If It's So Cheap to Cook at Home, Then Why is My Grocery Bill So Huge?

This article discusses why we often spend much more money than we expect to in the grocery store, and it offers several solutions--including one counterintuitive idea that could help you save half off your grocery bill.
The other day I made dinner for the two of us: a delicious Cajun meatloaf, courtesy of my favorite gourmand Paul Prudhomme. Despite being meat-heavy, the cost of this meal was an inexpensive $11.49--less than $2.00 per serving--and it should feed us for at least three meals each.

Ha! Further proof that cooking meals at home is practically free, right?

Wait. Then why did my grocery bill that day run me more than $70?

This, in a nutshell, is why many readers get frustrated with those of us in the world of frugal food blogs. We all love to talk about how such and such a meal costs only 60c per serving, or how many recipes are laughably cheap. And yet when I went out to buy supplies for a supposedly inexpensive meal, my grocery store bill ended up being six times the cost of the recipe.

Here's the rub: when people spend a lot more money than they planned at the grocery store, it makes cooking at home seem more expensive than it really is.

A cheap meal doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are other issues--and costs--to consider. That's why it's somewhat misleading to read the cost of a recipe on a food blog, choose a bunch of recipes for the week, add up those food costs and then assume that's roughly what you'll spend at the store. If you want to manage your food buying efficiently, your responsibilities won't end there.

Obviously, I did not manage my food buying efficiently in this grocery store trip. In this post I'll share what I did wrong, and I'll walk through five reasons why my grocery bill turned out to be so much steeper than expected. My hope is that you can walk away from this post with a handful of simple rules to help you dramatically reduce your grocery budget.

But let's have the conclusion first, and it's a piece of good news: almost all of these cost overruns can be easily avoided with a bit of awareness and a couple of good habits.

Reason #1: I bought items that weren't on my list.
We've been in Hawaii until a couple of weeks ago, so I just had to buy a pineapple. Um, make that two. I also bought fresh cherries (sort of on sale at $5.99/lb) and some local blueberries too. I also gazed at the delicious cheeses in our store's budget-killing gourmet cheese section and walked away with a $4.89 block of Jarlsberg cheese. Total extra cost: $20.11

Lesson: Make a grocery list and stick to it.

Reason #2: I mindlessly bought expensive splurge items.
On my grocery trip, I went wild and bought a 24 pack (!) of ice cream sandwiches (ostensibly for Laura, but I'm probably going to end up eating most of them), Klondike bars, and a big bar of dark chocolate. These were all examples of second order foods, all expensive, and--excluding the chocolate--all unnecessary. Total extra cost: $13.57

Lesson: Splurge items are fine if you make a willful, conscious purchase. Splurge items are not fine if you make them mindlessly.

Reason #3: I bought staples and pantry items.
We just returned from four months away, so I've had to stock up on some staples, including a 20-lb bag of white rice as well as brown rice and jarred pasta sauce. Both the white rice and the pasta sauce were on sale (the rice massively so at $9.99 for a 20-lb bag). The brown rice I could have postponed until a sale came along. Total extra cost: $15.97

Lesson: Stock up on pantry items only when you have to, or when there is a meaningful economic incentive (like a big sale).

Reason #4: My grocery list contained non-food items.
I also bought toilet paper, batteries and sandwich bags. Granted, these items have absolutely nothing to do with the cost of the food I made, but they did add costs to a grocery store bill that left me with a vague feeling of "gee, the food this week sure seemed expensive!" Total extra cost: $9.70

Lesson: Your overall grocery bill may not accurately represent your meal costs.

Reason #5: I had to buy more than I needed of most recipe items.
This is highly typical in cooking. I needed only 25 cents' worth of breadcrumbs, but I had to buy an entire canister for $1.29. I needed a 1/2 cup of ketchup, but I had to buy a full bottle (on sale) for $2.09. I only used about half of the meat that I bought. And so on. Most people cite this as a primary reason why cooking at home is too expensive, but keep in mind these items have now been paid for, so they'll essentially be free the next time I use them. Note with some perishables, especially fresh herbs and greens, this can still be a frustrating source of waste. Total extra cost: about $8.00

Lesson: Select additional recipes for your weekly menu that use many of the same bulk ingredients. You can scale your grocery purchases over several meals and significantly reduce your costs and any leftover ingredient waste.

How to Save Half Off Your Grocery Bill

Okay. I'll conclude with one final (and surprising) conclusion from my grocery store run: Reasons #1 and #2--off-list items and unnecessary splurge items--together drove 50% of my extra costs.

Let me repeat that. Fifty percent.

Believe it or not, this is the most encouraging news of all. It suggests that you can save an enormous percentage on your grocery bill by making just two changes to your grocery store habits: 1) cut back dramatically on splurge items, and 2) don't buy anything not on your list. That's a powerful example of the 80/20 Rule in action, and it's something any of us can do.

Readers, what additional advice would you add?

Related Posts:
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
Cajun Meatloaf
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking
A Simple Way to Beat Rising Food Prices
Cooking Like the Stars? Don't Waste Your Money

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martha in mobile said...

Here's how I implement #5: I have recipe groups I call "progressions" that go in a set order, utilizing the cooked foods from the previous night's recipe to minimize waste. For example, night #1 would be grilled chicken breasts (coated with olive oil, chopped garlic, chopped fresh rosemary and salt), steamed red potatoes and steamed zucchini. Night #2 would be hash made from leftover chicken and potatoes, (with the addition of a sauteed onion and some garlic) and more steamed veggies. Night #3 would be a pot pie, using the rest of the leftover chicken, the leftover hash, and the leftover veggies. (Just add refrigerator pie crusts and a sauce made from a roux and chicken broth).

I hate menu planning, so having these recipe progressions makes my life a lot easier.

MCM Voices said...

Dan, I was glad to see you leave chcolate out of the "unnecessary" category ;)

Ray said...

Interesting piece. A trip to any store, not just grocery shopping, would benefit by applying these rules.

The number that is really critical is the extra $8 you spent for the ingredients, due to packaging size. Unless you adjusted your cooking plans to subsequently use these extras up, your meal really cost nearly $20 to make. Still not bad, but 57% higher - very significant.

In order to chip down that 57% overrun, one really does need to plan carefully. Think about how bad this can get if you dont - day after day of significant overspending. And its so easy to fall into this trap, because it requires really proactive thinking to avoid it.

Maybe whats required here is to apply a template of some sort to the situation to do some of the thinking for us. Maybe we should be looking not at individual recipes, but WEEKLY recipes. Or, maybe we should be looking to clump ingredients into categories that can be used for any recipe, thereby making purchased ingredients more versatile. For instance, a recipe can call for broccoli, or any "green vegetable". The chef then looks to tie together green vegetable recipes in a given week. Obviously, focus on things that spoil quickly should be priority.

It would be interesting to see you take on the subject in more detail, since random recipes each day will prevent the chef from ever getting down to those really low daily numbers.

Jim Hohl said...

Great post, Dan!

One technique that I find effective is to keep a mental list of all the things that I know I always need and won't go bad -- coffee, sugar, whole grain pasta, bread (freeze it) etc -- as well as some idea of the usual prices for them. Then when I'm shopping and I see it on sale, I buy up a bunch of it even if I don't need it right away. That way I almost always have those things on hand and never end up buying them at full price. That even works for me for cereal, which I know Dan hates buying, but for me I find it a quick meal when I'm on the run and as long as I make sure to buy something high in grains and low in sugar, works well for me. Last night I got 4 boxes of Kashi for $10, which is about 1/2 the full price and will last me a couple weeks. I'll probably get more next time I stop by the store this week.

Another suggestion for saving is not to be a slave to any particular brand. I buy whatever cottage cheese is on sale that week at C-Town, for example. And I buy enough so I am not buying more at full price soon. Sure, I have my favorites and I buy more of them when they are on sale, but is it worth it to pay double for my favorites? Usually not.

Finally, I would also recommend not buying in stores at all for sundries that you use regularly. You can have Amazon deliver them for you in bulk on a regular schedule for a substantial discount. You can set the quantities and the schedule and change as needed. Saves on trips to the store. And they don't charge for shipping either for added savings. If the minimums are more than you need, maybe ask your neighbor or office mate to go in with you.

At the end of the day, even if you end up overpaying by a bit, though, you will realize that just one or two meals made at home a week will save you substantially versus eating those same meals out.

Leeza Furman said...

Very interesting and very wise post. Completely agree with the need to stick to the list. When i make a list, it really helps to plan for the meals we will eat in the upcoming week and sticking to the list helps to not overbuy.

One additional comment (perhaps inspired by my Russian background where we cooked at home 99.9% of the time): it is very useful to consider what you have at home and try to cook meals with what you already have as opposed to chosing the recepie which will require a trip to a grossery store.

I do not suggest one only cooks from the products he/she already has at home(got to re-stock your kitchen every now and then), but it harkens back to Dan's point that once you bought something and did not use 100% of the purchased quantity, using it next time would cost you nothing.

Let me illustrate. We just came back from a vacation with kids where we stayed in a condo and decided to take advantage of the kitchen in our appt so we would not eat out 3 times a day. Loved the idea: not only it saved us $$, it saved us a great deal of time usually wasted for commuting to /from the restaurant, waiting to be seated, and actually being served. However, I think we could have applied the princile of using what we already had much better than we did. We brought some farina (this is what goes into the cream of wheat) and some oatmeal with us. Everyone in our family loves the way I make either of these. So - if we really tried to apply above priciple, we would have said "Kids, today for breakfast we have cream of wheat - enjoy!" Next day we would have said, "Kids, today for breakfast we have oatmeal". I am not suggesting to feed the family oatmeal for breakfast every day until you run out of the oatmeal, but we could have had 2 free breakfasts. In our case we said, "Who wants what for breakfast?" and went to a store to get eggs and bacon and then also used some other food we brought with us. In the end - we brought home all the oatmeal and the farina we brought there.

Would we have saved a great deal of money if we used it - absolutely not. But if I summed up all the money we could save per year if we made an extra effort to use the ingridients we already had at home as a first choce before going to grssery shopping, I think we would have arrived at a tangible saving.

Rich and Col said...

another very good post, and here are my thoughts:

in response to #1: I always allow myself to buy things that aren't on "the list". You can't always know what's in season, or when the first asparagus is available, or that the your shop has managed to secure a shipment of Belgian chocolate (and why isn't Jarlsberg on your list?).

#2: you obviously went shopping just before dinner, rather than just after lunch.

#3: staples are what makes you the type of cook you are. You have to have brown rice and quinoa, saffron and jalapenos in your pantry to be able to whip up "oh, it's nothing special" at a moment's notice.

#4: you're allowed to do a "normal" grocery shop, and if it happens to coincide with Cajun Meatloaf shopping, sobeit;

and #5: see #3 for dry goods, and if you have to buy a bunch of basil for a few leaves, make a pesto ... same goes for arugula, or anything green.

Daniel said...

Great input from everyone. It's a pleasure to have such astute and insightful readers.

Martha: your "progressions" idea is an excellent one. I'd like to try it.

MCM: Mary, chocolate is one of my key necessities. I still wonder what got into me when I tried to do a 30 day chocolate fast.

Ray: I think one way to manage this source of extra expense is to build a list over time of favorite family recipes that scale well off each other's ingredient lists. I talk about this subject in some detail here (see tip #4).

These are excellent insights. Definitely agree with keeping some mental context of what is the "right" price for many staple items so you can know when things are really on sale. I like the AMZN idea as well.

Leeza: great point. There's no better form of scale than to make something with already on-hand ingredients. Thanks for your thoughts!

Richard: You've caught me on your second point. Guilty as charged! I hear you on not necessarily making a rigid list, especially with produce. If you go "off list" and buy extra in-season fresh veggies you will never suffer the kind of cost overrun that you get from mindlessly buying second-order splurge items.

Once again, thanks everyone for the exceptional insights!


Amanda @ Mrs.W's Kitchen said...

Another great article--I have nothing to add. Love the comments, too!

Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

I never figure the cost of a meal; but then I also buy everything I possibly can at Costco knowing it will be used but typically never buying for a particular meal. Else my numbers would be skewed even more. Flour for a cake. 25 lbs. Tomatoes for sauce. 6 cans.

So, if figuring the cost of a meal, I would have to determine a per serving cost knowing it would be unfair to determine cost based on purchase price assuming the majority of my purchases are staples that will be used eventually.

That being said...I have learned it is unwise running into Costco for just bread or eggs; somehow those end up costing me $150!

Produce and dairy are all that I buy from the regular grocery store and I do try to make a list and yes, check it twice...and if I buy some extra chocolate, well, that's both naughty and nice!