Stretching your food dollar
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Grocery shopping can be a real challenge, especially if you are on a limited budget. Because food is a controllable expense, it can be a target for reduced spending when money is tight. You can still serve meals that are appetizing, easy to prepare and nutritious by planning ahead and managing your money.
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Most of us can change our food spending habits in ways that make each food dollar go further and still improve nutrition. Before dashing out to the supermarket, it's important to "do your homework." Take the time to review newspaper ads, plan meals, and make a shopping list. By doing so, you are more likely to find the best buys, avoid impulse purchases, and eliminate extra trips for forgotten items. That extra gas creates more expense as well.
Be a smart shopper and get more for your money by deciding in advance what foods to serve for meals and snacks. As you plan your menus, follow these important steps:
- Check newspaper ads for special sales. Compare advertised prices among stores to find where you can save the most on your entire shopping list. Buy only what you can use and compare prices with those found in other ads. Be sure that the items you select are things you need and will use. Impulsive buying can blow your budget. Even at special prices and with refunds or coupons, some foods may not be within your budget.
- Clip coupons. You can save money if the item is one you would normally buy and if the item is less expensive than similar brands. Most cents-off coupons offered by stores or manufacturers are for the more expensive, highly processed foods or for foods in abundant supply. But using coupons for coffee, prepared foods, cereals, flour, and flour mix products can save about 10 percent in most food budgets. Don’t use a coupon to justify buying a food that your family doesn’t need or that costs more than a store brand, even with the coupon savings.
- Learn to plan nutritious meals and snacks using MyPlate. Healthy foods give you more value for your dollar.
- Take advantage of seasonal specials. Foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are generally less expensive when in great supply.
- Consider food preferences. When you serve popular foods that family members enjoy, you increase eating pleasure and avoid waste. Make a collection of economical, nutritious recipes that your family likes and serve them often.
- Think appetite appeal. Since we eat with our eyes, plan meals using foods of contrasting colors, textures, flavors, sizes, and shapes.
- Plan the use of leftovers. They can be used in casseroles, soups, for snacks, and in lunch boxes.
If there is food waste in your household, ask yourself why. Are you buying food in the right quantities? Is food refused or left on the plate? Are servings too large? Is the food cooked properly? Encourage family members to help in menu planning and meal preparation. You will have help in making decisions that affect the eating pleasure of the entire family, and increase a sense of togetherness and cooperation.
Stretching your food dollar is about more than comparing prices in the grocery store. It’s about eating healthy amounts of different foods each day. The MyPlate website identifies the recommended daily intakes based on your gender and your age of various categories of food. Those recommended amounts are measured in cups, ounces, and grams.
In general, the daily recommendations are 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 6 to 8 ounces of grains such as breads and pastas, 5 1/2 to 6 ounces of protein such as meats and legumes, and 2 1/2 to 3 cups of dairy products per day. Examples of 1 ounce of grain are 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal, or 1/2 cup of rice or pasta.
Keep these amounts in mind when making decisions about what your family members eat both for meals and for snacks. Doing so can help in getting the most out of your food dollars. Discuss these amounts with both the adults and children within the family. That way greater commitment of all might be obtained. You could even make a game of helping children understand what a cup or an ounce really is by having them help you measure it out at mealtime.
One of the best ways to control spending and avoid impulse buying is to make a list of the items needed. Having already planned your menus, the rest is easy. Some helpful hints for making a shopping list follow:
- Keep an ongoing list and jot down items as your supply gets low.
- Look over the recipes you plan to use. Be sure you have the necessary ingredients.
- Check the cupboards, the refrigerator, and the freezer for foods on hand. Are there staple items — flour, sugar, coffee, salt, rice — that should be added to the list?
- If storage space permits, stock up on sale items used regularly.
- Organize your list according to the store layout. This will save you time and reduce the temptation to buy foods that are not on your list. This method is especially helpful in larger supermarkets or warehouse stores where backtracking is time consuming.
If you find that you're continually exceeding your food-spending plan, evaluate your menus and shopping list for ways to cut costs:
- Serve low-cost main dishes.
- Substitute lower cost or on-sale foods for planned foods on your list.
- If entertaining is taking too much of your grocery money, simplify the foods you serve.
- Underline the items on your shopping list which are basic to the family diet and buy these foods first. Include other items as your food spending plan permits.
For updated information on thrifty spending plans, go to USDA Food Plans.
For a list of foods to keep on hand for emergencies, see Preparing a 2-week emergency food supply.
With the planning done, you are now ready to shop. But where will you do your grocery shopping? There are several alternatives in most populated areas from which to choose — supermarkets, warehouse stores, convenience stores, farmers markets, and co-ops.
Food prices, of course, are one of the major factors in determining where you will shop. No-frills and warehouse stores can be less expensive because the cost of doing business is lower. Many shoppers who live in rural communities find a once-a-month trip to a warehouse store saves on foods that store well and on non-food household supplies.
Convenience stores almost always charge higher prices on food, with the possible exception of dairy products and soft drinks. Farmers markets and co-ops have helped many families reduce their food costs. The selection of products may be more limited than in most supermarkets, but the prices are usually lower.
Usually, it's more efficient to shop at one store close by that has reasonable prices. Shopping at several stores each week just to pick up specials wastes time and energy. Remember that the more often you shop or the greater number of stores you shop in, the more likely you are to buy more food than you need. Eat before you shop — everything "looks good" when you are hungry. And, if possible, try to shop when the store is not too crowded. Keep in mind the following shopping pointers so you can become a skillful shopper and get more for your money:
- Shop alone when possible. When family members are along, you tend to buy more.
- Know the regular prices of items you generally buy. This way you will recognize when an advertised special is really a bargain. If you shop in stores where individual items do not have price tags attached to them, you may want to write the price on each package after you get home or on the shopping list to help you remember a good price.
- Be alert for unadvertised specials in the store. These can save you money. Be aware that not all items displayed at the end of aisles are necessarily on sale.
- Compare national brand and store brand products. Store brand products can best be identified by their plain, simple packaging. These products are usually less expensive. Read the labels carefully to be sure nutritional content is comparable. You may find a difference in quality and appearance.
- Take advantage of unit pricing. The unit price is the per-unit measure (the number of cents per ounce or per gram), and is usually posted on the shelf below the product. If a store provides this information, you can use it to find out whether the 12-ounce can of creamed corn is a better buy than the 7-ounce can. To figure unit prices on your own, divide the price of the container by the number of ounces it contains.
- Ask for a rain check. If a specially priced item is sold out, ask for a rain check. It allows you to purchase the item at the sale price at a later date.
- Read labels. Food labels list the ingredients and valuable nutritional information, which is helpful in judging the nutritional quality of a food item.
- Buy only amounts you can store and use. The large packages may be less expensive, but they are not a bargain if you can’t use them before they become stale or spoiled.
- Pay attention at the checkout. Be sure the cashier or the scanner rings the correct price.
To prevent food spoilage, go straight home after grocery shopping so perishable foods can be refrigerated or kept frozen. Warm temperatures are the leading cause of food spoilage, so refrigerate or freeze all perishable foods immediately after shopping. On hot days, you may want to have a large picnic cooler in your trunk in which to place frozen and cold foods until you get home.
When you get home from the store, compare your register receipt with your food cost goal. Then check your purchases carefully and critically. Are they economical when compared with other choices you might have made? Did you buy some foods not on your list? Can these extras be justified as important for meeting food needs, being true bargains, or providing a worthwhile taste treat?
Managing food dollars wisely involves planning before and during your grocery shopping. Some knowledge of nutrition, plus careful meal planning, skillful shopping, proper food storage, handling and preparation will help you to serve satisfying meals while remaining within your food budget.
Boelter, L. (2006). Managing Between Jobs: Deciding which bills to pay first. Madison, WI: Division of Cooperative Extension of the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Danes, S.M. & Stumme, P. (2014). Adjusting to Suddenly Reduced Income. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension.
Healthy Eating on a Budget — U.S. Department of Agriculture — Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. Use these tips and materials to make healthy choices while staying within your budget.
Eat Right When Money’s Tight — SNAP-Ed Connection — Handout, tip sheets, and websites dedicated to making the most of your food dollar.
Food Groups — U.S. Department of Agriculture — The five food groups are the building blocks of a healthy diet. Find out what counts as a serving.
Reviewed in 2018