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In a typical month, the Baltazar family — my husband; our daughter, Olive; and me — spends around $1,100 on groceries, with one of us (my husband) gone every other week for work. We eat most of our meals at home; we cook and bake from scratch a lot; and we eat very little meat. Olive bakes often and even cooks a meal every other week — let’s call that “college prep.”
In September, our grocery expenses reached $1,400. Astronomical? I know!
With our fridge and cupboards pretty full, and beer on hand for my husband, we prepped for the month ahead. I leafed through cookbooks and searched the internet to find recipes that would use up ingredients we already had (you’ll find at least one for nearly every forgotten kitchen staple). I also wrote a list of what was languishing in the freezer and planned my shopping trips carefully.
We’ve just closed out October with our grocery bills totalling $747. It’s higher than I hoped, but it’s 47% less in a single month. I’d love to say we’ll keep our food budget this low every month, but it’s not entirely possible. We will need to replenish the items we used up, like coconut milk, sesame oil, and tomato paste, in addition to our standard list of staples, which means November is going to be a restocking month.
Still, I plan to make every other month more wallet-friendly, without going too far over budget in the more indulgent months. Here are three money-saving strategies I learned and will take with me into Thrifty December.
1. Rethink bulk-buying strategy.
I shop for ingredients — lentils, oats, nuts, etc. — from bulk sections of grocery stores that offer it, often getting several pounds at a time at a lower price per ounce. I also order bulk items from Azure Standard, a family-owned company that delivers standard and bulk orders to a point person in my town. (This might be five pound bags of flour and raisins, or olive oil by the gallon.) It’s a big expense upfront, that’s offset over the next few months. In October, though, I bought just what I needed and for the last two days of the month we had no granola (our go-to breakfast), which allowed us to eat up a few homemade muffins I’d stashed in the freezer — another win!
2. Cut out the unnecessary extras.
I cut back (way back) on the nonessentials, which was especially difficult when Olive shopped with me: “Hey, mom, look at these chocolate clusters with pretzels, potato chips, and corn chips,” she said in Trader Joe’s as my mouth watered — but I remained firm.
Flavored yogurts became a definite no-no (I made my own yogurt — something I always do — exclusively for this month). We also avoided fruit-flavored waters, BBQ pistachios, and, on the recent Trader Joe’s trip, proof-and-bake-at-home croissants. My husband got excited about a six-pack of stout beer in the grocery store, but I was strict: He had to drink what we had at home.
I also made my own desserts, which weren’t as fun and as easy to slip into Olive’s lunch box, but they were tasty. On top of this, I enjoyed myself. I used up a bag of limes from Costco (purchased in September) to make lime cupcakes; there was also a blackberry crisp, which starred fruit we picked ourselves and a bunch of pantry staples in the topping; and tahini cookies. What didn’t get made? Pecan bars. The pecans were all gone by that point.
3. Embrace empty shelves.
I’m a planner, so the idea of not having rows and rows of ingredients within reach was, well, unthinkable — but that all changed during October. Our freezer, fridge, and cupboards emptied out and it actually felt good to be using up the stuff from the way way back that I’d forgotten existed.
Seafood — a big splurge for us normally — took on more of a guest role; instead of a couple of fish dishes a week, we had salmon once (with a sauce of tamari, mustard, and maple syrup, all staples we had on hand) and some Dover sole, which also helped empty a bag of panko from the cupboard.
We found dishes that cleaned out the pantry and didn’t need a lot else. I made a coconut lentil curry soup that’s out of this world (and used up lentils, coconut milk, and desiccated coconut) and a taco torte that contained frozen corn and black beans. Sun-dried tomatoes went into a farro dish, veggie dal used up red lentils, and a black bean soup needed nothing more than some sour cream and cilantro, but helped clear out one shelf of the pantry.
I even cleaned us out of strong white flour by making a batch of bread rolls. Now that’s something I will continue.
Got a smart tip to save money on groceries? Tell us about it in the comments below.