How To Save Money on Food at Restaurants and the Grocery Store

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Although it’s a wonderful treat to visit a nice restaurant, a regular diet of dining out has become an unhealthy way to sabotage your finances.

According to a study by the West Virginia University Extension Service, a person who spends about $13 for fast food in one day can prepare comparable meals for about $5 at home. Over the course of a year, that’s about $3,000 in savings.

When debt has forced you into a tighter budget or if you’re looking to cut expenses so you can afford to retire, it makes sense to consider your food expenditures.

“It’s just not a good idea to make a habit out of eating out,’’ said Laura Adams, a nationally known author and speaker on personal finance. “You’re kind of mindlessly blowing through money — a lot of money.’’

Let’s say you buy lunch each workday at $10 a meal. That’s $200 a month just for lunch and $2,400 spread across a year. If you just brown-bagged it to work every day, experts say you would save 80%, or almost $2,000.

That $2,000 could make a nice dent in credit card debt.

Then there’s the health issue. According to a 2016 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 92% of restaurant meals have too many calories. In another 2016 study, researchers at Tufts University concluded that so-called “healthier’’ fast-food options still contain too much salt and fat.

Want to Save on Meals? Order Water

In the restaurant industry, the big money is made through drinks, which often have an 80% (or more) profit margin and could represent 30% of the establishment’s revenue. Dunkin Donuts has actually re-labelled itself as a “beverages company,’’ reflecting that its biggest product is coffee, not donuts.

Whether it’s beverages or food, the restaurant culture carries an ever-increasing allure. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17.2% of all food expenditures by the average American in 1929 was used for food away from home. By 2014, that figure has increased to 50.1%.

Meanwhile, the quantity of food consumed in all forms has skyrocketed. In 1929, the average American household utilized 13.4% of its total expenditures for food. By 2014, it was 43.7%.

With more people in the workforce, the domestic chores sometimes are sacrificed. After a stress-filled day at work, it’s easy to stop at a restaurant or fast-food joint on the way home, plop into a booth and order off the menu.

It’s much harder to approach each week with a food plan, one that is sensible, healthy and economically efficient. It also helps to know what you already have, so you aren’t throwing unused stale food away.

But the long-term rewards are felt everywhere — from the waistline to the pocketbook.

Develop a Weekly Food Plan to Save Money on Eating Out

There are scores of low-cost, healthy options that should be a part of every shopping cart. You can build the foundation of a good meal, all for less than $2 a package on things like:

  • Brown Rice
  • Whole-Wheat or Multigrain Pasta
  • 100% Whole-Wheat Bread
  • Non-Fat Greek Yogurt
  • Old-Fashioned Oats
  • Frozen Vegetables
  • Russet Potato
  • Fresh Bagged Spinach
  • Canned Refried Beans
  • Canned Tuna
  • Canned or jarred Marinara Sauce
  • Whole Wheat Pita Bread
  • Dried Lentils

The USDA suggests considering the meals you want to make for the week before compiling your grocery list. By sticking to your weekly plan, you’ll make fewer trips to the grocer and purchase only what you need instead of falling into impulsive decisions.

It’s also useful to choose meals that can be easily prepared — or meals that can be prepared in advance, then heated and served — when time is scarce. If you think in terms of leftovers with larger recipes for multiple servings, it can save time (needed to prepare another meal) and money (ingredients for that other meal).

When you are shopping, try to follow these common-sense tips:

  • Eat Before You Shop — If your stomach is growling with hunger in the grocery aisles, it will inevitably lead to impulse buying.
  • Use Coupons — There are numerous options, either online or through a sales flyer from the store.
  • Look Up And Down — Understand the psychology of grocery store layout. The priciest items often are stocked at eye level. Also, it’s best to shop the perimeter of the store, where most of the whole foods are located. If you venture into the middle aisles, that’s where you’ll find more expensive, less healthy offerings.
  • Look Elsewhere — Don’t overlook farmer’s markets and farm stands for fresh produce. And speaking of fresh produce, buy “in season’’ products to save money and achieve the peak flavor.
  • Look For Other Alternatives — Try canned fruit (in 100% fruit juice) and canned vegetables (make sure “low sodium’’ or “no salt added’’ is on the label). Along with frozen vegetables, they are nutritious and cost less.
  • Buy In Bulk — Grains (such as brown rice, barley and oats), beans, lentils, nuts are dried fruit can be purchased in bulk quantities. By storing them in airtight containers, they can keep for a long time. These staples are inexpensive and can be used in a variety of meals.
  • Seek Inexpensive Options — Incorporate eggs, beans, seeds, frozen fruits and vegetables, cheaper cuts of meat and whole grains into your menus. It helps you to save money and eat well at the same time.

Sometimes, with a little imagination, you can save in unexpected ways with items you normally purchase in conventional methods.

Here are some examples of how to save:

  • Cheese — Of course, it’s easier to buy a package of pre-shredded cheese. But if you buy a brick of cheddar or a ball of mozzarella, you could save nearly $3 per pound.
  • Condiments — Look for summer bargains on ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise — maybe as much as 30% — during barbecue season.
  • Dry Mixes — Dollar stores and discount grocery outlets could offer half-price cake and muffin mixes.
  • Canned Vegetables — Again, dollar stores are often the destination when manufacturers have too much of an item or need to clear out warehouses to make room for new things. Bargains could abound.
  • Bread — Nearing a store’s closing time, the prices of rolls, muffins and other bakery items could be discounted by nearly 50%.
  • Milk — The chain pharmacies (RiteAid, Walgreens, CVS) don’t offer as much variety, but there are savings of nearly 20% per gallon.

About The Author

George Morris

In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.


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