When our monthly food cost reached the all-time high of £865, we decided it was time to do something about it. After all, being able to keep our spend under control will be important when we finally ‘retire’, and food is one of the main categories where good savings can be achieved.
We knew there were inefficiencies in our shopping, but how much better could we do? We decided to run a little experiment. The first thing to do was to check how much we were spending on average.
How much do we spend on food, exactly?
We have a simple and effective system to track expenses, so it was easy to take the last 6 months of data and calculate that our average food spend was £639 per month (with the extremes being £865 and £409). This means our average food spend, per day, is around £21.
We then asked our friends. “What’s your monthly food cost?”, and the answer was always “around £400”.
Ouch. That was 30% less than we were spending. In a case of “shoot for the starts, you may get to the moon”, we decided not just to match that, but to aim for something even lower: £200 per month.
We all know one could spend very little if they ate beans on toast every day. But they would probably soon die – of boredom, if not for the lack of nutrients! So we decided to create some rules.
The £200 monthly food cost challenge: the rules.
In order to go for something realistic and sustainable, we decided that:
- We must aim for good, nice meals that we can enjoy eating.
- The diet has to be balanced. I’m not a nutritionist, but I will try to make sure proteins, fats, vitamins etc are always included in a sensible way.
- The plan needs to be sustainable in the long term. An amount of repetition is acceptable, but having the same food every day is not.
- We must stay within £200 per month.
- The plan is for a working family – eg. there are no lunches Mon-Fri, when we are in the office, and we never pack lunch. However, our daughter’s lunchbox for school needs to be included.
- Last but now least: I’m not going to write my PhD thesis on this 😜, so while I will try to make my calculations accurate, I will sometimes use some approximations (for example, I won’t include the cost of ingredients such as salt, olive oil, vinegar, spices etc). These will be sorted out at the end.
How much food do we waste?
According to research, in 2015 UK households wasted food worth a staggering £13 billion(!), of which £7.8b ‘salvageable’.
There were 27m households at the time of this research, so on average a family like ours wastes £480 per year, or £40 per month.
If that’s the case, with a good meal plan we should be able to remove wastage and immediately bring our monthly food cost down to £600. In reality, given the type of expensive products we were buying, we were probably wasting more than that. Planning is also a great way to start eliminating the inefficiencies we were having in our shopping.
Our meal plan for less than £10/day
We immediately had a major breakthrough as soon as we created a weekly meal plan.
On average, the plan showed us we could spend less than £10 per day, or £300/month. Great! We were already doing better than our friends, and that was just the starting point.
Let’s use the breakdown of one day as an example:
Result: Great stuff! We are at £9.56/day. What can we do to shave some more costs?
Cost cutting strategy #1: Swap ingredients for cheaper alternatives.
We started looking at the brands we were buying, and asked ourselves if we could swap some of them with some cheaper alternatives.
Not everything is swappable, of course. The key reason is usually the inferior taste, but it could also be convenience. For example, we have tried to save money on our coffees in the morning, but we haven’t found any alternative that was as good and as convenient as our Nespresso.
However several other items can be swapped. It is just a case of experimenting new things. For example, we have found some white label pasta which is as good as the one we were using, but which costs 50% less. Also, we have started using a different brand of chickpeas, which costs a whopping 62% less than the previous one!
Result: On our example day, swapping brands reduced the spend from £9.59 to £8.43. This includes swapping mash potatoes with a homemade version, which was 75% cheaper.
#2: Control portions
We are aware that often we overfill our plates and overeat. So we looked into the quantities we were using and explored whether a lower amount would still feel good. Would we survive with less peanut butter on our toasts? 🤔 Scale at hand, we started experimenting. It turns out that using 10gr is just as good as the 15gr we were using before. Sounds small, but it’s a 30% saving.
It is not always possible to reduce quantities: for example we tried reducing the chickpeas in our soups from 2 cans to 1, but we didn’t feel it was as filling, so we kept that as it was.
By the way, sometimes kids can contribute to the savings. One day, our daughter told us to stop putting mozzarella and tomatoes in her lunchbox pasta “as I don’t like them”. They are little but they sure know what they want! Not a problem – and another £0.80 saved! 😜
More seriously, beside the financial benefit, reducing portions has a clear (and arguably more important) benefit on health and wellbeing, so this really hits two birds with one stone.
Result: On our example day, reducing portions brought down the food cost from £8.43 to £7.75.
#3: Time your purchases, and stock up on discounts
Supermarkets run offers all the time. If you are able to wait for these, you can save good money on your preferred ingredients.
An example? The jam we use is quite expensive. We have tried pretty much every single alternative brand and every time we come back to our beloved Bonne Maman.
Luckily, we have noticed that our local supermarket runs short (but relatively frequent) offers on it, during which it is priced £2 instead of the usual £2.90. That’s 30% off! So we simply wait for the offer, stock up, and save quite a lot on that.
Result: On our example day, this reduced the spend from £7.75 to £5.63. We basically managed to save another 40% on our (already good) meal plan.
#4: Shop around
Different shops have different offers on at any given time, and it pays to buy the products on offer on each. As an example, the other day we wanted to buy some fish fingers for the kids. Our local shop was selling one pack for £2.85. So we walked to another shop (5 minutes away) and checked there: they had the exact same product for £1.50 – almost half price!
#5: Use Coupons/vouchers
You can save quite a bit of money with vouchers, but be aware of the minimum spend. This is how supermarkets make money: people go there attracted by the discount, but end up spending lots of money on non-discounted items in order to reach the minimum threshold.
For us, the best way to use coupons is to identify a few products which are already priced low, and stock them up using the additional coupon discount. Just make sure you can actually store them (eg. do you have enough space in the freezer?) and that you’ll have enough time to consume them!
#6: Buy ingredients, not pre-made stuff
We often buy prepared food because it’s convenient, but convenience has got a price – and sometimes it’s very high! Pre-washed salad is a prime example. A bag of Iceberg Lettuce costs us £1.20 and contains two portions. An iceberg head costs £0.60, and gives us four portions. So effectively it costs one quarter of the pre-made one. Of course, we have to wash it and cut it, so it’s not as convenient. By the way, if you are prepared to cook, you can achieve even bigger savings, even when you factor in the cost of cooking the ingredients, which is around £0.20.
Bonus: intermittent fasting
You should have heard by now of the benefits of intermittent fasting, sometimes called the 5:2 diet, but if you haven’t, here’s how it works: every week, you eat normally for 5 days, but you limit yourself to just 600 calories on the other 2 days (hence the name, “5:2”).
The benefits? a) it can help you lose weight, b) apparently it allows the body to enter a sort of ‘repair mode’ which is good for regenerating cells. In our case, there is also: c) it helps saving money.
How much money? For example, if we (the adults, not the kids) wanted to fast on our example day, we could skip dinner and save another £1.09.
Result: With fasting, your total food cost for the day would have reduce from 5.63 to just £4.54!
A quick recap: from £639 to £200/month
This has been a fun and interesting experiment. It requires some additional work to make it sustainable long term – and maybe to make it less “strict”, as it doesn’t contain any treats, for example!
However we were definitely surprised to realise that it was possible to massively reduce our monthly food cost, and without renouncing to good, healthy and enjoyable food.
At £191/month, we have definitely achieved our target, but remember, this is just an indication. For example, we didn’t include the cost of some additional ingredients such as salt, olive oil, vinegar, or spices. But at £191 per month, there is some headroom to buy those and still stay below (or around) the £200 limit.
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