You can read the rest of the Ways to Make & Save Money series here.
Unless you already eat in every meal, the easiest and biggest savings in your monthly budget will probably come from food. When you eat out, you pay a huge markup for the convenience of having someone else buy, prep and cook the food for you.
Sometimes, that’s okay. When the boys were younger and the before-dinner hour was a nightmare, we made a conscious decision to spend more on food to save our sanity. We also spent a lot of money on takeout and fast food during last year’s hospital crisis.
But most of the time, it’s best for your wallet and your health to eat in. It’s just not that easy to do – and especially, to maintain.
The two keys to eating in consistently are menu planning and cooking ahead.
Even if you never shopped a sale and didn’t use coupons, your bank account would be better off if you planned your meals and had a few extra meals in the freezer. Add in sales and coupons, and you can save a ton of money. I’ve discussed saving money and other benefits of menu planning here.
I do have some things I keep in mind as I plan my menu:
Variety. We get sick of eating the same foods pretty quickly, so variety is key. I’m very lucky that my husband is quite tolerant of experiments, and very understanding when they don’t come out great. I have a huge stack of recipes to try, and that helps keep the meals fresh and interesting.
Time requirements. I am very careful to plan meals that don’t take a lot of time or that can be done mostly ahead of time. I try to get dinner on the table within an hour of walking in the door after I get home from work, and that hour includes changing my clothes, checking my personal email, and so on.
Use what I have. I’m trying to make the switch to buying only sale items, plus perishables, each week, and basing my meals on what I’ve already got on hand. Some bloggers who do this extremely well are A Thrifty Mom and Money Saving Mom.
Make extra. Even as I use up what’s on hand, I try to fill up the space in my freezer with ready-to-go meals, like baked pasta and meatloaf. Being able to pull a couple of meals out of the freezer each week makes my meal planning that much easier.
Leftovers. On weeknights, I try to plan for leftovers so that we can brown bag our lunches. If you figure lunch costs at least $5 per meal, the savings really add up!