8 Common Grocery Budget Busters

Financial IQ

How much do you spend on food? Whatever the dollar figure, it’s probably more than necessary.

In 2011, the average household shelled out $6,129 for its meals, including $3,624 on food at home and $2,505 away from home.

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get tripped up and spend even more. We asked other frugal foodies for their most common grocery budget busters:

Not having a meal plan

Without a meal plan, you’re more likely to decide on an impromptu dinner out, says Jennie Sanford of BargainBlessings.com.

Take a few minutes each week to plan out your weeknight dinners and purchase most of the food required to make them.

Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com, says she cuts her bill even further by making the meal plan around what’s on sale at the grocery store.

Shopping in the wrong departments

As you’re making the rounds through the grocery store aisles, compare prices of items that show up in different sections instead of just buying the first version you see, says Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com.

“Cheese is in the produce section at many supermarkets, but it’s usually the most expensive gourmet cheese,” she says. “You can probably find a comparable cheese in the dairy section [or in the deli] for a better price.”

Juice and lunchmeats are two other examples of products found in multiple supermarket departments. Frozen and fresh meats and produce can also have big price gaps.

Buying prepared foods

Plenty of supermarket shortcuts like peeled garlic and chopped fruit are more expensive, sometimes more than double the cost of their whole counterparts.

Prepared foods may also be less healthy, says savings expert Andrea Woroch. “When it comes to chicken, tuna, potato and macaroni salads, you really have no idea how much mayonnaise is used,” she says. “It could be loaded with fat.”

Picking up specialty ingredients

“Experimentation comes at a cost if it requires you to buy ingredients not normally found in your pantry, or if a recipe only uses a small amount of an ingredient that you seldom use,” says Pamela Braun of MyMansBelly.com.

In some cases, you can find a cheaper substitute. She says, “For example, you can make buttermilk using regular milk and vinegar.”

Braun also suggests asking foodie friends if they want to split the cost of pricier ingredients that might go bad before you are able to use them all.

Staying loyal to one brand

“In any category, not all brands will be on sale at the same time,” Gault says.

In most cases, you have one shot every 12 weeks to get a favorite, like peanut butter or cereal, on sale. Otherwise you’re probably paying full price.

“So if you want to save money, it’s important to be willing to try other brands — including the store brand — to capitalize on the sale,” she says.

(Another alternative: stock up on your favorite brands when they are on sale to get you through to the next discount.)

Dining out too often 

It’s an obvious problem, but one you probably continue to underestimate. “Those everyday trips to the drive-thru quickly add up,” says Kristl Story, chief executive of TheBudgetDiet.com.

A daily $7 lunch comes out to nearly $2,000 each year. And that $4 daily latte habit? At least another $1,300.

Plus, even one takeout dinner of about $30 each week generates $1,560 a year in spending.

Cut back on your number of outings, carefully track your eating out by using a free budgeting tool like Mint.com, and visit our regular Friday dining deals column to get the best prices when you do dine out.

Poor portion control

“A lack of portion control is one of the single most costly food habits 
that shoppers can have,” Sanford says. You’re paying more per serving, which is a bad deal regardless of price.

Buying in bulk 

Buying in bulk can save you money, but not always.

“Most groceries in club stores are huge and bulky, which makes waste if you don’t eat [that food] all in time,” Gault says. “Sometimes the price per pound isn’t cheaper than smaller packages, either.”

Compare the prices among various grocery stores and gauge per-ounce and per-pound rates for different sizes of the same item.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.



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