How to Save Money on Food in a Foreign Market

Shopping bags

While you may have access to everything you might need on a military base, you're still likely to find yourself in a situation where you have the option to shop at the local markets occasionally. And even though most cities have an expat shopping center or supermarket the prices of imported goods can be fairly high. That same jar of peanut butter that costs you $2.99 back in the States can easily run double in a foreign market.

Facing a new (foreign) food market can be intimidating no matter how many times you've moved. But exploring and taking advantage of deals in a local market can also be one of the best ways to save money on food when you're living abroad!

Here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure you get the best prices and products in a foreign food market:

Exchange Rates

It's always important to keep track of purchases when you're creating a food budget but if you're abroad you may also need to keep exchange rates in mind. At least for a little while, it's a good idea to check the USD equivalent of any purchase to help you set your budget and understand the cost of an item. It can seem incredibly cheap to spend what translates to cents on the dollar but it can add up quickly. Without understanding what's actually coming out of your bank account each time you withdraw or pay a price to exchange money, you won't have a clear picture of your food budget.

Keep an Eye Out for Sales

You might miss out on sales if you're not used to the language that's being used. But there are services that can help you out! For example, Word Lens Translator is an app that allows you to take photos of signs and translates the original text into your language of choice. This can help you to uncover discounts or sales if you're unfamiliar with the terms or the words for sales.

Another way to hunt down items, and find potential sales, is to utilize photos. If you're trying to find an item but are unsure of the word or pronunciation, you can use pictures to help you communicate. While showing a photo to a vendor may not seem like it's a big money saver, effective communication is helpful in guiding you towards what you want and in turn saving you time and frustration. It can also help you to begin learning the terms and pronunciation of foods if the language is foreign to you!

Pick Your Favorite Specialty Items and Budget for Them

Set a budget that includes specialty items if you're likely to splurge for imported foods that you miss. It will help you to track your spending and understand how much of your money is going towards these items. It's not that you shouldn't enjoy specialty items but you need to account for the higher price in your overall budget!

If you have friends or family who may be visiting in the near future, you can also ask them to send or bring over goods that are particularly difficult to find or expensive where you live. Just make sure to check the import/export laws as some goods can be taken at customs if they don't abide by the terms.

Take Advantage of Your Kitchen

The best way to save on familiar meals when you're abroad is to cook them yourself. While there may be expat restaurants you can visit, you'll be feeling the price of that "just like home" pizza or burger. Because restaurants have to buy the imported items, prepare them and rent out the space, the resulting cuisine often comes at a steep price.

One way to cook meals that may have been a comfortable staple back home but much less common abroad is to bring familiar spices and use them when cooking with local ingredients. You don't have to switch to cooking local staples all the time even though the local ingredients might lend for them. Buying standard vegetables and cuts of meat and then using spices that are familiar to you can help give you the flavor you want without having to pay for prepackaged meals or expat restaurants.


We're unused to bargaining in the U.S., but it's a normal part of the transaction in many markets worldwide. Even still, haggling isn't always appropriate. Before you take a stab at it, make sure that it's something that's a part of the culture and won't offend the seller.

Even if you're trying to get a good deal, don't start off by quoting a price that's absurdly low. Instead, try asking for a price you think to be fair and then stick with it. In that way, you're keeping a sense of fairness, potentially gaining from a lower price, and doing so without having to enter into a back and forth haggle. It's always important to remember that you can walk away if you feel the price is too high, or you can't agree on one.

Ask Around

If you're staying in an area with other military personnel or expats, ask around for advice! Those who live in the area may have discovered an online marketplace or store that offers the best prices for imported goods or local staples. They can help steer you in the right direction and pass along hidden benefits. You can do so via word of mouth or scout for online communities where expats interact and share information.

It's exciting to explore new cuisines and food markets in a new place but that doesn't mean you always have to pass by that nostalgic jar of (pricey) peanut butter. As always, it comes down to balancing and budgeting so that you're not left surprised by your credit card statements or bank statements at the end of the month.

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