Food Shopping: The Blindspot in our Spending Plan

Your relationship with food is probably pretty complex. In addition to sustenance, you may use food for comfort, gathering with others, distraction or pleasure. When you really commit to tracking your food expenses as part of putting together a spending and savings plan, you realize food can be a complicated part of your financial life too. While meals are of course a necessity, take a look at your food-buying habits. Odds are that there’s room to save.

Eliminating “extra” expenses like dining out or buying pricey steaks is a good place to start. But also keep in mind that a successful food-purchasing plan isn't just about cutting things out. It's also about understanding your habits.

Going out to lunch at work
You may grab “a quick bite” at work because it's easy. But it might actually take you less time at home to put together the same meal. Then you get to spend more of your lunch period at work relaxing, going for a walk or reading a book. Or you could just spend the time thinking about the hundreds of dollars you will save this year by brown-bagging.

Convenience store or check-out aisle buys
If you actually look at the prices, you realize that the mark-ups on the quick-grab items near store cash registers are incredibly high. But that's just the thing. Stores realize you don't stop to examine and consider prices in those situations. If you find yourself reaching for a pack of gum or some candy as you are about to check out, instead, make a commitment to stock up ahead of time and keep these items in your car or your purse or your desk. By buying them online or at a bulk retailer, you could pocket a bunch of extra dough.

Fast food
The fast burger or taco for $0.99 sounds like the perfect recipe for our modern sensibilities; we want food in a hurry and we don't want to pay a lot. While the speed of delivery may be enticing, the end price may not be all that great. Consider: how many times have you gone to a fast food restaurant and ordered just one thing? The advertised item may be under a dollar, but when you add on a drink and fries or another side order, the costs add up.

Shopping when you are hungry
It's silly to think that you are always going to shop on a full stomach. So instead of feeling like you need to plan all your grocery shopping excursions in tandem with meals, just be aware of why you are putting each item into your cart. Are you reaching for that plastic canister of candy rope because it's a part of your spending plan or because your blood sugar is a little low?

“High end” grocery stores
You may like to go to the more expensive grocery in your area because they have a few specialty items that you can't find at other stores. That is certainly understandable. But make sure those items aren't available for a lower price at your regular grocery first. They may be tucked away in a place you hadn't thought to look.  Also, even though you might go to the more expensive grocery store for a few specialty items, doesn’t mean you have to pay a higher price on the regular items; try to just purchase the specialty items there.

Buying prepared items
Any financial coach worth their salt will tell you that cooking your own meals instead of buying prepared meals saves you mounds of cash. But also think about the fruits and vegetables you buy. Fruit medleys or even individual chopped fruit packages can cost much, much more than just buying the fruit in its whole form. Same goes for salad mixes. Is it really worth the extra money to have someone cut up your fruit or mix up some greens for you?

Failing to plan
If you are one of those people who wander around the grocery store until they find some things that look yummy, you are probably paying more than the list makers of the world. In a perfect world you would plan out your meals for a couple weeks and create a shopping list based on that. But at the very least, try to formulate a list of necessities. Allow yourself one impulse buy if that helps you stick to the plan.  Remember that “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.

Meat-centric meals
If you plan your dining experience with meat as the centerpiece, you are not alone. It's a common tactic. But it doesn't have to be an all-the-time way of looking at meal construction. By sometimes substituting in tofu, beans or legumes as your protein source, you can save significantly at checkout time.

Brand name insistence
There are certain consumer items for which you can make an argument that brand name goods are a better choice. But that isn't generally the case with food. Lima beans are lima beans, whether the name on the can is the one you heard on TV or it is completely new to you.

Making money-smart choices about your food purchases doesn't have to mean denying yourself the things you love. Instead, think of using these tips to get all the food you like, while giving yourself extra money to spend on things you enjoy.

Revised January 2016

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