By Jon Cook
Does the combination of the poor economy and ballooning grocery prices have you ready to forgo food? While there is little you can do about the economy, you can take steps to save money on your grocery bills.
cook whole food
The first step to saving money is learning how to cook. Cooking is cheaper than either eating out or preparing highly processed, ready-made food.
If your definition of cooking is opening a package and adding water, you have work to do, because cooking with raw ingredients is what saves money.
Raw, or whole, ingredients are unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole muscle meat, whole grains, and natural dairy.
"There's no question that it's cheaper to buy quality whole foods than to buy processed foods," says Seth Braun, an independent health counselor in Boulder, Colo., and author of "Healthy, Fast and Cheap: The Ultimate College Cookbook."
The good news is that cooking with basic, whole foods can be simple.
According to Braun, a good approach is to cook a week's supply of brown rice and lentils or beans on Sunday. From these basic ingredients you can easily make many dishes, including burritos, soup, or stir fry.
Braun also recommends cooking enough for leftovers. Leftovers are quick when you're busy, easy to take to work for lunch, and will help keep you from going out for a more expensive meal or unhealthy fast food.
On average, a consumer in the U.S. spends nearly $200 a month on groceries, according to the Labor Department. With a little extra effort, you can keep more money in your pocket during each shopping trip.
"One way to save is by using basic buying strategies that apply to everyone," says George Barany, director of financial education for the Consumer Federation of America, Washington, D.C., and for the Youth Saves program at America Saves.
Try these grocery shopping strategies:
- Compare unit prices—Take note of price per pound or price per ounce for a particular food category. By using these labels, you can compare the price no matter the size or shape of the container.
- Check out what's on sale—Make sure to be flexible with your recipes. If you can get by with a cheaper substitute, do it. This is particularly true when buying meat, but there's good news. Good butchers are "magicians at [choosing] cheap cuts that can be made into feasts," says Rose Prince, London-based food columnist and author of "The Savvy Shopper" and "The New English Kitchen."
- Clip coupons—Coupons can save you up to $25 a month on groceries, an amount that can add up quickly.
- Shop multiple stores—Prices vary from store to store, so you can save by shopping at two or three.
- Shop local—Farmers markets are a great way to save money, buy fresh food, and, well, meet the farmers. According to Prince, she and her husband save 30% on their monthly grocery bill by buying from local farm stands and farmers markets instead of shopping at a supermarket. "Be sure to pick your own produce, or you might get home and find you have bruised vegetables," says Barany. "Farmers want to get rid of whatever they brought, bruised or not." Or, if price is more important to you than looks, wait to go to the market at the end of the day. You can find good deals when farmers are closing up shop.
- Plan trips to the store—If you shop for groceries once a week and shop with a list, you'll spend less time and money than if you make several sporadic trips. Shoppers making multiple trips each week spend more money on impulse buys, according to a Kiplinger article.
- Be wary of bulk buys—If you buy too much, your "savings" will end up in the garbage. "Don't pack your fridge full of fresh meat and cheeses," says Prince. "You can invest in extra dried and [canned] food, though." If you do buy larger quantities of meat—such as hamburger or chicken—divide into portions needed for meals and freeze.
When you get tired of planning, take a break and go out to dinner.
Cooking at home will save you money, but, if you like to eat out, there are ways to keep that cost down as well.
"If you want to keep the price low, split an entrée, have an appetizer and salad, and order very little or no alcohol," says Barany. "You can also watch for weekly specials at restaurants, which usually means going out on a Tuesday instead of the weekend."
Check out Web sites such as Restaurant.com, which often sell $25 gift certificates to certain restaurants for $10.
No matter how you purchase food, if you have a plan and spend a little time comparing prices and making lists, you can save money.
"Like so many things, the more thought you put in, the better your results," says Barany. "If you think, you'll be more satisfied and spend less."