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Hidden Tips for Saving Money on Groceries

Submitted by on October 21, 2013 – 11:45 am 75 Comments

By far my most pressing and concerning questions from readers have to do with getting their grocery bill down.  I’ve written on 7 Ways to Save Money on Groceries, and The Frugal Farmer’s Guide to Feeding Your Family for Less.  And Jenny from Frugal Guru Guide did a great guest post this summer on How to Save Money on Groceries.  Here are some other tips that will help you to cut your grocery bill substantially.

1.  Get creative with cheap ingredients.  When you plan your menu (yes, you NEED a menu plan to get the most for your money at the grocery store), focus on some basic cheap ingredients, and then get creative.  For instance, I can get a 25-pound bag of rice at the warehouse club for a bit over $10.  From that bag of rice I can make a variety of inexpensive meals, such as:

– Spanish Rice (with meat or without)

-Chow Mein Hotdish (light on the hamburger to save $$)

-Cheese and Broccoli Rice

-Veggie Fried Rice

-Veggie Stir Fry

– Cinnamon Rice

You get the message.  At 4 cents per cup of cooked rice, you can’t beat those prices.  Some other cheap ingredients?

-Potatoes

-Pasta

-White Flour

-Dried Beans of any kind.

Having trouble coming up with meal ideas for these ingredients?  Pauline over at Reach Financial Independence opened my eyes to the search bars on a variety of websites that allow you to find great recipes by ingredient.  I tend to use All Recipes.  Just punch in the word “rice” and up pops hundreds of great recipes you can make with rice.  Get creative!

In our house, at least half the recipes use the above ingredients as the main ingredient, saving us hundreds of dollars a month on food costs.

2.  Stay basic.  Creative is good, basic is too.  Some of our super cheap, basic meals?

-Popcorn.  We’ll have, a good twice a month, a popcorn/movie night for dinner.  Super cheap meal and the kids think it’s fun. 🙂

-Pancakes. Made from scratch with a variety of toppings from syrup to home-canned jelly.  Another tip to cheapen your pancakes? Use half milk and half water instead of the whole amount of milk.

-Mashed potatoes w/steamed veggies.  This isn’t the kids’ favorite, but we’re on a serious mission to get out of debt, so tough bounce. 🙂

-Noodles with butter, salt and pepper.  Easy, and you just can’t beat buttered noodles on the comfort food level.

No, these simple recipes aren’t always nutritionally the best, but throw in a veggie of some sort, and you can have a pretty decent cheap meal.

3.  Use What You’ve Got.  Take that can of tomato sauce and do a recipe search for a new recipe using what you’ve got in the house.  Look for ways to put together the ingredients that already exist in your pantry, especially the ones that have been sitting awhile, looking for a home in your tummy.  What you create might surprise you.

4.  Enlist help.  Ask your friends, your mom or your grandmother what types of meals she made for dirt cheap and/or how they save/saved money on groceries.  Those living in and soon after the Great Depression have a plethora of tips for saving money on food.  One of my favorite books, which highlights LOTS of cheap and delicious meals, is called Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories and Recipes from The Great Depression.  Littered with funny stories, Clara shares her favorite super-cheap family recipes. This would be a great book to put on your Christmas list.

We’ve been feeding our family of six this year on roughly $450 a month.  I’d really like to drop this number to under $400 a month, and I think if we stick to following the tips listed above, we can get it done.  And you can too!

75 Comments »

  • These are all great ideas Laurie! We’ve done many of them in the past and they can be huge for saving money on groceries. We still buy the bulk bag of rice at Costco and use it for a lot of different meals. I am just glad they don’t sell brown rice in the big bags like that. Nicole loves it and I think it tastes like earth. 😉

  • Alexa says:

    I recently started making a meal plan for our dinners and it’s working wonderfully. It’s so nice to already know what we are having, plus I schedule easy meals on sucky days, like Mondays. It definitely helps me avoid ordering a pizza or running through McDonalds on the way home. I’ve also been bookmarking recipes I want to try. There’s quite a few potato recipes on the list.

    • Laurie says:

      That’s what we do too, Alexa, and it works wonderfully, doesn’t it? I love that on the horribly busy or crazy days that there’s a simple solution to dinner that doesn’t require too much work. Some nights you just have to sit on your tail for some serious recovery time. 🙂

  • “Use what you’ve got” is my favorite money-saving tip. I hate wasting food! I also try to make simple recipes that don’t call for a ton of ingredients.

  • Brit says:

    What I do to cut down on our groceries is menu planning, coupons, sales, freezer cooking, and cooking from scratch. I have a set amount for groceries each week and I have to make it work. I have to be creative and so far it has been working. Thank you for sharing your ideas Laurie.

  • I just bought ingredients for 6 months of breakfast for under $15 at Costco. Quick oats and unsalted sunflower seeds will keep me full for the entire winter. That $15 does not include the milk cost. I put about 1/3 cup of milk on each bowl.

    1/3 cup of oats with a 1/3 cup of water in the microwave for 90 seconds. Top with milk and sunflower seeds for a warm, filling, crunchy breakfast. Raisins would add sweetness but I don’t care for them.

    Do people understand that popcorn should be bought loose and not in overpriced, chemical laden microwave packages?

    • Laurie says:

      That’s amazing, Jane! Great point about the popcorn too – I think I’ll add that into the post. We always buy the raw, loose stuff, and never, ever buy the chemical-laden stuff. It’s terrible for you!

  • Matt Becker says:

    Whenever I do cook (very rare these days) I’ve found Allrecipes to be a huge help. We definitely have some cheap staples that we buy in bulk and use in many different kids of recipes. My wife is sort of an alchemist.

    • Laurie says:

      Glad to hear All Recipes has been a great resource for you too, Matt. Your wife should share her tips on your site (or mine. 🙂 ) sometime!

  • It all comes down to planning the meal for us. We also have quite a few backup meals that we will do if we find that our plan is just too expensive or we find something else on sale.

    • Laurie says:

      Those are great tips, Grayson, and ones we use as well. If chicken is on sale at a dirt cheap price, you can be assured we’ll be having lots of chicken dishes that month. 🙂

  • Whenever I’m trying to find new uses for a specific ingredient I just google “best X recipe”. I have found some really great stuff that way. Between that and pinterest, my cooking repertoire has exploded.

    • Laurie says:

      I never thought to do that, Stephanie! We’ll have to see what kinds of fun stuff we can find that way – thanks for the tip. 🙂

  • Mackenzie says:

    Great tips, Laurie! And thank you for mentioning that book; I remember hearing about that book and forgot to write down the title, to check it out. Now I know! Thanks 🙂

  • michelle says:

    Just because you are cutting costs does not mean you need to eat unhealthy.

    Beans and Rice together make a perfect protein. With that bag of rice, simple incorporate a legume of some type in the meal and you can eliminate expense meat protein with a vegetarian version.

    Many cultures do not have access to animal protein and are dependent upon these two vital ingredients.

    And don’t forget nuts. They pack a lot of good in a small package. You dont need much to boost the health factor, as well as seeds such as chia, flax, sesame and pine. (maybe you can beat the squirrels to the pine cones!)

    • Laurie says:

      Great point, Michelle! We love to put beans and rice together, but haven’t experimented too much with adding nuts into the mix. We’ll have to try that!

  • Always good to learn more information about making cheaper meals. Thanks for the post!

  • I like this and I am one that actually loves eating rice and pasta. Unfortunately my wife doesn’t so we can’t have it as often as possible. But now since she’s taking care of our newborn I get to do most of the cooking and it’s different types of rice and pasta that we’re eating – and she hasn’t complained yet.

    • Laurie says:

      My husband is the same as you, C. – loves his rice and pasta. I have some gluten issues, so I don’t eat as much pasta, but love my rice. And I think it’s awesome that you’re cooking so much now with the baby here – super thoughtful of you!

  • Michelle says:

    Love this post! We really need to buckle down and focus on eating more cheaply.

  • Love these tips. One of your most healthiest and cheapest dinner meals is chicken stir fry with rice. We probably have it 2-3 times per month.

  • Alicia @ Financial Diffraction says:

    I totally agree – I like pulling whatever is in the cupboard out and working with it. Substitutions are very normal.

    One of my childhood favourites is: sauteed ground beef, mixed with cooked macaroni, and stirred together with (Heinz!) tomato soup. Sounds kind of gross, but oh my gosh, I could live off this as a child and it reminds me of my grandmother so much.

    • Laurie says:

      That sounds really good, Alicia! We would have a similar version of this with tomato sauce, and we all loved it too as kids. Funny how those warm memories of childhood can make plain food seem so delicious. 🙂

  • I suck at meal planning. I usually just feed myself from what’s in the house at the moment, and try to buy stuff that will fit that mold (chicken breasts, salmon, burger patties and hot dogs in the freezer, pasta and sauce on hand, veggies in the drawer or freezer). I can eat pretty cheaply but that means I never have on hand stuff for more off the beaten path, like all the ingredients to make a Chinese dish.

    • Laurie says:

      I think it’s different too, DB, with your wife out of town. Planning would be a lot less enticing. But you’re eating cheap, so that’s the important part, right? 🙂

  • Great tips, Laurie! I love buttered noddles. I add a dash of garlic powder and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese too. Oatmeal is another way I save money on breakfast. I’ve been playing with different versions in my crockpot. Right now I have a Peanut Butter and Banana version cooking. Fingers crossed that it turns out! I have gotten so much better at meal planning and it really makes a difference. While I always have a rough idea what I want to make for the week, I also go through the sales flyers and make adjustments based on what’s on sale. The hardest part for me is that occasionally I get in a “mood” and I don’t want to make what I have planned. The old Tanya would have don’t want to she wanted. The new Tanya spends a lot of time convincing herself to follow her meal plan! 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, I can SO identify with that, Tanya! There are days too when I’m like “I want steak. We WILL be having steak tonight!”. But like you, I’m working on convincing myself to stick with the plan. Yesterday we had a hugely busy schedule and I was SO tempted to pick up pizzas, but I had our oldest make beans and rice instead. Wasn’t as yummy, but we saved $20. 🙂

  • I love AllRecipes! We also do popcorn every Sunday night for dinner. That has been a family tradition dating back to when I was a kid. Breakfast dinners are also a staple of our meal rotation.

    • Laurie says:

      Sounds like we’re on the same meal track, Brian! The great thing about feeding kids is that you can throw some cheap stuff together, like pancakes, and they think it’s a huge treat. 🙂

  • Great tips Laurie and thanks for the post.

    As a bachelor, I have nothing in my pantry and even less in my fridge 🙂

    That being said, I do aim to go shopping one of these days and will bring a list with some of the items you mentioned.

    I have been cooking a lot more these days and have also been invited to friend’s homes for dinner so it’s not like I’m eating out all the time. Which is a good thing for my pocket book and waist line 🙂

    Take care and all the best to you and yours.

    Lyle

  • E.M. says:

    Since I am a relatively new cook, I’ve mostly been using whatever recipe’s my mom raised me on. Thankfully, most of them are cheap and simple. Lots are pasta dishes, some just involve meat, vegetables and a side (like rice or noodles). Since it’s just the boyfriend and I, buying meat isn’t too horrible, but he’s a bottomless pit, so it can be difficult to make a simple meal that will be filling enough. I need to incorporate potatoes more often!

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, those guys can eat LOTS, can’t they, E.M.! I’m amazed at how fit Rick stays, despite the fact that he can wolf down large amounts of food. Luckily, he prefers carbs over meats, so it’s pretty cheap to feed him. 🙂

  • This is one area I still struggle with. I could eat pasta daily, but my waist would suffer…and I could eat other cheaper ingredients, but same thing. I’m a picky eater and a bad cook. Am I doomed? ha ha! I just struggle with this every single month!

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, same here, Tonya, about the pasta. I really have to stay away from it. Lots of steamed veggies and cheese for me, and I always pick up my fave cut of steak (the blessed ribeye) when it’s on sale. 🙂

  • Meal planning definitely makes a difference. I admit to being a picky eater but since I am the chief cook, nobody complains! My grocery bill is probably a bit higher because of it though! 🙂 Vegetarian meals are definitely another way to lower the bill and having breakfast for dinner.

    • Laurie says:

      🙂 Yep, when you’re in charge of the cooking, what you say goes! We do a lot of veggie stuff too, and the kids are just fine with it. It does do wonders for the grocery budget.

  • I LOVE using pancakes as a great inexpensive breakfast idea. Even if you buy a pre-made box of mix and syrup, you can make a ton of pancakes for under $5!

  • I have really fond memories of eating “breakfast for dinner” when I was little. It was something I thought was so fun. Pancakes are cheap and easy to make and my mom was a single mom for a number of years. We also ate a lot of spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese with hot dogs. To this day I still love eating rice and black beans (actually that’s what I had for dinner tonight-rice, black beans and salsa and tortillas, yum!)

    • Laurie says:

      Yum, KK! We had that last night too! Your childhood menus sound lots like mine, as my mom was a single mom too and at that time we went with what was cheap, you know? I could still easily wolf down a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese today, but the kids prefer homemade as we never did/do much of the boxed stuff with them.

  • Breakfast for dinner is one of our favorites. Lately we’ve also been making panini’s which are really just fancy sandwiches. Stir fry’s and soups are also great for using leftovers. I used to just throw away leftovers, but you can make them into so many things. I’m really sad that I wasted so much food, but you can only move forward.

    • Laurie says:

      LOVE paninis! Yeah, we were guilty in the past too of wasting huge amounts of food. Now I’m the Leftover Nazi. “What’s for lunch?” the kids will ask. “Leftovers” I’ll say. “But I don’t want leftovers!” “Tough bounce. Take it or leave it.”. 🙂

  • We love popcorn too! I always cook popcorn every weekend while we are having a movie marathon. And I must try noodles with butter, salt and pepper I think it’s delicious.

  • Thanks Laurie! Pancakes are scrummy as well as cheap, great idea. My mum and grandma before her used to make a lot of casseroles and stews with cheaper cuts of meat, lots of veggies and homemade stock. We tend to make a lot of this kind of stuff now.

  • Isabella says:

    Great tips! I stumbled upon a blog a couple months ago called “The Prudent Homemaker.” This young mom feeds a family of seven on about $100/month because she has built an amazing pantry. You can go to her website for great recipes, beautiful food photos and lots of great money-saving food tips:

    http://theprudenthomemaker.com/

    Her basic meals remind me a lot of what you are doing, Laurie. Her pantry photos are truly inspiring!

    • Laurie says:

      Isabella, thank you! I’d been on this site years ago, but kind of brushed it off because we weren’t ready to be “that frugal” yet. (insert eye roll here!). I’d totally forgotten about it, but went back after seeing your comment and am totally inspired now!!!! Thank you so much, Isabella. I’m certain we can make 2014 an even “frugaler” grocery year now!

  • For awhile J and I were trying to be a lot healthier with our eating and I was cooking all these fancy meals that was taking a lot of time to prep and cook. Since we don’t usually get home until 6:15pm it was just too much. Now I have resorted back to my simple meals and I think I’m going to stick with that and save the more creative meals for weekends. 🙂 Great tips Laurie! I am always looking for ways to lower my grocery bill!

    • Laurie says:

      I think that’s a great idea, GMD! Plus, it’ll make weekend meals kind of special. You’ll have to let us all know if you stumble upon any fun stuff!

  • Grocery shopping is by far the hardest area for us to control. We do OK most months but it’s the one “surprise” that keeps coming up. Great advice!

    • Laurie says:

      Yeah, Nick, I get that. It’s easy to get off track, isn’t it? I know that for us, keeping the grocery bill reasonable is a constant work.

  • Nice tips Laurie. We are starting to get to grips with the idea of building a series of meals from the same sort of base (rice or pasta or whatever). It seems to be working well

    • Laurie says:

      It really can be a huge money saver, Robert. You’ll have to let us know if you come up with anything fun/delicious that you really like.

  • I also suggest… don’t be afraid NOT to do a recipe because you don’t have everything. I used to be like that until I let my creativity flow and cook with what I have in the fridge/cabinet. It may not taste or look exactly like the picture but it’ll be delicious and not require a last minute trip to the store.

    • Laurie says:

      Excellent point, Tara! We used to do that lots when we were kids and food was sparse. We’d just throw together whatever was in the cupboard. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes not, but hey, at least we took the chance. 🙂

  • Use what you’ve got is a great tip. We used to buy more stuff even though we had things in the pantry or the fridge…and sometimes things would expire and go to waste. But now with the baby, we have a lot less time to go food shopping or buy more things just because we want to cook it. We’ve been scouring our pantry and fridge for things to cook and cleared out a lot of stuff…and were pretty creative combining the ingredients we have. And didn’t have to spend anything!

    • Laurie says:

      Funny how kids change things, isn’t it, Andrew! A friend of ours one time decided he wasn’t buying any groceries until his house was empty of food. I imagine that would be an interesting challenge!

  • We find that writing a weekly menu and then sticking to it, saves us a bundle when we go shopping as it helps cut out the impulse purchases.
    Also going shopping after a meal rather than when you are hungry helps you cut out the impulses too.

  • Ajaveen says:

    Thanks for the tips Laurie. I love popcorn and sometimes I have popcorn twice per week. A great cheap tasty snack!
    I know as I was paying off credit card debt I ate so many
    peanut butter sandwiches and beans LOL.

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, yes, PB sandwiches are a staple around here too. I’m sure the kids will be much happier about that when I allow them to add jelly to the menu. 🙂

  • Great tips, Laurie, and I am happy to report I do all of this! 😛 This saves me so much money on groceries. I would especially agree with “stay basic”, this can save a LOT (and I love pancakes!) 😛

    • Laurie says:

      Go, Eva! Yes, it really does work!! I’ve been learning some other great things that I’m going to share a bit about on Saturday too!

  • anna says:

    Awesome tips, Laurie, and I agree about the comfort food factor of noodles and butter!! When we’re going bare bones, I love beans, rice, and diced tomatoes – super hearty and great for the system. 😉

  • Another thing to remember is that spices can change a dish entirely. And with spices, a little goes a long way!

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