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Old food savings tips re-examined

Food is pricey, but it’s also a part of your budget where you have a lot of choices. There are a lot of older tips for saving money on your food budget still floating around out there, and I’m finding some of them just aren’t true – at least not where I live, and not at this time.

Condiments inside refrigerator door

I’m going to take a look at some of them and explain just how true and not-so-true they are, and how to figure out the best solution for your own household food budget. This article will apply to North America, since that’s where I live, but hopefully it will give everyone some, ahem, food for thought.

1. Don’t eat out?

It used to be a general truism that you paid a lot more to eat at a restaurant than to cook groceries at home. It makes sense – the restaurant has to pay cooks and waiters, and at home you’re doing the labor yourself for free (just your time). But due to corporate farming and U.S. government policy weirdness, it’s no longer that simple.

  • Groceries are more expensive in some regions than others. If they’re cheap where you live, it’s probably still true that eating out is never a bargain, so the less you do it, the more you’ll save. (Of course, we’ve all seen the 99 cent meals at the fast food joints, which give even cheap groceries a run for their money. Like I said, weirdness.)
  • Some restaurants serve unbelievably huge portions. You can split one dinner amongst 2-4 people, order water to drink, leave a reasonable tip and still come out ahead. Or you can all order separately and spend quite a bit, but take the leftovers home and make four meals out of it. This is especially true in regions where groceries are expensive, but it can also apply where they’re cheap: many frugal families have found at least one restaurant where they can eat out once in a while without feeling like they’ve been robbed.
  • The way to determine how it is in your area: diligently write down exactly what you spend on dinner for a few nights in a row. I know it’s hard to determine to the penny, but a rough idea will do. Once you know the average you spend to cook dinner at home, look at restaurants in comparison to that. Remember to includes items like tips and beverages. (As a former server, I must say: never scrimp on the tip to be frugal. It’s bad karma that will bite you in the ass. Be fair about the tip and scrimp by ordering water, filling up on bread and skipping appetizers and dessert, which are usually the very worst value for the money.)

2. Eliminate branded treats?

This one’s still true and no question: making a mocha at home and taking it with you in a travel cup or Thermos is going to be cheaper than buying one at Starbucks. You can make your own muffins, energy bars and other treats, too. Homemade salad dressings can save you a good bit of money compared to buying store dressings.

Let’s say you just don’t have the time for baking muffins. You can still buy a dozen muffins at the grocery store for less than what Starbucks charges you for twelve muffins, freeze them so they stay fresh, and microwave one every day to take with you to work. With convenience treats, there are always ways to economize that won’t make you miserable.

3. Have meatless meals sometimes?

It used to be generally true that meat was pricey, and basing every meal on it cost a lot. Meat has always been a luxury in the world because it takes a lot of vegetation to feed an animal, so by the time you’ve, say, converted loads of corn into a chicken, you could’ve just eaten the corn for a fraction of the price. But we’re through the looking glass now, and the U.S. has somehow rearranged things so that meat is often cheaper than beans and rice (am I the only one who’s all “That can’t be right” just reading over this sentence?), while the opposite situation is still true in many other countries where meat is regarded as a luxury.