How We Keep Our Food Costs So Low – 6 Months of Receipts Reveals All

6 Month of Grocery Receipts

6-months-grocery-receipts
Mustachian clip! 😉

We’re not that family that keeps every single receipt in that one kitchen drawers, swear…

We only have 6 months worth of grocery receipts because I told my dad to keep certain receipts since we run an Airbnb. We buy breakfast and bakery items on certain days specifically for our guests that are tax-deductible. As usual, my Chinese language-ing abilities and his hearing abilities are both abysmal so he heard to keep all the receipts.

Which is amazing because now I can examine our family’s groceries habits with a magnifying glass!

This post was inspired by Frugal Asian Finance’s last food expense report, which I found to be relatable, entertaining and honest.

6 Months of Food Expenses:

You can see the full details of all our expenses in our monthly income reports.

Sep – $350

Aug – $355

July – $459

June – $406

May – $439

April – $398

Keeping It Under $2.50/Meal

Sunday-Lunch-Chinese
Fried chicken, fried rice, mushroom stir fry, zucchini with pork and tofu with broccoli.

Our food expense for the past 6 months averages to a total of $400 per month. That includes the occasional eating out as well. We also run Airbnbs so we are responsible for giving guests snacks and breakfast. Jared and I never separated our restaurant meals from groceries so the real grocery number is a definite $50-$100 lower than $400 that includes both. BUT let’s just round up and use $400 as a cover all anyway.

We are a family of 3. My father lives with my husband, Jared, and I. Jared eats his weekday lunch and dinner at work but all of his weekend meals are with us. My dad and I eat at home.

baby-bok-choy-fried-egg
Baby bok choy with fried egg, my lunch.

Between the 3 of us, we consume a cumulative average of 164 meals at home per month.

With a running average of upwards to $400 divided by the total meals at 164 means we’re eating about $2.43 per meal in Seattle* Washington. Hooray! I think that’s pretty good.

Material-for-broth
Ingredients to make soup.

*For reference, Seattle is 24% more expensive than the typical U.S. city so someone earning $50,000 a year would need to earn $62,000 a year to maintain the same standard of living as they did at $50,000. Find and compare your city’s cost of living here.

It wasn’t always frugal like this…

Before dad moved in, I had trouble controlling my grocery budget. The worst thing was that I couldn’t pin-point what I was doing wrong. It felt like money just fell out during every grocery check out. I even went out of my way to shop at discount grocers! I always thought I was doing so good and getting these awesome deals but when my husband and I tallied it up at the end of the month, I was always $100 over budget!

It was frustrating.

I did the shopping and cooking, my husband did the excel sheet bookkeeping. I would look at the numbers he put in and go:

“That HAS to be incorrect. I shopped at Grocery Outlet and Dollar General this month to cut costs. What am I doing wrong?”

It was embarrassing.

Our current grocery consumption is $100 lower than what it was before including an extra person! Now that my father has moved in with us and taken over the groceries for the most part, our entire food budget including eating out has not even come close to the $500 mark we use to spend on just the two of us. Not even close!

What is this Chinatown Man’s secret?

This all seems natural to him since he has done it his entire life. I always wondered how my family survived on minimum wage living in San Francisco, playground of the rich, without going bankrupt.

Background on Dad

I don’t know his childhood in detail but from what my mom told me my dad was one of about 8 children in rural China. They were very poor (8 kids will do that to you). They ate a bowl of rice every morning with a single olive because that’s all they could afford.

chinese-olives
Chinese dried olives: the length of half of a thumb, 80% pit and looks like goat poop. Tastes pretty good though.

“One single olive would need to last him through breakfast with his rice and if there was food waste, they were beaten.” – Mom

There’s no bacon or eggs here folks. Juuuuuuust misery. Rice was cheap and the olive was only used to make the rice more flavorful to swallow. Once when I was younger, I threw out food because I didn’t like it. My Dad almost popped the blood vessel in his forehead from anger.

This is not your usual grocery guide; this is what I have learned through trial and error about our own “spaving” habits.

After going through 63 receipts in the past 6 months of all our food and grocery related purchases, I think I’ve got enough proof. 

I was going to name this post “How to cut your grocery bill, china-man style” because that’s what I think of when I think of my dad. But that seems like it could be taken the wrong way 🙃

This time last year, our groceries averaged $500 a month for 2 people without my dad helping.

That does not include eating out or Airbnb guests. So yeah, that’s a pretty big difference. If you asked me what I was doing wrong that 2 people for a month of only eating-in would rack up $500…I honestly could not tell you until I saw what dad was doing. I pieced it together comparing my old 2016 grocery transactions with our current stack of receipts.

General Advice You’ve Heard

I’ve read groceries hack guides before (a lot of them) and they’re all great general advice but the instant I hit the grocer, my mind goes blank. (Not to mention, I usually shop on a hungry tummy.)

Too many shiny things.

Not all grocery hacks are applicable or as straight forward as it may seem. Buy seasonal, find sales, stockpile, shop at cheaper grocers etc = generally good advice but if I may play the devil’s advocate here:

Seasonal

It’s hard to remember which items are seasonal for those just starting out. Once you get into it, it’s useful. But my brain, like a non-boring person’s brain, is focused on other issues besides the seasonality of tomatoes.

Sales

Finding sales is probably the first thing someone looking to trim their grocery budget will do, so that isn’t a tip, that’s just logic.

Stockpiles

Stockpiling depends on the frequency of which you will use those items and the mark off the total.

Discount Grocers

The biggest lie is that discount grocers are automatically, magically less expensive. Discount grocers are not always cheaper. Some things at my Grocery Outlet were more expensive compare to my Asian supermarket and my wholesale club. In addition to that, they’re discounted for a reason. The fruits and produce I purchased at Grocery Outlet expired at twice the rate of fruits and produce elsewhere. I was so angry! I complained my husband’s ears off about that. The worst thing was I only shaved off 9 cents a pound!

Why have thou forsaken me, Grocery Outlet!


How We Keep Our Food Costs So Low

REPETITION

Looking through these receipts the first thing I noticed was the lack of variety. Well, I mean I knew that. I’ve mentioned before he just cooks a few dishes over and over. The receipts show that so I was able to tally these up fairly easy.

Most repeated items purchased in the last 6 months (in order of most common first):

  • Baby Bok Choy

  • Tofu

  • Pork

  • Napa Cabbage

  • Eggs

  • Zucchini

  • Chicken

  • Green Onion

  • Broccoli

  • Yellow Onion

*Garlic & ginger didn’t make the list because they’re staples and last a long time so he buys a big pack in bulk.

*Rice is a staple and purchased in bulk online

Sad to say, that small list accounts for 65% of his grocery variety. I wasn’t joking when I said he has the tendency to make the same dishes over and over.

Dad Doesn’t Dora the Explorer Things.

macaroon-ice-cream-sandwiches
$4.99 each!

I’m one of those people who love food shopping. It’s just regular shopping but you can eat it. That was a problem of mine before which was why our grocery bill was much higher for just 2 people. I wanted variety and try all the new products like mango salsa and macaron ice cream. Nothing that was going to fill up a tummy but…macaron + ice cream.

Sino-Centrist / Limit Food Variety

Every culture of cuisine has a staple. Jasmine rice is ours and it’s very inexpensive. Stick with what is familiar.

Limiting food variety is a double edge sword. I love food in all forms: braised, baked, fried. But you save a lot of money if you only use the staples of a particular cuisine. There were nights before when it was just me and Jared in the house. We had leftover Singaporean food with classic Southern American comfort food from the day of; my husband found my diversity amusing. Clean up was horrible and so was the grocery bill. No more of that and then the costs suddenly started going down.

My parents only cook Chinese food. They believe it is superior to everything else (except Korean food, they’re OK with that.) My dad stocks up and buys 3 to 4 tofu packs at a time depending on the sale and we have to eat tofu before they expire.

Normally, a pack of tofu has a shelf life of 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

If it was me I would do a week of Mexican food, a week of Indian food and a week of Chinese food which means I’m probably not going to be in a hurry to empty that stockpile of tofu. So no money saved and more food wasted.

Repetition is boring but it makes things easier so that’s the trade-off choice you have to make.

 

COST PER POUND

Our family doesn’t buy organic/non-GMO items. My dad doesn’t even know what any of that mean or care and he’s too old school to change. Focusing on quantity does not mean they’re not as good or nutritious.

Quantity first. Use less popular cuts of meat and cheaper vegetables (cabbage, potato, onions).

According to our sales receipt, a bag of baby bok choy around 2 lbs is about $1.88. Chicken drumsticks (the only kind of chicken my dad buys) are 89 cents a lb. Pork cost $1.88 to $2.50 per pound depending on the cut and sales. Zucchinis are 89 cents a pound. Yellow onions are 39 cents a pound. Napa cabbage is 69 cents a pound. A dozen eggs are about $1 to $1.19 when they go on sale.  Green onions are the only thing that is expensive (for a garnish) at 99 cents for 2 to 3 bundles.

The bottom line is #1 cost per pound followed a close second for quality. He usually mutters “漂亮” which means how pretty and fresh something looks.

Wholesale Club

My wholesale club put the price per ounce on display so it’s easier to shop by weight. My personal rule at the wholesale club is to only buy items that are on sale unless the price per ounce is very reasonable. I go once a week by myself to buy items like hamburger patties, red meat and cheesecake to break the repetitiveness of home-cooking without breaking the bank.

Sacrifices

If it’s not on sale, 8 out of 10 times I just won’t get it. I’m stubborn like that. For example, last Thursday, guacamole was not on sale so I just went without for our DIY taco night.

Wild Card Discounts

Most grocers have a “last call if anyone wants it” corner where you can peak in to see the selection for the sake of embarrassing your spouse with your cheapness and the adorable look the cashier gives you when she sees all the 40% off orange tags she has to manually ring up.

apples-99cents-lb
I think hubby accidentally took a photo of me picking out apples.

Day old beef isn’t glamorous but my retirement accounts will be.

On several of my dad’s receipts, there is usually an item called “open” item. That could vary from anything at any weight at the grocery store. “Open” items are generally 99 cents and up. They could be mangoes near expiration. A papaya that has been dented. Bags of ramen that has been stepped on. Your dignity as you stand over the discounted papayas wondering why you’re so cheap. If there is decent open produce available, my dad will pick it up (and honestly so would I.)

RECONSIDER WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED BEFORE

Stockpile with Intent

Stockpiling is tricky. That was one of the things I was doing wrong. ONLY stockpile if you know you will need and use them soon because of the aforementioned: eating a narrower scope of cuisine makes things cost-effective overall. I brought coconut milk by the 10 pack thinking I would use them in Thai & Indian curry but I never got around to making any curry. There’s still 7 cans sitting in the pantry after 11 months and mainland Chinese people don’t mess with coconut milk.

Limit Number of Stores

Some grocery guides tell you to shop around and, that to me, is bad advice.

How We Keep Our Food Costs So Low

First of all you’re wasting time, energy and gas.

Second of all, you cannot be the master of that many grocery stores and all their baselines on price.

I know when our grocery store puts up the first clearance. I also know which days of the week my wholesale club generally changes up the items on sale. If you learn the ins-and-outs of one price arena, it will keep your cost low because now you have a baseline for it. Springing all over the place constantly doesn’t do anything but waste time and energy.

I went out of my way to grocery outlet to look for certain items at a discount when I should have been finding substitutes for a less expensive item at my closest grocery store!

Do Not Plan Meals

Yup, you heard right. Don’t plan it out. There are grocery guides that swear by meal planning. That works for some people but that doesn’t work for our family so it’s not necessary to keep food costs down.

How many meals do you get to have before you croak? You want it all the same? NO true blue foodie would ever say that!

We’re a spur of the moment – let’s see what’s on sale family. I have a rule that if it’s not discounted, then I don’t buy it. If you plan out your meals, you don’t get that option of hunting for a reduced sale (from the aforementioned cheap corner of shame.) Our main groceries doesn’t provide sales or phamlets, a little annoying, compare to Safeway that does.

We buy based on our experience in that arena and figure out how to put it together when we’re home. That’s something you practice and it’s even more reason to limit just 1 or 2 stores.

If tomatoes look fresh and they’re on sale, then we’re having tomato fried eggs for dinner because eggs are always cheap. If I was craving mackerel fish but they’re not on sale, I’ll find alternatives or give up altogether and make something else. If you apply this with 1) repetition and 2) familiarity, it’s pretty easy to forgo a plan and go on a spur of the moment “what should I make for dinner.”

Which leads me to…

LEARN TO COOK

I don’t know why this isn’t on most grocery hacks, learning to cook will cut down on grocery costs. That’s pretty proven guys. Pre-made anything tends to be more expensive.

Argument with my bestie Soap:

*Skirt steak $3.99/lb*

“Oh but I don’t know how to cook that. I’ll get the rib-eye at $10/lb.”

Omg, why are you against learning?! If you learn, you get to use that knowledge again. It’s not shaving $5.99 a pound once but many times! A good chef uses all the raw material and wastes nothing! Check out AllRecipes, Tasty, CHEF FREAKIN’ JOHN @ Food Wishes on YouTube!!! Love that guy.


There’s certainly more to the grocery game but which piece of this grocery guide was your favorite? What does your family do to reduce food costs? Should I start putting up recipes? It seems to be a trend in personal finance haha. Hey, I don’t mind that!

 



49 thoughts on “How We Keep Our Food Costs So Low – 6 Months of Receipts Reveals All”

  • Great tips. I definitely jump on the “wild card discounts” all the time at my local Walmart. I often find $2 bags with over $10 or produce. I agree with no planning to far ahead on meals. I also try to plan my meals a couple days in advance based on what is on sale/what we have lots of. We use to meal plan a lot and some weeks you end up spending $7-8 on a meal without realizing that every ingredient in that recipe was out of season and full price.

  • Great post Lily!! Omg those macaron ice creams or icecream macarons (?) look delicious!!! Yeah we started to buy what’s seasonal now or on sale too. I found some pork loin at the local grocer and it said “limit 1 per family’. I don’t know the price per pound but when it says that you know it got to be good! Then I googled “easy pork loin recipe” haha and made BBQ pork! Man, Jared gets lunch and dinner at work that’s so great!! What a great job!
    GYM recently posted…Money Regrets: Two Things I Spent Money On That I Wish I Hadn’t

  • Those ice cream macarons look delightful!

    I’m terrible with food spending. Even with no alcohol, zero food waste, and cooking everything I eat at home from scratch, I can easily spend just for me what you do for 3 grown adults. So I can certainly tell people what *not* to do! Also the Asian supermarket out here is consistently more expensive than Whole Foods, even sometimes for Asian food staples, which gets me all up in a huff.

  • LOL at that Judge Judy GIF, made my day haha

    Sounds like you’ve got a good system down. We’ve been on a ‘diet'(ish?) since February or so; it started as a preparation for the wedding and for us to lose a little weight for that, but we’ve continued even after our wedding. We meal prep all of our lunches and they are, for the most part, very similar from day to day and week to week. It’s fine – we get a bit more creative with dinners and on the weekends.

    I think finding stuff that’s lower cost per pound (chicken thighs or drumsticks vs chicken breast…the difference is unreal) is a great call-out, and learning to cook is a real big thing too like you pointed out.

    I’m contemplating saving all of my receipts for six months now, too, and doing a similar post 🙂 Haha. For two people we normally keep our spending between 30 and 75 a week, depending on if we need to stock up on anything or decide to splurge a bit 🙂
    Dave @ Married with Money recently posted…20 Things I Wish I’d Known In My 20’s

  • I love how different your advice is! We do have luck with cooking seasonally. I figure out what’s in season because … it’s usually on sale, hahaha. I get the grocery store’s weekly e-newsletter of sales, which I use to put together our meals for next week. I think focusing heavily on produce over meat is a great way to save. Meat on the side is a frugal alternative to meat-meat-meat.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…What A Frugal Weekend! October 15

    • Lol yes the seasonality is just what’s cheap for us too. Our main grocer doesn’t have flyers..I forgot to mention that >_< And veggies are much cheaper - less than half the price. If I didn't love meat so much...:D

  • Thanks for the shout-out, dear! It’s amazing how you could keep your grocery costs so low. I can see some similarities between what your made makes and what my MIL (she’s Chinese) makes such as the tofu, baby bok choy, enoki mushrooms, and all the stir-fried dishes! Looks like we eat almost the same food hehe.

    When it was just Mr. FAF and me, we spent quite a bit of money eating out. Now that my MIL and strongly discourages us from eating out, we eat at home more often. But somehow our grocery bills still hovered around $1,000 in Aug and Sep. Need to take your advice and do some major restructuring to our food budget @_@
    Ms. Frugal Asian Finance recently posted…How To Have A Cheap & Happy Halloween

  • Prop to your dad! What a great job with grocery.
    I think diversity is probably what increase our grocery bill too. You need many different ingredients for different cuisines. I usually cook Thai and Chinese food. Mrs. RB40 cooks Mexican, Italian, American, Uzbek, and all kind of different dishes.
    We plan ahead a bit, but we look for sales too. Unfortunately, not good cheap Asian grocery stores here. It’s easiest for us to go to WinCo regularly and visit the Asian grocery once in a while. Great job.
    Joe @ Retire by 40 recently posted…What’s Your Lifetime Wealth Ratio?

  • I remember stories of Mom growing up out in the country where they could only afford one bag of rice a month, and as the eldest, she was responsible for making it stretch to feed two adults and 8 children. There was definitely only rice and maybe fish sauce to eat and she often went without. Those stories clung to me and to this day, when I see people scrape their plates into the trash, my stomach turns. And at daycare, kids are allowed to just dump their food when they’re “done” – I could just about cry at all that food waste.

    Your dad’s awesome at this! I make it a point to go out of my way to our local produce shop because I can get our entire week of fruits and vegetables for under $30, but I don’t cook all the awesome Asian meals that I’m sure you’re getting with the shopping your dad does. I need to learn those, I miss the old school foods we used to eat growing up. Repetition is definitely our go to strategy, though, too.

    I menu plan while shopping exactly for the same reason your dad does – I’m getting what’s cheap and fresh if I can think of a way to use it while at the store. Or I ask Twitter for ideas 😀 We DO pay for some more high quality foods though, it’s a choice we’re making for our health.

    I share recipes on Fridays when I’m feeling inspired and energetic, so you should totally share some of your dad’s recipes!
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Earthquake and disaster preparedness

    • Wonderful story Revanche! Your mom’s family was large too huh? I read without rice, the concept of big families wouldn’t have even existed. But rice was cheap so you could technically afford huge families in China.

      Ok settled, I’ll throw in recipes muahaha.

  • We use daily to drop serious cash every month at the grocery store for our family of two. Now we are spending $225/month which is fairly similar to you! (Plus we have a garden.)

    I wholeheartedly second the buy cheaper veggies and cook the same things. Though I moreso do a month of one type of food then a month of another. I’ve made three crockpots of chili this fall already!

    To deal with the monotony I buy one “splurge” item with each grocery trip. Last week it was $3 of chocolate covered coffee beans. They were on great sale and will last a long time. It’s funny how a $3 item can feel like a splurge, but it’s all about mindset.
    Mrs. Kiwi @ KiwiAndKeweenaw.com recently posted…The Cost of Driving

  • I’ve been a pretty good saver, but have never tracked my grocery bill. I am curious how much we spend since my husband and I live with his parents, and they shop in Chinatown. You make a great point about sticking to a handful of stores to understand when things go on sale, where clearance is located, etc. i think my biggest thing to save money on groceries is to actually eat up all the stuff that is bought/made.

    Just discovered your and FAF this past weekend. Totally loving your stuff!
    Sylvia Wu | Mommy Over Work recently posted…8 Tips to Bounce Back from Blogger Overwhelm

  • Lily,
    Oh my God. Unbelievable how your food expenses are so low. Parents, especially Asian parents, can be so influential. Hope you guys have enough variety in your meals to keep things interesting. I LOVE FOOD and enjoy eating out or cooking great meals at home. I tried to cut back in this area but realized that it was only causing me misery. Kudos to you on saving in this area.

  • Chinese dried olives: 80% pit and look like goat poop. I know this sounds strange, but after I read that description, I wanted to dive into some Chinese dried olives. Thanks for the tips, Lily. I love the idea of focusing on a few things and eating them over and over again. For some reason, I’m a foodie who doesn’t need variety at home. I’m happy with the same stuff day over and over again. I like to have my variety on special occasions (i.e., the holidays, vacations, birthdays, and getting together with family and friends). Our monthly food spending is $400 too. But I think we have it easier than you. A dozen eggs here in Charlotte, for instance, cost around $0.69. Anyway, awesome post as always. Hope all is well with you and Jared. Cheers.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Abandoning a High Cost State in Retirement

  • You are so funny. How in the world could cutting costs Chinaman style be taken the wrong way 😉

    That is pretty impressive to spend so little in Seattle. We spent a week in Boston at an Air BNB and spent almost double on groceries when we first landed.

    We dropped our grocery bill almost 30% by simply switching to Aldi. Not sure if you have those in your area but they are crazy cheap around here. Our biggest issue is we still get some individually packaged things to bring to work. Yogurt, fruit cups, and protein bars. Our goal is under $400 for two people and a toddler.

    And yes post some recipes that include meat.

    • I’m so jealous of your Aldi!!! We don’t have that here in the Pacific NW!!! $400 is definitely good, I say you’re eating like us pretty much.

      Hahahaha that include meat, for sure. Murder is delicious.

  • Lily,
    This is such a great article! I’m notoriously bad at spending at the grocery store and I always try the same tired suggestions. But yours are great–yes, I have definitely found that repetition is key for spending less. Otherwise, we always have more food waste. And the same thing with planning our meals. It’s been a much better strategy to take a look at what’s about to go bad in the fridge and use that. How awesome that your dad goes grocery shopping for you! If my dad did our shopping and cooking, our bill would probably be like $2000 a month! 🙂 But wow, I guess growing up the way he did in China teaches you some important lessons. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a grocery bill of $400 for our family of four (but two of us are small and don’t eat that much). But I’m going to remember these lessons and see if we can shave off $100/month too!
    Laurie@ThreeYear recently posted…How We Plan to Double Our Net Worth in 3 Years

  • Our Costco and eating out runs usually end up in a different bucket but our grocery bucket is $300 so we are probably running in the same territory for monthly expenses.

    We have to plan out what we are having for the week otherwise we will buy more than we need and end up going out to eat more.

    And yes I want your recipes! I am sharing mine!
    Budget on a Stick recently posted…Getting To FI With Google’s Project Fi

  • I am so envious, still trying to get our grocery bill down:(. Lots of complaints at my house when I keep cooking the same food! so spending a little more on diversification. I do tend to plan my meals ahead of time just to make it easier during the week. By the time I get home from work, I like to know I have everything I need to make diner. Without planning, it would be a little chaotic.

  • I love the way you synthesized these lessons. I feel like I’ve had to learn many of these too, especially the ones about how expensive it can be to meal plan and cook different cuisines. I used to meal plan a week with a different cuisine every night (because I liked cooking and variety is so great, right?) and then I couldn’t figure out why I was busting my food budget, why I was getting burnt out with food prep, and my why husband was complaining about the clean up. Needless to say, that had to change. Contentment with simplicity is a key to frugality 😉
    Femme Cents recently posted…Appreciating your financial journey

  • lol probably the best line on this post: “Day old beef isn’t glamorous but my retirement accounts will be.”

    I’ve tried meal planning only AFTER I buy the ingredients at the grocery store. I kind of just wander and see what’s cheap.
    I’m with you with doing the variety. I do tend to go in phases where I’m obsessed with one type of cuisine then move onto another. Even thought I have a few too many spices in my pantry, it has surprisingly saved me money. I will also use the spices eventually 🙂

  • Dave Ramsey (if anyone out there considers him a financial expert) says when you do your food budget, you have to include EVERYTHING you buy at a grocery store. Examples:. Tampons, salt for the water softener, school/office supplies, shampoo and conditioner, hand soap refills, toothpaste and floss, etc. I could go on and on. This adds up rather quickly. I’m a single person that eats super healthy (organic and Paleo) and find it impossible to keep my grocery budget (including non grocery items) under $450. I guess I save in other ways. I rarely buy clothes. I never go to the spa or do anything to spoil myself. I’ve NEVER paid over $580 for my rent.

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