Economy Concerns : Stretching your food budget

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With belts tightening left and right, more and more news outlets are providing so called “tips” on how to stretch your food bill. These come from “experts” in the field (read : moms) who often provide well-meant advice that doesn’t translate to the newly thrifty.

A prime example of this is a recent article on Chicago’s CBS news. Stretch Your Dollar : Plan Your Menus

Kendra says it’s all about being organized. On her fridge is a menu of all the meals her family will eat for the week: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

She starts by going through the grocery ads that come out on Wednesday. She notes what’s on sale. Based on that, she comes up with a menu. She says it saves money.

Kendra offers good advice for seasoned shoppers. If you’re used to spending $125 a week, you can skimp down to $100 (or less if you’re vigilant) by following this advice.

But what if you’re newly frugal? Maybe you used to make a pretty penny, and a pay cut, or even job loss, has left you on a tight budget for the first time. Many families routinely spend $200 or more per week; one study revealed the average family of 4 spent more than $1,100 per month on groceries – or $275 per week.

If this sounds like you, and you’re currently burying your face in grocery store ads to cut your spending by 50% or more, please head my request.

Don’t plan your meals.

Don’t plan your shopping.

Don’t even look at the ads.

The tips you will see from moms in the field typically take for granted years of trial and error. A lot of research goes into being frugal. You need to get a feel for the cost of food in your area, what’s a good deal, what’s a bad deal, how often things go on sale, and so forth.

For example, I know that about twice per year, cereal goes on sale for $1 per box. We routinely live without boxed cereal, so I can wait until this sale rolls around. At this point I’ll happily spend $50-$60 on cereal that is not only a fraction of the usual cost but will last for months. If it’s above that price, I just don’t buy it.

You may be questioning why I beg that you, if you’re newly frugal, not check your local ads. Grocery stores put out ads to get you in the store, and to give you a preconceived idea of what you should buy. They will advertise one item at an incredibly low price and consumers will associate it with another item. This is a simple trick that is taught to marketing students in their first year. Customers who come in to buy Product X are 75% more likely to also buy Product Y, whether or not they are related.

But, you can beat this (at least to some degree) by going in without the intention of purchasing Product X. If you just see this super-bargain deal on the shelves, you don’t make the same connection in your subconscious mind as you would had you planned the purchase.

The other catch of grocery store fliers is the products advertised. Brand name soup may be on sale 3 cans for $5, as opposed to the usualy $2 per can. You write 6 cans down on your list, go in and find the sale. Since you intended to purchase that product, you’re more likely to breeze past the generic soup that is always $1 per can. You ultimately spend $4 more than you need to, when the store only put a small discount of $.33 per can.

You can grocery shop on a frugal budget with some time, effort and research. Ignore what the stores want you to buy and focus on the best deals. If you do this, you’ll ultimately end up ahead of the game.


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