When I first read about Bif Naked’s $3-A-Day Welfare Food Challenge I was instantly shocked. Three dollars… that’s not even enough to buy a coffee at a relatively nice cafe, am I right?!
I thought about it for a while, crunched the numbers, and was amazed to find that the $21 dollar/week challenge paralleled what I normally spent on weekly groceries as a ‘poor student,’ and still isn’t too far from what I spend now as a young professional. While the $80/month low-end of the average student grocery budget may not seem like a lot, there are several purchasing habits that can help anyone minimize their weekly spending.
Before I continue with these tips I would like to add that above all else it is crucial to find a budget that works for you: you never want to go hungry or unhealthy for the sake of saving money!
1. Ditch No-Nutrient Foods.
As I mentioned in my post on building a grocery budget (linked above), relying on non-nutritious foods, such as noodles, chips, sugary drinks and sweets, to make a budget work can have serious health consequences. Eliminating junk foods from your grocery list can help you save money. Simply put, these non-nutritious snacks don’t fill you up, so you’ll end up spending more and eating more without any lasting health benefits.
2. Allow Yourself A ‘Luxury Item.’
I am a huge fan of exceptions/cheats and strongly advise that you put one slightly more expensive item in your basket. Please note, this is not a warrant to buy a whole wheel of ultra-fancy cheese and then complain that I told you to break the bank, but if a little piece of nice cheese or a fancy coffee creamer is you raison d’être, go for it… in moderation. From personal experience, having a little cheat item or a little treat item each week can do wonders to keep your budget on track.
3. Buy Dry and In-Bulk… But Know When to Say No.
Buying bulk quantities of some foods, such as rice, legumes and canned tomatoes, can help you save money because of decreased packaging costs. In my experience, having large quantities of these foods on hand also makes meal prep way more convenient: having to make the split second decision between running to the store for groceries for one meal or staying in and ordering take-out can totally burst a budget and add up over time for a busy individual.
I literally just added the ‘dry’ part to this point so that I could tell you all about textured vegetable protein (TVP). My wallet and I are both super obsessed with this unbelievably cheap, ultra nutritious, veggie friendly, meat alternative. I frequently pick up a big bag of this for a couple of dollars at Bulk Barn. TVP lasts for 6-9 months in dry storage, is super lightweight, easy to use and flavor, and amazingly hiking and camping friendly: seriously, check it out.
Pro-Tip: Use common sense; don’t buy a whole bunch of something you don’t really like or can’t use just because it’s on sale. You’re not saving money if you’re throwing out food!
4. Don’t Be Afraid Of Price Cuts
Foods are often marked down between 30-50% off when they are nearing expiration. Note the wording here- ‘nearing expiration not ‘expired.’ Double check the date to see how many days you have to use the food, and if it’s something you can and want to use or make use of in a day or two (like a single serving of fish, vegetables for a soup, or bread that you have room for in the freezer), take advantage of some sweet savings.
5. Shop Around
All grocery stores are not created equal. Shop around to find the best deals and maximize your savings. You can check out flyers online before heading to the store to make sure that you make the most of your trip without wasting too much time or gas money.
For specials and sales, Wal-Mart offers a price match guarantee on products, which can make one-stop shopping easy. Be aware that like most stores, Wal-Mart’s price matching has a series of limitations and usually only applies to specific brand names and sizes.
If you can’t find the things you need at Wal-Mart, No-Frills is another great chain grocery store that offers price matching.
If you’re trying to avoid the big-box route while still saving money I recommend cutting out the middle man and buying local produce from the community garden or farmer’s market during the harvesting season. I’ve found that local organic vegetables can often be purchased for next to nothing from the gardeners themselves (seriously, I bought a cucumber for 50 cents this summer), but health food stores that specialize in local and organic vegetables often have crazy prices.
6. Throw Nothing Away
‘Waste not, want not.’ You’ve heard it a thousand times for a reason. Throwing away food is basically throwing away money.
The best way to avoid throwing away food is to only buy as much as you can eat. If you’re cooking for one or two people, however, this can be really difficult. It can also be expensive; for instance, a single serving of salad is often more expensive than a full head of lettuce.
Fear not- I have complied a short list of ways to avoid throwing out food that can help you cook for one or two people without committing to a marathon stretch of menu items based off one or two perishables (your taste buds can thank me later).
7. Yes You Can (Eat Canned Foods and Still Reap Nutritious Benefits)
So here’s the deal- you’ve probably heard that canned food is horrible for you… this may be the case for highly processed canned foods (think novelty ‘pasta’ things in a ‘sauce’ that is like ketchup with even more salt and sugar), but as far as canned veggies are concerned it’s kind of a different story.
The canning process is basically a give and take. As far as veggies, legumes and other whole-food alternatives are concerned, the processing, sealing and heating that takes place in the canning process depletes certain nutrients while fortifying or making other nutrients available. What’s more, since canned foods are often more cost efficient and dense than their fresh or frozen counterparts, you can often expect to stretch your budget a little further and get more nutrients for your money by including canned foods on your grocery list.
Don’t trust me or feel uncertain? Here’s just one quick list of nutritionist-recommended canned foods to get you started!
8. Try Foreign Foods
Head to your local Asian, Middle Eastern or other foreign grocer or even to the foreign foods section of your local big-box grocery store to scoop up savings. Lots of awesome foods can be found at a fraction of the cost as these distributors tend to stock non-domestic labels. Even basic staples like rice, noodles and legumes can often be found for very competitive prices.
Bonus points: if you’re not familiar with non-domestic grocery shopping and you’re the adventurous type you’re probably about to enter a whole new world of flavour!
9. Meal Prep
Just do it. You will save so much money. Seriously…. so…much..money. Once you master budget grocery shopping you will come to find that even one missed-lunch meal in a restaurant comes at the opportunity cost of a whole bag of delicious, nutritious groceries.
Pick a lazy day, a Sunday if you will, and throw something on the stove, something in the oven and something in the slow-cooker. Freeze left-overs in single serving sized freezer bags for quick on-the-go lunch options or working-late dinners.
If you’re a total cooking newbie check out Budget Bytes or StudentRecipies for some drool worthy, wallet friendly inspiration.
10. Herb and Spice It
A lot of budget basic staples like flour, rice, legumes and vegetables aren’t super exciting on their own. In order to stick to your budget and avoid screaming in agony every time you have to force down a meal (the horror, the horror!), I suggest getting creative with herbs and spices. (Or even just learning the basics with this chart right here).
While herbs and spices can get a little expensive, they’ll save you a lot in the long haul. They tend to be both cheaper and a lot better for you than sodium and sugar loaded pre-made sauces. If you’re not sure if you’ll like a spice, don’t hesitate to buy a recipe’s worth from a bulk store (such as Bulk Barn), and go back for a packet when you’re ready to commit.
11. Go Splits With Roommates
This is a great way to cut down on the cost of things that you use slowly or infrequently such as vinegar, spices, herbs and baking necessities. Sharing with roommates also frees up valuable space in the pantry and fridge so that you can have a more versatile variety of food. Yay!
12. Host a Potluck Party
Okay, so this isn’t the first list that I’ve ended with this suggestion, but seriously, cut up a baguette, make a basic bruschetta, sit back and eat a five-course meal. It’s cheap, it’s delightful and it’s also a great opportunity to have a super low-cost night with your friends. What more can you ask for?!