How to Save Money on Food & Groceries: Your Secret Weapon

This is the first post in the Summer of Savings series. For week #1, we’re focusing on saving money on food/groceries and cooking as a category. And it’s a big one. According to the most recent annual consumer expenditure survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend an average of $9,343 on food per year (per consumer unit, or household).

Breaking those food expenditures down further:

  • $5,703 is for “home” (groceries)
  • $3,639 is for “out of home” (restaurants)

Food is right there with transportation, battling it out for the second highest expense category, across all income levels. Study this table carefully:

ItemFirst (Lowest) 20%Second 20%Third 20%Fourth 20%Fifth (Highest) 20%
Health: Care10.3%9.3%9.6%8.2%6.3%
Personal Insurance (Non-Health) & Pensions:1.9%4.9%8.8%13.1%17.4%

My wife and I are comfortably below these levels for food/groceries, and every meal we eat is a high-grade, mostly organic, healthy feast. How do we do it?

There’s a secret weapon. It’s a secret weapon that has either been a point of frustration or embrace for billions of people over thousands of years. If you embrace it and use it effectively, it will completely change your life for the better and allow you to save thousands annually on food & groceries.

It’s called “cooking”.

Save Money on Food & Groceries with Cooking

Becoming a functional cook and harnessing your cooking powers could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

First, cooking will allow you to save serious money by eliminating your need to dine out at restaurants. I’m not even going to cover saving money at restaurants, because dining out is a losing battle.

Let’s just eliminate the allure of dining out, right now. You can get higher quality, healthier, better food, with more ingredient control, all from the convenience of your home, in less time, by cooking. No cost or time wasted looking for a parking space. No cost for driving to wherever you want to go. No waiting in line or at a table. And no cost of tipping. Convenience is truly in the eye of the beholder. And a cooked meal will be a fraction of the price.

save money on food and groceries

Immediately, you’ll massively cut that $3,639 for your “out of home” food expenses down, and replace it with only about 1/4 of the price in additional groceries.

There’s a second way you’ll save money through learning how to cook: you’ll move from processed to unprocessed grocery purchases, which covers the other $5,703 in food expenses.

Unprocessed foods are not only much healthier (lower salt, lower sugar, lower additives), but they are much cheaper. Whenever something is processed/pre-packaged, cost is added through the supposed “value add” to the customer. I’ve found an unprocessed meal to generally be about 50% of the price of a pre-packaged meal.

So if you can cook from scratch, you win in every way.

Shopping at the Right Grocery Stores to Save Money

Where you shop for groceries can be as important as what you buy. I’d recommend Costco, WalMart/Sam’s Club, Aldi, and Kroger (provided you stack discounts) for the cheapest groceries. Here’s a few ways to save money on memberships and more:

Learning How to Cook:

The great news is that there may be no other topic in the history of the planet that has as much accessible, cheap, educational content available than cooking.

From YouTube videos, to thousands of cookbooks that are available for free from your library, to thousands of recipe websites, help from friends, and cooking classes at local community colleges and restaurants – there are plenty of resources to get you started.

But you probably know this.

What you’re probably lacking is:

a. the motivation (hopefully the first part of this post covers that), and

b. the confidence to jump in and stick with it

As for b., I’ll say this: nobody is born with innate cooking skills.

Cooking is like any learned skill. The more time you put in and the more you experiment, the better you’ll get. Most of the first few hundred meals or so that my wife and I cooked were mediocre. There was some good in there. And some awful.

But over time, as you experiment, you get better. Most of your meals go from average to good. And many go from good to great. Nobody knows your tastes better than you do. Over time, you also get faster and learn how to cook very tasty meals in short amounts of time. Once you do? Dining out is an after-thought. It truly seems like a costly inconvenience for an inferior product.

Over the coming days, we’re going to be doing some recipe sharing, but for now, lets get you focused on the basics.

As for having the right tools and learning some basic skills, lets start with this:

  1. Get the Right Tools: Get stainless steel cookware and a cast iron pan, a chef’s knife, cutting board, measuring cups, and cooking utensils (that don’t scratch your pans). Odds are, you probably have all of these things already. And even if you have none of the above, $200 or less (if you can find used) should be all you need to invest, which is cheaper than a few meals at a nice restaurants. Any other products/utensils are gravy.
  2. Get the Right Spices: The essentials are salt, pepper, vinegar, lemon/lime, cinnamon, chili powder, and garlic. My favorite dishes have changed over the years, but I always come back to these key spices.
  3. Start Cooking: You already know what foods you like. Now go out and find some recipes. Make a grocery list. Get the items, and start.

Over the years, I’ve moved more and more from pre-planned recipes to just winging it. The more you cook, the more you get comfortable trying out new things. And your tastes change over time. You’ll get bored with basic stuff and come up with increasingly experimental dishes.

It’s fun.

It’s convenient.

It’s rewarding.

It’s a great conversation starter.

It’s healthier.

It’s a time saver.

And it will save you a lot of money on food and groceries over the years. Learn it and embrace it.

Over the coming days, we will be covering some cheap foods and cheap meal recipes to help get everyone excited about cooking more.

Save Money On Food & Groceries with Cooking Discussion:

  • How did you learn to cook? How long did it take you to hit that confident sweet spot?
  • What ingredients, tools, resources do you recommend for amateur cooks?
  • What barriers are preventing you from cooking more?

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