It’s been a goal of mine to decrease my grocery the amount I spend on food this year. Seemingly in contradiction, so is switching my family to a fresh, mostly organic diet. I’ve discovered that these two aims aren’t at odds at all.
My top 5 expenses (in order) are housing, taxes, charitable contributions, food, and transportation. I’ve already optimized housing and transportation expenses. I have a solid tax plan in place (max out those tax-advantaged accounts as much as possible, friends!). Lowering charitable contributions isn’t something I aim to do.
This left food costs as the next major category to focus on. Previously, I felt that I already spent so much on groceries that I couldn’t “afford” to eat organic without increasing my grocery budget by at least 25% or more.
However, I found that simultaneously changing our eating habits and implementing some simple hacks has allowed me to reduce my grocery bill by an average of $100 per month so far this year. All while switching to mostly organic food.
These are the ways I’ve managed to do so.
Avoid Processed and Packaged Foods
During our four years spent living in Asia, we drastically adjusted our diets away from processed food to locally grown fresh food. A big reason for the change in diet when we lived there was cost. It’s simply not worth it to pay $7 for a bag of Cheetos or $10 for a box of Lucky Charms. The real perk, though, was that we had someone that cooked most of our meals during the first year (in Shanghai), so it was a much easier transition.
When we moved from Shanghai to Seoul, we started eating out a lot. Korean food is quite possibly the best food in the world, but also healthy and fresh. We ate well, and our food budget reflected not only the significantly higher cost of living there but also our love of Korean food (it was a full 50% more than our current food budget).
Unfortunately, when we returned to the United States two years ago, we resorted to buying many of these processed foods again. So, when I really got serious about decreasing my grocery bill and eating healthier, processed and boxed foods were the first to go. We still have a few things that we occasionally buy, such as tortilla chips and cold cereal for weekend breakfasts.
We did not switch to buying organic versions of things that are inherently unhealthy anyway. Anything processed that was especially unhealthy was a target to be eliminated altogether from both our diets and our grocery bills.
For some things, we’ve substituted different products. For example, we used to snack on crackers (what is it about kids and goldfish!?) but now I try to limit my kids’ midday snacks to cheese and fresh fruit or vegetables. Other things like bread and cookies I’ve started making myself. They taste so much better, save money and are much healthier!
Plan Out Meals In Advance
I’ve often struggled with planning meals out in advance. It seemed like even when I did make a meal plan, things came up so often that I wouldn’t follow the plan anyway and I’d too often resort to ordering pizzas or eating some sort of convenience food.
Now, I plan just 3-4 meals for the week and make sure that I already have or purchase every single item needed for those recipes. I offer myself some flexibility for which days these 3-4 meals are prepared in the event that if I really don’t feel like eating that food or my schedule changes. Completely eliminating waste is key in reducing food costs and a flexible meal plan helps immensely.
The other days that I don’t cook we eat leftovers or we have simple, easy to make recipes like spaghetti or sandwiches and soup. I adapt daily to accommodate if we have extra leftovers or we have a particularly hectic evening schedule.
In addition, I have some backup meals to make sure that if for some reason I don’t have the time or energy to cook, we still have something quick and easy to make at home. Some of my backup meals include frozen chicken tenders and fries, and frozen chicken and veggies for a stir-fry.
Avoiding the question of “what’s for dinner” at five o-clock has resulted in less stress in addition to saving money on eating out and convenience foods.
Keep a Price Book (Or Spreadsheet)
When we moved back to the United States from our expat assignments, I started jotting down prices for the items I frequently bought. I quickly learned which sale prices to stock up at and whether it was better to buy certain items at my local grocery store or Costco.
I recently converted this information from my notebook to an excel spreadsheet based on a price list format from Passionate Penny Pincher. In addition to adding regular item price information for the stores I shop at regularly, I add the lowest sale price so I know when to buy extra items. My price book also includes a breakout of prices for conventional vs. organic produce and other organic items.
You may find when keeping a price list that there is a large disparity of prices on organic foods. Each store has its own specialty items that are better to stock up on (for example, Aldi has some great shelf-stable organic foods at a great price like tortilla chips, jam, and salsa). You don’t have to go to multiple stores in the same week (I absolutely do not). Just stock up as much as you can when you’re already at a particular store with the best price. I go to Costco once a month, my local Kroger once a week and Aldi every few months.
Pinterest is your friend when you want to research prices of items at your preferred stores–just type in “[Store Name} Price List”. Many stores also offer online shopping (my next point!), which makes it easy to find their regular and sale prices. You don’t have to list out everything you ever buy on your price list, just start small by listing the things you buy the most often. There’s a lot of money to be saved by doing so.
Order Groceries Online
While I definitely enjoy eating food, shopping for it isn’t so much my favorite thing. That was true before I had kids, but triply true today (triple….because I have 3 kids!). When my local grocery store, Kroger, rolled out their online grocery shopping system where I could order everything online and simply had to drive up to the store and pick it up in my car, I was totally on board.
For the past ten months, I’ve been almost exclusively using Kroger Clicklist for my weekly groceries. It’s so much easier to compare prices. I avoid compulsive purchases (chocolate!). If something I want isn’t in stock, they generally substitute a comparable or better product for the same price (sometimes they’ve even substituted organic for conventional produce when they were out). There’s literally no downside for me, except the $5 cost, which to me is more than reasonable for saving me at well over an hour of my own time.
The best thing about online grocery shopping is that it creates a running total for me and I can add to or delete groceries to stay within my grocery budget for the week. Despite the fee, I save much more than that each month by sticking to my grocery list and not buying any extra junk food. I literally have the numbers to prove it to be true.
I do shop in person at Costco and Aldi. But, the vast majority of my groceries are ordered online.
Gradually Add in Organic Food
If you decided overnight to start buying absolutely everything organic, you would be in for major sticker shock at the checkout (the online checkout in my case!).
But by gradually changing your diet to mostly fresh foods and organizing your meal and grocery process, you will be able to drastically reduce your grocery bill. This will allow you to spend the same amount on groceries or even less while purchasing higher quality and/or organic food.
I started slowly switching to organic food as I worked to change some of our eating and shopping habits. Personally, what worked for me was adding in organic food in the following order:
- Start buying organic only for produce on the “dirty dozen” list
- Switch to organic milk and eggs, then other dairy products
- Start buying organic chicken, free-range beef, and other meat
As you start eating less processed food and get used to making it yourself or eating alternative foods, you’ll find some extra room in your grocery budget to pay more for quality food that is better for you.
With a little extra planning and a lot of intention, you can improve both your physical and financial health by focusing on your food costs. I’m a firm believer that sweating the small things, can make a huge difference and decreasing your grocery bill is a great example of achieving numerous small wins that add up to a lot over the course of a year.
Switching to organic food doesn’t have to be a costly move. You can do it without increasing your grocery budget at all. Note that none of the ways I reduced my grocery bill involved extreme couponing or much extra time. It’s totally doable!