The biggest variable expense in any household is almost always going to be food. Even if you price match, coupon, clearance shop, and get all of your rebates, it can still be tough to lower that grocery bill without resorting to growing and raising all your own food (unfeasible for most people!) or eating the same thing every night for the rest of your life (definitely undesirable for most people!)
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But there are some tricks I’ve picked up that span every kind of food group to really get our family’s grocery budget down to the bottom dollar possible, things that even my fellow coupon-obsessed clearance shoppers haven’t worked into their grocery shopping routine! I’ve sorted them below by category, so if you’re in a rush, hit CTRL+F to search for the type of food you’re looking for.
Bread, buns and rolls
Bread freezes well, so when you find a great deal, stock up! I never pay full price for bread, because I always buy 4-6 loaves when I find a good price and then keep an eye out when my stash starts getting low.
Find a grocery store that has a bakery inside. Store-baked bread is almost always cheaper than the cheapest manufactured loaf, and these stores usually have a bread slicing machine if their loaves don’t come pre-sliced.
Always, always check the sale rack or section nearest the bread section. Usually if there’s a sale on bread, that same brand will have some loaves from the last shipment marked down even farther… I can usually find a decent amount of bread on the 50% off rack when that bread goes on sale in the store for 2/$5, taking each loaf down to $1.25 each.
If you’re looking for specialty breads or rolls, it can’t hurt to check around for local bakeries, especially close to the end of the day. Homemade breads typically don’t last as long as manufactured bread, so come closing time bakeries will start really wanting to get rid of bags that won’t hold up for sale for another day. Another great place to check is your weekly farmer’s market just before closing time. Often bakers who have tables or stalls there will want to take as little home with them as possible and are willing to cut a deal. Still, always remember to be respectful when asking about discounted products – this is their livelihood too!
Meats and seafood
Meat will always be at its highest price in grocery stores unless it’s on sale, and even then you’re not usually getting the best price you can. You’re way better off finding a local meat market, or even best, a butcher’s shop. Believe it or not, butcher’s shops still exist (although mine calls itself a deli so it was a little hard to find!). Ask around in your community or do some research until you find a good meat market you can rely on.
If you live in an area with access to farms, some meat farmers offer a set price per pound for a whole, uncut carcass. If you can stomach cutting your own meat, this can be a VERY significant savings. I don’t do this personally, but I know people who do, and they end up buying meat only once or twice a season and paying less each time, then eating out of a well-stocked deep freezer year round.
Have some extra money in your grocery budget on months where there is a three day weekend, or any stat holiday during which the stores close. Around here the major grocery stores all close for bank holidays, and so the day before the holiday, all the grocery stores mark their meats down dramatically, both to make up for the loss of revenue and to clear shelves of meat that shouldn’t sit for another 36 hours without being sold. When you see these markdowns, you know what to do – Stock. Up. Baby.
It may be that the best deal on meat in your area is at wholesalers or bulk stores like Costco or Sam’s Club. If that’s the case, make sure you also have freezer bags and portion that meat as soon as you get it home, BEFORE you put it in the freezer. Frozen and thawed meat can’t be refrozen, so freezing bulk packages of meat almost guarantees you’re going to waste some of it. Single-meal portions will make sure every bite you buy gets eaten.
If, in the end, you don’t have many option other than the grocery stores for meat, only buy when it’s on sale and buy enough for multiple meals. Every week, buy the sale meat and buy more than you need. That way you’ll always have a selection of meats in your freezer instead of limiting yourself to just eating whatever’s on sale.
Produce (fruit and vegetables)
The ultimate rule of buying any type of fresh produce is to always think seasonally . Buying produce in season will be cheaper than buying it in the off season, when it has to be shipped from halfway across the world or grown in industrial size green house operations (additionally, locally grown produce usually comes with a lower price tag than tropical fruits, although this is not always the case). This means that summer is the best time to buy your berries and mid-fall is perfect for stocking up on squashes, apples, and pumpkins.
If you’re buying vegetables to cook with, look for frozen first. For some vegetables (and even fruits) buying frozen will always be cheaper than buying fresh. For $2.50 on sale I can buy a bag of broccoli florets and only thaw them as I use them in dishes, whereas $2 in fresh broccoli buys much less and goes bad in a week. If you’re buying to make a salad or snack on, buy fresh, but buy only the quantity you need – there’s no point “stocking up” on a food that lasts two weeks, maximum!
Farmer’s markets are an excellent way to get the freshest in-season produce at rock bottom prices and support local small-scale agriculture at the same time. For the best prices, go close to the end of the market because, again, sellers would rather sell their wares at a discount than take it all home with them. But be aware that by going in last, you’re losing out on the freshest and most vibrant fruits and veggies – this is one time where going in early and snagging the lushest pick for yourself might be the right idea!
If you really want to maximize your produce savings, get familiar with preserving your own. Most fruits and veggies can be flash frozen, but many require blanching first. Fruits can be made into jams or jellies or preserved as-is, so you can enjoy them year round.
Packaged snacks and dry goods
Buy in bulk wherever possible. Spending $8 on 80 granola bars to send your kids to school with is far preferable to spending $2 on a box of five of those same bars. While it does require a larger upfront investment, that can be mitigated – stagger the products you buy so that each week you’re picking up a month’s (or more) supply of one item.
Never, ever, buy the brand name item without at least comparing the price to the store brand or no-name equivalent. Yes, it’s exciting when Ritz crackers go on sale, but if you blindfolded your entire family and asked them to compare it to the store brand version, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! Often the store brand price is still lower than name brand, even on sale, or stores will put their own brand on sale at the same time as the name brand.
This is the one area where couponing and clearance shopping to build a stockpile REALLY pays off. Look at it this way: Your favourite type of crackers goes on sale from $3 down to $1. You can buy one box and feel good about saving $2 and end there. OR, you can buy 10 boxes, and tuck 9 of them away in a far cupboard. The next time you want those crackers, instead of going to the grocery store to pay $3 for them, shop your stockpile! Really stocking up on good deals on items you buy consistently guarantees that you won’t have to pay full price for that item EVER again. Just buy enough to last you until the next sales cycle, and boom – while everyone else pays $3 for their crackers, you only ever pay $1 a bag. In this scenario, you didn’t just save $2, you saved $2 every month for the next ten months!
Spices and Seasonings
I’m just going to take a deep breath and say it, even if this makes me unpopular: You don’t need to have a fully stocked spice cabinet full of everything you could ever need to season any dish. Truly.
It’s nice to know that you have everything on hand that a recipe could ever call for, but you’ll quickly realize it’s overrated when you find out that most opened spice containers have a shelf life of three years or less, and the majority of those spices will end up clumpy and stale long before they’re used up. Keep the basics on hand, anything you use regularly (our household wouldn’t be complete without curry powder, but I know a lot of people who’ve never used it in their lives!) and one or two signature spice blends that are versatile enough to use on any dish – I always keep a Montreal steak spice blend and a herb & garlic blend for those nights when I don’t want to have to follow a recipe.
The spices you DO use regularly, buy unpackaged. Bulk Barn has a program that allows you to bring your own container to be filled up (just have them weigh and tag it when you go in!) so you’ll always have the perfect amount to fill your jar. Buying unpackaged spices saves us 50% or more off the price, even more so when you consider the cost of name-brand specialty blends. A jar of Clubhouse steak spice can run up to $8 at the grocery store, but I can fill my own jar for $2 at Bulk Barn. And, again – you can’t tell the difference. Really.
Another example: I sent my partner to the store the other day for chili seasoning. It was already cooking so we were in a rush (I didn’t realize we’d already run out!) so I just gave him a five dollar bill thinking he would pick up the Clubhouse pack at the closest grocery store. He came back with a baggie of TWICE the amount of chili seasoning you get in the pack, and he’d spent .17. Seventeen CENTS. And he even said, “Wow, you weren’t joking about better prices at Bulk Barn!” It was a total win moment for me!
If you have a sunny kitchen or nearby window, consider starting a small kitchen herb garden. Even if you can only keep one or two plants, it is AMAZING what a pinch of freshly-picked basil or parsley can do to a dish. You don’t need to use nearly as much for a blast of flavor, and it’s completely free and regenerative!
Dairy and eggs
This is one area where it can be tricky to save, because perishables can’t be stocked up on in the same way as, say, meat or dry goods. BUT it can still be done!
Block cheese can be frozen by grating it and mixing with flour (so it doesn’t stick together) in a freezer bag. Eggs can be frozen too, even raw, just be sure to take them out of the shell first (like water, eggs expand when frozen – freezing them in the shell is just asking for a frozen eggy mess)!
If you use milk, figure out the largest size of milk container your family can use before it spoils (we go through a lot of milk, so for us that’s a four litre!) and then commit to ONLY buying that size. If you know you’ll use it all, it doesn’t make sense to pay more per ounce when buying the smaller size.
Figure out too which store around you carries these items for the lowest price. Where I am, Shopper’s has the lowest price on milk and marks their eggs down to $1.89 a dozen on weekends, so we make a point to always get our “Saturday eggs” and pick up milk at the same time. When other retailers are selling their eggs for upwards of $3 a dozen, this has been a consistent savings for us.
Be wary of single-use or convenience packages in this department. A bag of shredded cheese might cost the same amount as a block of cheese, but often there’s only half as much or less product in the package. Single-serve yogurt cups especially are a huge hidden cost. Investing in some reusable, sealable containers around the same size (like these ones from Amazon) and buying only the larger tubs of yogurt is a quick way to save money without sacrificing single-portion yogurts in lunch bags.
Bonus: Kid’s School Snacks
Food fit for school lunches can be a huge budget killer, if you let it. Prepackaged snacks add up quickly! But the higher the price is, the more opportunities you have to get it down.
First, consider homemade versions of prepackaged food.
Like mentioned above, buying a big tub of yogurt and dividing it into portion containers is a quick way to save on the cost of single-serve yogurt cups or tubes. Plus you get a better flavor variety this way!
Cut the cost of cheese sticks significantly by buying block cheese and cutting sticks yourself – for the same price or lower, you can get three times as many cheese sticks out of a block.
Granola bars and soft baked snacks can be easily replaced by baked goods of your own, which have the added bonus of being significantly healthier as well.
Putting this altogether won’t take as much time as it sounds – have the kids help you bake, or they can portion yogurt into cups and cut cheese while you bake! Having them help make their own lunch foods will make them more excited to eat their lunches!
Baby carrots can be replaced by carrot sticks, applesauce by apple slices (sprinkle some lemon juice to stop them browning and hold together with a rubber band!), and tuna salad or egg salad is an excellent low-cost, nut-free protein for sandwiches.
If all else fails, keep your eyes peeled near the start of the school year for coupons on prepackaged school snacks, and build up a small stockpile to have on hand in case of emergencies.
BONUS: Reusable packaging so you never have to buy plastic wrap again!
This might be my favourite tip of all for kid’s school lunches. When the school year started a couple years ago, I knew I didn’t want to keep buying single-use baggies – it’s awful for the budget AND the environment. So the next time we were out shopping, I picked up some of these reusable sandwich containers. We’ve used them for hundreds of sandwiches since, and they’ve been a lifesaver. No more plastic baggies in the trash, and no more recurring monthly payment for single-use packaging!
I’m a big believer in reusable containers in general, but they can make a lunch bag a tight squeeze when you’re packing mostly homemade snacks. These beeswax wraps on Amazon are the best alternative for cookies, biscuits, homemade granola bars, carrot sticks, you name it. HUGE game changer.
With just a couple products and a small upfront cost, we’ve gone an entire school year without buying or using ANY single-use plastics. Not one. Not only have we saved more than the initial investment, but it’s been a great learning moment for the kids about environmental and financial responsibility.