Privacy & Security

Take Control of Your Grocery Bill

You probably don't need an economist to tell you that consumer prices are continuing to rise. We are all paying more at the pump as well as at the supermarket and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. The days of a dollar loaf of bread or gallon of milk are long gone so it's in everyone's best interest to learn how to be a savvy shopper and find smart ways to save.

After housing costs (rent or mortgage), your food costs may take the next largest portion of your overall monthly budget. Don't expect food prices to go down any time soon- rising oil prices (which directly affect transportation costs), disappointing crop yields due to increasingly severe weather (global warming), and weak economic conditions all combine to paint a picture of continually rising food prices.

Having a realistic budget in place is one of the keys to successfully managing your finances, including saving. Before you put together your food budget, take two to four weeks to keep track of everything you spend for food and other related items, such as paper products and drinks. Keep all receipts. Then go over what you have purchased and arrive at a total. You may be surprised at what you are spending but you need to have an accurate number in mind when you formulate your budget. If you set aside $400 a month for groceries and are actually spending $700, it's fairly obvious your budget isn't going to work.

Going over your receipts also allows you to see where you can cut expenditures. This translates to money you can save - which is the whole point of a budget. Cutting costs means you will have extra cash to either pay down your outstanding debt more quickly or add to your savings. Both are positive factors when it comes to your financial well-being.

Ways to Save Money on Food Shopping

It's easy for your food budget to spin out-of-control. One of the most important things to remember is that eating at home almost always costs less than dining out. While planning meals and making a detailed list do take time and effort, the end result is definitely worth it.

On a side note, you need to decide where to budget restaurant meals. Many people place "dining out" in the food budget while others consider it "entertainment". Wherever you choose to put it, it's generally a category where you can save a considerable amount of money by cutting back.

The following tips and strategies should allow you to significantly slash your grocery costs while still enjoying healthy, nutritious meals.
  • Plan ahead. No one likes to walk in the door after a long day at work and think "what's for dinner?". This is where forethought and careful planning can really make a difference. Before you do your grocery shopping, make a weekly dinner menu to simplify things when it's actually time to prepare a meal.

  • Take stock of what you have. Go through your pantry and see what you have on hand. This is also a good time to check expiration dates and throw away old/outdated food items. It's always a good idea to keep basic staple items on hand- such as flour, sugar, salt, spices, etc. But do you really need 5 bottles of ketchup or 3 jars of salsa? Knowing how much you have helps avoid "overstocking" which is pointless and a waste of money.

  • Make a list. How many times have you written a list and left it on the kitchen counter? Having a list with you when you shop is crucial to successfully controlling what you spend at the grocery store. Try to avoid going off the list. This is where your budget can really take a hit.

  • Choose nutritious foods over empty calories. Many people think healthy foods equal expensive foods. But that doesn't have to be the case. If you're buying soft drinks, chips, ready-made cookies and sweets, and other pre-packaged food items, these empty-calorie purchases can really bloat your food budget. Instead, consider buying fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, simple lean meats, fish, whole grains and pastas. Water is probably the healthiest thing to drink- if it sounds boring try adding a lemon, lime or orange wedge or even a few cucumber slices. It's healthy, delicious, and calorie-free.

  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season. Seasonal produce is usually a great bargain! If you have a local farmer's market, check it out. The prices are generally less expensive than a supermarket due to little or no shipping costs. Be sure to buy only what you can use over a few days or so since fresh items have a shorter "shelf-life".

  • Cut coupons and check for sales. Sunday newspapers are usually full of coupons. Also, many stores now have their own websites where you can find specials, coupons and other information about products. Only use coupons for items you actually need.

  • Use store brands. Maybe it's the brand you grew up with or you've just never tried anything else, but the truth is store brands are nearly always the same as the more popular national brands when it comes to nutrition and quality. And they generally cost a lot less.

  • Read labels. Compare ingredients and see how they match up. Ingredients are listed in order of amount so if you're buying a can of tomatoes and the first ingredient listed is water- it means there is more water than tomatoes in the can. Try to buy products without added sugar or salt. Breakfast cereals are notoriously expensive. Consider using oatmeal or simple flaked cereals instead of the fancy national brands. Add fresh fruit for even more nutrition.

  • Limit how much prepackaged food items you buy. Let's face it. It can be tempting to buy that pre-washed, packaged salad. But you're going to pay a whole lot more than if you buy the salad items yourself. Plus you can pick really fresh, quality produce and not something that was packaged who-knows-when. Many stores also sell fruit and veggies that are already cut or sliced and ready to use- but again, the convenience comes with an increased price tag. One way to keep from buying a lot of pre-packaged items is just to avoid the aisles that contain cookies, chips, snack items, and soft drinks.

  • Carefully consider what you buy. Before you toss every fresh item into your shopping cart, think about how you're going to use all of it. Americans generate a lot of waste- the Environmental Protection Agency puts the number at 30 million tons of actual food waste. Planning your meals and having a list should help you control "over-buying".

  • Enjoy leftovers. Leftovers can really help you save money. Last night's supper can make a great lunch the next day. Just add a salad or fruit to freshen things up. Bringing coffee from home, brown-bagging your lunch, avoiding junk-food snacks and drinks- all of these small changes can bring huge results in terms of saving you money.

  • Never shop when you're hungry. We've all had it happen... your stomach is growling, you're in a hurry, and all of a sudden your grocery cart is filled to the brim with stuff you don't need or really want. This should really be the cardinal rule of grocery shopping- eat before you go. Your wallet (and budget) will thank you!

Just like other areas of your personal finances, your food budget will only work if it's realistic and do-able. It's important to set a firm number for your monthly food costs. If you have no specific boundaries, you most likely will end up spending an enormous amount of your overall budget on grocery items. With determination and a little bit of planning, you can keep your food costs in check without sacrificing nutrition or quality.