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Smart Buying

Save Money on Food

How to satisfy your hunger without starving your wallet.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average American household spends $6,443 a year on food -- that's more than 12% of income.

Here are 15 ways you can save money on food, whether you're eating in or out.

1. COOK YOUR OWN MEALS

It's easy to order in or go out to eat. Trouble is, the restaurant habit is a real budget-buster. The average American household spends 42% of their total food budget on dining out. So if you're serious about saving money on food, your first step is to eat out less. (And that includes lunch at work.)

If the kitchen is foreign territory to you, get a good beginner's cookbook, such as How to Boil Water from the Food Network Kitchens or Anyone Can Cook from Better Homes & Gardens. The Web is also a trove of recipes for beginners and experts alike. Allrecipes.com and Epicurious.com are good places to start.


2. STOCK UP ON STAPLES

Watch ads for sales on nonperishable food, and stock up. That way, you'll have your family staples on-hand when you need them, without having to make an extra trip to the store to pay regular price.

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Items such as canned goods, pasta, condiments, bottled sauces, rice, oil, flour and sugar are great to buy in bulk because they won't go bad if you don't eat them right away.


3. SHOP WITH A PLAN

Before you head to the store, take ten minutes to map out your meals for the week. Check your cupboards and fridge to see what you already have, then make a list of ingredients you need to buy. Don't forget to include breakfast, lunch and snack items on your list to help curb your impulse spending.

Eliminate shopping distractions to help you stick to the plan. For instance, leave the kids at home, and don't shop on an empty stomach.


4. MIND YOUR MATH

Many grocery-store tags will tell you how much an item costs per ounce, per pound or by some other unit of measurement. Comparison-shop by unit price and save.

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For example, if a pack of 40 diapers costs $13, that's 33 cents per diaper. But if you buy a box of 144 diapers for $35, or 24 cents per diaper, you save 9 cents each. That may not seem like much, but when you change a diaper six to eight times each day, that amounts to a savings of $16 to $22 per month.

Also, look closely at "buy two, get one free" deals. Oftentimes, the price is jacked up, so it's not as incredible of a deal as you might think it is.


5. SKIP PREPACKAGED & PRE-PREPPED

To stretch your dollar the farthest, pay for food, not packaging. Sure, that bag of prewashed romaine lettuce is convenient, but it can cost $1 or $2 more than buying a head of romaine and washing it yourself. And really, how hard is that?

This goes for individually wrapped snack foods, such as the 100-calorie packs. It's much cheaper to buy your favorite munchie and separate it into smaller portions on your own.


6. LIMIT TRIPS TO THE STORE

How often have you gone to the store for milk and walked out with your wallet $50 lighter? No matter how carefully you craft your shopping list, you're bound to buy a few extras. Put a damper on your impulse spending by making larger shopping trips less often.

If you go to the store three times a week and spend $10 on impulse buys each trip, that adds up to $120 extra per month. But if you go only once a week, you'll spend $40 per month on impulse buys. That saves you $80 per month, or $960 per year.

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7. COUPON WITH CARE

It's tempting to go hog-wild clipping coupons. But remember that coupons only save you money if you use them on items you were going to buy anyway. If you buy something you didn't need, you didn't save money. You just bought something extra. Most coupons are for brand-name items, so be sure to price-compare against the generic brand.

Search for the right coupons for you at Coupons.com, CouponCabin.com and CouponMom.com.

And don't forget to ask if your favorite store offers any double-coupon days. Many do, but don't advertise it.


8. SEPARATE FOOD AND NON-FOOD SHOPPING

The place you buy your food may not be the cheapest place to buy other household goods, such as paper products, health and beauty items, cleaning supplies, and pet food. Big-box stores or drug stores may offer up better deals. It pays to shop around. Many stores will also match a competitor's advertised price. Be sure to ask.

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Not sure what a good deal is? Track prices of your favorite foods in a notebook for a month or more so you'll know a bargain when you see one.


9. TRY A DISCOUNT SUPERMARKET

Prices at discount grocers, such as Aldi, Grocery Outlet, Sav-A-Lot or WinCo, can run 30% to 50% lower than at the local supermarket. These no-frills shops often focus on off-brand items or on liquidating overstock. Bread outlet stores can also save you 50% or more on baked goods.

You might also check out salvage grocery stores for nonperishable items. These markets sell food that may be approaching or past its expiration date, or whose packages may be dented. You'll want to be selective, but you can often score good-quality food for a song if you don't care what the box looks like.


10. TRIM YOUR RESTAURANT TAB

When you dine out, don't pay full price. Search the Web for restaurant coupons. Or head to Restaurant.com where you can get a $25 gift certificate to local eateries for only $10. If you have kids in tow, consider a restaurant where they'll eat free. Find deals at Kidsmealdeals.com.

Ask yourself if appetizers, desserts and pricey drinks are necessary. After all, do you eat them at home? Together, these extras can easily double the cost of your meal.


11. BE SPICE SMART

Adding flavor to a meal can cost a lot. You can pay up to $5 for a bunch of fresh herbs or a jar of dried spices. Prepackaged marinades and rubs can be a rip-off, too.

Grow your own fresh herbs in a window box or planter on your patio. Head to ethnic food stores to buy your spices, where they're usually cheaper than the corner supermarket. Or find a place that sells spices in bulk bins -- you can buy as little as you need for one recipe instead of shelling out several dollars for a whole jar that you may never use.


12. WATCH YOUR FLUIDS

Don't pour money down the drain. Use a water filter instead of buying bottled water. Brew a homemade cuppa joe instead of hitting the local coffee shop. Skip the soda in your office vending machine, and bring your own from home. (Better yet, skip the soda in favor of something healthier.)


13. TAKE-OUT INSTEAD OF DINE-IN

Really don't want to cook tonight? Order take-out from your favorite eatery. That way, you can have your own drinks at home, saving you $2 to $5 a pop, and eliminate the 15% to 20% tip.


14. BUY FOOD IN SEASON

From strawberries in winter to grapefruit in the summer -- you'll pay a premium to eat fruits and veggies in the off-season.

But it's not just produce that follows a calendar. For instance, butter, nuts and baking ingredients are usually cheapest during the year-end holiday season, so stock up. Winter is also the season for crab and oysters. Condiments and grilling items tend to go on sale in July. And in the days after Halloween, Valentine's Day and Easter, you can snag deep discounts on chocolates and candy.


15. PAY ATTENTION

Even after all you do, you could mistakenly get overcharged at the cash register. Something may not ring up at the sale price, or the cashier may accidentally enter your produce wrong, costing you a few extra bucks.

Pay attention as your order is rung up, or make sure you look over your receipt before you leave the store.

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