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Home Rule

Trim Some of the Fat Out of Food Budget

May 07, 1987|BONNIE McCULLOUGH | McCullough, based in Colorado, is the author of five books on home management.

Food, clothing and shelter are the three biggest items in most families' budgets. Shelter is generally a fixed cost; clothing and food are not. By planning ahead and by shopping wisely, you can save dramatically on these costs.

Often, people buy food and then try to live on what money is left. They don't give the food allowance any limits. How much money will you allow for food each month? Can you stay within that amount?

Averages now are more than $25 per person per week, although that also depends where you live and how many people you are serving. One person will find it next to impossible to live on $25 per week for food, but five people will find it easier to live on $125 per week. There is a graduated advantage for cooking for a group. The first step is to decide on a reasonable food budget.

Isolate costs. You need to find some way to measure how much you are spending and where it goes. To say that you are spending $400 a month on food doesn't tell us enough. Your food budget needs to be divided into categories so you can take a good look at each and save, if necessary. With some of our modern super stores carrying everything from motor oil to small appliances, it's hard to tell where you stand unless you separate sundries, paper, soap, personal supplies and all the other non-food products from your food purchases.

Spending Per Meal

How much does it cost you per day for food? Before you start eating dinner tonight, look over the table and mentally calculate the total for the main ingredients: noodles, hamburger, onion, sauce, peas, salad ingredients. Perhaps the total is about $7. How much does it cost for a typical lunch (if you eat at home or pack lunches)? How much do you spend for breakfast?

The point is, if you isolate expenses, you can probably see ways to cut back. One family told me that because of unemployment they had to cut their $400-a-month food allowance in half. Five days a week they ate nice, typical family-style meals. They had some sort of chicken or turkey at least once. Meals included generous portions of vegetables and salad and plenty of fruit. But they did not have desserts, except on Monday, when they had an extra-fancy one. They looked forward to the Monday special. On Thursday the mother made bread and they had an old-fashioned meal of fresh bread and all the milk they could drink. On Friday, they ate beans and corn bread. This pattern kept them from feeling like they were in total poverty. Most of the lunches were packed from home. No expensive snacks, but they had homemade cookies. Breakfasts were either eggs or cooked cereal, milk and bottled fruit.

If you need to trim food costs, take a few minutes to estimate the cost of each item on your grocery list and set miniature budgets for things like snacks, salad items and cereals before you go shopping. Even though food is a necessity, it needs to have a budget boundary. Preparing a shopping list and estimating costs before you step into the supermarket is one of those strategies that pays off every time you use it.

One of the prime ways to save money is to stay out of stores. Every time you go in for one little thing, you probably get much more. The extra you buy is not necessarily wasted, but it is often unessential.

Plan your main meals at least a week at a time so you don't have to keep going back to the store. Keep a tablet in the kitchen on which to write items you notice you will soon run out of. Prepare a list before you shop. If you work at it, you can get very good at predicting your needs. Try to have an extra package, box or bottle of anything you can't live without. Eliminate those emergency runs to the store.

Pick a 'Home Store'

Compare prices at several stores and pick one to be your "home store." One evening I took my own advice and buzzed through the three main grocery stores in my area with clipboard in hand. I compared 25 items I normally buy, and each item on the list was exactly the same--brand, size and weight--so my comparisons were fair. The winning store had a lower price on 21 items. Take into consideration distance, safety, atmosphere and services that are important to you. It pays to choose a grocery store to be your home base and learn it well so you and zip in and out.

Pick the best time to shop. The worst time to go is at dinner hour, and Friday evening is worst of all. Lines are long, and you are tired and hungry. You are likely to forget things and are very susceptible to impulse buying of pastries and convenience foods. Do not go shopping when you are sick, hungry, depressed or angry. Leave the children home unless you are taking them to teach a lesson in money management. It's cheaper to pay a baby sitter to watch the little ones while you shop than to govern their wants. Part of the store strategy is to place high-impulse items at children's level.

Be strong. Know what you intend to buy. An impulsive purchase is anything you buy that you had not planned on getting before you walked into the store. If you are not sure what you want when you go in, you are highly susceptible to the persuasive displays.

There are some foods on which you can save money if you have the time to make your own. Bake your own muffins, waffles, pies and other desserts. If you live in an area where fruits and vegetables are readily available, bottle your own fruit. Pressure-can vegetables and meats. You can also dehydrate these products.

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