How to Save Money on Food

There’s an old Army story about the sergeant who reported regularly to the Brass that he was training a mule to live without eating. His method was to reduce the amount of fodder given to the mule each day, thereby weaning him off the need for expensive feed grains. Unfortunately the mule died before the experiment was completed.

There are many good ways to save money on food, but none of them are any good if you can’t or won’t eat the less expensive viands you gather. The first place to start in planning your campaign to cut food costs, then, is less expensive alternatives for the same product. Premium grocery stores, for example, usually have premium prices to go along with the premium atmosphere. Can you get the same item at one of the warehouse stores? Canned goods, after all, are canned goods, regardless where you buy them, and most have extended expiration dates – the whole reason canning was invented in the first place. Caveat: don’t use up fuel shopping around. Find the cheapest place in general, not the absolute lowest price for each item regardless how far you have to go to get it.

Further, most people don’t realize that “store” brands are frequently processed by the same companies that put out “name” brands. A canning or other food processing operation frequently cannot stay in business or keep the workforce busy on what they sell under their own label, so they contract out excess capacity, thereby spreading their fixed costs over a greater level of production for greater profitability (that’s another lecture). The quality is the same – or higher – than their own “name” product due to contractual quality obligations, but frequently has a cheaper price for the consumer.

Nor are canned goods the only type of product where quality standards are the same or higher for “generics.” Flour is considered “fungible,” as long as it meets federal and state requirements for quality. You must be careful, however, when switching from buying pre-made items such as bread and other baked goods under the illusion that you are immediately going to bake all your own bread. (By the way, “bread machines,” while convenient – up to a point – are expensive investments for something you can actually do better and faster by hand.)

Thinking that you are immediately going to bake all your own bread, cookies, cakes, and so on, is a great way to waste a lot of money buying specialized equipment and supplies that you aren’t going to use after the novelty wears off. It falls into the next higher level of “how to save money on food” because it requires a fundamental change in behavior, especially how you budget your time and where you target your efforts, not just where you shop and what you buy.

If you are entering the world of “advanced techniques” for saving on food, the first thing you have to do is stop eating out. Period. Cold turkey is the best way to go with the eating out addiction…if you’ll pardon the expression. And that means ALL eating out, which includes drinking. A “few drinks with the boys (or girls)” is a great way to socialize … and in the space of an hour and a half run up a bar bill equal to half your weekly food budget. If you MUST drink to socialize, it would be cheaper to purchase premium liquor and have your friends over to the house. By limiting intake to one drink, you not only promote driving safety, but save considerable money.

Once you have overcome your restaurant and bar addiction, you can begin studying what you purchase for home consumption. This is the next highest stage in learning how to save money on food. You need milk (I assume), but do you really need soft drinks? Even the generic store brand is money down the drain, especially since water is better for you, anyway. And speaking of water, the United States and Europe have safe water supplies. The days of “Don’t drink the water” are long gone – but if you feel nervous, boil it, let it cool, and then chill it in the refrigerator.

This stage entails the end of buying anything pre-made – but don’t go cold turkey in this stage. Build up to it gradually. You are engaging in more serious and fundamental behavior modification than in the earlier stages. If you’ve ever gone through one of the better weight loss programs, you will instantly realize that this is similar. You’re changing both what you eat and how you obtain it, so proceed carefully, and try to build in lots of positive reinforcement.

To obtain good positive reinforcement, watch the cooking shows on PBS. Even the “gourmet” shows tend to concentrate more on technique, which you can then apply to less expensive ingredients to achieve a higher quality effect than would otherwise be the case. Further, a television show host or hostess has the advantage over a live teacher in that the star is ALWAYS sure you can do it, and won’t be lifting an eyebrow or retching at your wretched first attempt. (By the way, do you have a dog? It will love you for your “failures” – it gets an extra treat!)

The “highest” stage of saving money on food is to produce and process it yourself. There are sub-stages even in this, however, and you can either go part way or whole hog (especially if zoning permits pig keeping, and you’ve a strong stomach for slaughtering and butchering livestock). I’m only half joking there: it was quite common for people even in the city to keep chickens, even hogs, until well into the 20th century (pigs used to be the primary garbage collectors in New York City until at least the 1870s), and chickens – while frustrating, dirty, and depressing creatures – are relatively “easy” to raise.

That, however, represents the most advanced stage. Putting in a few tomato plants or other vegetables is a good way to get your feet wet (and your hands dirty) and see if growing food meets your wants and needs. I cannot stress enough that you must start small. More gardeners fail because they thought too big too soon than for any other reason, and it quickly got beyond them and their nascent abilities. (The second biggest reason is planning a garden and assuming somebody else is going to do the work. Right.)

Before going any further, obtain and read the free literature on food preservation available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You don’t want to endanger yourself or your family by unsafe food processing techniques. (Case in point: the “rural legends” that you can process canned food safely using your dishwasher, or by putting an aspirin tablet in each jar … these are absolutely false, and a good way to get all kinds of deadly infections in your processed food.)

An intermediate step between growing some vegetables for in-season use and becoming king or queen of Pig Hill Farms is to preserve your surplus for later use instead of flooding your neighbors with antique tomato varieties and field corn. Don’t get into canning first. See what you can freeze. By this stage, you should already have a freezer to take advantage of sales. Properly stored, meat and produce will last for months if frozen.

Drying is the next step before canning. If you don’t live where you can rely on the sun, a gas oven with a pilot light or an electric oven turned to the lowest setting can function as a dehydrator without having to buy or build a dedicated piece.

Canning proper and charcutiere (sausage making) – and wine and beer making – are the “pinnacle” of saving money on food … but only if you already have the equipment, or are going into this in a VERY big way. Proper equipment can get expensive, and you have to know what you’re doing. Don’t think that buying the equipment will inspire you or you will learn as you go along. That’s a good way to waste money and get sick at the same time. Take courses and, ideally, assist a friend in his or her endeavors in this line. Better yet, when ready, join together with friends and use expensive equipment and bulk supplies cost efficiently. There’s a reason why such things as quilting bees and harvest festivals took place – a lot of people making apple butter or canning tomatoes is not only easier and more cost efficient, you tap into people who have done the thing for decades and know exactly what to do. You end up with a year’s supply of whatever everybody pitched in to make, and save a great deal of money.

Saving money in buying food is an incremental process. To to recap the stages:

1. Get the lower cost version of the same thing.

2. Stop eating out.

3. Don’t buy anything pre-made.

4. Grow your own.

5. Process your own.

These stages, taken in order, will result in significant cost savings on food. While some individuals may get away with it, it is generally not a good idea to skip one of the stages, or to try and implement them all at once. Implemented with common sense and incrementally, however, you will end by being much better off, financially and with respect to your overall health.