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Spend Less Than You Earn (2) – Food

This is the second post of my series aimed at helping you to lower your expenses. You’ll find Part 1 here.

Households in Germany spend ca. 14% of their total expenditures on food.

Do your numbers look similar? Let’s have a look then to see where you can start to save some money.

To find out where you could spend less, you’ve got to know how much you’re spending first, of course.

As soon as you know that, you can look at your different categories of expenditures to find out, where some savings potential might be hiding. Make sure you don’t aim so low that you end up with a lifestyle that’s not sustainable in the long-run. There’s one exception: If you currently have consumer debt, I would strongly recommend you spend as little as possible until those debts are gone.

Okay, let’s get down to business.


How can you reduce your grocery expenses?

In our family, the mere fact of starting to track how much we were spending on groceries (food and household items, actually) led to lower expenses. That surprised me quite a bit. We had apparently lost any feeling for „appropriate“ prices, and I think that might have had to do with it. Which included spending fairly mindlessly on restaurant lunches or going out for dinner.

From all I’ve read on other FI-blos, this phenomenon seems to be quite typical. Maybe you had some „aha-moment“ as well when you started tracking your expenses on a regular basis? That’s a good start.

There’s loads of blogs dedicated specifically to frugal living. If you want to do a deep dive, you can just google the topic. Some of it is too extreme for my family and me. That’s why I only want to share stuff on my blog that we do ourselves without any feeling of deprivation.


Do your own cooking, go out for meals less

The biggest lever for food expenses is probly to cook as much as possible from scratch. As a first step, it costs less to eat at home and bring your own food to the office instead of going out for lunch or dinner.

Many of us haven’t learned how to cook properly, though. That can be quite a barrier. That’s why I think it’s totally okay to take it slow. Don‘t feel bad about using a prefab sauce, or mixing a frozen pizza into your menu once in a while when you‘re starting off. But in the long run it’s better for both your purse and your health to mainly cook from scratch with fresh, unprocessed ingredients.

Maybe you curently eat a lot out of home, and you don’t feel comfortable with changing this completely in one go? In this case you can nevertheless start saving by using take-away options rather than sitting down in a restaurant. Very often restaurants have the highest margins on drinks. So you end up spending less, if you only buy an out-of-home meal.


Cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients

To cook from scratch and buy seasonal ingredients is the go-to advice if you want to lower your food expenses. „Seasonal“ mainly refers to the seasonal offer of vegetables and fruit. You can tell what’s in season very quickly when you familiarize yourself with prices. When there’s loads of zucchinis available in summer, for example, prices will be low.

Mix seasonal vegetables with low-cost staples such as rice, noodles or legumes. You can think about scaling in your consumption of meat as well. That doesn’t only lower your costs, but is healthier as well. That’s an individual choice, of course. We eat fairly little meat, probably once a week on average. But we don’t want to cut it out of our menu completely.

With the internet, it’s become very easy to find interesting recipes. You can search by the ingredients you have available, for example. Or you look for recipes on blogs that focus on cooking low-cost.

The more you try, the better it works. It’s fun to let yourself be inspired by recipes from foreign cuisines. I love to prepare the Pho – I changed the recipe to vegetable broth and beef meat balls that soak in the soup for some hours, before we eat it – and the Salsa FIRE-Blogger Mr Tako put online.


Buy what’s on sale strategically

When you search for how to save on groceries, you’ll often find the advice to check out the weekly sales / loss leaders in the supermarkets, and prepare a weekly menu accordingly. We’ve tried to do this as well. I have to admit, though, that this method doesn’t work for us.

Too often we ended up with one or two days where we didn’t fancy the meal that was supposed to be cooked that day. And as we had planned for a lot of different meals within one week, we tended to end up with spare ingredients we didn’t use up after all. Thats why we decided to do things differently.

I look at what’s on sale for the week as well. But I only buy sales items that are staples with us, or that I’m positive we like so much they will be finished within the week for certain.

Espresso beans, butter, and pasta are examples of our staples. By now, I have developed a pretty good estimate of the pattern with which they will be on sale again. So I can buy the exact volume that will carry us through to the next sale. That’s exactly how I use sales on other household items as well.

On top of that I buy „standards“ like eggs, milk, bananas, tomatoes, bread. After that I’ll only stock up on what we’ve run out or need on the day. On the week-ends, we decide what we want to eat Saturday and Sunday – and buy only the missing ingredients as well.


Buying at discount super-markets, yes or no?

Interestingly, we end up with lower costs using this method than if we’re doing one weekly grocery run at a discount supermarket. But to be fair, that might have to do with the fact that one tends to grab the additional odd product as prices seem to be incredibly low…

I also buy staples in large unit sizes, if they work out, e.g. jasmine rice in 18kg packs. One tip for you: Always calculate price per kg/l if you want to compare different package sizes. Like that, you can check whether the bigger unit is really cheaper than the smaller one. And make sure you only buy pack sizes you can use up in a sensible amount of time. You’ve not gained anything if you buy cheaper but end up by having to throw away part of the pack.

The conventional supermarket‘s original store brands, i.e. Gut & Günstig at Edeka’s oder ja! at Rewe’s are at the same price point as the discount super markets for a lot of products. But be careful: By now the conventional supermarkets have extended their store brands – up into the premium segment. One example: Rewe Feine Welt. That might still be cheaper than a comparable brand product, but you better double-check.

There are some products, e.g. cashew and walnuts I specifically buy at ALDI’s since I find their value-for-money unbeatable. Due to their high turn-over, their produce tends to be among the freshest. And they offer some products I cannot buy at our conventional supermarket, like organic shrimp.

I’m fully aware of the fact that some peple judge buying at discount supermarkets as ethically uncorrect. On some levels, I can agree, but overall I do not think its unethical. It would be a fallacy to assume conventional super markets negotiation with suppliers are less tough. But I have chosen only to buy at a discount supermarket, where personnel is paid reasonably well.


Saving at any cost?

There’s one issue that I feel gets reduced to the background too much sometimes, when people try to save as much as possible. And that’s production conditions and contamination of food with herbicides etc.. It’s a huge problem, and we don’t get all our food straight from an organic farm or a fair trade store either. And even those get their tomatoes and cucumbers from Southern Europe during the winter which seems less than optimal with regard to CO2-emissions.

As far as fruit and vegetables are concerned, we actually do tend to buy organic. Especially for the types that are most loaded with pesticides.

And what about eggs, milk and meat? At the supermarket, we only buy these products if they satisfy the EU-bio-norm at minimum, often we choose Demeter or Bioland quality (traditional labels for organic production that have stricter rules than the EU-Biosiegel). Alternatively, we buy meat at our butcher’s of trust. He gets his supply from regional, family-owned farms.

Yes, I am fully aware that there are black sheep in organic farming as well. I don’t subscribe to the illusion that organic eggs or milk are produced in cosy small farms either. And organic or regionally raised cattle have to be slaughtered before we can eat their meet. Nevertheless I would rather not eat meat or other animal products than buy them at dumping prices and thus support intensive mass animal farming at its worst – even if I could save more money that way.

Financial Independence Rocks!

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