Back when I was £16,000 in debt, I spent a small fortune on food. Two years later, we have managed to cut our food bill in half. The journey to get here was full of trial and error, figuring out how we could spend less on food without cutting out the good stuff, such as nutrition, yummy meals, the odd takeaway or meal out, and just eating feel-good food.
When I realised how much we used to spend on food, I was horrified. For two adults, plus one small dog and the odd meal with family or friends at home, we should have comfortably spent around £250 per month. Instead, the money we spent on food was more than double this, coming in at £500 per month!
Two years later, and we comfortably spend £250 including the odd takeaway or meal out. In this post, I’ll share the methods that worked for us to get cut our food bill in half.
I’ll start with this by saying that my husband and I are massive foodies. We both have active lifestyles, incorporating the gym, running, yoga into our lifestyles. We are on the go constantly, and like to cook for friends and family. So it’s really important that our food compliments this. We aim to eat healthy, fresh, varied meals that are really nutritious and filling. The sort of meals that you look forward to after a long day of work.
So we could definitely cut our food spending to the bare bones, perhaps even half of what we currently spend. For example, we could cut out a lot of the variety and fresh food in our diets, but this isn’t something we personally could sustain because it wouldn’t work for us. So this blog post isn’t a bare-bones-food-budget post. This blog post is a live-your-best-food-life-for-as-little-as-possible-post. So if you are less into beans on toast, and more into homemade lasagne, spicy Thai noodles, mouth-watering steak pies and comforting roast dinners, then read on. This is how we cut our food bill in half while making these types of meals, and then some.
Anyways, to illustrate how we cut our food bill in half, let’s begin with how we spent over £500 per month. I’ve broken it down below, mistake by mistake, for all to see. Here’s how we managed to overspend so much.
Where We Were Going Wrong with Our Grocery Shopping
With both of us working full time, we were hideously disorganised when it came to eating at home. We thought that cutting corners would save time in the evenings, so we bought a lot of convenience foods. We would fill our trolley with pre-cut fruit and vegetables. Our rationale was that the premium we were paying to cut out five minutes of prep was money well spent. So from pineapple batons to grated cheese, our food shopping bill was a lot more than we could realistically afford.
We also bought a lot of ready meals and cartons of soup, justifying these as cheaper than cooking from scratch. The ingredients for the meals we cooked were processed products coupled with expensive cuts of meat. Buying fresh meant wasting food every week because we would often abandon our plans to cook. Therefore, food would go before we got round to using it.
Total weekly spend- £70
The one area we ignored with our weekly food shop was snacks, such as biscuits, crisps and sweets. This was our way of trying to eliminate junk from our diets (not realising that most of our ‘healthy’ ready meals were pretty unhealthy, anyway). However, we would cave towards the weekend and pick up some chocolates or crisps in our local corner shop.
In addition, to cut corners, we would usually buy less milk, bread and eggs than we needed. These are staples in our house, so running out resulted in one or two ‘top up’ shops. We usually went to the local corner shop where we would pay a premium for the convenience.
Total weekly spend- £10
Back when we were in debt, no weekend was complete without a takeaway or a meal out. We would usually alternate between the two, varying between a relatively cheap pizza or a very expensive trip to a restaurant. Particularly when it came to eating out in restaurants, we spent a bomb on three-course dinners and drinks. We usually scheduled these around payday, when we had a false sense of our finances for the month, therefore leaving ourselves short towards the end of the month.
Total weekly spend (as an average over the month)- £47.50
Finally, considering our lack of organisation at home, midweek breakfasts and lunches were a general disaster. We started each week with good intentions, having cereal in the morning and bringing lunch from home. As the week went on, our motivation to keep prepping and planning waned and we ended up grabbing prepackaged sandwiches or subs, plus coffees, and extras, like a slice of cake or a cookie, during a particularly rough week.
Total weekly spend- £10
Overall Total Weekly Spend- £137.50
I know what you’re thinking- yikes! But so many people are currently in this pattern, and people don’t realise how much they are spending because we rarely keep track. One of my favourite programmes is Eat Well For Less, where people share their inflated food spending in the hope that the show will help them come up with ways to cut down. What always amazes me is that their food spending seems completely excessive, until you watch them going through the process of food shopping and think, ‘Hang on, I do this too!‘
And that’s exactly the reaction my food spending got when I started being more open about it on my Instagram page. As part of my journey from £16,000 in debt to £4,000 in savings, I decided the start showing the food I was making as part of our bid to cut our food spending. The reaction was huge! Since then, so many people have reached out to say that they are overspending on food and want to cut down.
How We Cut Our Food Bill In Half
These days, we spend about £50-£60 per week on food in total (including takeaways and eating out), which is simply:
- A ‘big shop’ ordered online, consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables, and mainly unprocessed foods
- A savvy meal plan that results in zero waste
- Bulking up on expensive components to our meal plan to get a discount, and bulk prepping meals
- Eating repetitively
- Reducing the amount of meat we eat and eliminating meat from certain meals
- Swapping takeaways for fakeaways
- Using food apps and getting cash back on food purchases
- Dropping a brand where there is no difference in quality between economy brands and premium.
But how exactly did all of this cut our food bill in half? Here are the above, broken down in detail.
#1 We Do Our Food Shop Online
Being able to do your food shopping online is one of the best perks of living in a digital age.
For a start, you can scour sites like MySupermarket to find the best deals, and plan your meals around them. So instead of starting your food shopping with a traditional list, you can find the cheapest ingredients and best deals online, and plan your meals around them.
The supermarket I shop with most frequently is Asda, and they have the facility online to save lists of frequently purchased items. If like me, you tend to buy the same core items every week, this saves a ton of time. My core list is about £20, and full of items that we will use every week without fail (including the right quantity of milk, eggs and bread that we kept running out of previously). When I start my shopping, I select this list, add the variable items I need to my basket, and then I’m done.
Another advantage to online shopping is that I have found there are lots of discounts available. As well as cashback, there are lots of coupons for money off online shopping- I find Tesco and Sainsbury’s are best for this. Sainsbury’s also offer a generous discount for your first online shop (usually £18 off £60), plus offer ‘Freebies and Competitions’ on their website, where they offer several products for free.
Those who have yet to take the plunge to try food shopping online tend to be put off by thinking they risk getting rubbish quality, or short ‘Best Before’ dates, on their groceries as their groceries will be picked by someone else. However, I don’t find this to be a big issue. There is generous refund policy online wherein if there is a short date on a product you’ve received, you can simply ask for a refund, and keep the item anyway.
Recently, Asda have actually started highlighting in online receipts where ordered items have a shorter ‘Best Before’ date than advertised online, so you know this in advance and can decide whether to take the item or not, which is really handy. Regardless, issues are inevitable and I think a refund, plus keeping the item, is a great incentive to try shopping online anyway.
#2 We Try To Operate a Zero Waste Food Household
When I plan my shopping for the week, I plan everything I will need for the week. Once something runs out, that’s it: we don’t re-buy it until the next shop unless it’s absolutely necessary.
I know this seems a little stringent, but I actually quite like imposing this on our household because it helps us with our Zero Waste goals. When we’ve run out of our usual fresh breakfast items, I’ll whip up pancakes, breakfast burritos, fruit porridge, or savoury muffins from whatever we have in the fridge. This really helps us to use up what we have, rather than going out to buy more.
We also have ‘leftover night’ once per week. Instead of planning seven dinners, I plan six plus one night to use up leftovers right before our next shop. This is our opportunity to use up any fresh meat and vegetables, plus our cupboard stash, so that the fridge is empty and primed for our next shop.
There is nothing I don’t love about leftover night. As the ingredients are left over from other meals, it feels like a bonus meal. And it’s an excuse to get creative in the kitchen. Leftover rice becomes chicken fried rice, the last of the veggies top a pizza, and Sunday’s roast leftovers are baked into a pie. Leftover night is the ultimate night to whip up some comfort food and relax.
#3 We Bulk Prep
These days, I am massively into bulk prep because it just makes sense. Instead of making bolognese for two, I make it for twelve. Why make one lasagne when you can make three in the similar amount of time?
Bulk prepping means that you prepare several meals at once, so that you have enough meals to last for days. I like to make duplicates of meals and freeze them, which can then be defrosted and eaten over the coming weeks. When we are just home from work and too tired to put together a meal from scratch, these meals are wonderful. So bulk prepping is basically making your own ready meals, without the expense, and with total control over what it’s going into your food and your body.
If you think about it, bulk prepping makes a lot of sense when it comes to meals that require slow cooking or lots of prep. For example, the meals I bulk prep the most are chili con carne, bolognese, pies and curries as they tend to require more chopping, peeling and cooking than a flash-fried meal. So if a meal takes an hour or two to prepare, then it makes sense to take an extra 15 to 30 minutes and bulk prep several meals. In the long run, you save a ton of time because the majority of your bulk prep only requires re-heating.
Recently I tried Muscle Food and found that their meat hampers are a great option for bulk prepping. Buying in bulk online means that you can purchase meat for much cheaper than in the supermarkets. My recommendation is to choose a day for delivery where you have the time to tackle lots of prep at once, and then make all of your meals for the next few months in the one go. Short term pain for very long term gain, and your future self will thank you for it!
So if you aren’t already into bulk prepping, I urge you to give it a go. It will change your foodie life.
#4 We Cut Our Food Bill By Eat Repetitively
Getting into the habit of eating repetitively is an absolute budget saviour. I know the name sounds slightly negative, but hear me out here.
To me, eating repetitively is simply eating the same ingredients over and over by incorporating them into lots of different meals. Think about it: how often do we waste fresh produce by some of the item and then throwing the rest away? Back in my debt days, I was guilty of using half a bag of lettuce, half a tomato or half a packet of bacon, only to realise several days or weeks later that the item was no longer usable. Now the new me would have a BLT on leftover night and not waste a thing.
Before we started paying off our debt, we had already gotten into the habit of buying frozen veg because we had become wise to how much fresh produce we wasted. I love frozen veg but honestly, both of us really enjoy fresh veg so when I started re-jigging our grocery budget, I started incorporating fresh veg into our meal plan. To reduce waste, I would plan several meals using similar ingredients. For example, broccoli was a side to a Sunday roast, gave crunch to a chicken stir fry, and was eventually used up in a salad for Thursday’s lunch. The beauty of repetitive eating is that you rarely waste food, but it’s also an cheap way to eat fresh and healthy food.
But eating repetitively is also a great way to use up bulk prep that you have in the fridge. We have a large freezer because we bought it back in our pre-debt free days when we were feeling flush, but not everyone has room to store bulk prep meals for more than a few days. So eating repetitively allows you to get the benefit of bulk prepping without freezing.
If this is you, don’t be shy with mixing up your meals. If you’ve prepped chili, have it with lime and coriander rice on the first night, in a jacket potato on the second, and a Mexican-fusion pasta bake the third. This way, eating repetitively doesn’t feel like you’re eating repetitively!
#5 We Incorporate Meatless and Reduced Meat Meals to Our Meal Plan
Back in our debt days, we were in the habit of cooking meals that were centred around meat. It was always ‘chicken and-‘ or ‘steak and-‘, which worked out to be so expensive.
Around the time we started paying off debt, I found the hashtag #MeatlessMonday on Instagram, which is a movement that encourages people to adopt at least one meat-free night for dinner per week. This was the perfect addition to our new meal plan when we started paying down our debt, giving us an excuse to cut our spending and also live more sustainably.
What I’ve found is that meatless meals don’t have to be boring. Even my husband, who is a carnivore through and through, is happy to cut down on the meat in his meals from time to time.
The key to making this work for us is to really concentrate on making meatless meals in which we don’t miss the meat. A melted cheese-topped marinara pasta bake or a veggie Pad Thai are our favourites, and we incorporate protein from other sources by adding cheese, nuts or eggs where it compliments the recipe.
#6 We Got Out of the Habit of Having Weekly Takeaways and Eating Out
Takeaways and eating out are a surefire way to overpay for food. While it’s hard to beat a takeaway when you flop down on the sofa at the end of a hard week, and many of us relish the chance to go to a restaurant where someone else is responsible for cooking and cleaning up, the cost of both can be astronomical.
It took me a while to break my takeaway habit in order to cut our food bill in half. Our previous favourite was a pizza from our local chain. Two pizzas for £18.99!
But that’s the thing about takeaways; we get a false sense of what constitutes value for our money. Back in our debt days, we expected to pay in the region of £20 for a takeaway for two on a Saturday night. But if we had purchased the same food in the supermarket, like a pizza and sides, we would feel robbed if we paid £10.
So why are we so willing to pay over the odds for takeaways? Is it the convenience, the taste, the feeling of occasion? I think it’s all of the above, but there is little about a takeaway that you can’t recreate at home- for a fraction of the price, calories and packaging, too.
My current favourite is chicken wings. These cost less than £5 to whip up, with sides, and will easily feed 3 to 4 people. The key is to make things you order when you get a takeaway or when eating out, and don’t worry too much about making it super healthy. It’s a treat, after all.
As for eating out, we still make room in our budget for it. However, we’ve changed how we do this to enable us to cut our food bill in half. We are more likely to be found at our local market or food fair these days, rather than an overpriced restaurant. We also have really reduced how much we spend on alcohol when we go out now, considering we used to pay a fortune for drink themselves, plus taxis, plus a hangover the following day. Whilst this approach may not suit everyone, I think it’s helped us to get the balance back in our weekends, where the morning after the night before doesn’t result in a greasy breakfast and a day on the sofa!
#7 We Use Food Apps
When I joined Instagram, I found the #debtfreecommunity, and a wealth of tips and hacks for cutting food spends. I learned just how many apps there are out there that are dedicated to saving you money on food.
My favourites are Shopmium and Checkout Smart. Both apps contain lots of offers from major supermarkets, where you can pick up items listed and get a partial or full refund on your purchase, depending on the offer. By enabling us to get discounted or free items to use in our meal plan, these apps have helped to cut our food bill in half. They have also helped me to contribute to my local food bank on a regular basis, by collecting free or heavily discounted items and donating them. Whilst paying off debt, this enabled us to do our bit for charity without having to factor in another cost to our budget.
In addition to saving on shopping, the Shoppix app rewards you for scanning receipts once you’ve purchased your items. Using the app, you accrue points for each receipt you scan, and then cash them out once you reach the threshold for £5, £10 and £20. This app is a slow burner compared to Shopmium and Checkout Smart. But if you have the receipts to hand anyway, scanning them takes mere moments and the money you make can be taken off your food bill. It makes sense to get into the habit of using it.
And of course, there are cashback websites to get money back on your shopping. I use TopCashback when I’m making my online purchases. I find it slow to pay out, but treat it as a passive income for things you were buying anyway, and the cashback adds up.
With everything I’ve mentioned, it pays to get into good habits when doing your food shopping. Track your cashback, get your offers, scan your receipts. Doing these three things have helped me to save £600 from my food bill over the previous two years. In our current terms, that covers two months’ of grocery shopping.
#8 We Drop a Brand
If you watch Eat Well for Less, you’ll know the extreme satisfaction when someone swears blind that they are consuming their regular, premium brand when in fact, they are downing a value brand. Why is that so enjoyable?
Back in our debt days, we were blindly loyal to premium branded items that we passively added to our trolley without thinking, ‘Is this worth the money?‘
When we started paying off debt, we took stock of the items we bought, and realised we were paying over the odds. So we started dropping brands left, right and centre, which was a major factor in being able to cut our food bill in half. As time went on, we started to get educated on how marketing encourages us to spend more. We realised that our brand of fresh orange juice, for example, was no different to the rock-bottom priced value brand. I noticed that we saw no difference in results between expensive dishwasher tablets and the economy brand we buy now. We figured out that the best fresh pastries and jam weren’t found at the over-priced deli in the city, but in our local Lidl. Once we started looking beyond the packaging and marketing, we discovered better products at a fraction of the price.
Not all value or economy products are created equal, though. Some products haven’t lived up to expectation, and that’s fine. The point is to find out what you can save on without sacrificing quality, and what is worth the splurge. What you save will help to bring down your food bill and help you to keep the finer things in life in your budget.
So these are the eight things that have enabled us to cut our food bill in half. I hope it has give you some food for thought (sorry, this pun was too easy)!
Comment below and tell me what your best drop-a-brand item is, so I can try something new!