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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.")