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Smart ways to spend less on groceries

Food makes up a big part of the family budget, but with a little planning, it's possible to slash the grocery bill.

These days, everyone is looking for ways to save money. The spending category in the household budget that is probably the easiest to reduce is food.

The first method that comes to mind is scanning the sale ads and clipping coupons, either from print or electronically. This can definitely save money if done correctly, but it also takes time. Coupons are generally for name brand products, and even with the savings, they may still be more expensive than store brands.

An easy way to spend less on food is to eat at home and pack meals and drinks to take on the road. Instead of stopping to buy bottled water or coffee, fill a water bottle or travel mug before you leave home. Make a peanut butter sandwich or grab an apple instead of buying snacks. Cut down on convenience store temptations by paying for gas at the pump instead of going inside.

Reduce Waste

Most families can save a fair amount on grocery bills by simply eating all of the food they buy.

According to the USDA, Americans waste between 30% and 40% of our food supply, which equates to 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. This food waste is also the single-largest component of what goes into American landfills; there it releases the greenhouse gas methane as it decomposes.

Families can cut down on food waste by planning ahead and being mindful of what’s available. How often does a container of leftovers get pushed to the back of the refrigerator, only to be discovered weeks later when it’s no longer edible?

One way to help everyone remember what’s inside (and prevent people from standing in front of the open fridge looking for something to eat) is to hang a magnetic dry erase board on the door. When something new goes in, write the contents and date on the board. When the last of that food is eaten, erase it from the board.

If you find yourself throwing away more food than you’d like, the University of Minnesota Extension recommends asking yourself these questions:

  • Are you buying food in the right quantities?
  • Are servings too large?
  • Is the food cooked properly?
  • Are you preparing food that your family doesn’t like?

UM Extension also says while large packages of perishable foods may be less expensive per unit, they aren’t a bargain if you won’t use or freeze the items before they spoil.

Get in, get out, or drive through

According to the University of Missouri Extension, shoppers spend an average of $2.17 for every minute spent in a supermarket, so getting through the checkout lane as quickly as possible is key to saving money.

The best way to shop quickly – and avoid having to come back later for things you forgot – is to plan meals for the week and make a complete shopping list.

While sticking to the list helps prevent impulse purchases, remember it isn’t written in stone. If you had planned to buy peaches, for example, but there’s a big sale on strawberries, take advantage of the discount and make that change. If it’s in the budget, buy a few extra packages for the freezer.

Many grocery stores now offer online shopping. Filling your cart from your phone or laptop then pulling up to the drive-through to pick it up means you won't be tempted by items that aren't on your list. This is an especially good way to save if you have small children along, since the most colorful cereal boxes and treats are right at their eye level on the shelves.

MU Extension also recommends buying nonfood items at discount stores rather than supermarkets, shopping alone and on a full stomach, using store brands, and avoiding convenience foods you can make yourself for less. Finally, look high and low in aisles, since more expensive brands are stocked at eye level.

Grow your food

Farm and ranch families are in the unique position of being able to save money by raising their own meat and keeping chickens for eggs.

Historically, gardening has also been an important part of the way farmers feed their families. When done in a frugal way, it can save big money on grocery bills. It’s possible, however, to spend way more on planting, maintaining, and preserving produce than you would by buying it.

“The trick to saving money with a vegetable garden is limiting the costs while maximizing yield,” says Iowa State University Extension horticulturalist Cindy Haynes. She recommends gardeners grow produce that can easily be stored or preserved and that is expensive to buy in the grocery store. She says beans, beets, onions, spinach, broccoli, peppers, carrots, summer squash, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, and peas provide the biggest returns on investment.

As in farming, reducing inputs is key to profitable gardening. Haynes says gardeners can save by collecting rainwater for irrigation, adding compost and well-rotted manure to fertilize the soil, practicing Integrated Pest Management to control insects and diseases, using high-quality seeds, and reusing supplies like containers and stakes.

“While saving money may be one of the benefits to growing a vegetable garden, let’s not forget that there are others,” Haynes says, like food security and exercise. “Have fun growing your vegetables. Visit your neighbors and trade extra produce. It’s surprising how something as simple as a garden can impact your life and hopefully your pocketbook.”

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