FRUGAL EATING STARTS in OUR HEADS
Frugal food shopping starts inside us, not in the grocery store parking lot. It takes thinking, adjusting and planning before we're even ready to cross the threshold into an actual store. For some, the motivation starts with the reality of our paychecks or our checkbooks. For some, it's just who we are, it comes naturally. For many, it's harder, it's scarier, it's unknown territory. You see, it takes a frugal frame of mind to manage and -- if we're good -- to reduce a family's food budget. For many of us, it takes breaking old habits and honing new skills.
Accept that rising grocery prices are likely permanent. Economists cite a 'perfect storm' when identifying the factors that force a greater share of family income be spent on food.
- DEMAND Increasing worldwide affluence, especially in China and India, is increasing the worldwide demand for food, especially for a Western-style diet higher in calories and convenience.
- SUPPLY Poor agricultural harvests in Australia, Canada and other leading food export countries are stressing the food distribution system. In 2008, this summer's flooding in Iowa means much of an entire season's corn and soybean crops are lost.
- PRODUCTION & TRANSPORTATION COSTS Cheap oil allowed the import of food grown less expensively in far-away places, whether across the country or across the world. With oil at record highs, increased transportation costs and oil-related production costs (think fuel for farm equipment, think fertilizer) are built into the cost of the food itself.
We're seeing the effect with every grocery purchase. Between May 2007 and May 2008, whole milk is up 15.4%, Red Delicious apples up 12.8%, bananas up 25.2%, bread up 14.9%, American cheese up 5.3% and frozen orange juice concentrate up 3.2%. Inexplicably, the price of carrots is down 1.5%. (Source: Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2008)
Think 'food' not 'grocery' List all the places where we buy food. The grocery store and restaurants. But don't forget the soda machine at work, the popcorn counter at the theater, the morning coffee stop, the bottle of water from the c-store when buying gas. We buy and consume food in many locations, they all contribute. To save money on food, eliminate or limit all except the essentials. Think, "Do we need this? or simply want it?" If you track food expenses, keep track of these incidental expenses separately: they add nowhere but up and nearly all can be eliminated.
Eat less. Honestly, 'eat less' should lead this list because it just might be the easiest to accomplish and might well accomplish the most and the most quickly. Nearly all of us carry excess pounds. Our health would improve simply by dropping 10 or 15 or even 30 percent of our body weight. If it's economic factors that finally move us, as a people, to improve our health by losing weight, so be it. Start with the non-essentials, empty calories such as the obvious soft drinks, candy bars, potato chips. Cut out all foods eaten between meals. But then move on: Replace breakfast cereal with oatmeal. Make one-egg omelets and open-faced sandwiches. Serve meat in smaller portions, less often, or both. Make dessert for a special occasion. Avoid the temptation to eliminate entire meals: breakfast is important, so is nourishing our bodies throughout the day.
Cook. After that, the best way to save money on food expenses is -- let's face it -- to cook it ourselves. Think of it this way: if someone cooks the food for us, how is it much different than hiring a cook or a house cleaner or a lawn mower or a clothes washer? Some times the 'cook' is Del Monte or Kraft and the food is carried home in our grocery bags. Other times, the 'cook' is McDonald's or Pepsico and is passed through drive-up windows or delivered to our doors. All ways, always, the cost of that labor is included in the prices we pay.
Avoid the vicious cycle of the Empty Fridge. It's seven o'clock, you're just home from work, you're hungry. The fridge is nearly bare, just a few cups of yogurt, some slimy lettuce, a nearly-empty milk carton. So you eat some yogurt, then a bowl of cereal. The next night, same story, except that you know the fridge is even emptier so you stop for carry-out on the way home. The next night, same. (It happens to me, too, my own risk points are just before leaving on vacation and just after, it can go on for days.) When the fridge is empty of real food, it's just too easy to fall into "let's just order out" mode, perpetuating the cycle. Be prepared for days when this happens: have a really fast, really tasty recipe that can be on the table in minutes after a quick grocery run. At my house, it's this Quick Cauliflower or Broccoli Soup which can be made with either fresh or frozen vegetables.
Make frugal food consumption a personal challenge. It's us versus the food companies and yes, we're Davids and they're Goliaths. Every time a food company takes a commodity food (think 'real food', the underlying ingredients) and cuts it, cooks it and packages it, it's all to tempt us to pay several multiples for the 'added value' the company brings to a commodity product. It's all to make us buy more, pay more and therefore, work more and save less.
Get good at shopping for food frugally, a week, a dollar at a time. Don't expect to change everything at once. But if a few of these tips make sense, print them out and work the list, one week at a time, one item at a time. To build confidence, start with the low-hanging (ahem) fruit, the stuff that's easiest to incorporate into your own habits and practices. To make the most difference, determine where there's the most to save in your family finances, work those first.
Time is money. So it is -- and many of these tips involve getting a firm grip on grocery expenses in order to exact the most value from the dollars spent. This means time: analyzing, comparing, tracking. Here's an example. What's the price difference between the bag of dried beans that sells for $.89 and the can of beans that sells for $.99? Just a dime? No. The bag yields 7 cups of cooked beans, $.13 per cup. The can yields 1-1/2 cups of cooked beans, $.66 per cup. The canned beans - as inexpensive as they are - are five times more expensive than dried beans. Both are protein-rich, an inexpensive source of protein. How easy is it to cook dried beans? Check my recipe for Creamy Slow-Cooker Beans, no soaking required.
Consider self-sufficiency. In the past century, we've become a people of consumers, not producers. Think: what would it take to plant a garden? raise a few chickens? For many of us, these skills have been lost for a couple of generations. What resources would it require for communities and families to increase their self-sufficiency?
Think 'home economics' for the long-term. We're a resourceful, adaptive people. We can do this, we can eat well, we can eat healthfully, we can manage to eat within our resources. But saving money on groceries is likely a long-term endeavor, not this year's 'project'. It may well be a life-long study: something we all need to become good at, that we internalize, that we build into our decision-making -- and skills that we teach our children.
Feeling motivated? Good! Here are some ways to get started, now, by arming yourself with information and tools.
- List all the places where money is spent on food. Which are essential? which offer immediate savings?
- Track food expenses. Consider three categories: groceries, prepared food (for meals that could be made at home but weren't, carry-out, drive-through, etc.) and special occasions.
YOUR TWO CENTS = TWO DOLLARS = TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS = TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS = TWO MILLLION DOLLARS Collectively, Kitchen Parade readers have thousands of their own money-saving tips. Please: do share them, either in a comment or via e-mail. I'll collect reader tips for a special post to close this series. Your two cents, multiplied by thousands of readers, can really add up.
BLOGGERS You know you want to chime in! Write your own post about how you save money on food and groceries, then link to the introduction post of How to Save Money on Groceries. I'll collect your posts to share with readers at the end of the series. Together, we can make a difference!
HOW to SAVE MONEY on GROCERIESThe Introduction
Part One - Frugal Eating Starts in Our Heads (you're here)
Part Two - Frugal Food Shopping Requires a Plan
Part Three - Finally, How to Shop Wisely for Groceries
Part Four - Investing in the Future (coming soon)
Part Five - Reader Tips & More Resources (coming soon)
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