You probably aren’t going to believe this, but it’s true: I only spend $20/week on groceries when I’m living by myself. Since the boyfriend moved in, that’s gone up to a whopping $50 for the two of us. I’m not kidding, and I’m going to tell you how we do this (spoilers: it’s not even by loading up with cheap carbs or by going out to eat all the time).
This isn’t dietary advice, just monetary. I prefer a diet high in protein and veggies and low in carbs because it alleviates a medical issue I have, but if you’re more into carbs you can do pretty well eating oatmeal for breakfast every day (at my grocery store, it’s $3 for a month’s worth). (As an aside- sorry, vegetarian friends, I don’t have recommendations specifically for you because I’ve never tried a meatless diet.)
First, we need to change how we look at food. Meat’s really expensive, right? Well, it can be, but not if you’re careful about what you buy and watch for sales. It’s also not expensive if you eat it in proper serving sizes- between 3 and 6 ounces per serving. It’s especially inexpensive if you eat one serving per day most of the time, because then two pounds should be more than enough to get you through a week.
Chicken is very inexpensive if you buy bone-in, but you can also often get boneless, skinless breasts and thighs (don’t underestimate the power of dark meat) for $1.99/lb on sale. This is where having freezer space is good, because you can buy a bunch for cheap and freeze what you won’t use that week. Pork is also routinely under $3/lb, and is really wonderful to cook with once you realize that you don’t have to cook it until it’s dry as heck for it to be safe. Beef can be tricky, but not if you know your cuts and how to cook them properly. Chuck is great and very often under $3/lb on sale- the key is knowing that for optimum tenderness, you need to cut against the grain. Sirloin should only be bought for special occasions, as it’s usually $8.99/lb.
Produce, either fresh or frozen, is also very often cost effective. Make friends with broccoli, green beans, and spinach as staples, and let things like asparagus and cauliflower be treats. Also make friends with someone with a garden (or plant your own, if you have the space), particularly if they are growing zucchini because let me tell you, they’ll be desperate to get rid of it once it starts ripening.
And finally, I’m going to advocate for store brands. They are very rarely inferior to name brands, and in some cases are just relabels of the same exact product. The only glaring exception I’ve found to this is sour cream- it’s Daisy or nothing for me. The store brand, in that case, just did not compare.
Now that we’ve talked about food, the second thing that we need to do is work on your cooking skills. If you’re buying any sort of premade, processed food- quit it. It’s a waste of time and money (and less healthy than cooking your own fresh food, to boot). Basic cooking is pretty simple, and if you’ve really never done it, there are plenty of food blogs and recipe websites out there that you can consult for great recipes. What you’ll find is that the more you cook, the less you’ll need the recipes, and the more you’ll just know how to cook food until it’s properly done. Cooking your own food will pretty much always be more cost-effective than grabbing a premade meal, and it’ll probably also be more filling (have you SEEN the size of those SmartOnes? How does that keep you full all afternoon?!) If you can do something simple like grill or pan-fry some chicken and chop some lettuce, you can bring a healthy and filling lunch to work instead of something that’s been in a freezer case for 4 months. If you’re comfortable with cooking, you also have the ability to vary the flavors of your food despite the fact that you’re only buying a couple of types of meat and one or two vegetables for the week. One day you could do a chicken & broccoli stir-fry, and the next, pan-fried chicken with a rosemary cream sauce and green beans on the side. I know those don’t sound that different, but believe me, they are (and they’re both delicious).
The third core tenet of my grocery strategy is this: drink tap water. It’s not going to kill you, or give you diseases, or turn your unborn children into mutants. If you’re buying water, chances are it’s either not from the place it says it is or it’s just purified tap water anyway. If you’re really that concerned, get a Brita, it’s cheaper. Also, drink only tap water or things that can be made with it (coffee, tea, etc.) No buying soda, no buying “fruit juice” (aka colored sugar water, in most cases), no buying premade iced tea (instead, get a pitcher and make it yourself)- just drink water. It’s better for you anyway and if you get bored with it (believe me, I do), grab yourself a teabag and have some leaf juice instead.
The fourth and final point that will round out my $20/week grocery method is this: you need to plan your shopping trips ahead of time. All of the grocery stores local to me have some form of online shopping list where, rather than writing “bread, milk, eggs” on a scrap of paper, you can create a full list with exact pricing of all items so you know exactly what you’re spending every week. I only have experience with the Hannaford one specifically, but I can tell you that it even gives you the average weight of packaged meat so that you have a better estimate than when you assume “it’s 1.99/lb, I’ll just get exactly two pounds!!!” which, like, never happens with prepackaged meat. Remember, grocery stores are designed to trick you into buying extra food. It’s far easier to resist their evil-genius marketing strategies if you have a list to stick to.
I also have a few sample shopping lists and recipes over at my dusty old financial advice blog that you might find useful. Let me know your cheap-food tips at @trickycrayon!
A necessary disclaimer: this strategy and the prices within are based on pricing of non-organic foods at a large grocery store chain in the suburbs in the Northeast. I have no information on how well this would work in other areas (aside from that it’s likely less applicable in big cities), so feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a tweet with what prices are like near you!
About Val:A Massachusettsian by birth and by choice, Valerie is rooted in small-town New England life. She grew up thirty minutes south of Boston, went to college in a similar community ten minutes away, and eventually settled in a town that was right between the two when her post-college plans of teaching English in Japan didn’t pan out. The first few years after college were rough as she struggled to define herself as an employable member of society despite her degree in Asian Studies, but she has found her niche working in in tech support for medical software. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and/or watching fantasy (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Tolkien are particular loves), playing with her rescued pit bull Pepper, helping her parents with their various gardening projects, visiting the ren faire where she used to work, and showing her New Hampshire-raised partner all the things there are to love about Southern New England. She’s passionate about personal finance and a lot of other things. You can find her on twitter at @trickycrayon.
Photo by Abbie Redmon