I am usually quite good at saving money. I shop around for the cheapest options and I do nearly everything right but there's a major issue I struggle with and that's convenience. As much as we don't like to admit it convenience costs money. That may seem like a no-brainer, but it's something that we often overlook when trying to save money on food. I'm not knocking convenience. In fact, sometimes convenience can save money in the right circumstances, but I wanted to have an honest conversation and help you get real about what convenience is costing you.
Your lowest cost for food is always going to be in its least processed form. Anytime someone has to do something to the food to make it more convenient for you to eat, there will be a fee added to make up for the labor.
So let's think about a potato. A bag of plain whole potatoes can be purchased for the cheapest dollar amount. If you buy pre-chopped or shredded potatoes in the frozen section, you will spend a little more. If you buy a potato already cooked for you at a restaurant or grocery hot foods bar, the cost will be even higher because there is no more work for you to do in order to prepare the food to eat. Obviously for most people looking to save money on food, the best option for them would be to buy a bag of potatoes at the lowest cost and then spend TIME cooking those potatoes. Now, there are ways to shorten hands on cooking time, like using a pressure cooker, microwave, slow cooker, or prepping ingredients in advance, but the fact remains that either you pay for convenience or you pay with your time.
Convenience vs Cheaper Option
Here are a few examples of what you may be buying and ways that you can save off some dollars from your grocery budget, just by purchasing the item that's a little less convenient. The bonus is that the cheaper option is almost always more versatile too and will give you more servings to be used for more than one meal. If you have time to spend, even a little strategic time to spend, the cheaper and less convenient option is always going to be a better option for you if saving money is your main goal.
Convenient: bagged salad
Cheaper option: head of lettuce
Convenient option: shredded cabbage or broccoli slaw
Cheaper option: whole cabbage and broccoli
Convenient option: pre-chopped vegetables and fruit
Cheaper option: bag of whole celery, carrots, whole butternut squash, apples, pineapple, etc.
Convenient option: meat patties, kabobs, etc
Cheaper option: packages of ground meat, packages of roasts/steaks
Convenient option: pre-shredded cheese
Cheaper option: block of cheese
Convenient option: canned beans
Cheaper option: dry beans
Convenient option: chicken cuts
Cheaper option: whole chicken
Convenient option: single serve teas and drinks
Cheaper option: tea bags, making your own kombucha, water
Convenient option: cut up frozen potatoes
Cheaper option: bag of potatoes
Convenient option: frozen meals
Cheaper option: Whole ingredients to make meals from scratch
Convenient option: boxed snacks
Cheaper option: homemade snacks using ingredients with multiple uses
When convenience is worth the cost and saves money
Sometimes people are more short on time than they are money, and it is worth it to them to spend a little extra for convenience, which saves money in the long run. I will give you a few examples.
Meal assembly services
I have a friend who is a busy photographer/videographer small business owner. She was finding that her family was eating out an incredible amount every month due to being short on time. She started using a service where she goes to a facility that offers a meal assembly service so meals are ready to go for the upcoming week. It takes her an hour, there's no shopping or meal planning, and no clean up required. Yes, she pays more money than what I pay for groceries for the week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I pay more in time. She is actually saving money for her house though because in her season of life, she is never going to have the time to strategically plan out her meals, find the best deals, grocery shop, and cook from scratch even using time saving techniques. Her default will be eating out, which will absolutely cost more. In her case, using this service is a smart money saver for her family. They are enjoying healthy meals at home and spending less.
I sometimes use convenience to save money when time is tight. When weeks are incredibly busy and I don't have 45 minutes to go to the grocery store, I order groceries online through InstaCart (referral link) or Amazon's Prime Now and have them delivered to my house. Yes, it costs more because I'm paying for the convenience of doing the shopping for me, but if I use it when the alternative will be going through the drive through of Panera or Chipotle, I am absolutely making a smart money choice by using InstaCart that week. I still prefer to do my shopping myself so I can look for the better buy when it comes to produce and meat in the store and inspect which produce looks the best. I also find that I'm less likely to be sucked in by impulse buys at the store when I order from home.
Healthy convenience food
Sometimes healthy convenience foods, even though more expensive, can save you money if you are used to buying processed foods or eating out. Trader Joes, Walmart, Aldi, and many other stores now carry convenience produce. Butternut squash that is already cut up small, riced cauliflower, salad mixes, and green beans already trimmed are great examples of this. If it helps you eat well, I say buy the convenience item, but only if you wouldn't eat the extra vegetables otherwise. It's all about knowing yourself, your goals, and your individual budget.