Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule

I'm always searching for new ways to apply creative and counterintuitive thinking to help my readers cook more and spend less. And after I asked my readers last week to share how you are adjusting to the economic crisis, the wide variety of interesting responses inspired me to apply one of my favorite rules--the 80/20 Rule--to arrive at still more ways to help us all save on our food bills.

Long time readers of Casual Kitchen will be familiar with my freakish obsession with the 80/20 Rule. I love using this conceptual framework to solve problems, because it suggests that enormously effective results can come from making just a few key changes. Today, by using a narrow application of the 80/20 Rule, we'll come up with a barrage of ideas to help you save money on food and other kitchen expenses.

For those of you unfamiliar with this powerful rule, or for those of you who would like a quick review of some of the ways we've already applied it towards cooking, please have a quick look at my first essay on the subject.

First, let's start with two basic 80/20 premises:

A) Roughly 80% of your food spending will come from 20% of your purchases.

B) Some 20% of the things you own (ingredients, cookware, cookbooks, etc.) will be used in 80% of the meals you prepare.

Seems simple enough, even a bit obvious, right? But if we think a bit more deeply about some of the ramifications of these two seemingly obvious statements, we can derive quite a few secondary conclusions that should give us some intriguingly easy ways to save money on our food budgets:

1) Identify and remove a only a few key grocery items.
The best thing about 80/20 is that it tells you that by making only one or two key changes, you can drive significant results. Thus by identifying and removing just a few particularly costly items on your grocery bill, you should be able to meaningfully cut your weekly food budget.

2) Cut out just one or two restaurant outings per month.
The 80/20 Rule doesn't say you have to suffer and cut out all restaurant meals. It suggests that you only need to cut out one or two key restaurant meals each month to drive a disproportionately large reduction in your food budget. Replace these dinners out with healthy home-cooked meals, or consider patronizing a less expensive casual ethnic restaurant in your town instead. You can still enjoy an interesting eating experience, but for a lot less money.

3) Extrapolate the 80/20 Rule to cookware items.
Okay, it borders on the self-evident to say that you will use 20% of your tools and equipment for 80% of your recipes. But the converse of that statement is a bit less obvious: you will rarely use some 80% of your kitchen gadgets. Therefore, you can easily justify indefinitely postponing the purchase of almost all new kitchen equipment, tools and gadgets--at least until the recession is over. The odds are quite good that any new tool you buy will not be one of your critical few.

4) No need for new cookbooks.
You are likely using only 20% of the recipes in the cookbooks you already own. This means you have an enormous resource of additional recipes just sitting there on your shelves! The 80/20 Rule implies that you can wait until economy recovers before spending another dime on any more cookbooks.

5) You're getting killed by just a few spices, ingredients or pantry items.
Pay close attention to the nature of the "critical few" 20% of your ingredients that you stock in your pantry. Do you have a weakness for expensive canned sauces or prepared salad dressings, unusual spices (saffron comes to mind), or other non-essential pantry items (croutons, nutrient-free fruit roll-ups or brand-name junk foods)? Cut out just a few of these key expensive items and you should be able to save a meaningful amount of money. An recent example from our home: just the other day we foolishly paid a nauseating $3.70 for a medium-sized bottle of Ken's Caesar Salad Dressing, when a splash of olive oil and vinegar would have been a much healthier and far cheaper alternative.

6) Likewise, a few recipes are killing you.
After thinking about which pantry items to cut out, you will likely begin to come up with some good ideas on specific recipes that you should emphasize (or de-emphasize) in your heavy rotation. Reduce the use of recipes that are made from the most expensive ingredients. A few tweaks like this to your weekly (or monthly) meal rotation could result in enormous savings on your food bill.

7) Be ruthless with spending on meat.
Meat is often the most expensive item in a family's grocery bill--in other words it's part of the 20% of items that drives the 80% of your expenses. You'll likely drive significant savings if you practice part-time vegetarianism by eating 30% of your meals meat-free.

8) Take advantage of staples.
Take a look at many of the world's most common staple foods, such as rice, potatoes, beans, oats, brown rice, etc. These foods are surprisingly cheap, surprisingly nutritious and they make up a large percentage of the aggregate calories of the diets of many of the people of the world. Can you use this to your advantage, perhaps by supplementing many of your meals with these inexpensive foods? At Casual Kitchen, we've used rice for years as an inexpensive and easy-to-make staple to accompany our home-cooked meals.

9) You probably have one or two key bad habits in how you run your kitchen or your household. Fix them and generate large savings.
People do inefficient things all the time, and many of us are consistently inefficient in some of our habits. Maybe you're not making a regular weekly grocery trip with a well-thought out list, causing you to make multiple trips to the store per week, each of which include expensive and extraneous purchases. Perhaps you don't make a coherent meal plan each week, causing you to waste food or buy unneeded and expensive prepared foods at the last minute in order to put dinner on the table. Perhaps you have a habit of buying certain fruits and vegetables out of season, paying extra money for produce that's not even that good anyway.

The great thing about 80/20 thinking is that it implies you only need to adjust or correct a very small number of these bad habits to drive a disproportionately large effect on your spending. Start by tweaking a couple of easy-to-change habits and observe the results. They may very well be "critical few" habits that drive amazing savings in time, money and effort.

10) In your household, 20% of your family consumes 80% of the food.
The 80/20 Rule indicates that there is likely to be one or two family members living under your roof who consume household resources far out of proportion to their number. Do you have a wolfish teenage son, or a husband with an unusually large appetite? Kick those family members out of the house and you'll generate immense savings. :)

Readers, can you think of any other ideas that I've missed?

Concluding Thoughts
The great thing about the 80/20 Rule is that it suggests that you don't have to make wholesale radical changes in your life to get what you want. Instead, it may only take just one or two tweaks to a couple of seemingly minor things to create consequences completely out of proportion to the changes you actually made. Most systems in our lives are highly non-linear in nature, and if you can make changes, even small changes, to the right "critical few" inputs, you can get enormously powerful results.

Good luck, and feel free to share in the comments section any applications of the 80/20 Rule that you've found effective in your homes!

Related Posts:
Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking
How to Team Up in the Kitchen
The Dinner Party: 10 Tips to Make Cooking for Company Fun and Easy
Cooking Like the Stars? Don't Waste Your Money

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Erica Tesla said...

My husband and I look at the restaurant part of this from a different perspective: pleasure gained.

We've historically eaten out at restaurants waaaaay more than we should. Because of this, eating at restaurants became something that wasn't "special" and gave us no more pleasure (and no less hassle!) than eating at home. After looking closely at how we were behaving, the 80/20 rule that applied was:

20% of our restaurant trips were providing 80% of our pleasure from eating out.

You might think that the really expensive trips were what was doing the pleasure-generating, but it wasn't. (In fact, our very favorite restaurant experience is having breakfast at the diner down the street where everyone knows us.)

Therefore, we're working on cutting out 80% of our dining out, leaving a couple of "date" meals out every so often, and frequent visits to our favorite diner. We may not be saving 80% - but we are asking ourselves the best question ever now: is spending money on this [restaurant experience this time] going to make me happier than the alternative [eating at home]? We're saving money without feeling significantly deprived - and in fact, enjoying meals together at home.

Daniel said...

This is a spectacular suggestion. I'm often amazed at the lack of correlation between utility and price for many things, certainly dinners out in particular. This is a great way to apply 80/20.

Thank you for sharing!


Anonymous said...

i'm totally with erica on the attitude toward dining out, and totally with you on looking out for those unecessary and usually expensive food purchases. salad dressing is such a killer! so much cheaper and easier to make at home, and so much better tasting.

i just can't stay away from cookbooks, though. i rationalize that i need them for the blog, but i really should enforce a moratorium.

Aarwenn said...

Hi Daniel,

This is the first time I've read your blog and I'm an immediate fan. This occurs to me: would it also be true that 20% of your food provides 80% of your needed nutrients, and/or conversely, that 20% of your food provides 80% of your bad fats and bad cholesterol? This is in line with the idea that just a few tweaks--cutting out 20% of the kinds of food you eat--would drastically lower your calorie and fat intake.

At the same time--although this isn't as statistically powerful a use of this rule--you could identify the foods you eat that provide 80% of your nutrients, and attempt to increase those for some incremental nutrient gains.

Daniel said...

Hi Michelle,
I had to laugh when I read your comment on cookbooks... I have the same problem. In fact tomorrow I'm going to be posting a review of a really fun cookbook that I totally loved. I suppose I should enforce a cookbook moratorium on myself too, but maybe instead I'll consider that particular 80/20 tip to be outside of my personal "critical few." :)

Hi Aarwenn:
Thanks for the positive vibes! And yes, you are on the right track with applying 80/20 thinking to nutrients as well as fat/calories. In fact in this post I talk about some of those very issues. The percentages may not work out to be exactly 80% or 20% (some things in life can be much more non-linear, eg: 90% of my bad calories come from 1% of the meals when I REALLY pig out), but you get the idea.

Thanks to both of you for reading!


Anonymous said...

here is an idea, do not buy your fruits and vegetables in the supermarket, find a local fruit market enstead!

Cori R. said...

I love tip #7! My corollary to it is to really examine the cuts you're buying. Many times you wind up being charged for someone else to do the work, such as stew or stir-fry meat.

I buy large beef roasts and pork country ribs, both of which usually have the cheapest per pound price, then cut them up into whatever I need. Saves on time (I don't have to cut up strips when I'm making stirfry) and money.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I also love trying out new recipes, but I don't buy any cookbooks, I just go to allrecipes.com to find things to try. I love that the people there rate the recipes so I know chances are it will be good before I make it. Just a thought!

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

Making most (or at least 80%)of all treats (cookies, brownies, etc.) at home from real ingredients instead of buying boxes, the freezer case, or plastic wrapped packages makes a big difference in the budget and the waistline!

Go ahead and eat brownies on a budget - but make them yourself with flour, sugar, eggs, and cocoa powder.

You'll be amazed how much you save when you stop buying all those little extra sweets (candy, cookies, brownies, donuts, sweet rolls, waffles, pancakes, etc.)

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

Also, when we budget - eating out is part of our entertainment budget, not a part of our food budget. It's not for our daily food, but for a once in a while extravagance. Helps keep that spending in check and in perspective.

Daniel said...

Good insights Milehimama, thank you for sharing!


Joanna said...

Great post! I have done so much paring down on the food budget and cook almost everything at home. Going out to eat is a big adventure for us then, and we tend to be go only to places where we can order things we can't make at home (like sushi, but I'm working on it!). It makes it so much more enjoyable when a night out is special and you can't wait to go get great food.

I try to apply 80/20 another way: 80% fresh, nutritious natural foods (produce, dairy, whole grains, fish), and 20% additional items (spices, boxed cereals, etc.). Makes for a much healthier perspective on food and food spending.