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Biting your food budget

McClatchy Tribune illustration (McClatchy Tribune illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
McClatchy Tribune illustration (McClatchy Tribune illustration / The Spokesman-Review)

A little planning for the market can go a long way

As household budgets get tighter, people are cutting back on eating in restaurants and spending more time in the kitchen.

Almost three-quarters of respondents to a recent survey by the Food Marketing Institute said they were cooking at home more often – and 58 percent said they were eating more leftovers.

Food spending is a perennial topic of the how-to-save set – it’s a constant expense with a huge range of possibilities. You could easily spend $100 on a restaurant meal, and just as easily spend $3 on rice and beans you make yourself.

Most people operate somewhere in the middle. Food spending in the U.S. averaged $2,207 per capita in 2004, and the less money you make, the bigger bite food takes from your budget. People whose incomes were in the bottom fifth spend more than 37 percent of their household income on food.

There are lots of ways to shave your food budget. Here are 10, culled from a variety of sources.


Strategize. Make a plan and a list. Track your food spending for a month or two and see what you’re doing. Then make a realistic budget and a plan for grocery shopping. Whether it’s once a week or once a month, take a detailed list to the store and try to get everything you need.


Buy generics and store brands. Name brands can cost 20 percent to 50 percent more, and in many cases you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. estimates this can save you more than $160 a year.


Clip coupons. It’s an old-school idea with a lot of new applications – like online coupon sites. You also can find coupons in newspapers and magazines, mailers and in-store fliers. Depending on your level of commitment, you can gather and file as many coupons as you can find, allowing you to …


Stack discounts. This is what seriously frugal shoppers call using coupons on sale items or doubling coupons where allowed.


Skip a shopping trip. One frugal-living Web site calls this a “cupboard special” – skip a week of shopping and find meals by scrounging in the back of your cupboard and fridge.


Plan meals around the sales. Make the weekly grocery fliers the basis for your next week’s menu.


Buy ingredients, not prepared food. From “Frozen dinners and boxed mixes may be convenient, but they’re also more costly. Get in the habit of buying the ingredients that you need to prepare the foods that you eat, and watch your grocery dollars go further.”


Realize that a little can go a long way. It’s probably too extreme for a lot of people, but one supertight Web site suggests a $15 grocery list that it claims could stretch for a week: baking powder, eggs, flour, fruit and vegetables, hamburger, rice or noodles, margarine, milk, potatoes, canned tuna.


Make more than you need. Have leftovers for lunch.


Stay out of the store. This may seem a little Zen, but the idea is to avoid impulse spending. If you find yourself going to the store twice a month to pick up one or two ingredients – and then adding in a $3 bag of chips – that extra treat adds up to $72 over the course of a year.

And maybe that’s OK – you could save your way out of every enjoyable experience in life, if that’s your only goal. But by being mindful of what you’re spending, you can at least make well-grounded decisions.