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Small Steps to Save Money on Food

July 2020

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Distinguished Professor and Extension Financial Management Specialist Emeritus
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Food is a major recurring expense in family budgets. It is usually not the largest expense, compared to housing or transportation, but people still spend a lot of money buying food. Looking to save money on food? Below are thirteen small steps to cut food costs:

  • Plan Weekly Meals- Review your calendar for nights that one or more family members have work, school, or social activities and will not be eating at home. Then buy less food to avoid food waste.
  • Make a Shopping List- List items to buy and their approximate cost before you go food shopping. Then stick to the list. Include “miscellaneous” and a dollar amount (e.g., $5) so impulse buying is planned for.
  • Look Below Eye Level- Look for less pricy food items on the shelves above or below eye level. Supermarkets typically put expensive brands directly in front of customers in an effort to increase profits.
  • Buy Store or Generic Brands- Select store or generic (no name) foods unless coupons or sales on national brands make their price lower. Store brands may be made in the same processing plant as national brands- just with a different label.
  • Use Coupons Wisely- Collect and redeem coupons from newspapers and online platforms, but only on products you plan to buy anyway and only when the after-coupon cost is cheaper than alternative products.
  • Double (or Triple) Your Savings- Shop at stores with double or triple savings on manufacturer’s coupons and supermarkets that allow you to combine savings from a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon.
  • Search for Bargains- Look for marked down bakery items, meat and seafood, and other supermarket “clearance” foods. As long as the packaging is intact, it is safe to buy these foods if you use them quickly.
  • Join the Club- Sign up for supermarket “shoppers’ cards” that provide access to special sales promotions and/or an opportunity to earn points toward free or reduced price food items (e.g., a free Easter ham).
  • Preserve Fresh Produce- Buy, pick, or grow fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season and can, freeze, or dry them for use later. These items are often very expensive or unavailable during the winter.
  • Wait for Sales- Stock up on foods when they go on sale. For example, instead of paying $3.29 for one convenience food entrée, buy five packages when they sell for five for $10.
  • Cut Your Own Food- Do your own cutting and chopping. The more preparation that a store has to do, such as cutting up stew beef, making meat and vegetable kabobs, and slicing fruit or making fruit salads, the more consumers generally must pay.
  • Brown Bag It- Make your own lunch for work and school. It could save hundreds of dollars in a year versus buying meals at a cafeteria, deli, or fast food restaurant. Leftovers from previously eaten meals are good choices if you have access to a refrigerator and microwave.
  • Take-Home Restaurant Food- Bring take-home containers with you to restaurants or request them from servers. Food portions are often generous and you can get one or two more meals from them at home.