Food, clothing and shelter generally top the list of basic human needs. Shopping discount, instead of designer, generally takes care of the clothing issue; living in a small apartment, instead of a McMansion, addresses the housing situation. But rising world food prices can lead to some significant challenges. Everything from rising transportation costs to the development of biofuels, such as biodiesel, push up the cost of food and put a pinch on consumers' wallets. Here are steps you can take to keep food costs in check.
1. Eat at Home
Dining out is an expensive proposition. Many of the meals that you pay for in a formal restaurant can be made at home for a fraction of the price. Even good coffee is cheaper to make, if you do it yourself. Fast food is excluded from the category. While high-calorie, low-quality food can be had at a bargain price, the impact on your long-term health overrides the benefit of short-term savings.
2. Shop with a Plan
If you stumble around the grocery store and fill your cart with everything that catches your eye, you'll spend more than if you prepared a shopping list in advance. Plan your meals for the week ahead and make careful note of what ingredients you need to prepare those dishes. Once the list is made, purchase only the items on the list and avoid impulse buys.
3. Put on Blinders
Grocery stores are designed to make you go through a maze to get to the most basic items you need, in the hope that you will make a few impulse buys along the way. If you keep to your planned list of foods, you won't be tempted when you get forced down the junk food aisle to get to the milk. Most necessities and basic cooking items are found along the outside perimeter of the store, so start there and work your way around the edge of the store, only stepping into the maze to grab any leftover items on your list.
4. Eat Before You Shop
When you are hungry and you walk into a building full of food, there's a high likelihood that you are going to fill your cart with unnecessary and expensive purchases that appeal more to your taste buds than your budget. To keep your costs down, eat first and shop on a full stomach.
5. Avoid Prepared Foods
Our fast-paced society encourages convenience – and the grocery store has capitalized on this trend. Ready-made meals are easy to buy, but come with a premium price tag. Instead of putting that rotisserie chicken and macaroni salad in your cart, buy the ingredients and prepare the meal yourself. The same concept applies to frozen entrees, baked goods and any other prepared food.
6. Skip the Bottled Water
If you don't like the water that comes out of the tap, buy a water filter. The per-gallon cost is significantly less than the cost of bottled water and without all the plastic bottles to discard, it's easier on the environment.
7. Shop Without the Kids
Hungry, tired and cranky kids increase the amount of time it takes to get your shopping done. Every extra minute that you spend in the store increases the likelihood of you buying more – including toys and snacks meant to keep the kids quiet while you try to focus on finding some bargains.
8. Buy in Bulk
Bulk buying can save you a lot. Pay attention to the prices and pick up the family-size package, if the per-unit cost is lower and you have a place to store it. Shopping at big-box bulk retailers like Sam's Club and Costco can also save on your bill, if you shop there enough to cover the membership dues. However, pay attention to your spending habits. The prices at the big boxes are often no bargain compared to discounts at other stores. In addition, the family-size packaging at these stores could mean you buy more than you need, driving up your grocery bill.
9. Use Store Reward Cards
If the store that you visit most frequently has a reward card, sign up. In some cases, stores raise their prices when they offer reward cards, and without the card, your bill will be higher. If the card offers other benefits, such as a ham for the holidays or a discount on gasoline, maximize your benefits by paying attention to the cutoff dates and cashing in your points before they expire.
10. Use Coupons
Coupons provide an easy way to save money. Clip them and cash them in, paying particular attention to stores that double the value of manufacturers' coupons. A number of websites also offer coupons exclusively, and they are a great place to search for discounts on the items you have on your list. If you frequent a website of your favorite brands, they will often offer discounts to their faithful public. A few minutes of surfing online can make a difference.
11. Buy Locally
Locally grown or produced food is often available at a cheaper price, because you don't pay for long transportation costs. Farmers' markets, fairs and the local aisle at your grocery store are all game for deals on tasty and fresh food.
12. Look Down
Stores often place the most expensive items at eye-level. To find less expensive items, look down. Also, looking around your brand-name food can find you a cheaper generic alternative. Generic label products are often nearly identical to name-brand goods and are often produced in the same factory, so don't pay for packaging when what you really want is the food inside.
13. Avoid End Caps and Checkout Extras
Those displays placed at the end of each aisle often feature premium brands. Rather than grabbing those high-priced batteries or that extra box of cereal, walk down the aisle. Chances are good that walking a few extra feet will reward you with a less expensive option. Many grocery stores now offer checkout lines that don't feature candy. Use these lanes and you can save money and maintain a healthier lifestyle.
14. Compare Prices and Stores
Some consumers have trouble calculating the cost per unit in their heads, but it's something that gets easier with practice, or you can use your phone's calculator. Looking at the brands and comparing prices is an easy way to shave a few cents off purchases. The store that features the lowest average prices in your area is often the best place for routine shopping, but the higher-priced competitor may run sales on specific items that undercut the cost at your most frequented venue.
15. Shop for Sales
Sales can be a great incentive to switch stores, but only if you need the items on sale. Pay attention to sales on necessity items and stock up on non-perishables and freezer goods. Keep an eye on the prices, so that you know when a sale price is merely a small savings or when it's a significant discount.
16. Watch for Expiration Discounts
As the "sell by" or "best before" date approaches, you are virtually guaranteed a discount. For example, grocery stores lower prices as meat ages, so ask the butcher when the meats get marked down. Most stores have a fairly regular schedule that you can learn and follow. When you get a good deal, stock your freezer so you can avoid buying when the price is high. If you plan on freezing the food, "best before" dates shouldn't worry you; the product will stay fresh until you thaw and cook it.
17. Substitute Recipe Items
If you have a higher-priced item that reoccurs in your favorite recipes, it may be time to shake up your taste buds. Often a lower-priced alternative can be found. For instance, if you bake with olive oil and you see that the price has skyrocketed, a switch to applesauce is a great cheap and low-fat substitution for many recipes.
18. Keep Your Kitchen Stocked
A well-stocked kitchen means that you won't run out of staple items and need to buy them on the spur or the moment. Knowing what you have in the cabinet means that you can wait to make your purchases until items are on sale.
19. Shop Infrequently
Reducing the number of trips that you make to the store each week or month reduces the odds of unnecessary purchases and minimizes the amount of gasoline spent getting there.
20. Pay Attention to Time
Weekly sales often run from mid-week to mid-week. Hold off on your shopping until after you've had a chance to clip coupons from the Sunday paper. Shopping during the evening or early morning also helps you avoid the crowds and spend less time in the store.
21. Pay in Cash
When you put groceries on your credit card and don't pay off the card in full each month, you pay interest on the purchase. To avoid this extra cost, pay in cash when you shop and keep necessities off your credit cards.
22. Check Your Bill
Electronic scanners make the shopping experience faster and more convenient, but scanners aren't perfect. Be sure to take a look at the receipt to make sure your coupons and discounts were accounted for.
The Bottom Line
Food is one of those purchases that you just can't avoid, but careful shoppers can minimize the amount spent on this necessary purchase. All it takes is a little time, patience and effort.