You walk in the door after a hard day’s work.
Instead of staring into a cold, empty refrigerator, you smell the delicious aroma of homemade beef stew, hot and ready for you to eat.
Believe me, there’s no question a slow cooker can make dinner a lot easier and more convenient.
But did you know this trusty kitchen sidekick can also help you save money?
For a small investment — typically between $10 and $40 depending on the size and model — you can feed your family all kinds of meals and beverages on the cheap.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to save money using my slow cooker — my best friend in the kitchen.
1. Trick Yourself Into Avoiding Restaurants
We all know one of the most tried and true ways to save money is steering clear of restaurants and bars, and cooking at home instead.
It’s easier said than done for busy — and hungry — people.
But you can trick yourself into avoiding the tempting after-work happy hour by dumping a few simple ingredients into your slow cooker before you leave for work in the morning.
A meal at your favorite restaurant might call your name, but you won’t want to let the delicious meal you prepared earlier in the day go to waste — or get overcooked.
It’s also a completely legitimate excuse to give your friends and co-workers, without explaining you’re trying to save money by eating out less. I can say from experience: No one argues with your slow cooker!
If you’re dining out with a partner, dinner can easily cost you $50 — or $25 per person.
Erin Chase, who started $5 Dinners, has a whole website full of slow cooker dinners that cost less than $5 total to make. Of course, prices vary and she always buys items when they’re on sale.
Chase says cooking meals that cost $5 or less has become a bit of an obsession. Since starting the blog, she can’t help but run through ingredient prices in her head during meal planning.
2. Save Money on Ingredients
One of the best things about slow cooking is it allows you to use cheaper ingredients, including less expensive cuts of meat, a whole chicken or other chicken cuts instead of only breasts, and bulk items, such as dried beans.
Cook a whole chicken on Sunday and use it the rest of the week in a variety of recipes, or shred and freeze for later.
Across U.S. cities, the average price per pound for a whole chicken is $1.46. Compare that to $3.27 per pound for chicken breasts and you’re talking big savings, especially if you’re like me and chicken is one of your go-to meal starters.
With a whole chicken, you can also make homemade chicken broth using the leftover parts (bones, skin, neck, gizzards and others).
Try it yourself with this chicken thighs with artichokes and sundried tomatoes recipe or this one for French dip sandwiches made with beef chuck roast.
Dried beans require more effort than canned beans, but the cost savings are worth the extra labor. Generic canned black beans will cost you 42 cents per cup, compared to 19 cents per cup for cooked, dried black beans.
I usually buy a two-pound bag of dried black beans, rinse them thoroughly and soak them overnight. The next morning, I drain and dump them in my slow cooker, adding a few seasonings depending on how I’ll use them.
Three hours later, I’ve got a delicious pot full of seasoned black beans for half the price of canned beans. I freeze whatever’s leftover, which makes meal planning even easier.
Here’s a basic slow cooker dried bean recipe to get you started.
3. Make Vegetarian Meals
Your slow cooker can also open up a whole new world of vegetarian recipes, which are generally much cheaper than meals made with meat.
Instead of thinking of them as side dishes, I frequently make beans and lentils the spotlight of my slow cooker meals.
Take chicken masala versus lentil masala: A pound of chicken makes roughly two cups of meat and is roughly $3.27. Compare that to a pound of dry lentils, which costs $1.54 at my local grocery store and makes four to five cups of cooked lentils.
Per cup, cooked lentils will cost you $0.34, compared to $1.64 for cooked chicken. Anyone who cooks regularly or for large families will tell you those types of savings add up quickly!
4. Take Advantage of Your Freezer
We’ve all been there.
You and your partner are standing in the kitchen starving, debating what to make for dinner. Inevitably, someone throws up their hands and says, “Ugh! Let’s go out!”
But with a little preparation and a slow cooker, you can have a freezer full of homemade meals and take the anxiety out of the “What should we eat tonight?” conversation.
One of my favorite freezer meals is white chicken chili. After making a big batch in my slow cooker, I scoop this hearty soup into freezer bags and stack them flat on top of each other.
When I’m struggling for a lunch or dinner idea, I pop out a bag, simmer the soup and add fresh avocado, sour cream, cheese and tortilla chips on top.
Another go-to is slow cooker spinach lasagna. After cooking, freeze in individual-sized portions for an easy weeknight meal.
5. Plan, Plan, Plan
The slow cooker is also a great motivator for meal planning, which can lead to fewer impulse buys and smaller grocery bills.
Scope out weekly ads for meats and other sale items and build your meals around the best deals.
Bell peppers on sale this week? Check out this recipe for slow-cooker peppers stuffed with brown rice, black beans and lean ground beef.
Or, shop your pantry. Check what you’ve already got in stock and build your own recipe. It’s a great way to use some of the random stuff you’ve stashed away in the freezer, pantry and spice cabinet.
Of course, having a plan — and the ingredients on hand to execute it — is another way to steer yourself away from the takeout menu.
You’ll also cut down on food waste by buying exactly what you need for your slow cooker recipes.
6. Get Creative in the Kitchen
The slow cooker isn’t just for dinner. Try using it for other meals — and even non-edible options!
I love waking up to the smell of these strawberry overnight oats.
Throw some onion, carrot, celery and spices together with some water and make homemade vegetable stock you can freeze for up to three months.
Round up your kids’ broken or used crayons, take off the labels and toss them in a disposable muffin tin. Drop ‘em in your slow cooker for an hour or two and, voila, you’ve got new crayons that didn’t cost you a dime.
Stephanie O’Dea’s using her slow cooker every day as her New Year’s resolution. On her blog, she says her kids had a blast with this project.
Or, with a little flour, cornstarch and food coloring, make your own slow cooker play dough.
You can even use your slow cooker to curb your expensive coffee habit (read: those $5 lattes and mochas from Starbucks or the local coffee house) by making your own peppermint mochas, pumpkin spice lattes or chai tea.
Your Turn: What are your favorite slow cooker tricks for saving money?
Disclosure: You wouldn’t believe how much coffee The Penny Hoarder team goes through. This post contains affiliate links so we can keep the grinds stocked!
Sarah Kuta is an education reporter in Boulder, Colorado, with a penchant for weekend thrifting, furniture refurbishment and good deals. Find her on Twitter: @sarahkuta.