Stay Within Budget
Food is the third-largest expense in the average American’s budget, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And that says nothing of entertainment expenses that include alcoholic beverages.
The good news is that because they’re such a large portion of our budgets, food and beverage expenses offer some of the greatest opportunities for boosting savings rate. In fact, many adherents of the financial independence, retire early movement focus first on reducing their top three expenses — housing, transportation, and food — rather than trying to save a few pennies here and there with coupons or other low-ROI gimmicks.
With that in mind, here are 30 ideas to help you spend less on food and beverages without sacrificing your quality of life.
How to Save on Your Food & Beverage Expenses
1. Drink Tap Water, Not Bottled Water
Bottled water is a multibillion-dollar industry, thanks to what could be the greatest marketing hoax ever perpetrated by beverage corporations.
Let’s get a few facts straight about bottled water versus tap water:
- Bottled water isn’t inherently safer — more than half of the bottled waters sold are actually tap water.
- Bottled water creates millions of tons of plastic garbage every year.
- Bottled water costs roughly 2,000 times as much as tap water on a per-ounce basis.
If you don’t like the taste of your local water, install a filter on your tap or use a filter pitcher. You can put the pitcher in the fridge if you prefer chilled drinking water. For water on the go, buy a reusable water bottle. Some even come with built-in filters.
If you currently buy bottled water, stop. Period.
2. Stop Drinking Sweetened Beverages
Sodas, iced teas, and other sweetened beverages are expensive and unhealthy. So stop wasting money on something that shortens your life expectancy.
Unsurprisingly, a 2019 report by the American Diabetes Association found a direct link between consumption of sweetened beverages and Type 2 diabetes. Yet the average U.S. household spends thousands of dollars per year on soft drinks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Among households given food stamps, sweetened beverages make up the second-highest grocery expense.
Want to be both richer and healthier? Cut out sweetened beverages.
3. Buy Disposables in Bulk
Not everything on your grocery list makes for good bulk shopping. In fact, specifically avoid buying these items in bulk.
But you can buy certain items at a discount in bulk, and they don’t go bad. I buy paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags, zip-close bags, certain cleaning supplies, and other household disposables in bulk. I also buy certain nonperishable foods, such as canned goods, in bulk.
These items won’t expire. The only reason not to buy them at a bulk discount is if you have limitations on your storage space.
4. Batch Your Meals
One way to save time and money is to cook all your meals for the week in one single cooking session. You can freeze the more perishable meals and throw the others in the fridge to reheat at your leisure.
This saves you time and money in several ways. You can bake several dishes simultaneously in the oven, reducing energy usage and cooking time. And you can cook with the same perishable ingredients in several dishes, so nothing goes to waste.
Start brainstorming meals you can batch and freeze in advance to reduce food waste and save energy, money, and time.
Pro tip: Make sure you use apps like Fetch Rewards and Ibotta when you go grocery shopping. Simply scan your receipts and you’ll earn cash back on certain items.
5. Swap Bulk Meals with Friends
Want to make your food batching even easier?
Instead of cooking a half-dozen distinct meals for the week, cook one giant batch of the same meal. Then split it into Tupperware containers and swap them with a few friends or neighbors who do the same.
For example, say you make a large batch of lasagna. Your friends make a Thai curry dish, a mushroom and bacon chicken dish, a Cajun étoufée dish, and a braised lamb shank dish. Each of you only has to cook one meal, but you each walk away with five unique meals.
It’s fast, efficient, and helps you reduce the number of ingredients you need to buy. Best of all, it keeps your meals interesting, exposes you to new dishes, and diversifies your diet beyond your go-to recipes.
6. Get Creative with Your Pressure Cooker or Slow Cooker
You’d be surprised at the number of ways your slow cooker or pressure cooker can save you money.
First, these appliances work great for making those bulk, batched meals to share. They also save you time, as you often just throw the ingredients in before leaving for work in the morning, and by the time you arrive home, voila! Your dinner’s ready and waiting.
They don’t release heat in your kitchen like an oven might, which is a nice perk in the summertime. You don’t have to crank your air conditioning to combat the heat emanating from your slow cooker or pressure cooker.
Slow cookers and pressure cookers also let you cook outstanding meals with cheaper ingredients. For example, instead of buying expensive filet mignon cuts, you can buy cheaper short rib or chuck cuts and slow-cook them for a tender, juicy end result. Likewise, you can use a pressure cooker to soften and cook dry beans bought in bulk, rather than purchasing the more expensive canned beans.
Best of all, you don’t need separate appliances. Try the Instant Pot for a combination slow cooker, pressure cooker, rice cooker, steamer, and sauté pan.
7. Learn to Make & Pair Your 20 Favorite Meals
A few months ago, I took my wife to an upscale restaurant to celebrate her birthday. She ordered a braised short rib served with gorgonzola polenta, and we shared a bottle of Chilean cabernet. She raved that it was one of the best meals she ever had — and started looking for excuses for when we could go back to this pricey restaurant.
As the fiscal hawk in our marriage, I knew we couldn’t go back any time soon if we didn’t want a broken budget. So I learned how to make the meal myself, and picked up the same bottle of wine at the store for a quarter of the restaurant’s price.
It’s a model I’ve followed repeatedly. Whenever I come across a meal I love, I learn how to make it. And I’m no whiz in the kitchen. I follow simplified recipes and keep it as easy as possible.
I now know how to make my top 20 favorite meals, as well as what wines pair well with them. We can stay in on a Friday night and enjoy a gourmet meal for a fraction of the price we’d pay for it at a restaurant, and it tastes just as good.
If you’re new to cooking, start with extremely simple recipes even college students can manage. From there, you can branch out. Remember, the hardest part of cooking is simply getting comfortable with the basics.
8. Learn to Make Healthy Versions of Favorite Snacks
People spend a surprising amount of money on snack food. And like sweetened beverages, these foods are nearly all unhealthy.
I recently bought a food processor to help me make my three favorite dips: salsa, guacamole, and hummus. All three recipes are extremely easy and fast, taste better than store-bought alternatives, and cost a quarter of the price I would pay at the store.
Check out the Hamilton Beach 10-Cup Food Processor for an affordable option under $50 if you don’t already own a food processor, and save money and eat healthier with delicious homemade snacks.
9. Shop for Groceries on Weekdays
Grocery stores are crowded on weekends, which is reason enough to shop on weekdays. But it’s also more expensive to shop on weekends. A Today Show report found that various food and beverage items cost measurably less during the week.
Because many grocery stores run weekly offers on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday schedule, Wednesdays often make the best day to go grocery shopping to capitalize on new deals before they sell out. Often, employees can be persuaded to honor last week’s deals as well on Wednesdays, if you ask them nicely.
10. Stop Meeting Friends at Commercial Venues
Restaurants and bars mark their products up two to four times on average. Equally problematic, restaurant food is typically less healthy than home cooking. To maximize profits, restaurants cook with cheaper, less healthy ingredients. Their goal usually isn’t to cook healthy food — it’s to cook food that tastes good.
You’d be amazed at just how much eating out at restaurants costs you over the course of a year. It’s even worse if you add in your annual bar tab.
One of the best ways to save money on food and beverages is to go out to restaurants and bars less. Start meeting up with your friends and family members at someone’s home, at parks, at beaches, or anywhere else you can think of that isn’t a for-profit business. Host a game night with board games or a potluck. Keep more of your money in your pocket and less in the profit margins of commercial businesses.
11. Take Advantage of Specials When You Must Go Out
Most of us aren’t ready to give up restaurants and bars entirely. So when you want to get out of the house, visit establishments with specials.
When I was a young, single man living in a vibrant downtown neighborhood, I kept a spreadsheet of nightly specials and happy hour specials for all the restaurants and bars within walking distance. It became a running joke among my friends, who laughed at the nerdiness of it — but then texted me every time they wanted to go out to ask about who had specials that night.
You don’t have to go quite as far as I did, but you should keep a pulse on your favorite establishments’ specials. Ask about any nightly specials, happy hour deals, or other recurring bargains. Then plan accordingly to save money eating out at restaurants when your discipline cracks and you break your no-commercial-dining rule.
12. Plan Next Week’s Meals in Advance
Before going grocery shopping each week, my wife and I plan out exactly what meals we’ll make for every single meal of the following week. I then spend 60 seconds inventorying which ingredients we already have and which ingredients we need.
That’s my grocery list. And that’s all I buy.
No extras. No impulse buys. That’s how grocery stores make their best profits: they put nonessential, high-margin items where you’re sure to see them to tempt you into spending more than you planned. They don’t need to put chicken breasts or milk next to the cash register. They know you’ll go out of your way to find them in the back. What they do put next to the cash register are candy bars, tabloids, and other items not on your list.
The best way to save money on groceries is the simplest: plan your meals, and stick to your list.
13. Don’t Shop on an Empty Stomach
You’re far more susceptible to those impulse purchases when you’re hungry. It’s old advice, but it’s good advice: Never shop for groceries on an empty stomach.
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to shop after eating a large meal, eat a healthy snack before you go shopping. It’s that simple.
14. Order Groceries Online
Alternatively, order your groceries online instead. That way, you aren’t tempted to buy items you don’t need.
Besides, most people end up buying the same two dozen groceries over and over again. Online grocery services like Instacart make this easy on you by letting you save favorite items and view previous orders.
And with grocery delivery, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your living room.
15. Try Generic Brands
For the record, you should always buy generic versions of prescription and over-the-counter drugs if your doctor OKs it. They all have the same active ingredient, and they nearly always have the same inactive ingredients too.
As for generic brand foods, they’re a mixed bag. Some are identical to name-brand foods and may even be manufactured in the same food processing plant. The only difference is the packaging.
Others are legitimately different products. Some taste just as good or better than the original, while others taste inferior.
But you don’t know until you try them.
The next time you shop for groceries, choose to buy generic or store-brand foods and goods whenever available. Some you’ll like; others you won’t. Next time, you can stick with the ones you like and start shaving money off your grocery bill.
16. Always Pack Your Own Lunch
I always aim to make enough food at dinner for our family to have enough leftovers for lunch the next day. It saves money, it’s efficient, and I don’t have to pack a brown bag lunch in the morning — I just grab a Tupperware container and go.
Meals out don’t just include restaurants with white linen tabletops. That lunch out with coworkers every day adds up, and quickly. As a thought experiment, think of the total cost of your last lunch out. How much did you spend? Ten dollars? Twenty?
Compare that to the pennies it would have cost you to simply make a larger portion at dinner the night before.
Paying someone else to make your food for you constitutes an entertainment expense, not a food expense. Stop justifying your lunches out and pack your own lunch. It’s healthier and dramatically cheaper.
17. Eat Less Meat
Despite being an avid carnivore, I have to reluctantly acknowledge the vegetarians’ point that plant-based foods are cheaper, healthier, and have less environmental impact on a per-calorie basis.
If you’ve been toying with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, review the benefits and challenges. Now might be the perfect time to try it for a month.
If, like me, you have no intention of giving up meat, you can at least try eating less of it. Try slimming down your meat portion sizes and scaling up your fruit and vegetable portions. For example, I set aside bacon and eggs as a treat for weekend mornings. During the week, I start every day with a bowl of low-fat yogurt with nuts, fruits, and homemade granola.
18. Buy Meat Near Its Sell-By Date
Most grocery stores have a special section for meats nearing their sell-by date. Often these meats sell for 50 cents on the dollar.
If you’ve been on a strict grocery budget that doesn’t include luxuries like filet mignon, ribeyes, or lamb tenderloin, check the sale section. Even if you don’t plan to eat it that same day, in most cases, these meats freeze well and keep for months to come.
19. Buy Frozen Fruits & Vegetables When in Doubt
Like meats, fresh fruits and vegetables spoil relatively quickly. They make up a huge percentage of the 30% to 40% of the American food supply that goes to waste.
If you have specific plans to cook with a fruit or vegetable within the next day or two, by all means, buy the fresh stuff. It tastes better, and many people believe it’s healthier.
But if you don’t have specific plans to cook with or eat that fruit or vegetable immediately, buy a frozen bag instead. You can open it at your leisure, use some, and put the rest back in the freezer to use another day.
20. Buy Spices in Bulk
When you buy spices at the grocery store, do you buy them in the fancy little glass shakers? Or do you buy them in plastic baggies?
The difference in pricing between spices in upscale, retail packaging and spices sold wholesale is shocking —often 50% or greater. If you’re wondering where you’ll get the shakers,or how you’ll label them, stop wondering and buy a 14-pack of glass spice shakers complete with labels for under $20.
I now buy all my spices in bulk, often at farmers markets, where they’re fresher and cost far less than what the grocery chains charge.
21. Grow Your Own Vegetables & Herbs
If you have a yard, devoting a small section to growing vegetables or herbs can make for a fun hobby. You get to grow them, eat them, give them as gifts, or even can them.
Even if you live in an apartment, you can still grow herbs in a container garden. I keep a small tabletop basil plant. True cooking enthusiasts can create a “living wall” of small potted herbs to pluck fresh as they need them.
22. Buy Wine & Liquor in Bulk During Periodic Sales
In my last hometown, I bought all of my wine and liquor on exactly four occasions throughout the year.
Two of the largest liquor stores in the area each had a semi-annual sale. One was a buy-one-get-one 50% off sale, and the other was an even more intriguing concept: Every bottle in the store was marked up only $1 over the store’s wholesale cost. As a result, I bought all my wine and liquor for the entire year at a discount of roughly 25%.
Wine and liquor are ideal for buying in bulk because they don’t go bad, at least not for several years. I kept a wine cellar with hundreds of bottles in it, so no matter what I cooked, I always had the perfect wine to pair with it.
23. Order Alcohol Online Through Drizly
Another option for saving money on your liquor tab is Drizly. They maintain a database of local liquor stores all over the country, along with their inventory and pricing. You can find the lowest prices near you and have your order delivered to your home or office.
Word to the wise: Have it delivered it to your office unless you live in a building with a doorman who can sign for you. The last thing you want is your case of upscale wine cooking in the hot sun or freezing solid on your porch.
24. Find Local BYOB Restaurants
Restaurants typically mark up their wines and alcoholic beverages by three or four times retail pricing. That $20 bottle of Syrah you like can easily spike to $80 on a restaurant’s wine list.
Instead, research local restaurants with a bring-your-own-bottle policy. There aren’t many in most markets, so it often takes some digging to find them. But it’s worth it.
Rather than blowing $60 in markup on that Syrah, you pay a $6 corkage fee for them to open it for you. Best of all, you get to bring exactly what you like to drink, rather than relying on the restaurant’s beer or wine selection.
25. Explore Second Label Wines
Bordeaux has a long history of “second label” wines: bottles that don’t represent a major chateau’s absolute best grapes but still taste great.
They sell for significantly less than the chateaus’ premiere wines, often with little difference in perceptible taste. In fact, you may not be able to notice any difference in taste at all. Or perhaps the difference is in a characteristic that you don’t care about. For example, the second label wine might have slightly less complexity but be just as smooth or even smoother.
Find out more about second label wines on The Wine Cellar Insider.
26. Do A Blind Taste Test at Home
Wine and liquor rankings are subjective. So subjective, in fact, that some studies have found even experts have trouble telling cheap wines from expensive bottles.
Grab some like-paletted friends and host your own wine or whiskey tasting, but with a twist: It must be double-blind like a proper scientific experiment.
Have someone not participating in the tasting bag each bottle and number them. Then go through and taste each, keeping notes about how you liked each numbered bottle.
When you’ve tried them all and reveal the bottles, I guarantee you’ll be surprised. I have been every time I’ve done a blind tasting. And as part of the surprise, you’ll find several inexpensive bottles you liked, along with some more expensive bottles that failed to impress without the benefit of their reputations.
27. Try Before You Buy at Public Tastings
Another way to ensure you actually like what you buy is to attend public tastings. Just beware — most are run by marketing reps who are trying to sell you the bottles they’re pouring.
Their job gets easier the more they pour for you. By the end of a lengthy tasting, you shouldn’t be making purchase decisions. So leave your credit card at home, and just bring however much cash you plan to spend on the bottles you liked.
Also bring a notepad, and write down the names of the bottles you liked. You can buy them in bulk at the next big semi-annual sale.
28. Preserve Half-Drank Bottles
I love a glass of wine with dinner, but not the full four or five glasses of wine contained in a single bottle. That presents a problem because wine oxidizes within a day or two and loses its freshness and flavor.
For a long time, I struggled with that fact. I’d avoid opening wines even though I would have loved a glass, or I would open a bottle with my wife and feel obliged to finish it so as not to waste it.
Then I discovered two wine preservation systems. The first is vacuum pumps, which pull all the air out of the bottle to minimize oxygen exposure. They’re cheap, and they work pretty well. Try this combination wine aerator and wine vacuum pack from Barvivo.
The second option involves spraying an inert gas into the wine bottle before recorking it. The gas is heavier than oxygen, so it blankets the surface of the wine and prevents exposure to oxygen. It’s just as affordable as a vacuum pump and works even better, in my opinion. Check out Private Preserve as an affordable wine preservation gas.
29. Stop Buying Coffee at Coffee Shops
If you spend $5 every day on a latte, that comes to roughly $150 per month, compared to roughly $10 a month for homemade coffee.
Coffee snobs say it tastes better at the coffee shop, but with today’s gourmet home coffee recipes and coffee makers, that’s simply a justification. People often love going to coffee shops for other reasons, whether it’s laziness, for a social outing with friends, or because they just like the atmosphere.
Start making your coffee at home, and put yourself on a strict coffee budget. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a coffee with friends on a Saturday morning, but be clear that it’s an entertainment expense, and budget for it accordingly.
30. Freeze Leftover Coffee & Wine
When my wife and I have leftover coffee or wine, but not enough to bother saving to drink, we freeze it in an ice cube tray.
It’s one of the cleverer ideas I’ve stumbled across online in recent years. Many recipes call for wine, but I’m loath to part with wine I’m drinking in the moment. The solution: wine ice cubes.
Coffee ice cubes serve a different purpose, helping you create the perfect iced coffee. Watered-down iced coffee is the worst, but by using coffee ice cubes, you keep it cool without diluting it.
It’s one of many coffee tricks to drink better coffee while saving money.
The average American household spent over $11,000 on food and entertainment in 2018, according to the latest data available from the BLS. Much of that entertainment spending was on food and beverages.
That means you have plenty of room for savings. Some include tricks and hacks, but most require discipline on your part. It takes discipline to stop eating lunches out every day, stop drinking sodas and sweetened teas, and stop buying a $5 caramel macchiato every day.
But that’s what it takes to boost your savings rate and build wealth faster than your neighbors and peers. Get serious about your financial goals, envision your life once you reach them, and make a commitment here and now to stop spending so much on food and beverages.