How to Spend Less Money on Food

I understand that it’s good practice in blogging to write about  certain things. These should be things that one is interested in, that one has a specialised insight in to, and, ideally, things that are of value to others. As it happens, I have a preternatural ability to live cheaply, and I feel that sharing some tips on this might benefit all humankind. Or, at least, my less well-moneyed peers.

You’ll have to accept my authority on this. I’m an ardent bargain-hunter, a reader of money-saving blogs, and a dedicated frugalista. My household averages less than $2 per person per day for food. I know what I’m on about.

Before jumping in to the tricks, I’d like to explain why it’s so important to be able to live cheaply.


It’s pretty simple: the cheaplier you can live, the freeer you are. If all your expenses cost you $11,000 a year, you have more liberty, more choice, than somebody who has to earn $25,000 a year to stay afloat. This freedom means you can be more discerning about choosing employment – or simply that you have more free time to write irate letters to the editor.

joel's letter to the editor

Speaking from experience, employers aren’t big on work-time being spent emailing The Age.

This is especially true for volunteers. When you’re spending lots of your time working for no financial reward, it’s especially important that you find ways to live cheaply. Volunteers who live at home and thus have fewer expenses are surely privileged – those of us who have higher and inevitable costs facing us have to find ways to make our commitments financially sustainable.


As I began thinking about this, I realised there’s a whole realm of areas to discuss. This is just going to be about food. I’m also keen to discuss broader ideas: rent and asset purchase and maintenance come to mind. We’ll get to that.


There are four tricks to spending less money on food:

  1. Avoid impulse purchases of any snacks or luxuries.
  2. Focus on buying produce, produce direct derivatives, starchy products, legumes, pulses, and kitchen staples.
  3. Use a shopping list.
  4. Avoid buying meals when out.

The first trick (actually quite simple) – avoid impulse purchases of any snacks or luxuries. Think twice before you buy junk food, any beverage, or expensive alternatives to commonplace items. This is a no-brainer money-saver. Junk foods don’t reduce the amount you eat, and are disproportionately expensive. Expensive alternatives, such as a fancy salt instead of Coles table salt, or gnocchi instead of penne, are often nicer, but are much more often more expensive. The point here is to spend less money, not to cook for Nigella Lawson. Further, cheaper products are often actually indistinguishable from their branded counterparts.

When would one buy snacks or luxuries? Certainly if your loving parents are in town, you might want to be able to serve them your finest San Pellegrino instead of that common crap you presume to call water. There may also be particularly stressful or demanding times in life, and they are often better with some chocolate. I’ve certainly been known to work my way through a block of Lindt in writing a cover letter, or a bowl of ice cream in a late-night burst of productive activity. (Although, in neither case had I actually bought the product in question.) The key distinction here is to plan for these purchases, not to be making them on the spur of the moment.

Now you know what not to buy, here’s what to buy – focus on buying produce, derivatives of produce, starchy products, legumes, pulses, and kitchen staples. These foodstuffs cost much less than processed items and empower you to do most preparation yourself, avoiding the expensive of pre-prepared meals. Markets (as opposed to supermarkets) are good for this, because they tend to stock only produce, cutting out the temptation of processed foods. You will need to buy staples such as flour and sugar from time to time – that’s why we wave supermarkets, and that’s why I have Step 3.

If you follow my words of wisdom here, your shopping list may include:

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Cous cous
  • Potatoes
  • Onion
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini
  • Eggplant
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Capsicum
  • Tomato
  • Diced tomato
  • Bok choy
  • Spring onion
  • Chilli
  • Pumpkin
  • Passata (great for sauces!)
  • Dry lentils
  • Dry chickpeas
  • Dry beans
  • Herbs/spices

Thus the next step is to use a shopping list. Supermarkets sell a huge array of expensive and unnecessary goods, and they are best outright avoided. If you have to go to such a place, make sure to know what you are aiming to buy. Write up a list, and buy only things on that list. Maybe you buy unlisted things if they are on special and you would ordinarily buy them. If Lindt chocolate is on special, it’s still costing you money. If diced tomatoes are on special, buy 100 cans. A list means you won’t amble about looking for things to spend your money on. You can combine this with other commitment devices: have a small basket instead of a trolley and limit the amount of money you have to spend.

You might be following all my advice, but still going out and spending money at restaurants or other eateries. The solution? Avoid buying meals when out. This is an optimised approach. Going out for meals is quite nice, and there is an ambience and pleasure which isn’t quite as available when you are eating rice off your knees while watching Flight of the Conchords. I’ve also learnt it’s considered good form to eat when others do, rather than to twiddle ones’ thumbs and stare hungrily at their edamame. Thus I recommend pre-eating. Just as the savvy clubber will dose themself with cheap, store-bought alcohol, before hitting up more expensive bars and clubs, the savvy diner will make sure to have a few quick bites before going out to a meal. It’s still possible thus to order and enjoy a pleasant meal, and take advantage of the lovely surrounds. The benefit is being less hungry and under less pressure to order a large meal. Win.


These were my four best tips and tricks to spending less money on food. Do you think they’ll work? Are there any problems? What approach do you take?



2 Responses to “How to Spend Less Money on Food”

  1. I can already think of many things I can change to save money with this advice. It seems like good stuff!

    But I’m also very concerned with eating healthily. How would you rate foods like quinoa or chia seeds? Do you think the nutritional benefit is worthwhile? Maybe I ought to research nutrition in tandem.

    • Good question. It depends on your financial situation to some extent: it’s definitely possible to have a perfectly nutritious and balanced diet without forking out for “super foods”, and I don’t know quite enough about such foods as to judge whether they are worth the cost. At times I have quite happily spent extra money on chia seeds or goji berries to supplement my morning muesli, but these would be one of the first things to go if I began to feel the pinch.

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