How to Save on Grocery Bills

How to Save on Grocery Bills

When I was 20, I moved to a tiny (10 x 20 feet) bachelor apartment with a shared bathroom in Toronto. I was in school full-time, working at a restaurant part-time, and freelancing. Because I was no longer living under my parents’ roof, that meant no more free meals and water (but I was still on that sweet cell phone plan!) Between all my bills, tuition, and fun nights out with friends (hey, I was 20), the place where I knew I could save money was on groceries.

At home, McDonald’s was an expensive extravagance, and you could make a whole DELICIOUS meal for a couple of bucks. That set me on a good path for striking out on my own.

Here are some strategies I developed back then and still use now.

Watch where you buy

In most cities, there are varying levels of grocery stores. You got your beautiful, curated stores where you can easily spend triple digits on two bags of items. Then you got the sketchy places where vegetables are rotting on the shelves. We’re looking for something in between. If you can travel, this opens up your options to save, even with gas prices being what they are. When I was 20, I hit the No Frills for anything in boxes, bottles, or cans and the Asian supermarkets for meat and produce. Certain places will have lower prices for categories of things, particularly if you’re looking for food from a specific nationality. If you’re looking for Chinese groceries, hit the Chinese area of town. Same if you’re looking for South Asian food. The quality will be better and the prices will be lower.

In Toronto, we almost always go to the Dufferin Mall No Frills, which is comparable in quality to all the fancier chains but way cheaper. It even has a fresh seafood section and butcher! Oh, and never EVER shop at a convenience store unless you’re desperate. They charge for the convenience!

Watch what you buy

When I went dairy free 15 years ago, I nearly cut my grocery budget in half. Not only was gourmet (aka expensive) cheese out of the picture, so was any frozen or boxed convenience food (remember, you always pay for the convenience). Yes, whole foods are a pain in the ass to prepare, but they’re way cheaper and much better for you. There’s more nutrition so that you actually end up fuller than with the same amount of processed food. 

Some quick tips:

  • Produce: Buy in season as much as possible. Fruit that’s in season is usually featured near the front doors or at the end of the aisle.
  • Meat: Anything on the bone is cheaper (and more delicious) than filets. If you have time and a sharp knife*, you can debone anything quickly with practice. We buy a crap ton of chicken thighs because they’re tasty, versatile, and almost always on sale. If you want to go even cheaper, stop buying meat altogether!

*Invest in a good chef’s knife and keep it sharp. It’ll make cooking easier, safer, and more fun! 

  • Canned stuff: I always have whole canned tomatoes in the pantry. With some work, you can make a spaghetti sauce, chilli, or stew that is tastier than the prepared stuff. Also healthier and cheaper. I also always have canned beans. They’re tasty, filling, and cheap. 
  • Dried pasta and rice: This is the cheapest way to make a big meal. Cooking for one? White rice with a fried egg and soy sauce is the best quick meal. 
  • Condiments/seasoning: This is what will elevate any meal. Build your arsenal of soy sauces, fish sauce, chillies in adobo sauce, etc. with every new recipe you try. Try to stick to the basics and stay away from spice mixes, unless you plan on making that certain dish a lot. You have more variety that way.
  • A little treat for yourself: Scrimping sucks, so get yourself a cheap little treat so you don’t feel so restricted that you lash out and blow your entire budget on lobsters next time you go shopping.
  • Be reasonable: Not everyone is ready to start making everything from scratch. If you gotta get some Ragu sauce or chicken burgers here and there, don’t be too hard on yourself.

Make a list and check it thrice

Make a plan for what you want to eat that week and stick to it. This will ensure you don’t waste food or money on items you don’t end up eating. It’ll also keep you from roaming around the store and being tempted by something you don’t need. Everything looks amazing in the store. Zillions of dollars are spent on packaging design and lighting, all to GET YOUR MONEY.

In order to stay organized, my husband and I use an app called OurGroceries which keeps synced shopping lists on both our phones. When we run out of something, we put it on the list. When one of us goes shopping, we (mostly) stick to the list. We waste very little food in this house. Though I get some complaints about the lack of treats.

Buy staples on sale

I’m not a coupon clipper because I think it tempts me from going off-script. But I have a friend who’s a prodigious coupon clipper, who will price match several stores and get discounts on EVERYTHING when she shops. I don’t have that kind of patience.

When my staples go on sale, I’ll get extras, even if they’re not on the list. These include pasta, tuna in oil (my splurge), chips (my treat), chicken legs and other meat, and frozen fish. For the last two, I purchased a small bar-sized fridge for our basement to keep them. 

Make a lot and freeze it

Speaking of my extra freezer, it’s also full of leftovers. Certain meals are easy to make in bulk but will destroy your soul if you have to eat them all week. I save soups, stews, meat dishes, and lasagnas. I’ve heard you can freeze cooked rice, but I haven’t tried it. They’re perfect for when you’re too hungry to cook, and don’t want the extra expense of ordering in.

Save your scraps

This is a little extra. You can save bones and vegetable scraps in the freezer to make broth. Take your no food waste game to the next level!

Find your groove

Pay attention to what you like to cook and eat, and what you don’t like. If a dish is a clear winner, add it to the weekly rotation and keep ingredients on hand. Pay attention to the quantities you need. If fruit is rotting on your table, buy less next time. Everyone’s lifestyle is different. Some of us have 30 free minutes a day to cook and gobble something down. Some of us will spend 6 hours making a 9-course meal for fun. Find what works for you.

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