Life Times Newsletter

Winter 2008
Vol. 10, No. 1

12 ways to keep food costs from gobbling your budget 

Cynthia Fauser, MS, RD, LD
Nutrition & Health Education Specialist

There is plenty of room for savings in the typical family food budget that can more than offset recent upswings in prices. It just takes a little planning. Here are some ideas to put your grocery bills on a diet:

1.     Waste less. Today’s households toss 14 percent of food purchased, about double what we threw out 20 years ago. Tim Jones, an anthropologist at University of Arizona, estimates the average family of four tosses $590 per year just in meat, fruits, vegetables and grain products. Fifteen percent of what is tossed is unopened and within its expiration date. A jug of bleach and roll of paper towels cost one-third less than a canister of 35 disinfectant wipes.

2.   Be picky about convenience. Convenience foods can be a lifesaver, even pricey ones like grab-and-go soups if they save you from a more expensive meal on the road. A few, like mashed potato flakes, are even cheaper than fresh-made. But many times the convenience comes at a high markup, and some don’t even save time. For example, ready-to-pour juice costs 60 percent more than frozen concentrate. A costlier marinated pork tenderloin or chicken breast takes the same amount of time to cook as one you season yourself.

3.     Use unit pricing. Big packages are often more economical, but not always. In fact, bigger is more expensive about 25 percent of the time. Toilet paper, frozen orange juice and canned tuna are among items that frequently cost more in larger sizes. Comparing unit prices is especially important when one size is on sale. Take a calculator because sale tags often do not re-compute the unit price.

4.    Try store brands. Store brands average 26 percent to 28 percent cheaper than nationally advertised brands. Sometimes savings are even 50 percent. In a 2006 Consumer Reports test of 65 products, many scored at least as high in quality as the nationals. In fact, many are made by the same companies.

5.     Stockpile sale items. Most regular supermarkets feature loss leaders each week. These are items sold below cost while other items are marked up to cover the shortfall. Different sections of the store are featured each week in rotation. So learn the pattern and stock up on each week’s loss leaders, especially staples like cereals, juice, paper towels. Not even warehouse clubs can usually match these prices. Next week different sections of the store will be featured so you can save on different items.

6.     Reach up and bend down. Companies pay a premium for shelf placement. Higher profit items will be beckoning you at eye level. Bargains reside on the top and bottom shelves.

7.     Beware of sneaky signs. Ten for $10 does not mean you have to buy 10 to get the discount. Stores are just planting a number in your head to get you to buy more.

8.     Use coupons. In 2005, savings averaged 89 cents per item, according to NCH Marketing, a coupon-processing firm. Motivated coupon users match coupons to
sales to bring down costs even more. Don’t let coupons entice you to buy products you wouldn’t ordinarily buy.

9.     Get in and get out. Food Marketing Institute reports that supermarkets generate about $130 in sales per labor hour. That means for every minute we are in the store, we spend about $2.17. Go in armed with a list, shop alone if possible and try shopping when the stores are less crowded to reduce time in the store.

10.  Cut back on foods with no nutritional value. On average we spend about 12 per cent of our food dollar ($210 per year per person) on things like cookies, chips, donuts and soft drinks. Limiting these will leave more dollars for healthier fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

11.  Purchase non-food items from discount stores. Mark-up is generally high in grocery stores for pet food, cleaning supplies and personal care products.

12.  Cook more, eat out less. We spend almost as much on food away from home as we do on groceries. In 2005, the average household spent an average of $3297 
 on groceries at home and $2634 away from home, totaling 12.8 percent of their income.

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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller