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17 Ways to Reduce Your Food Budget Without Using Coupons or Rebates

Frugal Parenting (featured column)
by Rachel Keller

For many years I loved using coupons, so much so that my family and friends called me a "coupon queen." Then our family moved across the ocean to the other side of the world as furlough replacement missionaries. I had to stretch the grocery budget, but without the advantage of sales ads, coupons, and rebates. I quickly learned how to become a smart shopper and discovered that even without the use of coupons and sales ads, any family can reduce its food budget without shopping multiple stores in one day.

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For many years I loved using coupons, so much so that my family and friends called me “coupon queen.” By combining coupons and sales ads, I could get many items for very little or even free. Cashiers and other shoppers were impressed by my organized notebook filled with coupons and even more amazed by how little I paid for a cartful of groceries.

Then in September 2009 our family moved across the ocean to the other side of the world as furlough replacement missionaries. I had never been concerned about the food budget as I had consistently stayed under it. Now, I had to limit spending, but without the advantage of sales ads, coupons, and rebates since none of these exist in the Philippines. To compound the situation even more, everything was new to me: foods and customs, currency (pesos), weights and measurements (metric system), and the language (Tagalog, pronounced Tuh-gah-log). In Manila, many Filipinos understand at least a little English, but knowing Tagalog is definitely an advantage especially when outside Manila or when bartering in the markets.

Despite food costs being generally lower in the Philippines, I found myself spending more. Inwardly, I cringed every time I bought groceries. How could I stretch the grocery budget without the use of coupons or loss leader sales? I had to learn quickly how to become a smart shopper. While I still spend more on groceries in the Philippines, I have discovered that even without using coupons and sales ads, any family can reduce its food budget.

1. Make a menu plan. In the states, I made meal plans according to what was on sale. Filipino stores do not have sales ads or sales, so I plan meals based on what foods are the best deals. In the Philippines, beef is tough and costs more while chicken, pork, and fish are much better selections. Since convenience foods are limited and expensive, a meal plan is necessary to prevent unnecessary eating out.

2. Have a shopping list and stick to it. I had a list every time I went to the store. My first shopping trip, however, took a few hours! Not knowing my way around Manila and not having ever been in the stores definitely hindered my ability to get in and out of the store quickly even though I had another experienced missionary with me.

I keep a shopping list on my refrigerator instead of trying to compile one the day I go shopping. Either I or anyone else can add to the list as needed. I know that if I rely on memory alone, I will forget things and invariably buy extra items. Of course, if your budget permits and you see a great sale on something you will use, then go ahead and purchase it.

3. Know how much an item costs. Usually, a larger size item costs less per ounce or gram, but not always. Compare various sizes and factor in coupon cost if you use coupons. If your store does not have the cost per unit, then a calculator definitely helps. In the Philippines, everything is sold by the liter or kilogram (2.2 lbs). Until I got used to the metric system, I would determine the English weight and then compute pesos to dollars to determine the cost of an item. Of course, if a larger item costs less, but you have to discard some of it, then it is not a better deal.

4. Choose a less expensive brand. My first couple times in the store, I was overwhelmed by the many different brands of just one item. While many American foods such as refried beans and macaroni and cheese are limited and very expensive (over $2 for a small can or small box of Kraft macaroni and cheese), other foods such as canned corn, sardines, tuna, etc. come in a wide selection of choices. The American or name-brand item costs much more than an off-brand, sometimes almost double. After checking several labels and avoiding those with extra added ingredients (such as added sugar—a common occurrence in the Philippines), I’ve found that the lesser priced items usually work just fine especially if they’re mixed with other vegetables, meat, or rice.

5. Choose locally grown foods rather than imported. In the Philippines, apples, kiwi, grapes, cherries, and citrus fruits are imported making them more expensive. Locally grown vegetables and fruits such as Japanese eggplants, okra, mangos, papayas, bananas, pineapples, rambutan, and other exotic fruits are a much better choice and taste so much better than anything in the States. (Pineapples cost less than a $1 in the markets.)

To save money, our family eats less American and more Filipino foods. I buy very little dairy products (except for an occasional treat) and much more rice since we eat it at least once a day. (Many Filipinos eat it every meal.) Rice is very economical, but shopping for it can be a little overwhelming to a newcomer as there are many varieties from which to choose. I purchase whole grain white rice, which costs more than other brands of white rice, but is still much less than rice in the States and tastes better than any other rice I’ve ever eaten—including the brown rice I bought in the States.

Most Filipinos have household help, which costs just under $10 for an 8-hour work day. Three days a week, I have household help who cooks, cleans, does wash, and even shops at the market for me since she can get better deals than I can. Stores have set prices, but bargaining is common at the markets. Americans are seen as rich and depending on the vendor, charged top price. Having a helper reduces my stress level, frees my time to teach my children, and helps me save money by learning to cook Filipino, not to mention helping me learn some Tagalog.

6. Choose foods in season. While in the States, I ate melons and cantaloupes in the summer or early fall. When berries and peaches were in season, I bought or picked extra and froze or canned them to use during the year. I did the same thing with vegetables. At Thanksgiving, I froze extra bags of cranberries. And in the winter, we enjoyed grapefruit and other citrus fruit. Even in the Philippines, certain fruits vary in price depending on the season and weather. After a typhoon, the cost of certain produce skyrocketed for a brief time. I avoided those items until the prices came down.

7. Minimize the role of meat in the meal. Eat less meat and more vegetables, especially when fresh and in season. In the Philippines, the selection of canned and frozen vegetables is limited since most produce is fresh from the market. Rice is the main dish for Filipinos with ulam served on top.  Ulam is a combination of meat and vegetables in a sauce.

8. Avoid processed, prepacked, convenience foods. Instead, cook more meals from scratch. Besides saving money, you will also eat healthier. Convenience foods always cost more, especially here in the Philippines where the selection is much more limited and higher priced.

9. Eat less boxed cereal and more hot cereal. Unlike the United States with dozens of choices for cereal, the Philippines has a very slim selection of cereals. Expect to pay high prices for name brand cereal (approximately $7 for a 15 oz. box of Post Honey Bunch of Oats or over $6 for General Mills Fruity Cheerios.) Milk is only available in powdered form or as ultra pasteurized milk in box form and is also more expensive than in the States, making cold cereal the most costly choice for breakfast, followed by eggs and meat. Hot breads such as pandesal (two pesos a piece) and hot cereals, such as oatmeal, oat bran, or rice, remain the most economical choice for breakfast. Even in the States, oatmeal remains a frugal choice for breakfast. Another alternative is to make delicious, nutritious smoothies with locally grown fresh fruit, ice and powdered milk. While yogurt makes a great addition to smoothies, all dairy products are expensive in the Philippines. (For some great breakfast recipes read Tips for Cutting Costs at Breakfast and Cost-Cutting, Time Saving, Energizing Breakfast Ideas.)

10. Limit desserts such as prepackaged cookies, cakes, and candies. Besides not being healthy for you, these items can quickly inflate the grocery budget. Instead, skip the dessert altogether or have some fresh fruit. Filipinos like to add extra sugar to powdered milk, spaghetti sauce, desserts, oatmeal, peanut butter, etc. so I carefully choose items with less sugar. (Thankfully, corn syrup is uncommon here.) I’ve tried only a few Filipino desserts, but my favorites are turon (bananas sprinkled with a little brown sugar and fried inside lumpia rolls) and buko salad (tropical fruit salad mixed with fresh coconut and cream). Ice cream cones purchased from street vendors make an excellent, inexpensive treat, and we’ve enjoyed some wonderful new flavors not found in the US, such as mango, corn, or coconut ice cream. (Of course, some of our favorite flavors are not found here.) For the most part, however, our family has been avoiding extra sweets.  Fresh mango, pineapples, or bananas, are great alternatives for us.

11. Choose more frugal packaging. Soup mixes in plastic pouches cost much less than the expensive canned soups. By mixing with purified water, I have nearly the same soup but at a fraction of the cost. Instead of buying seasonings in bottles, I buy them in plastic bags and refill my containers, again saving money.

12. Cook extra and creatively use leftovers. I always make extra rice at lunch to use for the next meal, or in casseroles, stir fries, as fried rice, or with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Because it is so hot in the Philippines and the oven, which is Celsius, is very small, I rarely use it; but when I do, I try to have a couple items ready to bake.

13. Eliminate sodas and sugar-laden drinks and juices. If you live or stay in a foreign country, however, don’t try to save money by drinking tap water. It’s not worth the health risk. (My oldest son forgot once and drank a cup from the faucet, but thankfully his system rejected the water almost immediately and he suffered no ill effects afterwards.) Purified water is approximately $4 for six large containers that go on top of our water cooling system. Definitely much less than a visit to the hospital! I do use tap water for cooking pasta, rice, and oatmeal, and items like that since I boil it before we consume the food. (See How to Become Healthier and Save Money on Your Food Budget for more interesting information about water.)

14. Make a price comparison book. While in the States, I did this on a very limited basis. I knew which stores had the best prices on which items, and I also had a price that I would pay for certain items. If it wasn’t on sale and I didn’t have a coupon, I didn’t buy it. I knew that stores offered sales on items every few weeks. I would stock up on those items and wouldn’t buy any more until it was on sale again. If I ran out, my family did without that particular item for a few days.

When I came to the Philippines, I did not have a well-stocked pantry. Initially, I had to spend a little more to get our kitchen ready. I had no idea what was a good price or not for items and could only compare to what I typically paid in the States.

After two shopping trips, I began comparing receipts and writing down prices for certain items from each store. I soon discovered price variations among the four grocery stores and market I visited within my first month, yet no one store carried all the best prices. Overall, the markets had the lowest prices on produce and meat, but were the most difficult to shop for new inexperienced white missionaries. Despite the stores not being too far away, I could only shop a single store each time I went out due to choking traffic. (It’s a challenge just getting to one store. I’ve never seen driving like this anywhere in the States—even in New York City.) The two largest grocery stores are located in multi-level malls with fixed- price parking garages.

The easiest way to shop is to buy everything at one store. The best way to save money is to have a well-stocked pantry. Whenever I accompany a friend to a store or take a taxi (which is very inexpensive here and costs much less than owning your vehicle), I buy the items with the best prices at that particular store. The next week, I can go with another friend to another store to get items there. As long as I don’t need something I can wait to get the best price. It does take some time to put together a price comparison book, but once you have these prices recorded, you know where to get which items and you know whether you are getting the best deal on an item if you go to a new store.

15. Know where your store keeps discounted or special buy items. While the stores in the Philippines do not have reduced racks, occasionally I can find items discounted if they need to be sold quickly. Sometimes certain stores will have items paired together where one item is free. I always compare prices to see if the items are truly “free” (which they usually are. However, another off-brand may still cost less, especially if you don’t want the free item.

16. Switch from paper to cloth. Paper towels here are costly and cheaply made. I have a bin of kitchen towels and cloth rags. You may want a bin for kitchen use and another for the bathroom. While paper napkins are convenient, cloth napkins add a special touch to any meal, and they are reusable. For your family, you may want to use the napkin for more than one meal if it isn’t dirty. You can either keep the napkin by that individual’s place setting or choose a certain color for each family member. Napkins are so small and can easily be included in other loads of laundry.

17. Ask advice. Moving to the Philippines as a furlough replacement missionary was a totally new experience for me. I had never been on a mission trip, or even overseas. I am not afraid to ask others what they like, what they recommend and what products are the best deals. I enjoy shopping with other missionaries and Christian Filipinos, not just for the company, but also to glean wisdom from their experiences and to learn more Filipino culture and language. Filipinos are very friendly, especially to Americans, and are more than willing to help.

Whether you’re new to an area or have lived in the same place all your life, always be willing to try or learn something new. Read how others have saved money, and implement some of their strategies to see if they will work with your family.

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Copyright © 2009 by Rachel Keller. All rights reserved.

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