How to Slash Your Food Bill in Half (AND Support Good Health)

by | BiggerPockets.com

Behind housing and transportation, food is an American’s third largest expense at 12% of overall spending. In other words, a person who makes about $50,000 per year will spend approximately $6,000 on food.

This number will vary based on the amount of people you are supporting. But for the average, single American, let’s assume $6,000 per year, or $500 per month. This article is going to show you a way to slash that in half. Yes, $3,000 per year, $250 per month, $8 per day, or $2.67 per meal—all while eating healthy!

Although this article has been crafted with the 20-something-year-old American in mind, I believe that anyone in pursuit of financial independence, regardless of their familial status, can benefit from a few of the tips in this post.

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Eating In vs. Eating Out

The single most important thing you can do to reduce your food bill is to reduce the amount of times you go out to eat. Studies show that 72% of Americans visit a quick-service restaurant for lunch. We need to drastically reduce this number, not only for financial, but for health reasons.

First, let’s tackle the health reasons because without your health, you have nothing.

Health

A study by WebMD shows that people who eat home-cooked meals are less likely to be overweight since home-cooked meals tend to consist of less fried food, processed sugars, soda, and trans fats.

When you go out to eat, you often do not know what is in the food that is prepared for you. The probability is high that a part of that meal is killing you slowly—the salt and sugar in that special sauce, the carb-heavy bread, the cheese drowning in fat, the questionably cooked meat, etc.

Not only is the food consumed not as healthy for you, but you end up eating more of it. Studies show that eating out has led to at least a 50% increase in calorie, sodium, and total fat intake.

Think back to your personal experience. How often do you finish your entire plate when going to a restaurant to get your money’s worth? Whereas at home, you might throw any leftover food into a Tupperware container to save for later.

At a restaurant, taking things to go can be a bit of an inconvenience. You may not want to use an environmentally-unfriendly styrofoam to-go box and carry the food around with you until you return home. That is—if you remember to take the food from the restaurant table.

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Related: The Foolproof Monthly Budget: How to Save Up Money to Buy Investment Properties

Financial Benefits

Now let’s get into the financial benefits. The rule of thumb in the restaurant industry is that the price of the meal will be three times the cost of the food. Right there, you are already spending at least three times as much as if you were to eat at home. Oftentimes, it’s much more.

I recently went out to eat with a friend. We ordered a salad, with the ingredients being lettuce, carrots, chicken, avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a few other vegetables. The total cost? Seventeen dollars after tax and tip!

Let’s compare this against the costs it would take me to make this exact salad at home without the 20%+ tip and tax premium.

  1. A quarter of a pound of chicken at $3.18 per pound – $0.80
  2. Half an avocado at $1.25 each – $0.75
  3. A quarter of a cucumber at $1 each – $0.25
  4. Half of a tomato at $1 each – $0.50
  5. A hand full of shredded carrots – $0.40
  6. A quarter of a head of lettuce at $1 – $0.25
  7. Balsamic Vinegarette Dressing – $0.10

*Prices are based on U.S. averages

When you add all of these ingredients up, you get about $3.05 to make the salad. In this scenario, I need to pay over 5x the price to get the same exact meal.

Is the restaurant’s salad 5x better than mine? Certainly not. In this instance, eating that same exact meal at home would give me a 500% after-tax return through savings. Not bad, huh?

Just to be clear, I am not telling you to never go out to eat. Eating out occasionally is fine. Live your life. Be social. I just want you to be mindful of the impact restaurants have on both your health and your wealth such that going out to eat is a secondary choice.

Now that we know the superior way to eat is by cooking yourself, let’s take it a step further.

How to Save on Groceries

Erin Chase from $5 Dinners is the expert on grocery saving. Check out her site or BiggerPockets Money Podcast Show #3 to learn a whole lot more. I can give you the premise, though.

There are three opportunities for you to save: before you go shopping, while you are in the store, and after you get out. Let’s tackle these together.

Before You Go in the Store

Think of grocery shopping like a football game. You’ve got to prepare in order to win the game. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” So how do you prepare? 

It takes about 10 minutes.

Download your grocery store mobile app and see what is for sale this week. Yes, it changes every week. Once you know what foods are at the best price, cater your weekly meal plan around these ingredients. For example, if chicken is for sale this week, purchase ingredients to make three or four different chicken-based meals for this week. Or, if you are OK with eating the same meal all week, then just buy the least expensive ingredients to make the meal.

In the Store

You are well-prepared, you know what you need, and now it’s game time. Since this is where you actually spend your money, this is where you are the most vulnerable. The grocery stores don’t help. Ever notice how they make you walk past almost every single non-essential item before getting to the milk and eggs in the back corner of the store? The grocery store has a potent offense, but you’ve got an impenetrable defense.

To combat the grocery store’s high-powered offense, one of my favorite Mr. Money Mustache articles, Shopping With Your Middle Finger, should help. Keep the gestures to yourself or you may get kicked out. In your head, as you walk towards the milk, flip off and secretly say “F&*^ you, [insert grocery product here].” This is oddly satisfying. Give it a try.

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Related: 5 Frugality Myths Americans Believe That Would Make Ben Franklin Cry

After You Are Out of the Store

Game over! After a hard-fought battle, I hope that you have come out victorious by successfully completing steps 1 and 2, developing a grocery shopping plan and sticking to it by only grabbing what you need from the store.

After exiting the grocery store, there are a few apps that allow you to take pictures of your receipts and give you cash back based on the items you purchased. My favorites are Checkout 51 or Ibotta.

Pro tip: You can look at these apps as part of the preparation step and try to purchase either things on sale or things that you will get cash back for on Ibotta and Checkout 51.

This is where you get rewarded for sticking to the game plan. By only purchasing the items on your list, you can take the one to two minutes to save an extra few bucks on your overall grocery bill. I know this may seem like it is not worth your time, but let’s do the quick math.

If it takes you one minute to save one dollar, that task you just performed is a $60-per-hour task, which translates to $125,000 per year. Obviously, doing this for every minute throughout the year is not sustainable, but if you can make $125,000 per year for one minute, why not do it?

One Step Further

The previous recommendations require little overall lifestyle change.

If you are the type that likes to challenge yourself and continually push outside of your comfort zone, here’s one thing you can do.

Cut Out Meat

Meat likely comprises 25% to 30% of your overall grocery bill. What if you completely cut meat out? This has been a challenge I have done for the past four months, though I don’t cut it out entirely. I just don’t buy meat at the grocery store. When I go out (which is rare), I usually reward myself with a meat dish. For me, this saves $10-$20 per week off of my grocery bill, and I enjoy the challenge.

Conclusion

If you truly want to make an impact on your food expense, your first order of business should be to limit the amount of times you eat out at restaurants, bars, fast food joints, etc. If you do go out, make sure it is for the social aspect and try to just order an appetizer and water. Keep alcohol to the minimum. That’s where restaurants make most of their money at your expense.

Once you have reduced the frequency that you go out, I’d then recommend tackling grocery shopping like you would prepare for a football game. Create your game plan, stick to the game plan, and reap the rewards.

By doing these two things, you will significantly decrease your food bill. If you want to go to the next level, try challenging yourself by eating a plant-based diet.

In the end, your belly will stay skinny, your wallet will grow fat, and I hope that you will thank me.

Bon appétit!

Do you follow these tips? How do you keep your food bill down (and eat well)?

Comment below!

About Author

Craig Curelop

After developing a huge love for real estate investing and personal finance, Craig decided to join the BiggerPockets team as a financial analyst. Over the past few years, he has looked at hundreds of financial models of startup companies. His experience will help BiggerPockets reach the next level as a startup company. Craig has a passion for helping others get out of their “comfort zones” to get what they want and achieve the “impossible.” In his spare time, Craig enjoys traveling, hiking, exercising, and sports of all kinds.

29 Comments

  1. Randy Krock

    great article. I have used the Ibotta app those little things add up over the course of the month. Depending on the deals and sales you can get up to $15-$20 per month just for scanning your receipt when you get home.

  2. Michael Steven Harris

    I eat on 200 a month it’s a challenge unless you have to(my case for one). I shop only at deep discount groceries that have better prices and better food quality then wal mart. True the grocery has there own brands but many are either as tasty or more so than big name brands. I buy what’s ever on sale like chicken breast for 79 cents a pound. Yeah people would be surprised what you can cut I can’t imagine spending 50000 a year.

  3. Allie Schraeder

    Great article. I’m vegan for ethical reasons, but the cost savings is a nice bonus. I usually spend about $130 per month on food. I generally stick to whole foods, minimal processed foods. If I ate more boring foods and didn’t buy so much from farmers markets, I could get my food budget down to about $90 per month.

  4. Susan Maneck

    From the statistics I’ve seen the average American spends only 7% of their income on food and that includes eating out! Most of the rest of the world spends 50% which is why fluctuations in food prices can cause so much devastation. But $3.18 a pound for chicken? Really? Where do you shop? I buy my legs and thighs for 59 cents a pound at most. I don’t like breasts but when I buy them I don’t pay more than $1.98. I have to admit, I eat a lot of prepared foods, because when you live along preparing foods seems a waste of time, and I eat more not less when I do so. .

      • Derin White

        “…food is an American’s third largest expense at 12% of overall spending. In other words, a person who makes about $50,000 per year will spend approximately $6,000 on food.”

        You’ve committed a personal finance pet peeve of mine: Calculating SPENDING related figures based on INCOME. My income level should have nothing to do with my food bill (or my required retirement savings all you financial advisors out there!).

        12% of overall spending is much different than 12% of income.

  5. David Nielsen

    Something woke me up while shopping for eggs a few years ago. There were different brands of eggs offered at different prices. I reached for the cheapest eggs. An egg’s an egg, right? I paused and started to ask myself why some are cheaper?

    Well, I’m guessing what they feed their chickens is cheaper. How they house them is cheaper. The quality of care is cheaper. How they treat for illness and disease is cheaper. How well they clean out the pens is cheaper. Everything must be cheaper and you set up a situation where you get what you pay for.

    As an example, chicken litter (chicken manure, feathers, dead chickens, spilled feed) is fed to animals in the U.S. That sounds pretty disgusting, but it’s cheap. Do you want to eat something that’s fed that in their diet?

    Something to think about when you buy the absolute cheapest eggs, chicken wings and thighs, hamburgers, etc.

    • Jerry Chamnichanh

      Hi David,

      You make a very good point that cheaper products can be the result of lower quality materials and services to produce the product.

      I do not disagree with you but there are other factors that can cause products to become cheaper that are not of lower quality. One thing that comes to mind is the economy of scale. An increase in production can result in reduced costs.

      In my opinion, there are several reasons that can make a product cheaper. In order to find high-quality products, in the context of food, I would say that the more one know’s about how the food is produced, the more likely it is to be true. As you have stated in your post.

      • David Nielsen

        Totally agree with your comment Jerry. I just want people to think about what the trade-offs are with reducing costs as it relates to something you put in your mouth. Some of these products are also used as loss leaders and are sold below cost to get people into the store.

        However, we’ve created a multi-billion dollar animal production business that is constantly trying to wring costs out of their processes with some negative consequences for health, animal well-being, the environment, etc.

        For example, the waste that hogs create has some really negative effects. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pork-power/

  6. Chris Watson

    I have to admit this article lost me in the beginning. As a math nut I like real numbers and since I have lived all over America the article numbers do not represent product costs. It might in major metro areas, but definitely not where one has an Aldi’s, Walmart, Sams Club or Costco.
    As a family of 5 we eat at home for $700 a month. This includes lots of meat. As a military guy I eat alot. As another commented above chicken breast is $1.98 or less a pound. I even get flat steaks and sirloin at $2.50 to $3.50 a pound and brisket is $4.58 a pound.
    This article might be true for the Metro area but not 90% of America.

    • Jaremy Perry

      I agree with you there Chris. My family of 4 spends about $1000 per month. Not as cheap as your family, but still only about $250 per person, which is already half of the $500 per month per person that this article totes. We could certainly cut back in areas to reduce the bill, but choose not to because it’s not straining our budget. With that said, like your family, we eat meat most nights as well. You don’t need to cut back on everything just to save money, you just have to shop more consciously.

      • Craig Curelop

        Hey Chris and Jaremy,

        These stats are ones I pulled from the BLS and what the average American typically spends on food. It would include both city and town prices so if you live outside of a city, it would be below this average.

  7. Dustin Allen

    You lost me at “cut out the meat” some actions just aren’t worth the dollar saved.
    I certainly won’t buy $12/lb cuts of meat unless it’s a special occasion but there is always something decent in the $3-$4/lb range. My local store regularly has organic chicken for $2.99/lb and occasionally at $2.69/lb.
    Man needs meet!

  8. Lee Ripma

    So I’m on board with saving money on groceries and cooking at home. The thing that is very laborious to me is the actual planning of the meals associated list making then going back to look up the instructions for each one. So I use an app called Mealime. You can set what kind of food you like, pescatarian, vegetarian, etc and how many servings you want to make per meal. Then you go through it and pick out meals that sound good based on a description and a picture. It makes the grocery list for you and then you can click each item off as you buy it at the store. If you want to look at what is on sale first and plan around that you could. I don’t worry about saving every penny, I’d rather have home cooked meals that take 30 mins, easy shopping, and explicit instructions for cooking. I have it set so for 4 servings so that my wife and I can both eat dinner, then have lunch the next day. There might be cheaper ways to do it, but I’m realizing 80% of the savings from cooking in, AND I find it easy. The most important part for me is to have it be easy and painless and I’ve got that with Mealine (no affiliation).

  9. Karl B.

    I’ll never cut out meat! Though I have been replacing red meat with other meats. For example, I make myself taco salad (with sliced organic garlic because organic garlic is amazing) and went from using ground beef to ground turkey. Ground turkey tastes great when it’s all spiced up (pepper, taco seasoning, garlic salt, turmeric) and it really isn’t as dry as I thought it would be. Healthier and cheaper too.

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