream about how much money I’d be able to save. Food is my family’s largest expense and I’m always looking for creative ways to save money on groceries.
The rustic, rural life is certainly appealing, but for the majority of people, it simply isn’t possible. I live in urban South Florida, in one of the most expensive, densely populated and diverse counties in the nation. But I’m not exactly rolling in cash myself: I’m a mom working three part-time jobs. And I simply don’t have the time or space to put up 75 jars of apple butter.
My family, like many across the country, struggle to make ends meet. And while growing your own food does save money, it’s not a realistic solution for families living in urban areas. However, I’ve learned that it is still possible to save a lot on groceries, without spending a lot of time or effort.
Over the years, I’ve found plenty of ways to cut costs — here are all my tried-and-true ways to save on food shopping:
1. Check out small, individually owned, ethnic grocery stores in your area.
The Indian grocer, the bodegas, the Korean, Halal, Caribbean and Kosher markets, and the Chinese supermarket are my area’s best kept secrets. I’m passionate about visiting these places because I can buy uniquely delicious products, (including fresh produce) at rock bottom prices. This is also a wonderful way to get to know and support your local immigrant community.
I like the personalized service, too. Once at the Indian grocery store, the credit card machine was down and I didn’t have any cash. The owner let me take my merchandise on the honor system. My favorite Mexican grocer sells fresh, hot stacks of handmade tortillas for two dollars! Packaged brands cannot compare, and we eat the tortillas at almost every meal.
2. Go to supermarkets in lower-income neighborhoods.
Their rent is lower and so are their prices — I’m talking about the big chains, too. I discovered this when I used to work in a very upscale neighborhood. Their grocery prices were astronomical compared to the same exact store in my neighborhood!
3. Don’t forget the dollar store.
Fabulous deals on non-perishables can always be found at dollar stores. Many discount stores like this also offer a freezer section well-stocked with supermarket brands, and some even sell fresh produce. I know some people feel a little squeamish about buying food at the dollar store, but you’ll get over it when you see how much you can get for so little without sacrificing quality.
4. Embrace the flea market.
Where I live, the farmer’s markets are more of a social event. With food trucks and live music, the farmer’s markets are fun, but you’re not getting any deals. To really save, head over to the flea market. It’s dusty, crowded, and chaotic, but that adds to the fun. Plus, you can buy fruit and vegetables for just a few cents. Several of the vendors at my local flea market are people who are selling produce that they grow in their yards, and I’ve discovered some new local fruits and greens that I never even knew existed.
5. Make soup.
I’ll admit, I’m obsessed with soup. At the beginning of each week I make a big pot of soup, tossing in whatever leftover veggies I can find in my fridge. Sometimes I use bones (which cost pennies) instead of meat to flavor the broth, but more often I go vegetarian. The big bags of dried beans I get for 75 cents at the Mexican tienda can feed us well for several days. Making soup is an easy way to stretch your groceries and feast on satisfying comfort food at the same time.
6. Drink water.
The average family can save literally hundreds of dollars a year by refusing to purchase beverages. Water is free, and very few of us live in places with unsafe water. My local water isn’t dangerous, but it’s heavily chlorinated, so I invested in an inexpensive sink filter, and we drink tap water. For variety, I make iced tea with it, too.
7. Reframe the way you define meals.
I was raised to think of breakfast as bacon, eggs, and toast, and dinner as a meat, three sides, plus dessert. Now, I see that that’s not only way too much food, but it’s also way too expensive to consume that much. Rice and beans make a perfect lunch. Sometimes for dinner all we need is a baked potato with broccoli and cheese, or soup and cornbread. Keeping it simple saves money, time, clean-up, and calories.
8. Eat less meat.
A lot less.
The truth is, it pays to cut back on animal proteins. Eating meat for just two meals a day can raise a family’s grocery bill by hundreds per week. I say skip it whenever you can. Your body and your bank account will thank you, and I promise you won’t feel deprived.
9. Nothing’s wrong with cheap coffee.
I used to think only expensive coffee in fancy packaging was worth drinking until I had the most delicious cup of joe at a relative’s house and was shocked when I found out it was a budget brand. I’m now a devoted fan. Brew it extra strong and everyone will swear it’s from the trendy coffee house that charges 4 bucks a cup.
Maybe someday I’ll be able to move to the country and tend that flock of chickens I’ve always dreamt about, but for now I’m happy where I live. I’ve learned that it’s possible to eat well and save a lot of money on groceries. And with all the money I’m saving, maybe I’ll be able to buy myself a farmhouse in a few years!