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 $8,289 on food per year (per consumer unit, or household).
Breaking those food expenditures down further:
- $5,259 is for “home”, aka groceries
- $3,030 is for “out of home”, aka restaurants
Food is right there with transportation, battling it out for the second highest expense category, across all income levels. Study this table carefully:
|Item||First (Lowest) 20%||Second 20%||Third 20%||Fourth 20%||Fifth (Highest) 20%|
|Personal Insurance (Non-Health) & Pensions:||1.7%||4.9%||9.0%||12.5%||17.2%|
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”.
Becoming a good 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.
Immediately, you’ll massively cut that $3,459 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 $4,942 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 a great conversation starter.
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?
I learned to cook from my mother while I was in college, broke as can be, and could only afford to buy chicken & potatoes to eat, but wanted a good deal of variety in my meals. I rarely measure anything, but haven’t thrown out a dish in over 10 years.
This is a great article. My wife and I only spend about $4,000 a year for the both of us (33% of average). We follow a lot of the tips you mentioned above. We haven’t quite cut out restaurants completely because we really enjoy going out to eat, but we have limited it quite a bit. One thing where we could get better is to not buy processed foods, although I’ve noticed non-processed foods seem to cost a bit more.
I agree that cooking saves money, but eating organic/free range/grass fed is not cheap. Organic fruits and veggies are usually around 25% – 50% more than their conventional counterparts.
The cost of free range eggs, chicken and grass fed beef is astronomical.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), I refuse to put anything else in my body or the body of my wife and son.
I’m not sure how you are spending so little on food, but our food bill is approximately $1,000/month and we have probably eaten at a restaurant once in the last 12 months. We home cook every meal but eating healthy and proper is not cheap.
Same with us. Family of three, prioritize organic/healthy food, and budget $1100/month with no eating out. I just find eating full meals 3 times a day costs that much. Searching for coupons and visiting the big box stores doesn’t really save much, but it is a bigger hassle. So I stick with shopping at the local co-op and take advantage of their sales when they occur.
I’ve heard that excuse countless times – “It’s too expensive.” This is an excuse you make to justify your own lack of ambition to cook or buy quality food. I go to the local farmer’s market and spend on average $20 for myself and it feeds me for whole week…$20. Quality, fresh, organic. Not to mention that I lived in San Diego before I moved to AZ and i spent about the same amount. I must mention that this does not include meat. I purchase organic chicken at Trader Joe’s for about $8 a piece for 2 packages. Beef and pork fall around the same price. Even so, is $32 really breaking your bank? I doubt it. Stop making excuses and just admit that you’re lazy.
My husband does most of the cooking in our family, but I do nearly all the baking, including making my own sandwich bread, buns, and pizza crusts. One of my favorite boasts is that I can make a large (14″) cheese pizza for $2. Toppings add another $0.50 – $1.00 depending on the choice. The secret is using a bread machine to make the dough, then roll it out and freeze it. Also, make a huge pot of pizza sauce at once and then freeze in muffin tins then store the “pucks” in a gallon zipper bag. Two will cover a large pizza. When we want pizza it takes about 15 minutes to pull a crust out of the freezer, thaw the frozen sauce in the microwave, top with frozen shredded mozzarella and other toppings of choice. It’s faster than ordering a pizza over the phone. We spend about $350/month on food total (2 adults and one kid) and and this includes a lot of organic vegetables, dairy and meat.
After a little over 10 years of marriage we are now to the point where home cooking is cheaper, easier, faster, healthier, and tastier than restaurant food. However, even just a few months of practice can have a huge impact. At this point the only time I eat out is to pick up a fast food burrito if I’m hungry while running errands around town and it wouldn’t make sense to waste gas to drive home. I also treat myself to sushi about twice a year.
I think a big part of this success is learning cooking technique instead of just following recipes. Make cooking a hobby and read books like _On Food and Cooking_ by Harold McGee. This book tells you the history, whys, and hows of cooking. With this you’ll understand how to make the most of your recipes. You’ll be able to benefit from this knowledge the rest of your life no matter where you are. The more you know about cooking the easier and more fun it is.
We buy our meat and dairy at Costco, or order grass fed beef in bulk from local ranchers. We get our produce from the local farmer’s market. I think I step foot in a traditional grocery store about twice a year and I’m always shocked at what they charge for stuff. For example I buy two pounds of bread yeast from Costco for about $4.50 This lasts me 2 years. One packet of yeast, enough for one loaf of bread, costs $1.00 at the grocery store. It’s the same with flour. I now buy organic flour online, but I used to buy 25lb bags for $8.00 at Costco. I’ve had people tell me that they priced making bread and it costs the same as purchasing. I was confused (I pay about $0.50 a loaf for top quality fresh bread) until I looked at supermarket prices. Whoa! Shop around.
I love your advice about the pizza sauce pucks! So clever!
I think the best thing I did for cooking more was to get a slow cooker. It’s almost impossible to mess up a recipe when you essentially just throw things together and let it go for 8 hours. Plus, the slow cooker introduces batch cooking, if you are only a 1 or 2 person household – one recipe will make 4-12 servings, so you can put together lunch or dinner for 1-2 weeks in just a few minutes of prep work.
I learned to really cook well from my best friend when I was 24. I was able to cook simple things before then, such as mac & cheese and spaghetti. But she was a huge help in my learning process (she learned from her mother, I believe). That, and I just really like to read cookbooks.
As for a must-have for amateur cooks, I would insist on a high-quality, very sharp chef’s knife (brands like Wustof and Henkels). Best kitchen investment I’ve ever made.
So this article is saying that the average married couple (with no kids) spends nearly $14,000 on food per year? WOW!
No–the author doesn’t know how to read the BLS tables. They aren’t averages per person; instead, they’re averages per “consumer unit.” This is pretty clear in the table the author links to. A consumer unit consists of, on average, 2.5 people. Rather than spending half what a typical couple spends, the author and significant other actually spend more (if they do spend $7k) than a typical 2.5-person “unit.” The suggestions might be good, but they aren’t saving a lot of money.
I’ve corrected the article to reflect the BLS consumer unit point.
Well, it’s true that $6,240 (the $520/month from your introductory post) is less than $6,458, but then there are just 2 of you. I’m certain that you’re eating much, much better (for yourselves, for the planet, and for the lives of the creatures you eat) than anyone who spends $2500/year at Mickey D’s and the bell, but if these are your numbers you aren’t eating more cheaply, unfortunately. Unless you factor in the present value of the average consumer’s health care costs, which will come due years in the future.
I’m curious how anyone is spending just $3,800/year on groceries. That amounts to about $75/week.
We buy organic apples. We buy approximately 15 apples a week which is less than one a day for myself, my wife and my son. Organic apples are typically $2.49 – $2.99 per pound.
Do the math, this amounts to almost $60/month on apples alone.
I’m not complaining about what I spend, but how are people spending less than $100/week on organic, healthy, non-processed boxed foods?
We are struggling with finding how to cut more out of our budget without sacrificing the organic-quality items. In the end I think it will need to be cut by going to more conventional products.
I think it would be helpful to see an article describing the best ways to to go conventional. Is it better to buy conventional at Whole Foods or Organic at Kroger or Giant Eagle? A breakdown of that would be really helpful. Maybe it has already been written and I missed it.
We average about $800/month (2 adults, 1 one year old) shopping mainly organic at Whole Foods and Trader Joes. We never go out to eat. No I really mean never. It might just be that we aren’t making enough to support this habit and need to curb it until we earn more.
I think the best thing is to determine which foods are more important to purchase organic. For instance, it is much more important to purchase organic berries as opposed to bananas. It’s logical that the skin protects the banana from pesticides, chemicals, etc.
Here is a list of “most contaminated” vs. “least contaminated”:
I spend $100 to $120 a month on groceries by shopping at Aldi. It’s not organic, but I do try to limit processed foods where possible, and overall it’s a truly healthy diet.
That’s less than half of the $3800/year number that you were flabbergasted by, Frank. The key difference is definitely the organic factor (and being willing to eat PBJ for lunch every day).
Also, Aldi in my area has JUST started to carry some organic produce. I commented to the cashier that I was happy to see this and she said that there should be a large selection of organic coming soon!
Aldi is such a great place to shop. The produce prices are great. I usually start there and then end at Giant. Aldi doesn’t carry everything and I’m becoming more and more picky about organic whole foods, which Aldi doesn’t carry a lot of… yet. Finger crossed.
I too would be interested to see how some folks spend so little!
Very good suggestion!
I find that Wholefoods has an unnecessary mark up for organic food. I was able to find cheaper organic alternatives by signing up for a CSA, going to farmer’s markets and going to chains other than Wholefoods e.g. Trader Joe’s, Safeway etc. Almost all chains have at least some organic food.
Another key is to eat produce in season. E.g. strawberries including the organic ones are cheap right now but won’t be in Dec.
My wife and I had a talk about this tonight and she pointed out that I let things go to waste a lot too. Guilty. So, it is also important to cook and use what you have purchased. If you can’t use it, have a back up plan before it goes bad.
I just know those sprouts are going bad in the crisper…
Yes! I forgot to mention the food wastage is a huge factor too and I found that I tend to waste food bought in bulk because it’s just too much to use up. So my current shopping strategy is to only buy non-perishables in bulk e.g. grains, beans. Anything that goes in the fridge I try to only buy for a few days at a time and make sure I have a plan to use as I buy them. E.g. If I buy tomatoes, they are for a pasta and that pasta “will” get made.
This might mean that I pay slightly more because I’m buying them in smaller quantities but if I factor in the waste I’m still ahead. Also since I grew up in a developing country I hate food waste.
food co-ops can be cheaper for local and/or organic fruits and vegetables.
there are others too…
Yay for Bountiful Baskets! I was going to mention co-ops as well.
For me and my husband, it’s really hard to pinpoint exactly how much we spend per week, because we shop sales and stock up whenever possible and buy in bulk (a 50lb bag of beans will last you a while…). Looking back at our expenses for the past two years though, it looks like we average about $3500 a year, including about $450 per year eating out.
Not normally organic (except milk and the occasional beef), but we eat very very well.
I learned to cook over time, but really do enjoy it for the most part. The time factor is hard some times, but once you get the hang of it, it really is simple. I recommend a crockpot! Simplifies everything and hard to screw up. And cooking beans from scratch in a crockpot is ridiculously cheap if you buy in bulk. And its so easy to cook a bunch and freeze for whenever you might need them.
I have two tips for my fellow readers. First of all, there must be a food blog out there for every single type of diet/eating style that you can think of. You can explore them for recipes you like and then sign up for their email lists. I’ve found at least 4-5 that I like and they usually provide at least a few recipes that I can make each week. Since I personally prefer working off of recipes, I find that works really well.
Second of all, try to look up a CSA in your area. I joined one this year and the amount of fresh produce you get is amazing. And it’s organic (for those that have already expressed concern about that), and you know the farmer. I’ve been very happy with it so far.
Many chain restaurants have begun posting their recipes online. Once I realized how much I could save by making Maggiano’s dishes at home, I switched Girls Night Out to my house and everyone brings a side and drink. Talk about saving money without sacrificing experiences. My daughter is going away to college this year and we have plans to practice different signature dishes so she can save and enjoy healthy meals at the same time.
Cutting back on groceries is something I am working on right now. I grew up on Hamburger Helper and Hotdogs, so I vowed to learn how to cook when I got out on my own. After you get the basics down, you find yourself actually wanting to experiment and try new things. There are a number of websites out there that will show you how to make staples yourself, like blending your own seasonings (Italian, Ranch, Taco) or how to make sauces that generally come in a can. Sure it may take a while to prep when you are first learning, but like anything else, it becomes quicker to do over time. For couples out there…it is actually pretty fun to cook with your spouse (honest), so get out there and share some extra time in the kitchen together.
My parents made sure that we learned to cook from an early age and I was responsible for cooking dinner a minimum of once a week. Once you learn how, it’s definitely a great skill and much easier. My issue is now that I’m living on my own is buying food and cooking for one without letting any food go to waste. I’ve found that by planning out my meals for the week ahead of time (usually on Sunday), I can buy only what I need each week and am less likely to waste food. It saves money, especially in summertime when I tweak my menus to what’s available at the local farmers market.
According to the BLS website, the $6,458 spent on food per year is actually per consumer unit, not individual. Each consumer unit averages 2.5 people. Therefore, each individual spends an average of $2,583/year.
With that said, this is a great article. Cooking at home can save thousands of dollars per year and is a great way to have good food while knowing everything that you put into it (and therefore control exactly how healthy or unhealthy you want to be).
Brian, you’re way too generous here. This isn’t a small mistake; it undercuts the whole point of the article (“here’s this secret that lets my wife and me spend only half–half!–what other ‘average’ couples spend”). I got sent here by Zite, and in the first paragraph I see “um, I said monthly but I meant annual”, then in the second I see that this “personal finance” blogger doesn’t understand how BLS reports its information, even though it’s clear on the linked doc. (I’ll be telling Zite to not send me here again.) Anyway, all this wouldn’t be so bad if your comment hadn’t been up for 3 days without the author fixing the mistake. It’s not like he hasn’t been here to reply to your other comment.
Okay–I’m just as bad–the author replied to your other comment well before you posted this one. I apologize to both him and you for that mistake.
A big money saver I have found are produce markets or Hispanic grocers. Tons of selection at great prices. I typically stop in a few times a week and get the fruits/veggies I need for the next few days. Comparing prices to regular supermarkets, organic apples (pink lady’s are my favorite) are usually at least a dollar cheaper than what Whole Foods.
Only downside is that if you need supplies other than produce, you usually need to make multiple stops. My typical grocery trip includes Costco for meat/dairy/some produce, the produce market for other veggies, Trader Joe’s for additional meat (cheapest grass-fed beef I have found) and other food items, and a regular super market usually for non-food odds and ends.
Speaking of Costco…I’ve found rotisserie chickens from there are a huge time and money saver. I typically get 4-5 servings out of just one chicken!
Finally, while this isn’t for everybody, I weigh and measure almost all of my food and plan ALL my meals for the week (down to exact quantities, including snacks). I do it mainly for athletic performance, but once you realize and control how much food you actually need, you will cut back on over eating (and thus, overspending) and only purchase what you really need.
I absolutely love cooking. We bought a massive amount of discounted meat from our local supermarket this week, which had a day left on the sell by date. We’ve put it in the freezer but I’m going to cook up a range of dishes that we can stock the freezer up with, and save us a ton of money. Just goes to show that if you think creatively you can save yourself a fortune on your food bill… love it :)
Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store.
Awesome series, G.E., and great suggestions from community members. There is a way for the “what am I doing wrong?” types! Here is how a ravenous omnivore couple in Boston spends of under $100/wk and eats quite lavishly.
STORES: 75% @ WF and TJ, bulk buys @ MrktBskt and ethnic grocers.
Staples include diversified allocation of 10-lb jug of brown rice; 5lb bag of short grain white rice; variety of pastas bought on sale; pasta sauces; variety of 2-lb bags of dried peas/beans/lentils. Unrolled oatmeal + cornmeal…original breakfast cereals! Roasted peanuts, almonds etc. Dried fruits and frozen fruits. Your fav. dried spices. Let’s say $200/yr.
Vegetables: Last year we paid $22/wk @ a CSA for 7-15lbs of veg. @ “whole paychecks” this year but can get out of there w/ enough. Buy seasonally and only sufficient. Supplement w/ frozen veg.($20)
Fruits&Juice: In season fruits and a carton of juice. Frozen fruit in winter. ($20)
Dairy&Proteins: $7 for 100g Greek-style yogurt, $4 for 18 eggs, $4 milk, cheese of the week ($20)
Animal Protein: 4-lb chicken whole/sale parts ($12) + grnd meats ($10) OR Shrimp/Fish when we feel rich ($15) + beef/pork for stew or roasting ($10). Clearly the bulk of spending.($25)
BREAKFAST: Kind of a big deal…otherwise I am a mean-mugging irritated commuter who assimilates with the MAss-holes!
Carbs: Non-Rolled Oatmeal or Cornmeal. Flvr it yourself w/ vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon & sweeten w/ condensed milk/honey/brown sugar. Portion and soak overnight to soften and cook fast in am. Can you boil water? Good! Forget that rolled, denatured, and re-enriched ish. 1-min oats is like a 1-min lover!
Fruit: Frozen, Fresh, or Dried
Protein: 3-egg omelet w/ cheese + spinach/mushroom/peppers
Worth it after a 45min morning gym session!
SNACK: nosh on nuts, fruit and yogurt while your colleagues do the Thriller/Frankestein walk and clamor for a sugar rush.
LUNCH & DINNERS: Cook in bulk on Sundays (3hrs) then partition lunch AND dinner portions to last through next Thursday evening. Rotate meals as you go. Isn’t hitting 3mins on microwave awesome at and/or after work? Now Friday and Saturday is fair game for frozen dinners and/or meals in and/out with fam&friends. (Re)connecting is priceless and recharging your taste buds is inspirational!
TIPS: Meat & veg sauces, lasagna and soups keep well in freezer. Peas, root veg, and bones make a filling bowl of soup. That fibreless junk they pass for whole wheat is worthless…let’s break bread addiction and stick mostly to your cereals! Got a porch or patio? Get potted herbs…go green!
G.E.: Sorry if I’m off queue with the “not exactly cheap” and ate up space for a family of four. I’m thrilled to see wellness practice re-enforced and people offering hearty suggestions. Be well!
Shop the meat sales and stock up. Better yet go to a meat market and get a “meat bundle”. Meal prep at least twice a month. I will slow cook a pork roast,, beef roast, or whole chicken and shred it Have some for a meal, freeze the rest in freezer boxes for a QUICK and easy pasta meal later in the week. Make your own mashed potatoes and gravy. Buy perfectly good vegetable and salad fixing in the reduced section. Same thing in the diary isle. My husband can eat a 5 dollar container of greek yogurt in 2 sittings, so I buy it when its close to the sell by date. Groceries do not immediately rot, mold, go bad or expire. Its simply a sell by date folks.