Groceries represent a large part of the overall monthly budget for most families. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average family spends just under 13% of their budget on food costs. That number is expected to rise in the next year as the astronomical price increases in wheat and corn begin to show themselves at the grocery checkout. (For related reading, also check out 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics
The USDA recommends a range of monthly grocery budgets from thrifty to liberal. For a family of four with two children between the ages of 6 and 11, the costs range from $603 to $1,190. Many families can cut those numbers in half with savvy grocery shopping and strict budgeting. Unlike fixed expenses like the mortgage and the electric bill, the grocery budget is flexible and can be adjusted to absorb financial stresses such as increased prices or job loss. Here are five ways to slash your grocery bill and eat well.
1. Stick to Your Budget
As with all of your other household expenses, you should have a monthly budget for groceries that you can comfortably afford. The amount will be different for every family based on your tastes and your overall income, but shoot for 5-10% of your total expenditures. It is easy to make a budget but much harder to stick to it. Plan your grocery trips ahead of time so you know exactly what you are going to buy and how much of your monthly budget you will spend on that trip. If you plan to eat out during the month, include that estimated amount in your total food budget.
2. Buy from the Flyer
It's no secret that grocery stores put their loss leaders on the front page of their store flyers to attract customers. The hope is that customers will buy other full price groceries but smart shoppers buy what's on sale. Plan your meals around the sales rather than decide what to have for dinner and shop for it. This is the most powerful tool that you have to cut your food budget in half. Is chicken on sale this week? Then, that is what's for dinner. If beef is on next week, pick up a few packages and freeze one.
3. Stock Up
To really save money on your grocery budget in the long term, buy non-perishable sale items in bulk. If your favorite brand of spaghetti sauce is half price this week, buy 10 or 20 jars and tuck them away in your pantry. They won't go bad and it means that you may never have to buy certain items at full price again. Sales happen in cycles and, if you buy enough to get you to the next sale of the item, you can save significantly.
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4. Plan Your Meals
One of the main reasons that people stop in at McDonald's on the way home or pick up a pizza is that they have no idea what to have for dinner and are too tired to plan a meal and then cook it. On the weekend, plan out your meals for the next week so that you always know what's for dinner. Make sure that you have all of the fixings on hand for the meals to avoid mid-week emergency shopping. During the week, simply follow the plan. Take out meats to defrost overnight and do any other prep work ahead of time. The easier you make dinner preparation, the less likely you will be tempted to pull out the credit card for takeout.
6. Eat in Season
With the advent of global transportation, you can have fruits and vegetables year around. Tomatoes from Guatemala, bananas from Costa Rica and Mexican grapes are available on grocery store shelves throughout the winter. Food that has to be shipped thousands of miles isn't cheap, though. You may have to pay $3.99 a pound for tomatoes in the winter when in the summer, you would pay $1.29. Going back to eating what is in season in your local area throughout the year will save your wallet. As an added bonus, in-season produce is often tastier.
The Bottom Line
Deciding how much to spend on your family's monthly groceries will be a combination of your financial situation and your own preferences. Saving money on groceries with these easy tips allows you to divert that savings to other parts of your budget or to paying down debt. And nothing tastes sweeter than that. (For additional reading, also see America's Biggest Food Companies.)