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When you’re the eldest daughter in a three-kid family being raised by a single mom, you get a crash course in how to stretch a food budget.
You keep a mental Rolodex of which restaurants in your suburban Florida town have kids-eat-free nights — Tuesdays at Gator’s Dockside, anyone? You learn hacks to get the best bang for your buck, like swapping your Chick-fil-A kids’ meal toy for a small ice cream. You gain a weird appreciation for Hamburger Helper and how, if you just add a cup of sour cream and an extra bag of egg noodles to the kit, you can make enough stroganoff to last days.
Then you grow up. Everything is fine for a while… until a pandemic hits, inflation surges to 40-year highs, and you find yourself once again worrying about how much money you’re spending on food.
The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in addition to shelter and medical care, food is one of the biggest contributors to inflation. The cost of food has increased 11.4% overall in the past 12 months. Items like eggs, margarine, bread and canned fruit have seen particularly big price spikes.
What are some creative ways to save money on groceries?
I called Sara Lundberg, author of the Budget Savvy Diva's Guide to Slashing Your Grocery Bill by 50% or More, to hear her tried-and-true strategies. A mother of five, Lundberg first recommended I try growing my own vegetables.
She says it’s “super simple — and you can even get free seeds” from a local library. Peas in particular are “stupid easy” to grow, even if I don’t have a ton of space. (Lundberg has been tracking it, and she’s personally saved something like $100 on peas alone this way.) Other veggies that are straightforward to grow include lettuce, green beans and radishes.
On a similar note, Lundberg also likes urban foraging, which is when you look for unclaimed food growing wild in public spaces. She relies on an app that uses her phone camera to scan and identify plants she finds outdoors. A recent success? Discovering blueberry bushes around the Home Depot parking lot.
“I always have a Ziploc ready to go urban foraging,” Lundberg adds.
As far as shopping goes, planning ahead is crucial, says Jessica Fisher, Good Cheap Eats blogger and mom of six. She told me to look around my kitchen and see what ingredients I have before heading to the grocery store, using those foods as the inspiration for my meals for the week — that way, I don’t have to feel like I “have to go out and buy all the things.”
When choosing recipes, I should consider what I like (because if I don’t like something, chances are I won’t eat it, no matter how cheap it is). I’ll also want to pay attention to what’s on sale at the store.
“Meal planning around grocery store sales is a really good way to branch out,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst with DealNews. “Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into a rut of eating the same budget friendly things from week to week.”
One way to find discounts is by scouting the store’s weekly flier and looking for what’s called the loss leader — a product, usually advertised on the first page or in the upper-right-hand corner, for which the retailer has slashed prices so drastically it’s taking a loss. Loss leaders offer huge sales: Lundberg recalls one time she scored a pizza for 8 cents.
Fisher says to make a list before I go to the store — and to heed the age-old advice to "never shop hungry," because that can cause me to deviate from the list. Lundberg also says to avoid buying coffee at the in-store Starbucks because I’ll be more tempted to wander the aisles until I finish my drink, therefore driving up the chances I throw unneeded stuff in my cart.
Keep in mind that grocery stores are designed to "manipulate what you're purchasing," she says.
This includes everything from the way the store is laid out — milk and eggs are often located in the back, while clearance stuff may be hidden in a corner — to how the shelves are stocked. The most expensive products tend to be at eye level, Lundberg says, so “that’s where you don’t want to look.” Closer to the ground, where the cheaper stuff is tucked, is much better.
Once I’m back at the house, I’ll want to freeze what I can for later (if I buy two pounds of ground beef because it was on sale, say, I should put half in the freezer).
After I’ve cooked, Fisher recommends keeping track of leftovers, reassembling bits of meat, veggies, rice and such into salads, wraps and burrito bowls as the days wear on.
The bottom line
"You don't have to subsist on ramen noodles and hotdogs," Fisher says. "Unless that's what you really like."