Trying to save money on food can be kind of like going on a diet. Food isn't just fuel to keep you going—it's tied up with emotions and habits. There are celebration foods, sad foods, bad foods, good foods, and treats we deserve or must have just to get through the day. Skimping on food can feel like skimping on happiness.
But as great as it is, food probably also accounts for a lot of your spending, second only to housing for most of us. In fact, food generally takes up 10% to 15% of the average household's total budget, a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics1 shows.
Taking a closer look at what, where, and why you spend on food may help free up some money each month. That extra cash could be saved or invested for the future—or used for other goals.
Consider these three tips.
1. Bring your lunch to work
Lunchtime is one of the highlights of the work day. It's a time to socialize and maybe get away from work for a while. You might even buy your afternoon meal at a restaurant to celebrate your precious minutes of lunch freedom.
But paying for all those lunches can really add up over time. No matter where you live, it’s hard to pay less than $5 for lunch—and you can easily spend more than $10. Let's say your typical lunch consists of a sandwich that costs $7.50. That comes to $37.50 per week, $150 per month, and $1,800 every year—for most people, a substantial sum of money.
Rather than paying someone to make your food, it's nearly always more cost effective to bring your lunch to work—and maybe picnic with a friend.
Whether you make sandwiches, salads, or take leftovers, lunch can be a money-saving opportunity.
2. Grow your own vegetables
With some time and space, growing your own food can pay off in the form of future savings—and healthful deliciousness, too. Apartment and condo dwellers are mostly limited to growing herbs and a few small plants—unless you'd like to convert some of your living space for indoor horticulture. But even a small veggie patch can yield pleasure, nutrition, and savings.
A great side benefit is that gardening can be a rewarding and fun hobby. You get to spend time outdoors when the weather is nice. If you have kids, they can help. Plus, you literally get to eat the fruits of your labor.
You'll get the biggest payoff if you can grow fruits and/or vegetables that you buy regularly—focusing on the higher-priced items, like tomatoes and bell peppers, for instance. Depending on where you live, vine-ripened greenhouse tomatoes can cost from $1.49 to $3.49 per pound.2
Let's say you buy a pound of tomatoes every week for $3. Over a year, you may spend $50 to $150 for just one fruit. Growing them yourself can save some of that—if you can add more vegetables to your garden you can save even more. Many fruits and vegetables can be frozen so you'll still be able to save over the winter months.
3. Eat out less often
Whether you're going out for tacos a little too often or you're a regular at fine-dining establishments, it's always a good idea to step back and evaluate your spending. If you used to eat out once a week but now it's twice a week, your restaurant bill may be twice what it used to be.
If, for example, you and a date or your spouse dine out twice a week with an average tab of $55 each time, it adds up to $5,720 over the course of a year. Cutting back to one night per week could save you around $2,800.
If you're trying to save money, you can stay in and make a lovely meal for a fraction of the price. And if you do, make extra so you can take leftovers for lunch the next week!
Savings add up
These tips are not going to help you fill a swimming pool with cash; you're not going to buy a sports car with your lunchtime savings. That doesn't mean it’s not worth it. Saving a few bucks here and there means more money is available for saving and investing. This can be particularly valuable when you're young and have decades to let your savings and investments compound. Plus, you probably have other life goals to pursue as well—like paying down student loans or credit card debt, buying a house, or starting a family. Your quality of life doesn't have to suffer—and your nutrition and waistline could benefit! Plus, you may have more money to do all the other things you want to do.
Even if you're completely satisfied with your spending and saving, it can still be a good idea to evaluate your expenses every so often. Knowing where you're spending money keeps you in control of your choices. Then, if you do decide to make a change, you'll know exactly where to cut back.
Take the next step
These three tips will hopefully help you save money on food. For help creating a budget that includes all of your expenses, use our 50/15/5 Guide.