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How to Eat On a Budget

Think eating well and saving money at the same time is impossible? Think again with these eight tips.

Chris Scott

Contributing Writer at Tally

May 18, 2021

Americans eat out 5.9 times per week on average. As you can imagine, the price of doing so can add up quickly. Though it varies by state, the cost of eating out often exceeds $1,500 per year. 

Furthermore, Americans spend an average of $4,643 per year on food at home. This includes groceries like cereals, meats, dairy and fruits. And unfortunately, it is often more expensive to buy healthier foods than processed foods.

Food is essential and a cost you can’t avoid, it is possible to learn how to eat on a budget. Saving money while eating healthy foods is entirely feasible with a bit of planning and creativity. The eight tips we list below will help you keep a tight budget and not overspend on food costs. 

1. Set Your Budget 

Before you figure out how to eat on a budget, you first need to figure out what your budget is. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers guidelines on how much you should spend on your grocery budget

Your grocery budget will ultimately be a percentage of your income. The amount you spend will depend on certain factors, such as whether you have children. 

To gain a better understanding of what you should be spending, look at how much you've spent at the grocery store the last few times you've gone. Compare this to the averages recommended by the USDA. This allows you to see whether you've been overspending while also providing a reasonable ballpark that you can use to set your budget. 

2. Plan and Prepare Your Meals Ahead of Time 

Have you ever opened your refrigerator and realized that you didn't have any food for lunch the next day? "Well, guess I am eating out tomorrow," you tell yourself. You now must spend a few dollars for your meal — and that's if you go with the fast-food option. If you eat healthier or go to a nicer restaurant, your costs could be substantially higher.

If this tends to happen frequently, budgeting becomes very difficult. Meal planning is essential if you want to keep a budget. At the beginning of the week — before you go to the grocery store — come up with your meal plan for the week. Plan out your shopping list so you know exactly what you need to purchase. You can also look in your cabinets and refrigerator to determine what ingredients you already have that you can use for the week. 

After your trip to the grocery store, take a couple of hours and meal prep for the week. For instance, cooking all your lunches ahead of time and storing them in airtight containers ensures that you'll have a meal for lunch, which will cut down on the last-minute need to grab something at a local restaurant.

3. Understand the Grocery Store 

If you want to stick to a budget, it helps to have some technical know-how of how to walk through a grocery store. Typically, the foods with the most health benefits are on the perimeter of the store. This includes things like fresh fruits and vegetables. When grocery shopping, you should try to shop the perimeter of the store first, filling your cart with whole foods. 

When you venture into the aisles of the store, you start getting into processed and unhealthy foods. While these foods may be cheaper and more convenient in the short term, you may pay in the long term. Eating poorly can have an impact on your health, which can cost you more in medical expenses in the long run. Avoiding the unhealthy snacks and packaged foods, instead seeking out pantry staples such as brown rice, healthy oils and canned tuna can give your grocery budget and health a big bang for the buck.

Grocers tend to put the most expensive items at eye level. Be sure to scan the tops and bottoms of shelves to find cheaper items. Don't be afraid to shop store brands, which tend to be considerably cheaper than brand-name products even though the quality is comparable. 

Most important is that you stick to your grocery list. You should avoid "shopping" at a grocery store. Instead, you should have a clear idea of what you need to purchase for the week. When you stray from your list, your costs start to increase, causing you to overspend on your grocery budget. 

On a similar note, try to avoid going to the grocery store when hungry. When you shop while hungry, you're more likely to stray from your list and make impulse purchases. 

4. Use Coupons and Apps 

Many of today's grocery stores offer apps that help you shop. Not only can you put items in ahead of time so that you develop and stick to a list, but you can see which items are on sale. Your local newspaper may offer grocery coupons as well. 

If you have flexibility in what you can eat, try basing your meals around what's on sale. Even if you save $10 a week on groceries, you'll end up saving more than $500 for the year. You can use this extra cash to start building an emergency or rainy day fund

5. Buy in Bulk 

If you have the storage space, consider buying in bulk at stores like Costco. For instance, you can buy chicken breasts and use that for multiple healthy meals through the week, like: 

  • Tacos.

  • Burritos.

  • Stir-fry.

  • Omelets.

Whatever you don't use, you can freeze and use later. If you know you need dinner for the night, you can take the chicken out of the freezer in the morning and let it thaw so that it's ready to cook when you get home. 

It's a bit tougher to buy fresh fruits and veggies in bulk since they spoil. Foods that you can buy in bulk when trying to eat healthy on a budget include: 

  • Brown rice.

  • Canned chickpeas.

  • Canned pinto and black beans.

  • Dried beans.

  • Peanut butter.

  • Olive oil.

  • Tomato sauce. 

With these ingredients on hand, you can quickly whip up good food and a well-balanced meal. Chicken provides you with protein, and brown rice as a side dish offers a healthy carb. You can cook with a bit of olive oil to get healthy fats in your diet.  

Buying staples in bulk is not only budget friendly but also allows you to get creative with your meal ideas while still maintaining a healthy diet.

6. Shop at Your Local Farmers Market 

Organic produce at the grocery store is considerably more expensive than non-organic, primarily due to production costs. One way around this is to shop at your local farmers market. In fact, the USDA even recommends shopping at farmers markets because you have access to fresh, locally-grown foods. 

By buying food that's grown locally, you are getting it directly from the source. It does not trade hands during the supply chain process. The fruits and vegetables you purchase are fresh and tasty, often sold at the peak of the growing season. 

Perhaps more important, farmers markets are considerably cheaper than grocery stores for comparable products. Cash may still be the most accepted form of payment at a farmers market, but vendors are beginning to accept debit and credit cards, as well. Some farmers markets sell tokens specifically for shoppers to buy from the vendors at that market. This may be a good way to mindfully set a budget for each week's purchases.

7. Be Mindful of Protein 

There are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for proteins. One is that you don't always need to get the best cut of meat. For instance, chicken thighs are often cheaper than chicken breasts. A chuck steak is cheaper than a filet mignon. Healthy eating is still possible without splurging on expensive cuts of meat and compromising your budget. 

Another way to save money while eating on a budget is to change your protein source. Instead of relying on meat, change to something like legumes, lentils or canned fish. These foods are inexpensive when compared to fresh cuts of meat. They are also less likely to spoil quickly. 

8. Choose Your Credit Card Wisely When Considering How to Eat on a Budget

Using the right credit card can cut down on grocery costs. Many credit cards offer cashback when shopping at grocers. For instance, some credit cards offer 5% cashback on purchases made at a grocery store. On a $100 purchase, your net costs would be $95. This alone could save you $250 per year.

But remember to spend responsibly on a credit card. Using a credit card makes it easier to spend more than you budgeted. If you do find yourself spending in excess, Tally can help you pay off your balance and get out of credit card debt.

Eating on a Budget Is Possible With a Bit of Planning 

Food is an essential expense, but with a bit of planning and creativity, eating on a budget is entirely possible. Taking time to plan and prep your meals in advance will go a long way toward cutting down on impulse purchases. So, too, will buying in bulk, using coupons and understanding how the layout of a grocery store works.

With the eight tips we’ve provided, you can successfully eat on a budget. However, if you do happen to overspend and put a balance on your credit card, consider a credit card payoff app like Tally to quickly get back on track. Tally pays off your credit card debt in the most efficient way possible, helping you get out of debt faster.