According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend more than 60% of their disposable income on The Big 3: housing, transportation, and food. When looking for ways to cut one’s spending, it would be wise to start with these three major categories of expenditures.
I’ve already talked about how to cut housing costs through house hacking, and I’ve briefly touched on reducing transportation costs (hint: kill the car payment and the commute). Cutting your food bill is arguably the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ of the bunch, since it can be accomplished without moving your residence or discarding 2500 lb hunks of depreciating metal.
In the latest report from the US Department of Agriculture, it was estimated that the average cost of food for a couple is $500-600 per month, and the cost for a family of four is roughly $700-900 per month. This is based on low-to-moderate cost plan estimates.
We at the Brewing FIRE household spend roughly $250 per month on home cooked meals for 3 people. Our budget covers 3 meals per day, and we typically order takeout or eat out once per week. As you’ll see, we accomplish this goal without sacrificing quality, quantity, or any other prohibitive means. We eat healthy, fresh foods without breaking the bank.
Before I go any further, let me emphasize that our main focus is optimization and efficiency.
I have no interest in trading excess time and effort, or sacrificing the quality of our food in order to save a buck.
What We Don’t Do to Save Money on Food
Cut Coupons. I’m not willing to expend the effort to dig through the weekly ads for multiple grocery stores in order to save 50 cents on peas. Additionally, a large percentage of coupons are manufacturer’s rebates, and we don’t generally buy manufactured goods, so we wouldn’t benefit from these rebates anyway.
Meal Plan. I know, heresy! How can you save money without meal planning?!? Here’s the deal: we do the majority of our cooking on the weekend, preparing the whole week’s worth of meals. We do not, however, go to the grocery store with a shopping list and buy specific items for a pre-conceived meal. We’re opportunistic about our meals, and this is how we save.
Eat Rice and Beans, Ramen, or Cat Food. We do not engage in the “college student diet,” ie. ramen noodles and cheap staples. I wouldn’t associate any of our eating habits as ‘eating cheap.’ We use fresh, local and organic ingredients, and often involve fancy fish, meats and cheeses in our diet.
Dumpster Dive. Mrs. BF used to associate with a group of idealist do-gooders that hung out behind restaurants at the end of the night and
actually fished their meals out of dumpsters. I appreciate the commitment, but I won’t recommend this behavior.
How We Do Save Money on Food
- Be Opportunistic
- Shop at Local Markets and Ethnic Groceries
- Stay on the Perimeter of the Grocery Store
- Buy in Bulk
- Cook Extra Food and Freeze Meals
- Don’t Waste Money and Calories on Beverages
- Don’t Waste, Period
- DIY – Gardens, Chickens and Microbes
1. Be Opportunistic
The most important thing you can do when shopping for food and designing your family’s meals is be flexible. This is why we don’t meal plan.
If you go to the grocery store with a list of items you need to purchase, you’re beholden to current status of prices and availability at that particular grocery store. Maybe one of your ingredients is out of season. Maybe there was a major recall on lettuce, and now it costs three times as much. Whatever the reason, flexibility is the key to saving money.
My wife does the weekly “fresh ingredients” shopping. She goes to one local produce market, and buys mostly sale and discount items (more on this below).
Tomatoes aren’t on sale? We’ll skip them this week. There’s a surplus of zucchini? Time for some squash soup!
The sale, rather than our grocery list, dictates our weekly diet.
2. Shop at Local Markets and Ethnic Groceries
I love Whole Foods. My wife and I go there sometimes and just wander the aisles, looking at all the beautiful, exotic ingredients and reading about sustainability and happy things. I pore over the various cheeses, and check out the craft beers while Mrs. BF oggles the eggnog. It’s a form of entertainment in itself.
So how much do we spend at Whole Foods (and other gourmet grocers) per year? Less than $100. It’s too damn expensive!
We shop almost exclusively at a local produce market run by Turkish immigrants. They have many similar options for locally sourced, fresh ingredients, as well as some unusual choices like cardoon.
Guess where they differ from Whole Foods? The price.
Why? Because they can’t afford to be another big box grocer. A small, family owned produce market struggles to maintain the margins that keep them profitable. So what do they do? They put their surplus items on sale, and (most importantly) they discount items before discarding them.
The Power of “Used Foods”
These small markets always have a section of discounted produce, that we colloquially refer to as “Used Foods.” Leafy greens and ripe fruits have a limited shelf life, and so they find their way to this section daily. This is where at least 50% of our fruits and vegetables come from every week.
For instance, this was our ‘used foods’ list recently:
- Head of green leaf lettuce – $1
- Two bags of 3-4 eggplants – $1 each
- Bag of 3 yellow squash – $1
- Two bunches of tomatoes on the vine – $1 each
- Bag of small mangoes – $1
- Bag of mandarin oranges – $1
As you can tell, everything in the used foods section costs $1. So my wife grabs a menagerie of ingredients from this section, and supplements it with a few full-priced items to round out our grocery run. Normally we spend $25-30 per week at the produce market, and take home 3 full bags of stuff.
Side note: although these items are near expiry, they always have at least a week before they need to go to compost. Since this is our weekly shopping run, we only buy things we plan on cooking this week.
Ethnic grocery stores are attractive for the same reasons as local produce markets: they’re small and not fancy. Nobody is trying to draw you in with prepared foods and asparagus water for ripoff prices. Typically, these stores are trying to sell mostly to their own people, and offer reasonable prices for goods.
We have a great Indian grocery near our house. This is where we stock up on beans, nuts, and especially spices. We can pick up a 1 lb bag of turmeric there that costs the same as 2 oz from a normal grocery store.
3. Stay on the Perimeter of the Grocery Store
You’ve probably heard this advice before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The perimeter of the grocery store contains the only things we buy: fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, dairy, and the occasional loaf of bread.
The interior of the supermarket is full of processed foods, junk food, frozen TV dinners, and jugs of sugar juice.
Of course, there are some exceptions, but this is a good rule to keep in mind when shopping.
4. Buy in Bulk
This another one you’ve heard before, but worth going into some detail. Bulk purchasing accomplishes two main goals. First, it gets your unit cost down. Second, it stocks your pantry with lots of options for designing your weekly meals.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I recommend to buy in bulk:
- Dried legumes – beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils
- Whole grains – oats, wheat, barley, rye, rice
- Starches – potatoes, carrots
- Frozen items – peas, corn, berries
Unsurprisingly, we do most of our bulk food shopping at Costco. The other place we buy in bulk from is the local Indian grocery. They have a great selection of dried beans, nuts, rice, and especially spices.
So how we do we decide what the buy in bulk? We follow 4 simple rules.
The 4 Rules of Bulk Purchasing
- Does it have a long shelf life?
- Can I fit it in my pantry/storage area?
- Can I afford it?
- Is it cheaper in bulk? (compare unit cost)
If the item satisfies these four questions, buy it by the shit-ton! For some reason, we kept purchasing one bag of coffee at a time, even though we always drank the same stuff. One day I realized, “the only way we’re not going to consume multiple bags of coffee is if we all die before then.” So we started buying 3 bags at a time, since we had room for it.
You can check out a list of items with a long shelf life from a Doomsday Prepper site (like this one), or you can just follow this general guideline: most things that are dried have an (almost) indefinite shelf life. This includes the entire list of bulk foods mentioned above.
5. Cook Extra Food and Freeze Meals
We follow roughly the same food preparation blueprint every week. We do 90% of our cooking on Sunday morning, so it doesn’t otherwise detract from our weekend.
Our weekly cooking schedule looks something like this:
- Main Dish – a soup, stew/chili, lentil, stir-fry or similar.
- Secondary Dish – usually featuring a protein, such as baked fish, sous-vide pork tenderloin or good old smoked ribs.
- Two Vegetable Items – mushrooms and greens, squash, roasted broccoli or brussel sprouts, beet salad etc…
- A Starch – rice, potatoes, or plantains.
We then supplement the above with a few other sides. I’ve been perfecting a hummus recipe over the past couple years, which I make every week. I have a bunch of lettuce for salads. We make eggs various ways (hard boiled, scrambled, in a quiche). On any given Sunday night, our fridge is absolutely packed with a menagerie of foods that we deplete over the course of the week.
In order to add more variety to our weekly dinner selection, we use the technique of Cook Extra and Freeze. For those of you that ‘don’t eat leftovers,’ just skip ahead to the next section.
Here is a graphical representation of our meal rotation schedule. We typically cook 8-10 servings of our main or secondary dishes, and freeze 4-6 portions for later. Often, I’ll cook a huge meat item like a brisket or rack of ribs, and then we’ll freeze 3/4 of it for later consumption.
Cooking extra food and freezing is crucial to our ability to save time and money. The added time necessary to cook 10 servings instead of 4 is negligible, and the benefit of always having options in the freezer keeps us from ordering out unnecessarily.
6. Don’t Waste Money and Calories on Beverages.
Here in the Brewing FIRE household, we have one rule regarding beverages: no calories without alcohol. We both stopped drinking sugary drinks a long time ago.
So what do we drink instead? Seltzer.
Much like the Frugalwoods, we have an obsession with carbonated water in our house. For us, it’s a fancier way to enjoy water. Thankfully, I already had the infrastructure in place for mass production and consumption of seltzer: the keezer.
This marvel of human ingenuity allows us to have a couple of homebrews and seltzer on tap at all times. We drink approximately 5 gallons per month; even Baby BF loves her “fizzy water.” I fill up our CO2 cylinder twice a year at a cost of $30 each time, so a year’s worth of seltzer costs us less than $5 per month.
Also, we don’t drink bottled water. It’s unnecessary, environmentally wasteful, and can be costly. Get a nice water filtration system for your kitchen sink. If your water source is good (ie. you don’t live in Flint), a simple charcoal filter (Pur or Brita) will suffice. If you have well water or question whether the government is intentionally poisoning your brain with PCBs, go with a full-blown reverse osmosis (RO) system.
7. Don’t Waste, Period.
According to this study by the USDA, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food went to waste in the U.S. 2010, with a value in excess of 161 billion dollars. This quantity represented 31% of food available at the retail and consumer level, uneaten and gone to waste.
To be honest, I don’t know how these figures compare to other countries. I would tend to think that we waste more food because of our lower population density, and our propensity to waste in general.
Think of wasted food in your household as food yield loss. If you tossed out 20% of the food you bought last week, your yield loss was 20%, meaning you overspent on your grocery bill by 25%. If you find a way to improve your food yield loss, you could conceivably save hundreds of dollars per year.
We counteract yield loss by buying perishables weekly, and consciously using them in our meal design for that week. Sure, shit happens and we end up not using everything, but it’s typically 1-2 over-ripe items that the chickens will gladly devour.
At the retail level, you can counteract food waste by buying “used foods.” Unfortunately, the big box grocers normally have a limited section of past-date fruits and vegetables, but the smaller grocery marts almost certainly will sell these goods. Think of it as rescuing food from the dumpster. Yum!
8. DIY – Gardens, Chickens and Microbes
As part of our mantra of continual improvement, we are always insourcing (and outsourcing) projects as it makes sense. We outsource the things that are cheap and take too much time, and we insource the activities that save us money or provide some other benefit.
Here are some DIY food projects we have undertaken:
A garden can be a healthy, hyper-local source of food and a means of cost savings. We have had a garden in some form or another for the past six years, and will be further expanding this year. We grow a variety of crops, but focus mostly on the ones we eat the most (leafy greens) and the ones that cost the most (such as tomatoes).
We’ve been raising hens for the last 4 years. They provide many benefits to our ecosystem, including eggs, meat, and compost for the garden. In addition, they are organic garbage disposals, and make good use of the occasional food item that spoils in the back of the fridge.
For the record, we don’t eat our egg-laying ladies. We acquire occasional roosters from some friends that also keep chickens; this is the source of our chicken meat.
We don’t sell the eggs, but we do give them to people that often give us things in exchange. I guess you call that bartering.
Playing With Bacteria
If you couldn’t guess, I like experimenting with fermentation. My basement is full of aging ales, bubbling in their carboys and barrels. So naturally I took to the idea of fermenting foods as well.
After reading The Fermented Man, I went crazy and started fermenting everything in our kitchen. Cucumbers, cabbage, tomatoes, beets, carrots, peppers- everything got pickled.
Fermenting foods gives you options if you have an excess of a particular vegetable and don’t know what to do with it. It also makes a good side dish or ‘treat’ to keep in the fridge.
The food we ferment the most in our kitchen? Milk, ie. we make our own yogurt. Using my trusty sous vide setup and a scoop of existing yogurt culture, I can turn a couple jars of milk into a quart of yogurt over night. This is not so much cost savings as it is convenience.
Final Tips for Saving Money on Food
Here are a few more miscellaneous tips that are also keys to eating well and spending less.
Get an Instant Pot
Yes, we’re part of the Instant Pot Army. We’ve had one for about 4 years, and have been slowly converting everyone we know.
I don’t need to go into detail about the benefits of this kitchen tool, because you’ve already heard them. The biggest benefit to our household is the time we save using the Instant Pot. Rehydrating beans and making ‘slow cooked’ specialties in 20 minutes are especially useful to us.
Have a Backup Plan
Imagine this scenario:
It’s a Thursday evening. Your boss keeps you late at the office to finish an important project, because he’s a dick. You get stuck in traffic on the way out. You pick up your wild and screaming kid from daycare and head home.
You’re exhausted. All you want to do is sit down on the couch and close your eyes. You head to the fridge to grab a cold beverage, and you realize there’s nothing to eat tonight.
What do most people do? Order take-out, or go out to eat. If this happens rarely, it’s not a major problem. But for many people, it happens way too often, and it will blow a massive hole in your food budget.
How do we counteract Empty Fridge Syndrome? Have a backup plan or two. In our house, we have plenty of already-cooked frozen meals, and some frozen pizzas from a local restaurant we can throw in the oven. We also have the ingredients for a few quick meals. Sometimes I’ll make a shrimp and noodles stir-fry (~15 minutes), or a quick tomato soup (10 minutes in the Instant Pot).
The important thing is to have options. We all get a case of the f*ck-its now and then, what differentiates us is how we deal with it.
Baby Food = Human Food
One final tip, for those of you who have produced babies and now have to feed them.
Baby Food is Human Food. Human Food is Baby Food.
Why do people serve their children out of small glass jars of preservative-laden crap? We’ve watched many of our friends have children in the past couple years, and it seems that they all buy specially branded “baby food”.
What did we buy instead? A small $15 food processor.
Our daughter needs some fruit this week? Drop a peach into the processor. Veggies? Steam that $1 bag of squash, and then throw it into the processor. Is she roaring like a tiny dinosaur? Dump the chili in there, and get this baby some meat!
We’ve never purchased a single special item to feed our daughter thus far. We just turn our own food into a non-chokable form. It also means that she had eaten a wide variety of foods by the time she was one year old. Her current favorites? Hummus, and artichokes. And, of course, PEEE-ZZA!
Thanks for making it through this obnoxiously long post on food. Some of the items discussed here are common sense, but I also think we have uncovered some tricks and “best practices” for eating well without spending a ton. Feel free to chime in with any other tips in the comments. Bon appetit!