Most of us right now are sheltering in place from Coronavirus, but there is hope (I think?) around the U.S. with some states trying to slowly reopen. I know I will be watching closely for signs of how reopening will go.
One thing I know I’ve been looking forward to—and many of you have as well—is just the simple taken-for-granted pleasure of going out to a restaurant to eat. I miss taking my family out to eat, taking my wife out on dates, and hanging out with friends for some good food.
Not going out to eat has affected our personal finances in other ways too. I swear I had no idea how high my grocery bill could get until I stopped going out to eat.
Naturally, it’s going to be higher. After all, four of us are now eating three meals a day at home and no longer have life’s distractions that were keeping us from snacking all day.
So I’m doing everything I can to save money on groceries.
I’ve written about conventional ways to save money on your grocery bill every month, but some of those really don’t apply in our Coronavirus-filled world.
Let’s face it. It’s a lot easier to not impulse buy food when you’re not actually at a store filled with food you can just “accidentally” place in the cart.
So let’s think outside the box. Here are eight unconventional ways to save money on groceries:
1. Meal Plan, but don’t lock it down
Now this one definitely looks like the first tip on our conventional list, but it’s a little bit different. What I’ve found is that some people don’t like to meal plan because they feel sort of stuck to the plan.
What if something changes or you have to work late and don’t feel like cooking?
This is especially true during our current pandemic. I know I’m not alone in struggling to stay motivated in general.
Sometimes, you don’t want to cook what you planned and you just want to heat something up and sit on the couch for the rest of the night.
You could still order takeout when you’re feeling unmotivated as well. Many people who meal plan may simply look at the meal and say “I’ll order something because I don’t feel like cooking that.”
Instead of spending even more money on food—along with your already over-inflated grocery budget—simply switch out a meal.
Plan some meals that are easy and quick to prepare, and then when things inevitably change, you can change plans without spending a dime extra.
2. Don’t Use Coupons
This may seem very counterproductive, but hear me out.
How many times have you bought something simply because you had a coupon for it? This has happened to me many times.
I have a coupon that is about to expire for an item I absolutely don’t need and I feel like I have to buy it.
You may be saving $2 on that $5 item, but that’s still $3 you didn’t need to spend. A few more items like that and it robs the cost of an entire meal or two.
Spending money on things you don’t want because there is a sale or coupon is even easier when using grocery services like Instacart.
You see something is on sale for $2 off that you weren’t planning on buying and all it takes is one click to add it to your cart.
During our pandemic, it’s much better to find deals where you buy one, two, or three of the item and get one free. This can be a great deal if you regularly use an item, plan on freezing it, or it’s a non-perishable item.
Just make sure you don’t go overboard because that can have the opposite effect and actually cost you more for the month. Take it from next month’s budget if you have to.
One way you can save money on food is to not eat at all! Now this will definitely not be for some people, but fasting can save you a lot of money.
I have done intermittent fasting in the past both for health reasons and to save money on food. What works for me is skipping breakfast and lunch, having a snack in the afternoon, and eat a little bit more for dinner than I normally would.
I stop eating after dinner and then do it all the next day. It helps me consume less food, which translates to not needing to buy as much.
This also has the added benefit of helping you get your eating habits under control.
If you struggle with overeating (like I have), fasting can help you get that under control. Similar to how giving yourself a pay cut can help change your mindset on money, fasting can help change your mindset on food.
I have done this personally and it works wonders. Fasting has helped me curb sugar cravings and eat much less in a day than I normally would.
It has also helped me lose, and keep off, weight because it can completely rewire your brain while helping you eat less.
There are other benefits as well. The obvious one is a spiritual benefit. Many religions incorporate fasting into things like prayer and worship.
For Christianity, fasting can provide clarity and allows you to spend time with God in an otherwise busy day by praying instead of eating.
4. Cut Out Expensive Meats
So in the past few years, beef prices have skyrocketed. Now, we’re hearing reports of meat plant shut downs because of Coronavirus infections.
That has the potential to further drive up the cost of meat by creating some shortages.
A few years ago, you could get a pound of ground beef from the grocery store for around $3.50 at regular price. Now it’s not even that cheap when it’s on sale! This also reflects on other meats that come from a cow such as steak.
One way you can cut back on your grocery budget is to cut back, or completely cut out, the more expensive meats.
Buying frozen chicken from a membership store like Sam’s Club or Costco will cost about $2 to $2.50 a pound. We also sometimes get chicken on sale for between $2 and $3 a pound at Target as well. With beef prices for normal 80/20 beef to fat ratio running at around $5 a pound at regular price, you are saving almost $3 a pound on meat!
You can extend this to other items if you don’t mind the little bit of adjustment in taste. You can replace ground beef with ground turkey, or make a chicken stroganoff in your slow cooker instead of beef stroganoff.
Aldi also has Turkey Hot Dogs for around $1.50 per package rather than the $4 to $5 you would pay for beef hot dogs.
Cutting out beef and switching to leaner meats also has obvious health benefits.
While some amounts of saturated fat are perfectly fine as a part of your diet, if you are someone who loves and craves beef, then you may be eating more than your fair share.
Switching to turkey or chicken will help cut down on the amount of saturated fat you intake (as long as you don’t replace it with other foods high in saturated fat!) and allow you to feel better as well.
My family and I are at the point where we enjoy beef occasionally but not often and it has saved us a lot of money.
5. Keep Only As Much Food As You Need in the House
This is something I’ve really tried to do a lot lately, but can be especially hard during a pandemic. The idea is similar to only spending money on things that you value.
What I’ve found is it is a lot easier to meet your grocery budget if you are watching what you purchases and only buying what you need.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s really hard to not go overboard on snacks and sugary items specifically. Experts have also assured us that besides the potential for a meat shortage, there isn’t any danger right now of a food shortage.
That means there is no need to stock up on a ton more than you need, which can overinflate your grocery budget.
Again, like anything with personal finance, this is a matter of comfort. If it will make you more comfortable to double your grocery budget for a month to stock up on things in case of a food shortage, that’s totally fine.
Do what is best for you.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not knocking having some dessert and snacks. I would call them “necessary spending” in a pandemic.
However, only keep what you absolutely need in the house. This not only saves on cost but also saves your health!
It’s a lot easier to keep overeating under control when you don’t have extra food you can just reach. Overeating can not only eat away at your health but also your pocketbook because you are needing to replace that food in your home.
My pantry is pretty sparse at times and I only purchase extra food when I know we’ll have company over…which…doesn’t happen these days…
6. Grow Your Own Produce
This coming spring and summer I am looking into building my own garden in our backyard. The reason? Seeds are cheaper than full-grown produce!
Imagine having fresh produce every day just by walking outside.
You can grow things like tomatoes and lettuce for sandwiches and salads, kale for smoothies, zucchini to make some delicious zucchini pasta or bread, and a number of other things.
My wife would love it if we were able to grow some avocado, but I hear they are incredibly hard to grow yourself. We’ll more than likely stick to the easier to grow items.
7. Use Up the Food You Already Have
At the end of the month, I am a little bit stricter on how exactly we meal plan. While we tend to meal plan for what we have a taste for even if we have to buy ingredients, the last week of the month we try really hard to use up the food we already have.
This can go a long way in stretching your budget by potentially cutting out a lot of your purchases.
This is especially helpful if the food items you have purchased are going to expire or go bad soon. One time we had some turkey hot dogs that were close to expiring during the week we were planning. We made sure to use those up first.
Sites like AllRecipes or even Pinterest can help you plan meals using your already existing purchases.
AllRecipes.com has a neat search bar where you can search by ingredient and it will give you a bunch of recipes that require that ingredient. Check it out!
8. Buy Frozen Vegetables
Much of the food waste I’ve come across, both in my house and others, is from produce items. While it helps to buy cheaper fruits and veggies and buy fruits in season, this doesn’t always get rid of the waste.
A solution is to only buy frozen vegetables. We do this for all of our main meals. They are around a buck at for most of the veggies we get! Some favorites are cauliflower, broccoli, and the white and gold corn (tastes like it came right off the cob!).
They also place these in bags that you literally just cook in the microwave. You don’t even have to dirty a dish anymore to cook them!
There isn’t a lot of nutrition that you lose by eating frozen either so you are getting almost all of the nutrients. At the same time, you are getting the ability to keep the veggies long term.
This doesn’t work as well for frozen fruit, which is why the suggestion is to just buy frozen veggies.
In my experience, frozen fruit is mushy and unappetizing most of the time. Frozen fruit is great for smoothies but not for eating as a snack, in my opinion.
Maybe I’m just eating the wrong fruit. I’ve tried blueberries and strawberries frozen. I’m curious to try pineapple, but for now, I stick with frozen veggies.
With the current pandemic, part of my grocery budget now goes to Instacart’s service fee and a tip for the shopper. These tips will be especially helpful if you’re like me and have started paying for a grocery shopping delivery service.
More than that, they will help you save money on your groceries both now and in a post-pandemic world.