Six ways to chop down your food bill

Make a shopping list, compare prices and keep a tally, budget experts say.
Make a shopping list, compare prices and keep a tally, budget experts say. Photo credit: Getty.

As rising food prices put household budgets under pressure, controlling spending is key to saving money.   

According to a 2019 University of Otago survey on estimated food costs, a moderate food shop including a variety of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and some convenience foods for a family with two children costs an average of $258 per week across New Zealand's four main centres.   

Out-of-stock items and reports of fewer specials during lockdown put food costs under scrutiny. In the final of a three-part Newshub series on reducing living costs during COVID-19, Tracy Hemingway at Debt-Free-Diva and Hannah McQueen at enableMe share their top tips for chopping food costs.

1. Set a food budget

Setting a budget and keeping it top-of-mind while shopping saves money. It provides a goal and limits extras thrown in the trolley. 

McQueen suggests writing a menu first, then a shopping list.

"That should help stop overspending [and] reduce food wastage as well - which, after all, is money in the bin," McQueen said.

For Hemingway, a budget is a benchmark for spending less.

"I set my grocery budgets for a month and like to see how far under budget I can get," she said.

"I then transfer the excess budget amount [savings] onto my current financial goal."

Shopping in-store makes it easier to see the specials.

"Reduced-to-clear items are one of the biggest secrets to my frugal grocery success... you can get some key fresh produce staples for much less, and there is always the option to freeze these items to be used at a different date if it's not on the menu," Hemingway added.

2. Keep a tally while shopping

Online shoppers can check their spend while they shop. If shopping at the supermarket, keeping a tally avoids having to put things back - or pay more - at the checkout.

Hemingway suggests taking a pen and paper with the shopping list.

"I write the amount each item costs on the list as I pick up items and calculate it a couple of times to make sure I have my calculations correct," she explained.

"I also like to double check my list at the checkout if I feel something hasn't scanned correctly. This happens often."

3. Check labels to compare prices

Based on Wednesday prices at Countdown, a 420g can of Homebrand baked beans costs 70c, while the Watties lite version costs $2.40.

Checking the label will help shoppers pick the best value brand.

"[As] jars/cans are different sizes, it's important to compare them per 100 grams," Hemingway said.

4. Include staple items

Although buying and cooking in bulk can save time and money, on busy days, it's tempting to buy food on-the-run. Having staple items to prepare fast meals helps to avoid impulse spending.

For Hemingway, those items are milk, eggs and bananas.

"There are so many recipes you can create with eggs and milk... and bananas are a great alternative to other snacks that might not be as [healthy] and ultimately end up costing you more money," she said.

5. Make your own lunch

Making your own lunch can save hundreds of dollars each year.

Soups are easy, filling and cost less than buying lunch. Hemingway also suggests making frittatas and stews in bulk and freezing them to save time. Leftovers can be used for lunch.

"It's cheaper to buy in bulk so I bulk cook and freeze everything," she said.

6. Stay engaged: pay with cash or shop online

One of the secrets to saving money is to pay attention to every transaction. 

McQueen suggests that in-store shoppers pay with cash rather than EFTPOS. 

"Research shows we spend more when we're disconnected from the pain of purchase, and using cash puts us back in touch," she said.

Shopping online may help to reduce impulse spending.

"[Shopping online] makes it easy to put something back and allows you to make considered decisions based on what you actually need, rather just grabbing what will help you get out of there faster," McQueen added.

Other ways to save money on food:

  • reduce supermarket visits to avoid extra purchases
  • only buy seasonal produce 
  • If time-poor, buy a meal-kit rather than takeaways  
  • use legumes and vegetables to bulk out meals
  • buy in bulk - but only if you'll use it and have containers and space.

Setting a food budget, comparing prices, making lunches and staying focused on spending will help to keep food costs down, remembering that small, regular changes are easier to stick to than large cut-backs.