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Easy Money: Slash Your Food Bill

Putting food on the table eats up a huge chunk of most families' budgets, and there doesn't seem to be any way around that. What are you going to do, quit eating? Even if you don't mind pinching pennies when it comes to your own diet, it's hard to say no to quality ingredients for your child (organic, anyone?). Then there's also the rising prices of basics like wheat, corn, milk, and eggs we all have to contend with now.

Still, there are some simple ways to seriously reduce what you spend at the supermarket. I asked moms around the country to share their best money-saving tips -- and added some of my own -- to create six steps to a leaner, meaner grocery budget.

Step 1: Figure out how much you are currently spending on food.
Like going on a diet, you can't head toward a goal until you know your starting point. If you typically shop with your debit or credit card, this exercise will take you only five minutes. (I swear, I just did it with my husband.) Review your bank or credit card statement for the past month and tally up all your grocery purchases. (Be sure to include any beer or wine -- an often-ignored budget buster!)

If you typically pay with cash, track your spending by putting an envelope in your handbag and stashing every grocery receipt you get in it for a month. Keep a backup envelope at home as well, for the receipts that wander into your pocket instead.

P.S. Don't stress out. Our moms' budgets were all over the lot, from $1,600 a month for a family of six to $600 a month for a family of four to $300 a month for a family of five (wow).

Step 2: Set a target for how much you'd like to cut from your food bill.
Then keep yourself motivated by giving yourself an enticing reason to save. For example, if you cut $150 from your monthly grocery bill, earmark that $150 for helping pay off a credit card or put it toward a larger purchase, such as a down payment on that new car you want.

Step 3: Make a list and then be sure to follow it.
Both mothers and consumer experts swear by their grocery lists, and I happen to agree with them. There are two basic list strategies that help you save:

  • Map out your meals for the week and let those menus guide your shopping list, suggests Donna Shaw of Louisville, Kentucky: "Always plan meals and snacks in advance, make a list of the items you need, and when you get to the store, stick to the list." (Another added benefit? Less unused food you end up throwing away.)
  • Clip coupons and shop what's on sale. "I plan my menu based on what's on sale in the weekly flyers," says Rosalynn Gottschall of New Albany, Pennsylvania. Her caveat: "Sometimes the generic brands are cheaper than the name brands that are on sale."

    Other moms advise clipping coupons only for products you actually use -- it's not a great deal if you don't need it. (And don't be quick to toss expired coupons, says Kimberly Sam of Silver Spring, Maryland. "Some stores still accept coupons after the expiration date.")

Step 4: Beat your supermarket at its own game.
Grocery stores mark down products at regular intervals; the trick is to figure out and then follow stores' sales cycles so you know when prices hit rock bottom. For example, don't buy orange juice just because the flyer says it's "on sale"; wait until you can get two for $5, or whatever the best deal is that the store usually offers.

When you see ten jars of spaghetti sauce for $10, don't feel compelled to buy all ten: the price often holds if you buy only five. Save even more money on sale items by throwing in a coupon.

Beware of shrinkage! According to a Consumer Reports study, many food producers are shrinking container sizes but leaving prices the same (for instance, a "half gallon" of ice cream may be only one and a half quarts). "You have to compare the price per ounce," says Susie Lancaster of Meridian, Idaho. "For example, once I noticed that a five-pound bag of flour was less expensive per ounce than a twenty-five-pound bag! And the five-pound bag was so much more convenient."

Step 5: Cook smart.
The number one tip from our grocery-saving moms was to cook double or triple the recipe, and freeze what your family doesn't eat. Stocking the Frigidaire saves money because you're less likely to shop impulsively -- or spend $30 on takeout -- if you can defrost a meal.

Step 6: Shop outside the box.
These days, there are a number of money-saving alternatives to regular grocery stores. See what works for you and your budget.

  • A rapidly growing number of local farms can supply you with fruits and vegetables (which are often organic) at a modest price compared to your supermarket. Learn more about community-supported agriculture (CSA) at Localharvest.org/csa.
  • "Find 'pick your own' farms in your area," says Rachelle Kobilarov of Irmo, South Carolina. "Paying only a dollar a pound for the fruit, and enjoying wandering through the fields, provides both food and entertainment!" Locate a farm near you at Pickyourown.org.
  • Try ethnic markets. "I shop at a Mexican grocery store because the meats are cheaper," says Rocio Luper of San Antonio. And Asian stores often have the best prices on Asian cooking staples such as fish.
  • Finally, think carefully about buying in bulk. Limit purchases at warehouse clubs to items that are nonperishable, and pay attention to prices; sometimes you can get a better deal at a supermarket sale.

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