Over the past year or so, I’ve made several changes to my spending habits that have significantly impacted my household budget — in a good way. I think they can do the same for yours.
Give some of them a try. Definitely do not try them all at once — change happens little by litte. Tackle one at a time, incorporate the change into your routine, and see if it fits your family’s lifestyle.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle. Before you buy anything new, whether it’s an article of clothing, a tool or a small appliance, delay the decision for a day and evaluate the new purchase. Do you really need the new wardrobe item? Can you borrow the tool from a neighbor or use another tool you already own? Some people refuse to add a new item to the household unless they discard something else. What old item will you discard if you buy something new? After this evaluation, you may decide not to make the purchase after all.
- Reconsider coupons and sales. Because I avoid buying prepared food products (see Food labels, below), many food coupons don’t apply to my purchases. I’ve repurposed couponing time to meal preparation and other money saving and DIY activities. Ditto with sales. My traditional routine has been to shop sales and “stock up.” But it’s easy to overstock or buy products you wouldn’t use otherwise. Now I focus on buying only what I really need — and it seems to be less and less over time. So I still shop sales (though very rarely use a coupon), but overall spend much less time and money on purchases. My cupboards are emptier and I don’t need to buy storage bins for extra products. However, this concept is probably most workable for singles and small families without young children.
- Utilize extra space. Do you have an extra bedroom, outdoor shed, or garage space? Consider renting it out to earn extra money. Advertise bedrooms on a website such as Airbnb, garages and parking spaces on Just Park , or any rental space on Craigslist. Don’t forget to check with your homeowners’ insurance and any covenants that may apply if you have a homeowners’ association.
- Coffee and tea. Avoid flavored or instant coffees, tea bags, single serving sizes and drink mixes. Buy whole coffee beans in bulk that you grind yourself using an inexpensive grinder ($20 or less). Use a tea ball or infuser ($2 to $3) to brew loose-leaf tea. In summer months, brew extra coffee and tea in the morning to use later over ice; for sweetener, simply stir together equal parts sugar or honey and water.
- Water. Drink tap water and use washable, refillable water bottles. We have clean (tested annually), good-tasting tap water where I live. If your tap water tastes bad or you have concerns about fluoride and other additives in municipal water, try one of the following:
- Compare the cost of a filter system with buying bulk bottled water.
- Buy bottled water in bulk, preferably at a location where you fill your own jug.
- Limit bottled water to drinking use only. For cooking, always use tap water.
- Dairy and non-dairy milk. Many parents like to make sure their kids drink milk, but one family I know limits consumption to one glass per meal. After that, they drink water (no juice and no soda). Some schools have stopped offering chocolate milk, and the kids are now content with plain milk — so it could work in your home, too. If your kids drink non-dairy milk, it’s easy to make your own at significant savings over already prepared and boxed non-dairy milk. Find a recipe for rice milk at Serious Eats or almond milk at The Kitchn.
- Soda pop. Instead of buying soda, make fruit syrups using fresh or frozen fruits for delicious homemade soda drinks. To make one pint fruit syrup (about 8 to 12 sodas), simmer 4 cups fresh fruit (such as berries, pitted cherries or chopped peaches) with 1/4 cup water. Drain hot fruit in a sieve set over a large bowl; let drain for 30 minutes. (Use the fruit solids by stirring into plain yogurt, or combine with equal parts sugar and boil 8 to 10 minutes to make jam.) Combine strained fruit juice with 3/4 cup sugar or 1/2 cup honey (or to taste) and stir until dissolved. Refrigerate syrup up to one month, or freeze for longer storage. To make soda, try 1 part syrup with 7 parts club soda or seltzer over ice. Adjust the amounts to your taste. Better still, drink soda only for “move night” or special occasions, rather than a daily beverage. It’s not only less expensive, it’s far healthier.
- Alcohol. We used to drink a cocktail before eating or have wine with dinner almost every night. We started limiting alcohol consumption to weekend dinners only. After a while, we stopped buying wine and liquor altogether, except for special occasions. We don’t miss it and the savings in our annual food budget is significant.
- Food labels. Reduce the number of food products you buy that have a label. Every prepared food you buy costs more than the basic element (and often contains ingredients you wouldn’t put in yours). For example, buy only fresh, in-season produce and preserve some by freezing, pickling, canning or drying your family’s favorite fruits and vegetables. Buy whole-grain hot cereal in bulk rather than instant single-serving packets or ready-to-eat cold cereals. Buy dry beans and soak them before using, or learn to pressure-can homemade beans for easier meal preparation. When you make soup or stew, make a double batch and freeze some for another meal or for lunches. Make your own salad dressings from basic ingredients that you already buy such as vinegar, oil, mustard, yogurt, ketchup, relish, and seasonings (find recipes at All Recipes or Epicurious.
- Meal planning. Standardize a monthly menu of foods and recipes your family prefers. This can save time during meal preparation, as well as save money by allowing for bulk purchases. To break any monotony, rotate different recipes and have “treat night” once a month, where you cook “off menu.” Here are a few suggestions to get you started with the concept: For breakfast, try cereal with nuts and dried fruit, an egg sandwich, or yogurt with seasonal fresh (or home preserved) fruit. For lunch, do the same with a rotation of sandwiches: tuna salad, egg salad, ham with veggies, cheese with veggies, PB&J. My homemade lunch every day K-12 was — and as an adult still is — a sandwich, fresh fruit (apple, orange, banana) and milk (though now I prefer yogurt with fruit). A weekly dinner menu could specify dishes for each night of the week, while the specific recipe changes. For example, Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Pasta Wednesday, Thursday stir fry (winter) or salad (summer), Fish on Friday, Burgers on Saturday and Sunday is a family roast dinner (chicken, ham, beef, etc.). Leftovers from Sunday roast can be frozen and used throughout the week in tacos, pasta, stir fries and other dishes. Find menu planning ideas and checklists on Real Simple and 100 Days of Real Food.
Overall, we’re trying to do with less and liking it more. We spend less money. We have less stuff, yet seem to worry less and stress less. You might be surprised at the spending habits you can change that lead to an increase in fun and a happier life.
More tips for saving on food:
- The secret to serving a quick, cheap family dinner every night
- Here’s a sweet deal: Make your own cocoa mix
- 5 easy homemade mixes for drinks and sweets
- Make your own cheap and healthy microwave popcorn
- Make your own pop-tarts and other DIY convenience foods
- Cut up your own veggies and save $1,000 a year
- Save money by dehydrating home-grown foods
- Vacuum sealers: Are they worth the price?
- Make your own 100-calorie snack packs to save cash — and your diet
- 5 cheap ways to preserve food