Food-related expenses are the third largest category of expenditures for American families, according to the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We previously published an article about how to save on your grocery bill, but another way to save money is by switching up your meal choices with cheaper (but still tasty, filling, and healthy) options.
I’m a pretty routinized person when it comes to meals. I eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch pretty much every day. The only variety is dinner, which is almost always cooked by my wife. I usually eat cereal for breakfast and a bagel and cream cheese and a few snacks for lunch. This has worked for me for a long time. However, it recently came to my attention that my meal choices are rather expensive.
Let me explain. Using the cheapest bulk prices available at my local Wegmans, a large bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with whole milk comes to $0.65. By comparison, two eggs and two slices of bread only costs $0.30. You can even add potatoes and a glass of apple juice and still only get to $0.64, one cent cheaper. And that’s for a much larger and healthier meal.
In an even more extreme case, a bagel and cream cheese costs $1.05. Adding my typical snacks (baby carrots, Goldfish, and Oreos – yes, I’ve pretty much packed the same lunch since middle school) brings the price to $1.74. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, meanwhile, costs only $0.23, and if you’re like me and don’t enjoy jelly, removing it takes the price down to $0.16.
These price differences may seem meaningless to you (who cares about a difference of $0.35 or even $0.82?), but keep in mind that these are daily expenses. Saving just a dollar a day adds up to $365/year. That’s money that could be used to build up an emergency fund, pay down debt, or invest for the future.
If you were to invest it with an 8% annual return, that $365 would grow to:
If you were to continue investing $365 every year with an 8% annual return, you would end up with:
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$40,000 is certainly no laughing matter. Even $365 can be significant in many people’s lives. According to the Fed’s 2020 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, 36% of adults would not be able to pay for an unexpected $400 expense with cash or its equivalent. Saving $365 by switching up meal choices could easily get you most of the way to $400. And depending on what you typically eat, it’s quite possible you could save much more than $1/day.
How can I find out what my meals cost?
This requires a little bit of work, but it’s pretty straightforward. Here are the steps that you need to follow:
1. Look up the prices of typical ingredients on the website of your local grocery store.
Obviously, if you want to know how much something costs, you have to look up the price. Make sure the website is set to your local store because prices can vary significantly by region. For example, in my local store in Pennsylvania, a gallon of whole milk costs $4.26, while in Virginia, it can cost just $2.87. This can make a big difference in your meal price calculations.
Start by looking up the prices for food you eat often, and then branch out into other food you like but may not eat as frequently. Don’t just focus on the main ingredients, although they are a good way to get started. You should also record the prices of olive oil, butter, sauces, and spices that you typically use. These are all included in the cost of a meal.
Also, make sure that you are looking at prices of food in quantities and brands that you would actually purchase. It doesn’t make sense to record the cheapest price for an item if it requires you to buy a bulk pack that you won’t use up before it goes bad. Food waste is a bigger way people squander money than meal choice. A 2020 study by Zach Conrad of The College of William & Mary estimated that Americans spend an average of about $1,300 per year on food that goes to waste! Making sure to consume all the food you purchase is the best way to avoid this, but choosing cheaper food options could also mitigate the problem to some degree.
2. Calculate the price for each serving or unit of food.
While you record the prices of each ingredient, be sure to also jot down the number of servings or units that you get for that price. You should be able to find this information on the nutrition label or on the package. Below, you can see that the serving size for Wegmans Giant Bread is 2 slices, and there are 11 servings per container, or 22 slices total. You can choose either to record 11 servings or 22 slices depending on how you want to make your calculations. You just have to remember what a serving consists of to ensure the accuracy of your meal cost calculations.
To calculate the price per serving or unit of food, just divide the price by the number of servings. For example, a serving (2 slices) of the bread above costs $0.79/11 = $0.07, or $0.036 per slice. This will allow you to determine the price of each component of a meal.
3. Add up the prices to determine the cost of potential meals.
Once you have determined the price per serving of each ingredient, you can easily add them up to determine the cost of different meals. For instance, in the breakfast example I mentioned earlier, I added up two servings of Honey Nut Cheerios and one serving of milk for the large bowl of cereal. For the eggs and toast, I added two eggs plus butter to grease the pan plus two slices of bread. Then I compared the costs of the two meals. You can do this for any potential meal you can imagine. Then you can make decisions about how best to save money by switching up more expensive meals with cheaper meals.
Isn’t cheaper food worse for you?
Not necessarily. Processed foods tend to be more expensive, and they are usually less healthy. For example, you can eat an apple for $0.33 instead of a handful of Goldfish and a couple Oreos for $0.49. You can also often find cheaper options for food you are already eating if you take a little time to search around. For instance, bread slices and a bagel are basically the same thing nutrition-wise, but the cheapest bread costs $0.07 for two slices while the cheapest bagel costs $0.50 (and I’ve been buying the fresh ones for $0.83 a bagel). Even buying a loaf of whole grain or whole wheat bread would only cost you $0.20 for two slices, still saving you $0.30. It’s your responsibility to make sure the cheaper options you go for are equally or more nutritious than what you’re already eating, but it’s certainly possible that they will be.
Isn’t food cheaper because the portion size is smaller? If I have to eat more to be full, it will cancel out any savings.
That’s certainly a possibility, depending on your food choices and how you structure your meals, but I wouldn’t say that’s usually the case. If you remember my first example above, two eggs and toast is less than half the cost of a bowl of cereal, and I think the eggs would be more filling. You can also eat about three times as much chicken as steak for about the same price. It all depends on what you prefer to eat, but you can definitely have a larger meal for a lower price if you want.
There may be potential savings right under your nose (or in your mouth). By looking into the price you pay for typical meals, you are likely to find that there are other cheaper, equally desirable options. These alternatives could very well be healthier and more filling than what you are eating now, so why not take the time to find out? Saving on food choices can save you money daily, which means that the savings can add up fast. Of course, making your own meals is already significantly cheaper than eating out, but even when you eat at home, there are still opportunities to save. This is certainly true for me. After finding out how much I could save, I have resolved to start switching up my meals at least now and then. It can’t hurt to eat a more diverse diet, and I’m excited about the opportunity to save.