This Little Trick Can Save You Thousands On Your Grocery Bill

grocery billIn 2008, I spent $7447.06 on groceries for our four-person household. In 2013, it was almost twice that much: $13,788.59. In case you’re wondering, that represents the total cost required to make at home 342 breakfasts, 330 lunches, and 281 dinners last year. It also includes all of our snacks and desserts.

Needless to say, like most other folks, our family also enjoys going out to dinner occasionally; most of the time it’s either fast food, pizza delivery, or a mid-priced family restaurant like Chili’s, but sometimes we splurge and eat somewhere a bit more upscale.

Unfortunately, eating out is not cheap. Back in 2008, we dined out 29 times and spent $1050.32. Of course, like most people, as our household income has grown, so has the number of restaurant meals. Last year we let someone else cook our dinner 68 times. The total cost: $4140.

Breaking down the numbers, what immediately stands out is that, on a per meal basis, dining out is horrendously expensive. In my case, last year we consumed 953 meals at home at an average price of $3.62 per person per meal — that’s 73% more per meal than the household spent in 2008. While the majority of that increase can be blamed on price inflation, I believe a good chunk of it is also the result of my kids’ insistence on growing up and becoming ravenous teenagers — despite my pleas to the contrary.

By the way, healthy eaters can take solace in the fact that my cost per meal for dining at home also includes snacks and desserts. Assuming 5% of our grocery bill is dedicated to snacks and desserts, then my household’s actual meal price per person is really only $3.43.

Now let’s compare that total to my household’s cost of dining out which, in 2013, totaled — hold on to your hats, folks — a whopping $15.22 per person! In other words, on average, our cost of dining out was more than four times the cost of eating at home last year! I know.

My family dines out an average of about five times per month. How many people do you know who bring home dinner from a restaurant that many times per week? Just think about all of the money a four-person household could save — not to mention the health benefits — by simply eating more home-cooked meals.

The moral to this story can be found in the math: Increasing the number of times one eats at home is an easy and extremely effective way to cut monthly expenses. Best of all, for folks who are looking to stretch their income by cutting costs, that’s low-hanging fruit.

Behold The Power of the Family Dinner Menu

Even so, for a lot of people, the temptation to avoid cooking at home is strong.

I’ve found that the best way to encourage more home cooking is by simply planning ahead — and the best way to do this is by creating a home dinner menu approximately twice per month. I know this because, when I’m not playing household CEO, I pull double-duty as the family chef too. (Yes, ladies, believe it or not there are quite a few men out there who love to bring home the bacon and cook it up too.)

Anyway, one of my duties as the family chef is to assemble a household dinner menu that covers the following two weeks — including those “off” days when we splurge by dining out — and usually one leftovers night too. I then use the dinner menu to help create the family grocery list for the next two weeks.

Trust me; this process is tried and true. And it works because it instills discipline. In fact, we’ve successfully used this method for more than ten years now, and it has helped us to save a lot more money than we would have otherwise.

Who Says Home-Cooked Meals Are No Fun?

I always make sure the whole family participates in the menu selection process; our kids always get to select two meals each, while the Honeybee and I choose the rest.

When my kids were a lot younger, their inputs almost never failed to be, well … interesting. I remember one particular time, back when my daughter was in third grade, she selected spaghetti tacos. They actually turned out pretty good! If you want the recipe, let me know.

Photo Credit: Aranami

Comments

  1. 1

    Michael Dolen says

    Hi Len, I agree it makes sense for your situation, but sometimes it’s actually cheaper to eat out. For example, it’s much different for individuals… the cost per meal is much more expensive. This is especially true if you have special dietary restrictions. For example, I’m vegan and the price for dining out only averages out to be about 30 to 40% more for me (for lower priced restaurants). Plus you have to take into account the time it takes to prepare a meal. If it takes me an hour to cook a meal and I could be making $20 during that same time by working, it actually makes sense to pay for takeout. Just some food for thought ;)

    • 2

      Sam says

      30 to 40% more is a lot. Even for one person. Not to mention, chances are that you do have some down time and are not working constantly. Therefore, you would likely not actually make $20. Plus, the time it takes to go to a restaurant is about the same as it takes to cook many meals. If you like going out to eat, great, but it isn’t cheaper.

    • 3

      TLSF says

      Michael, I assisted my young sister-in-law with her budgeting a little over a year ago, when she first moved out on her own. I had the whole dollar menu VS home cooking debate with her. Average meal for dollar menu eating = 3 bucks. Assuming that she ate only 2 times a day, I had a budget of 6 bucks per day to work with. 6 bucks a day times 7 days a week for a weekly budget of 42 dollars fed her amazingly well on lasagna, nicoise salad, fish, BBQ chicken, etc… She had to get over the whole cooking for one thing. Now, she makes meals that will be three or 4 servings, freezes some, and keeps others in the fridge to be eaten within the next 3-5 days either as lunch, or an effortless dinner.

    • 4

      says

      It almost never makes sense to pay for takeout, even when you do that math.

      You could be making $20 an hour, but do you? Do you work every hour that you are not sleeping or exercising? There is the idea, somehow that it’s better to drive to a restaurant, get takeout, and drive home, and pay 40% more for it. (Or walk, or bike).

      Most people have at least a few hours of downtime in a week to cook.

      Now, cooking for one sucks. I cook for four, and it sucks sometimes. Then you have to do the dishes. So, that would be a reason to eat out, for me. (Or in my case, when my husband traveled before we had kids, I subsisted on bagels for dinner.)

      But financially it almost never makes sense (unless maybe you are saving huge $$ by living in a converted bus or a room with no cooking facilities).

  2. 5

    says

    Len – Another great article. Obviously, the key to your success, in keeping your food costs low, is planning ahead. It is when we don’t plan ahead that we usually end up on the fast food treadmill. If we stay on the fast food treadmill too long, we eventually have to get on the fatshop treadmill(another cost) or entertain expensive doctor’s appointments and drugs for the treatment of diabetes.

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      You know, when you stop to think about it, planning ahead is the key to success in many areas of personal finance besides grocery bills.

  3. 7

    Jenny says

    Hi Len. Will you please share your 14 day meal plan? With recipes? When I try new recipes – no one seems to like them. I would like to try recipes that other families eat regularly. Thanks.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      Hi, Jenny. I share one of my family 14-day meal plans here.

      I occasionally share recipes on this blog, like I did here, here, and here, but not very often — only because this is not a cooking blog, and I am not a gourmet chef!

  4. 9

    TLSF says

    Hey, Len. Long time reader, first time replier. :-) Spaghetti Tacos have become a family favorite of ours. I cook my taco meat separately, make my spaghetti, and chop a bell pepper into strips. Put on the table with taco shells, some cheese, and some sour cream, and everyone gets to make their own spaghetti taco creations!

    I have been meal planning and shopping once a month for groceries (with $20 set aside in the budget per week for milk, bread and some fresh produce) and am literally amazed at how much I have been able to shave from our grocery bill each month.

    Recently, a friend told me that she was going to do the “Food Stamp Challenge”, and spend only what she would get if her family were on food stamps. She challenged me to do the same, to see if I could do it. I called and found out what our disbursement would be, if we qualified. I am creating healthy, diverse, plentiful meals on just a little over 1/2 of the allowance in our state for a family of 4.

  5. 11

    Little Tex says

    Hey Len,

    For everyone who says eating out is cheaper than cooking, it’s not being done properly. I average $30 a week for a household of 2 taking advantage of fresh fruit, produce, beans and meat when they are at their lowest price. For example, when cabbage is at it’s cheapest I’m making cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, yakisoba, steamed cabbage, etc. Eating healthy, tasty food that does not cost a lot of money just takes a little effort researching prices and coming up meals but it is well worth it for your wallet and your health.

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      I work with someone who is single. He told me that, for single people, eating out really can be cheaper than cooking at home because (he says) there can be a lot of waste because a lot of grocery products come in portions that are made for more than one person.

      I guess that is true for many items. But, even so, it seems like if one put a little bit of strategic planning into it, that could be avoided.

  6. 13

    CD says

    Home cooking is not only much more cost effective but typically yields healthier food. One of the nice benefits is ability to prepare in bulk, freeze leftovers, then use these components for subsequent meals. Having a large well stocked freezer is key to managing one’s food budget.

  7. 15

    Ray says

    I enjoy eating at home since I have the uncanny knack of finding the worst meal at restaurants. My friends do enjoy it when we all go out together. We could all order the same thing and they know that their meals will be great as long as I’m there to find the dud.

    Wonder if there may be a way to benefit from that? Perhaps a finders fee of sorts :-)).

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      The Honeybee has a knack of always ordering the same thing when we go out to eat because “she knows what she likes.” On the other hand, I like to mix things up and try new things — yes, that means I sometimes end up with a crappy dish, but the upside is the joy of discovering something new and delicious! (For what it’s worth, I’ve been getting the Honeybee to stray out of her comfort zone a bit more over the years.)

  8. 17

    says

    My husband is the chef in our house too! We very rarely eat out (or get take-out), like you we ran the numbers and were horrified. It’s just plain too expensive. Now, we eat out less than once a month and only for very special occasions–like a birthday. Yay for eating at home!

    • 18

      Len Penzo says

      As soon as there are teenagers in the house, eating out seems to get exponentially more expensive. Even so, I know of one family in particular with two teens that eats out four or five time per week. What a waste.

  9. 19

    says

    Hey Len for the last 2 years I’ve kept track of all food purchases including eating out as we are snowbirds from WA to FL via MI or sometimes New England. On the road we eat all our meals out including lunch at MCD. Average cost per day $20.65 for this couple for 2012 and 13. I shop Costco once monthly to replace supplies, break and freeze meat. Purchase markdown meat at my stores if it looks good and priced right. Use mostly fresh veggies vs can goods and my wife and I have different eating styles for breakfast and lunch with her making mostly American style dinners.

    In WA we like Papa Murphy’s take and bake pizza and in winter its pizza night out after bowling Wednesday nights. Booze is not included in average cost per day as its a separate recording. We eat better and more healthy then everyone we know. We eat three meals daily and seldom snack but do have them with our meals instead. All bakery products are made at home but I do love good bakery bread.

    I’m 76 and the wife is 55 and both going pretty strong. Really look forward to your email and enjoy the comments. Regard, Ed

    • 20

      Len Penzo says

      Thank you for the kind words, Ed. You know … not too long ago, the family went out to Del Taco for dinner — between my 17-year old son, 15-year old daughter, the Honeybee and I, we spent $45. Argh! Once the kids are out of the house, the cost of eating out definitely becomes more manageable.

      One more thing: I remember every year I used to get a $5 book of McDonald’s gift certificates as a kid in my Christmas stocking — and that book would last me for at least two meals.

      By the way, you mention Papa Murphy’s pizza. I knew somebody who used to own a few Papa Murphy franchises. They finally sold them, but they had them for quite awhile!

  10. 21

    says

    This is very interesting. It’s been a really long time since I looked at how much we are spending on groceries. Certainly not since baby #2 in 2012. We stopped tracking our finances in Quicken and switched to Mint, which isn’t quite as good (doesn’t break out things like TP or wine, for instance).

    Maybe I should start that up again.

    Cooking home-cooked meals is really important, but can be a challenge. I pretty much do 100% of the cooking, and it becomes a chore. 21 meals a week (though I don’t have to pack lunch for my toddler, and as long as I have sandwich makings, my husband can fend for himself at lunch).

    Plus we go “out and about” (beach, parks, etc.) on weekends too. I really try to avoid eating out (it became a habit to go to the local burger joint after the beach – far too much). But the hard thing is – I’m the ONLY one who bothers to pack food to avoid going out. If I don’t do it, my kids will start gnawing my arm off. (Hence, the burger joint.)

    I enjoy eating out but I prefer it be an occasion – meeting friends or an anniversary. With the kids, especially the 2 year old, we are best off at the beach where he can play. He can’t sit still that long. The burger joint is about $40 for 4, the nicer joint came in at $110 (there were drinks in that tab though). Ouch.

    THis weekend I managed TWO days of being out without eating out! Score!

  11. 23

    says

    Len, don’t forget perhaps the most important benefit of avoiding eating out: your family’s health! I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re cooking mostly healthy meals at home. At the least, you know everything that’s in each dish, and you control hygiene around preparation. In contrast, eating healthy and eating out are very nearly mutually exclusive, in my opinion. Restaurant meals are loaded with the three staples of the standard American diet: fat, sugar, and salt. And hygiene practices in the kitchen are always suspect. By cooking healthful food at home, yeah you’re saving some money now on your food bill, but you’re saving potentially huge money on future healthcare costs and, more importantly, you’re improving your family’s prospects for long, high-quality lives!

    • 24

      Len Penzo says

      No doubt, Kurt. The healthiest meals we’ll ever eat are cooked at home. Then again, I cook a lot of unhealthy meals at home too. Yes … because I can!

  12. 26

    MaryAnn says

    For some reason, no matter what computer I use, I am unable to vote. When I hit the vote button nothing happens. I can’t even view the results.

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      I know; I’m working on it, MaryAnn. Promise!

      It is a software glitch that only affects some people’s computers.

  13. 28

    Jon says

    Hi Len, I’m from UK and love your blog. Apologies, but I have question unrelated to this thread – how are you planning to generate passive income for your retirement, will you rely on dividend stocks, pension, bonds – do you have rental properties. If you have written these articles, please let me know. Kind regards, Jon.

  14. 29

    says

    We don’t eat out just because most of the time the food sucks. Maybe won’t taste bad, but I can assure you the ingredients are far from the quality of those we use in our household. If they were like this, the meals would costs 200 bucks probably, so we can’t afford that anyway :D

    Our grocery bill is always big, pretty big compared to what others have in my country,but we are very careful at the ingredients, cook from scratch, use only fresh ingredients etc. It is pretty costly, but we don’t compromise on this.

  15. 30

    says

    Grocery is just one of my biggest expenses every week, my family is not a vegetarian and they really love eating meat and we all know that meat price is pretty high. And usually, I treat my family to lunch out once a week.

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