When it comes to balancing your budget, there are tons of areas you can address – from cutting cable to skipping the morning latte to setting up automatic savings. There are also strategies you can put into place when grocery shopping! Today, let’s take a look at some of the many ways you can shop for beef on a budget – and keep this awesome, protein-rich food in your grocery cart. From browsing different cuts, to evaluating all the ways you can shop, to stretching leftovers, you’ll find tons of ways to save money on beef in this post.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by the Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative, a subcontractor to the Beef Checkoff. As always, all opinions are my own.
Tip #1: Cozy Up to New Cuts.
Have you ever explored the meat case in depth? Often, many of us go in and veer straight to the cuts we’ve grown up with or typically buy. For me, that used to always be ground beef for burgers and tacos, and a chuck roast that I could throw in the crockpot for pot roast.
But exploring this section of the store or talking with your local butcher can be invaluable. You’ll see all the different cuts of beef that are out there and start to notice which tend to be more budget-friendly, and which are better for splurges.
Here are five of my favorite inexpensive cuts of beef:
- Chuck eye steak – If you love rib-eye but hate its price tag, try chuck eye steak instead. While it might have a tad more chew than a ribeye, it’s cut from the rib end of the chuck so it’s got that same classic rich, beefy flavor. Try it on the grill this summer!
- Beef shanks – This cut comes from the leg. Because it’s a muscle that’s used frequently by the animal, it has a reputation for being a bit tough or dry. However, beef shanks are ah-mazing when you braise them in a liquid base for a long period of time. Try them in a dish like a slow-braised sauce with wine and vegetables, served over polenta or grits (like this recipe).
- Bottom round roast – This lean cut of beef comes from the outer upper portion of the hind leg. You can roast or braise this cut. My favorite way to make this by coating it in a garlic and herb rub, then roasting it in the oven in a cast iron skillet. Once it’s done, I make a quick stovetop sauce with a little butter, flour, stock, and red wine, utilizing all the drippings from the skillet. (PS – leftovers are great on sandwiches).
- Eye of round roast – This is another lean cut that comes from the area of the rump and hind legs. You can use this to make a standard beef roast with vegetables for dinner, or get creative making homemade deli-style roast beef or homemade beef jerky.
- Ground beef – Alright, so this is probably not “new” for most of us, but ground beef is still one of the best budget-friendly choices out there! Ground beef also freezes extremely well, so when you catch a good sale, stock up. Try freezing it in 1-pound portions in freezer safe bags. Flatten the bags out and remove as much air as possible prior to putting them in the freezer. Not only will this keep the best quality of the meat, but it also makes it super easy to stack multiple packages without taking up a ton of space. Need inspiration on out-of-the-box ways to use it? Consider Texas lasagna or BBQ beef stuffed sweet potatoes.
If you’re looking for more affordable cuts of beef, check out this list – not only does it break down where the cuts are from in the cow, but it also gives cooking suggestions and recipes for each cut. And if you can’t find some of your favorite steaks at a great price this summer, check out this cheat sheet with some easy swaps.
Tip #2: Meal Plan
While not specific to beef, this tip is invaluable for saving money on groceries and making dinnertime less stressful.
If you go into the grocery store aimlessly shopping, grabbing whatever sounds good at the moment, you’re probably going to spend more money. Plus, you’re also likely to get home and realize a few days later that you’re missing items you might need. This results in more frequent shopping trips and more money spent.
Instead, take the time on the weekend to plan out 6-7 dinners for the week (often I plan 6, knowing one day there will probably be extra leftovers). Make your grocery shopping list based on what you need to make those meals, plus any staples that you need (like breakfast foods, fruit to snack on, milk, etc.).
Now when you go shopping, you know you’re buying exactly what you’ll use throughout the week. And every night, there’s no more wondering “what should I make?” – you’ve already got your list of meals right there.
Tip #3: Think about Proper Portions.
When you’re planning your meals, remember to think about portion sizes for meat when you’re determining how much to purchase to make those meals. Remember, a serving of beef is around 3 cooked ounces – about the size of the palm of your hand.
The specific yield from uncooked to cooked depends on the cut of beef, but generally you’ll have around 20-30% less once cooked. For example, a pound of uncooked sirloin steak will yield a little over 12 ounces of cooked steak, or approximately four 3-ounce servings.
If you’re worried about saving money on beef, just keep in mind that portion control can be an easy way to incorporate this delicious food, while still keeping your budget in check.
Tip #4: Evaluate All Your Purchasing Options.
There are many ways to purchase beef – so it’s worth exploring which option will be the best option for you. Here’s a quick breakdown of all the different ways you might purchase beef, along with some money-saving tips:
a. Grocery Stores
The grocery store is the most common place where most people shop for beef. It’s convenient, as you can purchase all your food in one spot, and is often quite economical. When using the grocery store to buy beef, try these tips:
- Compare grocery circulars. This can help you see which stores have the best deals on beef. While you might not want to go out of your way just for a deal on one item, you can find out which store has the best overall deals across all the items you’re planning to buy, and shop there.
- Track prices. Take a few minutes to jot down the prices for the cuts you usually buy in a little notebook or on your phone. The next time you’re at the store, you can compare the prices to see if they’re lower or higher than last time. Tracking this over time will help give you a clear idea of average pricing, and when a price is deal-worthy enough to stock up on.
- Check the markdowns. Sometimes when meat is nearing its use-by date, the grocery store will mark it down in order to reduce food waste. This can be a great way to save money. Scope out the packages to make sure the meat looks fresh and the packaging is intact, then go ahead and buy! Just be sure to cook or freeze them on the day you purchase.
b. Buying from the Butcher
If you’re lucky enough to have a local butcher by you, this might be another great option for purchasing affordable beef. While small local butcher shops can sometimes be slightly pricier per pound than a big-box grocery store, the butcher themselves can be an excellent resource that could help you save money overall. Here’s a few tips:
- Ask questions! Your butcher can suggest cheaper cuts of beef that you may not have known about otherwise, and will probably have recommendations on how to prepare them.
- Explore all the cuts. While a grocery store may stick with the popular cuts that most people buy, a local butcher shop may have a wider variety of cuts. This could help you save more money overall, by having access to additional cheaper cuts.
- Scope out sales. Just like grocery stores, butcher shops may offer weekly specials. Shop the sales to save!
- Check out cheap bones. When butchers break down big sections of the cow, there may be extra bones leftover. While long ago you may have been able to get these for free, the trendiness of bone broth in the last few years has nixed that for the most part (though if you’re a regular customer that spends a bit, they may throw you a bone – ba dum bum 😉 ). That said, you can still often find cheap bones to buy from your butcher, which you can use to make homemade bone broth.
c. Meat CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture)
You might be familiar with CSAs for vegetables and fruits – but there are also meat CSAs in many areas. With a meat CSA program, you pay a lump sum up front to a local farm (or sometimes a group of farms), and then are treated to monthly or biweekly shares of meat.
Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind if you choose a meat CSA:
In most programs, you can expect a variety of different cuts. If you’re afraid to take the leap with new beef cuts at the meat counter, this could be a great opportunity. It exposes you to new cuts of beef that you might not have otherwise purchased, and encourages you to get creative in the kitchen.
You may need to pick up your CSA share at the farm or designated pick up locations. However, there are some programs that offer delivery, which can be very convenient.
Most meat CSAs are built as one-month shares, so you’ll need to make sure you have enough freezer space to store that much. For a small family, your normal standard size freezer should be fine, provided you don’t have a ton of other food in there at that moment.
Pricing varies widely among meat CSAs, depending on the part of the country you live in, consumer demand, and what types of meat are included (i.e. whether it’s just beef or includes other meat like chicken or lamb).
Pricing can be equal to or a bit more than a big-box grocery store. However, it is often less than you would spend by purchasing meat a la carte at a farmer’s market or local farm store. This is because you pay up front for a certain time frame (i.e. 6-12 months), so there is a bit of a volume discount. Of course, you’ll need to have adequate cash on hand to pay up front.
Meat CSAs are also local, and sometimes cater to specific types of beef, like grass-finished. If you’re looking for beef from these specific categories, a CSA is often one of the most cost-effective options.
Here’s a personal example that may help put pricing into perspective if this is an option you’re considering:
We have used a local meat CSA that includes mostly beef, along with a little pork and chicken. That particular program breaks down to around $10 per pound. That typically includes a mixture of less expensive options (like ground beef and chicken breast) and pricier options (like ribeye steak and beef tenderloin). Overall, I think it probably works out to be about what I’d spend at the grocery store on those same products.
However, could I save money be only shopping the grocery store or butcher for less expensive cuts? Probably. It’s definitely something to consider based on your priorities and budget!
d. Meat Subscription Boxes
In addition to local CSAs, there are also national meat subscription boxes. People often love the curated boxes or fancier cuts of meats that you can find in these subscription boxes. These can be pricey, but understandably so given the product – so I like to save these for special occasions if you’re concerned about budget.
e. Buying from a Farmer
In many parts of the country, there are also opportunities to buy beef directly from a farmer. These farmers may offer whole, half, and quarter cow portions (and some may even break down options to as little as 1/8 of a cow).
Here are a few things to consider when purchasing a share of a cow from a farmer:
- If you compare the cost of buying a share of a cow compared to the cost of buying all those cuts individually, you’re almost certain to come out ahead and save money. Generally, you’ll need to pay up front though, which may not be an option for everyone.
- You can also learn more about animal welfare. Buying directly from a local farmer gives you the chance to talk to them and learn more about their practices. Most beef farmers are extremely caring for their animals, and talking to them directly or seeing their operation may put your mind at ease.
- When buying a portion of a cow, you need to make sure you’ve got adequate freezer space. Most people will need an additional chest freezer in order to accommodate buying in bulk. However, you and a few other families can team up to purchase a share, which can make storage more manageable when split between everyone.
- You may end up with different cuts that you’re not used to using. That can be a blessing, though, because it forces you to flex your culinary creativity.
- Not sure how to find a local beef farmer that sells directly to the public? Here in the Northeast, we have our own local beef directory where you can search! You can also try scoping out some local farmers markets – some may sell there – or Googling “local beef near me” or “beef farms near me” and see what comes up. Lastly, try reaching out to your local extension office, which tends to be familiar with the different farmers in the area.
Pricing and Terminology:
Alright, let’s break down some of the terminology and process of buying a portion of a cow, as this can get a little confusing:
- Live weight – How much the cow weighs when it’s alive out in the pasture.
- Hanging carcass weight – How much the cow weighs while it’s hanging on the hook. Parts like the head, hide, hooves, and internal organs have been removed. This weight still includes some “extra” weight though from many bones. Generally, hanging weight is about 60% of live weight (give or take a bit depending on the animal).
- “Take home” / “Boxed” / “Cut and wrapped” weight – All of these terms refer to the same thing: the final weight of the beef you’re actually getting. Generally, this is about 60-70% of hanging weight. This graphic from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture is a very helpful visual of this breakdown.
- Butchering fees – Butchering fees refer to the cost for a butcher to take that hanging beef and chop it into the cuts you’re used to seeing on your plate. Some farms include these in the pricing of the meat when you buy a share. Others do not, and you’ll need to pay this yourself. Find this out up front so you can estimate a total per pound breakdown on your beef to see if it’s worth it to purchase in bulk.
Let’s give an example here – pretend you are buying half of a cow. That cow is about 1000 pounds of live weight, which will translate to around 600 pounds hanging weight. Your farmer charges you $5/lb of hanging weight, and butchering fees are built in.
Since you’re buying half of the cow, we’ll first calculate half of the hanging weight which is 300 pounds. Now, we multiply that by the price per pound: 300 pounds x $5/lb = $1500.
Next, you can estimate your cost per pound of the take home product you’ll get. Let’s estimate about 60% of that hanging weight is taken home, which equals 180 pounds. Now you take that $1500 you paid total and divide it by 180 pounds, and your final take home cost is $8.30 per pound. That will include a variety of different steaks, roasts, and ground beef that can be used in cooking.
Hopefully this helps you assess the cost effectiveness of any local options to buy a share of a cow!
Tip #5: Stretch the Beef You Buy
Our last tip for saving money on beef comes after you’ve purchased that beef. You’ve gotten the best deal you could on it at the store – now think about ways you can stretch that meat into multiple meals to get the biggest bang for your buck. Here are a few suggestions:
Avoid food waste. While food prices might have risen recently, keep in mind that food waste is a major problem leading to wasted money. The USDA estimates that consumers waste 21% of the available food supply. And meat, poultry, and fish represent the largest food category for waste, making up around 30% of total food waste. That’s bonkers!
Just by working to reduce waste, we can all a) improve our environmental impact, and b) save money on our personal food budgets.
Repurpose leftovers. Apparently, there are people out there that don’t like to eat leftovers. I can’t imagine this because leftovers have been something so engrained in my family for as long as I can remember, haha! But if that’s you, think about ways that you can repurpose leftovers into something that’s a bit different to make it feel like a “new” meal.
For example, whenever I make a big batch of chili, we usually eat it as-is with cornbread on the first night. Then we usually do “chili salads” a few nights later, where I load the chili onto a big pile of lettuce along with some fresh tomatoes, diced red onion, cheddar cheese, and crushed up tortilla chips. It makes it feel different, which can be helpful if you’re resistant to eating the same thing over and over.
Freeze, baby, freeze! When you have leftovers of beef-based meals – especially soups, stews, and chilis – these are excellent for freezing. Portion them out into small shallow freezer safe containers, as these are easy to pull out and microwave in later weeks/months for meals. (Plus, smaller shallow containers make it easier for your meal to cool down and freeze in the proper amount of time, reducing any risk of foodborne illness).
Balance your plate! Think through meals where you can bulk up the plate with tons of nutrient-dense vegetables, and add smaller portion-controlled servings of beef to boost the protein content and round out the meal.
For example, you can create something like my fall steak salad, that has lots of lettuce, butternut squash, and cranberries – and then some delicious thin sliced steak on top. Or, make a big ‘ol stir fry with veggies and rice, with 3 ounces of cooked steak per serving.
Don’t toss small amounts. Sometimes when you make a meal, you may have just a few small pieces of meat leftover. Don’t toss that just because it’s a small amount.
Instead, think of how you could repurpose that into a meal or snack for yourself. If you have just a few bites-worth of a steak leftover, chop that up and toss it in a zip top bag, then throw it in your omelet the next morning. Only half a burger left? Chop that up and make a “cheeseburger salad” for lunch the next day.
Go for the meat and mushroom combo. Several research studies have shown that adding some finely chopped mushrooms to ground beef can result in equally palatable dishes for meals like tacos, burritos, or burgers (source, source). This can be an easy way to stretch a pound of ground beef from four servings to five or six servings for these types of foods.
Want to try it yourself? Try an easy blended burger recipe:
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 8 ounces finely chopped baby bella mushrooms
- 1 pound ground beef
- ½ tsp salt
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté the mushrooms for about 5 minutes, until soft. Let cool for a few minutes, then mix them with the ground beef and salt. Form into 5 patties and cook over medium heat in the skillet for about 3-4 minutes per side, or until they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Want to jazz things up a bit more? I use this blended burger concept in my breakfast black and blue burger!
A Final Word
Remember, there’s no one “right” way to purchase beef. Consider your priorities, whether that’s budget, local foods, lean beef, or any number of things – and make educated purchasing decisions based on that.
I hope this post helped give some ideas on ways to incorporate beef in a financially savvy way. There is a ton of information here, so please do pin this for future reference so you can refer back. If you’ve got more tips to share, please feel free to post ‘em below!
Share: What money-saving tip do you plan to put into place? Do you have any other tips for saving money on meat?
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- Beef It’s What’s for Dinner. The nutrients you need with a taste you love.
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- Wong KM, Corradini MG, Autio W, Kinchla AJ. Sodium reduction strategies through use of meat extenders (white button mushrooms vs. textured soy) in beef patties. Food Sci Nutr. 2019;7(2):506–518.
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