The following is a guest post by Gary Foreman with The Dollar Stretcher.com
Question: I am frustrated! I always read about people who have many options in saving money. My husband and I have three children plus child support for his two. I work part time at various jobs. Our combined net income is $2500 per month after his child support. I am currently working on a degree in secondary education with two years left. We do not live in a town that offers double coupons or co-ops for food. There are only two grocery stores. The price of gas lately doesn't even make it efficient for us to go to Costco 180 miles away. Please offer some insight for people who have situations similar to this. Kay
Answer: Kay has a point. Not everyone has the same tools available to them. So let's see if we can't find some ways to reduce grocery bills for folks who don't live in the big city.
We'll begin with an obvious tool that many of us overlook in our busy lives. Don't waste the food that you buy. Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona estimates that 14% of all the food we buy is wasted or about $590 per year per family. Two tools will help you to avoid food waste. First, don't buy perishables that aren't in your menu plan. Second, have a plan for your leftovers. Don't let them spoil in the refrigerator.
Many families have gotten in the habit of freezing meal-sized portions of their leftovers immediately after a meal. Each portion is marked and dated so it's easy for snackers to find what they want. Some even go so far as to keep a running inventory posted on the freezer door listing what's inside. That's especially useful for busy families where not everyone gets to eat at the same time.
Avoid buying prepared and individually packaged foods. That means everything from microwave dinners to prepackaged potato chips and individually wrapped cheese slices. There are exceptions, but typically you pay for convenience. Quite a lot, in fact. Sure it's nice to have those little carrots already sliced. But compare prices to the unprocessed carrots and you'll see just how much it's costing you.
Food preparation doesn't need to be a burden. Your kids can help. Even young ones can learn simple tasks. Not only will you be spending quality time together, but also you'll be teaching them money-saving skills.
The third technique is to shop like a professional buyer. A pro always wants to know when and where they last bought an item and how much they paid for it. You can do the same thing by creating something called a price book.
This simple tool can cut your bills by 10% or more. Most families have between 10 and 20 recipes that they make regularly. And, those recipes contain 40 or so different ingredients. So you end up buying the same things over and over. You'll also find that a large portion of your grocery bill is spent on less than one third of the items that you buy.
A price book helps you keep track of those items. You can buy a price book (search online) or make your own. All you need is a loose-leaf or spiral notebook of any size. Each item has its own page. Keep track of information on those frequently bought, expensive items. List the date, price, package size and which store you were shopping at. That way, when you're shopping, it's easy to identify the real bargains. Stock up when you find a particularly good sale of one of your regularly purchased items. After awhile, you'll have a well-stocked pantry and the only items that you "must buy" will be the perishables. The savings can be significant.
Use your slow cooker to help avoid the "what's for dinner" dilemma. They're a great tool to keep you from picking up dinner on the way home from work. And, also a great way to make cheap cuts of meat more edible.
Next, learn more about what you buy. Don't buy low fat, low carb, all-natural or any other specialty foods without reading the whole label first. It's all too common for the expensive version to be the same as the regular product, but at a higher price. Only thing low-cal is the label.
Eat healthy. Make use of in-season fruits and vegetables. Reduce the amount of meat in your diet. Not only will you lower your grocery bill, but you'll probably also reduce your doctor bills.
Finally, don't buy a lot of different cleaning supplies at the grocery store. You can make all the cleansers you need for your home from a few simple, inexpensive ingredients. You do need to watch which chemicals you put together, but there's no need to buy expensive name brand cleansers. You can find all kinds of cleaning recipes on the web or at your library.
Kay is right. It is easier to save money on groceries when they double coupons, you have a choice of grocery stores and a warehouse club is just down the road. But, even without those tools, it is possible to keep your food bills to a minimum without sacrificing your diet.
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters.