How To Save Big On Food All Year Long, One Month At A Time

Food is one of those things that necessary to life that we also happen to really, really enjoy. Which means this fundamental human need can, inadvertently, become an easy way to spend a lot of money without thinking about it. While we're all for splurges (and even regular, "superfluous" expenses) when we can afford it, cutting back on food can be an easy – and even fun – way to save money.

But rather than starting out the new year with a blanket resolution that's sure to fail ("Only packed lunches at work forever!"), we've come up with 12 mini-resolutions for every month of the year. From cutting out booze in January to stocking freezers in the late summer, each challenge will set you up to try something potentially new – and save some dough while you're at it. As a bonus, you might just create some sustainable habits that last once the month is gone.

Whether you're setting a savings goal for a trip or large purchase, or just looking to live better within your means or bolster savings, we've got an entire year's worth of money-saving challenges that are fun and tasty at the same time.

Dry-uary

It's not too late to opt into a growing trend to kick off the new year: Dry January. There are several reasons people choose to abstain from alcohol for a month, but one benefit that everyone can agree on? It's a good way to save cash. Not only are you going to save money on drinks out, you may also see a decrease on late-night food purchases and hangover brunches.

The Lazy Way: Not in the mood to give up drinking altogether? Try not ordering it out for a whole month. Even during a casual midweek dinner with a friend, two drinks a person can easily be over half the bill. Plus, ordering a glass of wine or beer with a meal can be such a force of habit you might not even pause to realize you don't really need one. If you typically go out at least once a weekend and grab dinner out a night or two a week, that could easily be $200 in savings with one minor adjustment.
Dust Off Your Slow Cooker

There are about a million slow cooker recipes out there that require as little prep as tossing a bunch of ingredients into the pot and letting it cook overnight or while you are at work. (Yes, even breakfast recipes.) But there's another benefit: because a slow cooker also uses low, slow heat, many of the ingredients (like dry beans or stew meat) are often cheap, too. A batch of soup prepared on a Sunday can cost less than a dollar a serving and last you all week. It's an easy way to do meal prep that's also great for one of the coldest months of the year.

The Lazy Way: Don't have a slow cooker? Opt for a simple chili, where all you need is a heavy-bottomed pot, and cook it on the stovetop instead. Enjoy it as-is all week or use our recipe that includes four uses for leftovers that still cost around $5 a serving.
Take Out Takeout

A few Januarys ago, the Refinery29 food team resolved to only eat home-cooked food (a.k.a. take out takeout) for two weeks. But since giving up Seamless and booze in one month seemed like a bit of a stretch, we moved the challenge to March. The tips, tricks, and recipes, however, are good any time of year, and may inspire you to keep cooking more even after the challenge is over.

The Lazy Way: Not able to commit to two weeks or a month of no dining out at all? Start with just lunch at work – check out our month of packed lunches for a full list of recipes, no repeats.
Spring Clean Your Pantry

Getting rid of stuff may seem like an odd way to save money, but hear us out. In addition to throwing out expired foods, use spring cleaning as a reason to also eat up pantry items that have been gathering dust. It can also inspire you to make easy substitutions. For example, rather than buying quinoa for a dish, use up the last bit of rice. Add nuts you already have to a salad rather than buying new croutons.

The Lazy Way: Take a look at your commonly-tossed leftovers and make a plan. If its takeout food that goes bad, find recipes that repurpose things like extra rice. (One of our favorite leftovers tip comes from Kristen Bell, who is an expert at repurposing leftover sides.)
Sign Up For A CSA

If you've never done a CSA, consider this your push to eat more fruits and veggies this summer – and get them at a good deal. Many CSAs (community-supported agriculture) have sign-ups in the spring. Programs will vary, but you can typically expect several shipments throughout the summer of in-season produce from local farmers at a pretty good deal. Plus, it will inspire you to stay in and cook more, saving money that way as well.

The Lazy Way: Find a friend and set up a recurring date (either weekly, biweekly, or monthly) to go to a local farmer's market together throughout the summer. You'll be able to get many of the benefits of a CSA (local food at good prices) without the commitment.
Shop Generic

We already know that generic, or private-label, food is the secret behind many of our favorite stores like Trader Joe's. Other grocery chains have also stepped up their generic game in recent years, like Whole Foods and Target. For a month, try buying generic whenever possible. You may find that some things are always worth springing for the name brand, but you may also find some new staples that are just as good.

The Lazy Way: Not really tempted by your go-to grocery's generic options? Just do a quick price comparison and buy the slightly cheaper option for a month. You may find new go-to products that you can save on every week.
Make Your Own Cold Brew

Making your own coffee is an easy way to save up to a few thousand dollars a year. But if you're not in the habit, making time to brew a pot every morning can be hard commitment to make to yourself. So start with cold brew, a coffee brewing method that requires a little prep with huge savings. You'll just need to remember to soak coffee grounds at room temperature then drain. (You can find our favorite recipe here.) Afterwards, you'll have a concentrate that can last over a week stored in the fridge. In the morning add ice and water or milk to the concentrate and you're ready to go. If that's too much, you can take the concentrate with you or even store it at work and enjoy it once you get in.

The Lazy Version: Just go ahead and buy the concentrate, then still mix it yourself in the mornings. Cold brew is more expensive than regular hot coffee because it uses way more grounds per serving, but even buying a pre-made concentrate at the grocery store is huge savings over buying it yourself every morning. You can get a week's worth of concentrate for as little as $7.99 if you're lucky enough to track it down at Trader Joe's. That's around $1 a serving, instead of up to $5 for a cup at a coffee shop.
Stock Your Freezer

Summer is (sob!) almost over, but while you still have access to all those delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, set yourself up on a Sunday to batch cook and freeze a bunch of food. How you tackle this really depends on the kind of cook you are. If you love cooking from scratch, start with building blocks for future meals, like homemade pesto or even diced fruit to add to smoothies in the months to come. If you aren't big on cooking during the week, freeze things that just need to be cooked when you're ready. Just make sure things are individually frozen for easy access. One easy example: buy chicken breasts in a family-sized pack and freeze separately in your favorite marinade. Put in the slow cooker or fridge the morning you want to cook it. Or simply batch-cook a few favorite recipes that freeze well, like soup or casseroles.

The Lazy Version: Stock up on store-bought frozen meals instead. It's typically not as cost-effective as making them yourself, but it still beats takeout as far as price.
Create A Work Pantry

A lot of our money-saving tips are built around the idea that the more you cook (and eat) at home, the more money you'll save. Packing lunch every day is one way to do that, but not all of us are good at remembering every day – or resisting the siren song of placing take out. Make desk lunches a more palatable reality by stocking basic snacks and sauces in your drawers. Save sauce packets from takeout, stash your favorite hot sauce, a good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and pepper mill. If you're a snacker, or a breakfast-skipper, add some granola bars. If you are prone to forgetting packed lunches, include a few good canned soups. You'll be able to dress them up with the other stuff you've had stashed, meaning you'll be less tempted to scrap the canned soup idea for delivery sushi.

The Lazy Version: Make a shared pantry with your work wife or team. That way, you're not solely responsible for re-stocking and you might discover new ways to make lunch more exciting.
Clip Coupons

This month, challenge yourself to find new ways to track down deals you might otherwise be missing. Some stores, like Target, have their own apps that allow you to access coupons and deals. GroceryIQ is an app that searches your grocery list for coupons, which helps curb impulse purchases based on what deals are available. Make sure you are also signed up for all the rewards programs at stores you frequent, as well as any email circulars and promotions. See if you can use at least one coupon per trip to the store all month.

The Lazy Version: Find a food delivery service that offer deals on the first delivery. Many grocery services, as well as meal subscription boxes, offer significant deals on the first order. Try one (or two) for the savings, just be sure to cancel it if you don't think the full price is worth it.
Host A Friendsgiving

Throwing a party can get expensive fast, and it's not exactly good etiquette to ask your guests to bring all the supplies. Unless, of course, you're throwing a Friendsgiving. Supply a main dish, then leave the rest to your friends. You'll have an entire night out (plus leftovers) for the cost of a small turkey. Ask friends who aren't inclined to cook to supply the wine, and you'll probably get a few bottles out of the deal, too. Already have a friend who handles Friendsgiving? Try a potluck another weekend instead, where a main can be as easy as a quick baked ziti.

The Lazy Version: Not interested in organizing an entire meal? Host a wine tasting. Ask each friend to bring a bottle of wine then have a blind taste-test to see what is most popular. You'll only be out the price of a bottle of vino.
Bake Your Presents

The holiday season is an easy time to blow a ton of money on gifts, on everyone from your S.O. to your landlady who surprised you with a Starbucks gift card. Rather than rushing out to get something forgettable at a drugstore when you're caught unprepared, make a ton of cookies (or brownies, or peppermint bark) that just needs a pretty bag and ribbon to make it festive. No one needs more clutter this time of year, so you're giving a gift that's both delicious and space-saving. Plus, a lot of holiday treats, like peppermint bark, can hold up for a few weeks at room temperature. More of a cookie person? Freeze the dough balls on a cookie tray then store in a freezer bag to keep on hand.

The Lazy Version: Not a baker? Create cute DIY hot chocolate mixes. Most are just a mixture of sugar and cocoa anyway. Top with chocolate chips, mini marshmallows, or crushed peppermints (or all three!), put it in a nice jar and add a ribbon and no one will have any idea that you threw it together in seconds.
appearance by Lucie Fink.
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