As I was preparing my mid-month grocery list, I started thinking about convenience foods. All the frugal advice in the world tells us not to purchase convenience foods because it's "a waste of money". Honestly, I have come to the conclusion that it's not a waste of my money because I simply do not have the time to prepare EVERYTHING from scratch. I hate to admit it, but I do *need* these convenience foods! With 4 people, 5 cats, 2 mice, appointments all over the city and suburbs every week, volunteer projects, and late work hours (for one of us, at least), we just can not afford the time it takes to not use these items.
If you're in the same predicament I am, here's some advice for you to help you minimize the expense of convenience foods.
First for foremost, don't waste your money on non-nutritious items. The time it saves isn't worth your health. Look for healthy alternatives to the most processed favorites.
Don't let EVERY meal consist of convenience foods. For instance, I make dinner from scratch. The other meals largely consist of cereal, Kashi or health food bars, frozen dinners (lowest sodium and fat I can find) for lunch, granola bars, instant oatmeal, etc etc. Choose one meal a day that you have time to prepare from scratch, and that will cut down on your usage of these quick alternatives. Leftovers from dinner the night before fit into the category of "from scratch", since you aren't eating something that you newly opened out of a package that day. Yeah, we're stretching the rules here. I also bake once in a while in bulk, which gives me items to grab and take (mostly healthy muffins and cookies - let me know if you'd like the recipes - they're amazing!).
Cut down the expense as much as you can by using coupons and sales. Scour the circulars before you go shopping. Shop and purchase according to those sales as much as you can, and use internet printable and circular newspaper coupons to match up to the sales. For instance, I never purchase cereal for more than $2.00/box. I can always find a sale that it that low and/or matches up with a coupon.
Use Amazon.com for food in bulk. Seriously, buy it in cases. They have special sales and deals all the time, and the same applies here - buy from the sales!
Stop being brand loyal. Now I can admit to being loyal to Dannon Coffee Yogurt, simply because they are the only one that really makes that flavor and makes it correctly. It's also something I consistently eat and is healthy for me, so to me, the expense is justified. However, everything else? No brand loyalty at all! Buy generic. Broaden your horizons, branch out, be adventurous. Really, most store brands are just as good as brand names, and usually cost a lot less. The only exception to this is if you check out a sale or sale + coupon and the price for the brand name is cheaper (this is how I get a lot of my Box Tops for Education - people must think I spend a fortune in food, but really, it's just because the item was on sale and I had a coupon to combine for the win-win!).
Lastly, don't buy foods that are cheap but that you won't eat. This also defeats the purpose of saving the money, because they'll just sit there in the pantry while you order out pizza because you're deprived of stuff you like to eat. I learned this a long time ago, and try to stray away from it now. If you don't like vegetables or fruit, don't buy them, no matter how healthy everyone says they are or that you should eat them. If you know you're not going to, what's the point? Just look for other ways to incorporate healthy items in your diet, for instance, smoothies, fruit tarts, cereal with a fruit add-in, 100% juices, vitamins, etc etc. I am not advocating being unhealthy, but let's be honest - many times I have tried to prepare "healthy" recipes using vegetables and I just wanted to vomit I hated it so much, so I've just acknowledged that I hate vegetables and I buy the little carrots on the side for my son while I eat other things to supplement for the discrepancy.
To give you an idea, we generally spend about $250 for 4 people for a month, including paper products (paper towels, toilet paper - we don't buy paper dishes or cups), and any cleaning or personal hygiene products we might need. Our personal hygiene products usually come free after rebate at Walgreen's or from free samples, though, so we don't generally need much on that front. My 2 honies and my son eat cereal like it's going out of style, and our milk consumption is through the roof, and that takes those into account also.
Yeah, we could be spending less, but at the same times, I'd be run ragged by cooking and preparing all the time.