Tips for saving money on food with Faith Archer

Faith Archer has been writing about money for more than 14 years. Previously Deputy Personal Finance Editor at The Daily Telegraph, she is now an award winning personal finance journalist and money blogger at Much More With Less.

Her blog is all about moving to the country, living on less and making the most of it after Faith, her husband and her two kids made the big move from London to Suffolk.

Faith covers all kind of financial topics, from bill switching to investments and pensions, but her blog started out about budget food and she has been a finalist for Best Frugal Food blog in the SHOMO awards for the last three years.

Listen to the interview

Hi Faith, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Well, my job is writing about money, with my background being in personal finance journalism. So, I wrote (and still write) articles about personal finance, but nowadays I write over on my blog Much More with Less. I love the variety of things that I do now, writing over on the blog, interviews like this one and on the radio, and even creating video content.

How did you get into blogging in the first place?

By accident! I was temping having come out of a previous job in consultancy. I’d been freelancing for a dotcom company (just as the dotcom boom was going bust) and one of the jobs that I took on at the time was for the money desk of The Daily Telegraph. They asked me to come back a few times, and when a full time position came up they asked me to apply. I don’t think it’s a job I would have ever applied for had it not been for the temping and experience with the team.

The manager of the team at the time had a great reputation for promoting through within the team, so at the time it felt like a great move to make. I started out as a researcher, and I found it really interesting. I especially enjoyed that writing about money could really make a difference to people’s lives. I ended up staying with The Telegraph for about four years, taking my career in a totally new direction. By the time I left I was their deputy personal finance editor.

Wow. So was there any topic that you wrote about during that time that interested you more than others?

One of the things that interested me the most was a series we ran called Cash Clinic. Readers would write in with their finance questions, and it was an opportunity to interview families about their financial positions and where they wanted or needed to be. I would then liaise with three different financial advisors and collate their professional advice in order to help families meet their financial goals.

That kind of holisitic approach to people’s financial situations, and helping them to meet their financial goals was definitely the most interesting part for me.

Is that how you led into creating your blog?

The blog was actually started as part of a food charity project. I felt that if I started a blog I could explain the £1 a day challenge that I was working on to raise money for Unicef.

I did the 5 day challenge three years running, and it kind of built from there. I reached some other journalists and publications, who then continued to come back to me for articles around finance and money saving topics. I had always thought of the blog as something separate from journalism, but as the blog continued and grew it became an extension of that.

I really enjoyed blogging because it appeared to me to be a platform where I could potentially reach and help people who needed it who weren’t necessarily picking up and reading the financial pages of newspapers. The blog is a space in which I have control over the content, and can make decisions about the content to include based on the types of articles I think will be really helpful to my audience.

That’s really interesting, Faith. Before we move onto discussing food and money saving, I’d love to hear your thoughts on building a blog as a business, or even for a side income.

When I first started my blog, particularly because it was for a charity project, the idea was to spend little to no money on it and simply bring in charity donations. So I started with a free blog on Blogspot. I literally put ‘how to start a blog’ into a search engine!

A lot of it from there was really in the networking; talking to other bloggers about what they were ding and how, joining groups on Facebook, and generally taking advice from other money bloggers at the time.

In terms of blogging as a business, most of my income is from being paid to write. I write paid posts both for my own site and as guest blogs to appear on other sites. In terms of who I write for and who I agree to write for, I’m quite passionate that I will only work with companies who I genuinely trust, like, and would hand on my heart recommend to others.

I think that’s really interesting, and so important to choose to work with companies with whom your values align.

Absolutely. As a money blogger, I’ve specifically turned down work with high interest money lenders and companies such as car financing businesses. I like to think that my blog genuinely helps people to improve their financial positions, so it would feel disingenuous to recommend or work with payday lenders. In terms of things like car financing, I’ve written previously quite strongly about why I have personally chose to save and buy a second hand car in cash, so working with a car financing company wouldn’t feel true to my own values or the message of my blog and writing.

So Faith, food bills are the biggest expense for many families after covering their rent or mortgage, so it’s a great place to start saving money. However, meal planning can feel like an elusive practice or an overwhelming task. Why do you think people over-spend on food?

I think there are a lot of reasons why we overspend on food.

  • Waste is a big one; if we buy too much that we aren’t able to use each week or month. I think one figure I read was that the average family wastes £70 per month on food that goes to waste.
  • Habit is another factor. There’s an element for many of us of doing the weekly shop almost on auto-pilot. We buy the same brands and cook the same meals without really thinking about it.
  • There’s also the element of convenience. If you’re trying to juggle a family and working and other life pressures, often we can end up buying expensive convenience and perceived time-saving foods.
  • Using food for purposes other than fuel. We want to nurture our families, so we can read about new fads and load our trolleys up with supposed super-foods that no one ends up wanting to eat. Then there’s the obvious treat or celebratory reasons, so we may find that we’re buying extra food outside if the remit of ‘does everyone have enough calories to thrive and survive’.

Is there an average amount that families spend on food each week?

The ONS found that the average household (2.4 people) is spending about £60 per week on food at home and then another £30 per week on take out and eating in restaurants. For a lot of people, this doesn’t like sound like too much, and obviously it’s worth bearing in mind that household income affects weekly food spend. Other research suggests that higher income families (those bringing in £63k or more) actually spend four times as much as low income families (defined as those with an income of £10k or less) per week.

That’s really interesting. Would you say that’s because those higher income families are buying better quality food that is more expensive by default?

I think it depends a lot on components such as where you shop. Are you shopping at the lowest priced supermarket, or somewhere that is more expensive because you perceive it to be better quality? I’m willing to bet that if you buy all your food at a farmer’s market that it’s going to be more expensive than if you do all your food shopping at Asda.

Similarly, what kids of meals are you eating? If your meals are centred around expensive cuts of meat and fish, then that’s going to be more expensive than if you eat lots of beans and grains.

I wonder how much of that is convenience led. Without making sweeping statements, is it likely that many of the higher income families are working longer hours, commuting further, and therefore more time-starved so buying more expensive convenience foods?

I think that could be factor, coupled with aspects such as brand loyalty and things like eating more take-away food. Obviously if you’re eating more take-away foods and buying more food outside of the home then that will see your food spend shoot up.

Where are your favourite places to shop?

For me, a lot of the choice is about what’s close combined with price. Personally, our local Co-Op is available to me on my school run route; I can get there early in the morning when they’ve put products out on the reduced shelf, things like short-dated items. I get a lot of our meat and fish that way, because I’d rather buy short-dated higher quality meat that perhaps I would use that day or freeze, than buy lower quality products at full price.

The other place that I shop is Morrisons; I particularly like the security of their supply chain and their prices compared to somewhere like Sainsburys.

Do you shop in person or order online?

I do these days because I’m able to. I work from home now, and my children are older too. When my husband and I were both working full time and my children were younger, I often took advantage of online food shopping. No one wants to endure the supermarket with two children under two!

Do you think there’s a difference between how much we spend if we go into a store physically VS buying online?

There can be. The fundamental advantages of buying online are that you can do so in a relatively stress free environment. It’s also easier to see the value of your basket increasing and to not get distracted as you’re shopping. You may also feel more comfortable using price comparison sites as you shop, such as MySupermarket which is one that I use regularly.

The thing that you miss out on, though, is being able to take advantage of supermarket reduced sections or ‘yellow-sticker’ items. And sometimes it can be helpful to have the shelf in front of you so that you can do a quick scan and asses what is in front of you in terms of price and what is better value for money in terms of things like quantity and price per kilo.

What does the planning process look like for you before you hit the shops?

It depends on our financial situation at the time in all honesty. I won’t pretend that I shop to a meal plan and list every single time I shop. Bur for example in January we were on a real push to bring our outgoings down after some excesses in December. I was doing a scan of our cupboards and freezer, making lists of meals I was going to cook based on what we already had, then simply topping that up with the extra ingredients I needed to complete those meals.

How much would you say you saved doing that?

Well, compared to our December spending, I think I halved our weekly spend to around £44 per week. The food we were consuming cost more than that because we were using up what we already had. For months and weeks when you really need to keep costs down, using up what you have in the freezer and store cupboards is a great way to minimise spending.

But actually where doing this can be really useful is simply the act of changing some of your habits. In doing something different, trying brands that you wouldn’t usually, or cooking meals that you don’t normally, you can find that some of these things work. Instead of buying on auto-pilot, you might try a lower priced product alternative and find that you really like it, or discover meals that use lower priced ingredients that you and your family love.

How do you cover those ‘can’t be bothered to cook’ days?

1: Accept it. I think it’s about accepting that we all have those days. Some of the things that we do to avoid reaching straight for a take-away which is always going to be more expensive, is to utilise the meal planning process. A lot of the time, just knowing that you have a list to refer to, and you’ve already bought all of the ingredients to cook the meal you have planned is enough to take the stress and thought process out of it.

2: Batch cook. Another way to combat those days is to try to cook more when you can. For example if you enjoy cooking, or perhaps have more time at the weekends, cook double of whatever you’re making and freeze half. That way you have in your freezer a home cooked meal that can be taken out at short notice and prepared with very little effort.

3: Pre-empt it. Another thing we have done is to use our slow cooker, which we actually won when our local Co-Op opened! I’m an early morning person, so often I can tell in the morning if it’s going to be the kind of busy day when by the evening I’m not going to want to cook. On those days, I will try to get something in the slow cooker in the morning. Coming home to food that is there and ready to eat, and smells amazing is just perfect.

4: Have an emergency/cheat meal on hand. In our house we fully embrace the concept of the emergency pizza. We always have emergency pizza in the freezer, or a jar of pasta sauce in the cupboard. It’s simply another way to keep your fingers from dialling for that take-away.

Do you go anywhere specific for meal or slow cooker inspiration?

I just Google a lot! I use the BBC recipe website, and for budget food Jack Munro has some great recipes. I also pick up recipes in free supermarket magazines or newspaper supplements.

Do you have any other tips for reducing your food spend?

I think definitely swapping. Take a look at what is really torpedoing your food spend right now; is it takeaways, branded foods, convenience foods, or top-up shops? And then look at how you can make swaps and change those habits. Try a new supermarket, and challenge yourself to make those changes. The worst that can happen is that you try it for one week, don’t like it and go back to your old supermarket.

One of your most successful blog posts is ‘how to make a Victoria sponge’ – tell us more!

It’s such a simple recipe! It’s five ingredients for the cake, and the joy of a Victoria sponge s that you don’t have to mess about icing it. It’s jam in the middle and two very simple sponges sandwiched. You can use budget ingredients; value range flour, standard white sugar, and I don’t use butter, I swear by Stork for baking. I think the post is actually something like Tips for a Village Show Winning Victoria Sponge, which just shows you what can be achieved when spending less.


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