Did you know the USDA publishes the average cost of eating at home for a variety of family sizes? Based on this data, Mr. Vine and I spend right around the “thrifty plan” amount when our annual grocery costs are averaged on a monthly basis. At home, we eat plenty of locally grown, organic, seasonal produce, pasture-raised meat and eggs, and raw dairy. We highly value food transparency. We enjoy knowing where our food comes from, and everything that happened to it before it arrived on our table. We also believe in supporting small businesses close to our home. Doing so keeps more money in our neighborhood economy and provides the feel good benefit of supporting someone’s endeavor to live their dreams.
Because food spending comprises a large portion of our discretionary spending, it is the perfect area to spend according to our values. Food also has a major impact on our health and the environment, so it is an important area to “get right.” It is true that we need to eat to live, but we have abundant choice in what we eat and where we buy that food. We’ve found that we can serve our values at little additional costs to us. So how do we eat the best quality food at thrifty prices?
Buy Direct from Producers
This might be easier than you think. If your town has a farmer’s market, this is a great place to start. A farmer’s market provides the opportunity to meet food producers in your community. There’s something special about having a conversation with the farmer who grew the produce you’re going to cook. A farmer’s market might not be the least expensive way to buy your food, but it will give you an idea of what is seasonal for your region. The market likely charges a fee for the merchants, so your food purchase will have those costs built in.
It is usually cheaper to join a community shared agriculture (“CSA”) farm than to purchase individual produce items. We’ve been a member of one for the past several years. That’s how our locavore journey began. Many farmers offer a CSA to help stabilize their income. I wrote more about our experience with CSA here. Our farm has USDA organic certification. Our CSA provides the vast majority of our produce from June through October (a total of about 5 months–nearly half the year!). We prepay a deposit in January and then pay the balance when our share starts in June. This is a fixed cost that helps us budget. We are also exposed to new foods and creative ways to prepare bumper crops–like all of those yummy tomatoes we had this year!
In addition to produce, we also purchase raw milk and the majority of our meat directly from farmers. I wrote about raw milk here and pork here. Because of our farmers’ relationship with other food producers, we sometimes have seasonal opportunities to purchase other foods like fruit, whole chickens and maple syrup directly. The best part of buying directly from farmers is that you can ask how your food was produced. We’ve found that buying direct doesn’t usually result in the absolute lowest price, but rather a lower price for that level of quality. For example, a pound of grassfed ground beef might cost $7.50 from our farmer vs. $9 at the butcher vs. $5 for conventionally raised beef.
Buying direct is often about value (and values) as much as it is about absolute savings. Your mileage may vary based on what you’re buying now and what you plan to switch to direct buying.
Buy in Bulk
We don’t have a warehouse club membership and don’t intend to. Nonetheless, we do buy some items in bulk and there are ways to do so without going to a warehouse club-type store. I won’t deter you if you’ve done the math and found it to be effective for your family. But for our family of two, warehouse club quantities are usually too large for us. And, the locations aren’t convenient either. Our biggest bulk purchase is pork. We buy a half pig directly from a farmer and then pay for custom processing. We also keep the bones and fat to make broth and lard (which saves money on purchasing prepared items, including cooking fats like oil and butter). This amount of meat supplies us with protein for more than 6 months. We can conveniently shop from our freezer. Pork is a much more environmentally friendly animal protein than beef and so versatile. We have a small chest freezer that we keep in our condo’s detached garage. Even with our small living space, we can make this work.
If buying a half pork feels like too big of a leap, start with buying a whole chicken instead of pre-cut parts. This is the only way we buy chicken now. Often, we’ll roast the whole chicken for one meal. Then, we’ll remove the leftover cooked meat and use it in other meals. Roasted chicken is great reheated for tacos, stir fry, or even cold on sandwiches, wraps or salads. I don’t have the time, talent or interest to fully butcher a raw chicken. But sometimes I will remove the legs and thighs to cook for one purpose (slow cooker chicken soup is a favorite) and then will use the remainder of the chicken for something else.
Another item we buy in bulk is brown rice. We buy this from a local Asian grocery market. The same brand of rice is much cheaper in a 15 lb bag as compared with the 1 lb bags sold at our regular grocery store. Dried mushrooms, soy sauce, sesame oil, and similar items are also less expensive here as well (and offered in bulk quantities).
Due to our small living space and walkable distance to a grocery store, we don’t buy everything in bulk. So, we focus on the items where we’ll see the biggest return. Our final price per pound on bulk pork is a little higher than what we might spend on ground meat or even a whole chicken, but less than half of what we spend on a pound of beef steak. Because we buy our meat in bulk, the price is controlled and set in advance, which also helps with monthly budgeting.
Leverage your labor
Cooking from scratch is (often) a huge money saver. The less processed your food is, the cheaper it should be. Our best example of this is dried beans. We have an instant pot pressure cooker that helps immensely. But even if you’re soaking beans and cooking them on the stovetop, it’s not too difficult to do this on a day off and store the cooked beans for use throughout the week. A slow cooker can also make this task easier, although I haven’t personally tried it. A friend freezes her cooked beans for longer storage.
I already mentioned rendering pork fat into lard. We always save the bones from meat to make the best broth. It’s so easy and delicious using either a slow cooker or instant pot. I don’t think I’d go back to store-bought broth if they gave it away. Although less common, pork broth can easily be substituted for chicken broth. We’ve made some great batches of broth that have jelled when cooled.
Because our raw milk is not homogenized, the cream rises to the top of each half gallon of milk we buy. We can skim off the cream and use it in all sorts of things, especially butter. Homemade butter is similar to homemade broth in that it is leaps and bounds more delicious than what you’ll find in a store.
We also make hummus, salsa and salad dressings from scratch, too. These items started from convenience. I wanted salsa, but didn’t have any pre-made on hand. I discovered that I did have all of the necessary ingredients, though. The same was true for salad dressings. Mr. Vine doesn’t eat salad dressing and commercially prepared varieties have so many stabilizers and weird ingredients. A little high quality olive oil, vinegar along with a dash of salt and pepper usually does the trick for me. As much as the money savings is nice, it’s even better to know exactly what went into these foods that often have a lot of mysterious ingredients.
Mr. Vine and I have busy jobs, so I understand the idea of spending more money to save time. I enjoy cooking and often do so while chatting with Mr. Vine or a neighbor friend we’ve invited over for dinner. For those that don’t enjoy cooking, leveraging labor might be less attractive than it is for us. If that’s the case, try starting with just one item that you buy often. Broth is probably the easiest and most frugal starter option if you have a slow cooker or instant pot at home because the only ingredient you need is water and bones that were otherwise destined for the trash bin.
Use a list
In 2019, we slightly decreased our grocery spending over 2018. We also significantly decreased our restaurant spending in 2019. These two expenses do not need to move directly in tandem. We’re still eating the same foods. We cooked more ingredients from scratch this year, but I don’t believe that was a significant portion of our grocery budget. We’ve noticed that we are throwing less food away this year.
We’ve always used a grocery list when shopping. Not doing so results in the most random assortment of items, which may or may not help you put together a complete meal. But this year we’ve scrutinized the list and used more substitutions from ingredients we have.
Shop from your kitchen
The single best way to save money on groceries is to avoid the store. Think creatively on substitutions and try to skip a grocery run or two. Try a meatless meal. Some of the most delicious dishes I’ve made have come from an effort to clean out the kitchen. This also helps prevent food waste, which is a major contributor to climate change. It’s great when we can simultaneously be kinder to the environment and easier on our wallets.
These are the five practices we use to keep our grocery bill low and our food quality high. What do you do to save money on groceries? Do you use any of these tips already?