Stretch Your Food Dollars

Janis Hunter
Home & Garden Information Center

Are you looking for ways to stretch your food dollars and have more money to pay other expenses? By planning ahead and following some simple guidelines, you can save money at the grocery store during these challenging economic times.

Shopping cart full of food
Food is a flexible budget expense that can be reduced when money is tight.

Make a Menu Plan for the Week: When your time is too limited to plan every meal, plan the main meal for each day and add several healthful snacks. Most people rely on a core of about 10 recipes that are rotated for family meals. Collect recipes for low-cost, nutritious main dishes, including at least one that is meatless.

Write a Shopping List and Stick to It: Your list should be based on:

  • your menus for the week
  • the amount of money you can spend for food
  • ingredients you have in your cabinets, refrigerator and freezer
  • items that are on sale
  • flexibility to substitute one food for another to get the best buy

Shop at the Best Time: It is easier to stick to your shopping list and avoid impulse buys if you are not rushed and have enough time to compare products and find bargains. Shop alone, without children and other family members. Do not shop when you are tired or hungry. Shop when the store is less crowded, such as mid-week, early morning or late evening.

Organize Your Shopping List According to the Store Layout: Shop the perimeter, or edges, of the store first. Fresh produce, meats, dairy, breads and healthier, less processed foods usually are found in this area. Don’t go down every aisle. This reduces the temptation to buy items that are not on your list, and it saves time. The more time you spend in the grocery store, the more money you spend. The average spent is about $2.17 per minute, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Check Store Specials: These are advertised in weekly flyers, radio, television and newspaper ads. When you get to the store, look for other unadvertised specials and quick sales. If the store is out of a sale item, ask for a “rain check” to get the item later at the sale price. Sales on different categories of items are rotated on about a 12-week cycle. By stocking up when foods are on sale, you can take advantage of the best prices and shop from your own pantry later. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season.

Clip and Use Coupons: This can save you at least 10 to 15 percent on your grocery bill. Use coupons only for foods you normally buy and if a cheaper store brand is not available. If you have access to a computer, print off coupons from Web sites of products you use and of stores where you shop. Ask if your store honors coupons from other stores or matches advertised prices. Take advantage of double and triple coupon days, as well as senior citizens days if you qualify. Remember to mail in rebates and refund coupons.

Use Store Discount Cards: Ask if you need this “loyalty card” to get the advertised savings. Cardholders usually are offered in-store discounts and may get extra coupons printed on the back of store receipts.

Shop at Low-cost Stores: No-frills and warehouse stores, farmers’ markets, co-ops, dollar stores and “day old” bread stores usually have low-cost foods. Generally non-food items are cheaper at discount stores than in grocery stores.

Compare Unit Prices of Similar Foods: The unit price is the cost per pound, ounce, pint, quart, gallon, or some other unit of measure. Many grocery stores provide it on a printed label attached to the shelf directly below the product. This label shows: the size of the package; the amount in the package; the total price of the item and the unit price. Unit price helps you compare national brands with store and generic brands. Store and generic brands almost always cost less and usually taste the same as the national brands.

An example of a unit price label
Compare unit prices of similar foods, and then choose the food with the lowest price per unit.

Look Up and Look Down: The more expensive items are at “eye level.” Store brands that may be cheaper and just as good are often placed higher or lower on the shelves. Items that the store most wants to sell are located on the shelves between knee-height and shoulder-height. The highest markup items are at about chest level, making them easy to grab and toss in the shopping cart. Lower-priced items are on the bottom shelves.

Be Alert When Checking Out: Ignore the magazine, candy and soda displays, which are the store’s last attempts to get you to spend money. Watch the register or check your receipt to make sure that prices ring up as advertised or as indicated on the shelf label. Watch for potential pricing errors such as:

  • A product gets scanned twice.
  • The sale price of an item hasn’t been entered into the computer.
  • Something you thought was on sale was out of place and rings up at regular price.
  • The checker enters the wrong code for a produce item they don’t recognize.

Make sure all items are put into your bag or cart and those breakable and crushable items are bagged correctly. Carry foods home as quickly as possible to ensure the quality and safety of perishable items.

Cook and Eat More Meals at Home: Cooking from scratch the “old fashioned way” is better for your budget and health. Convenience foods cost more and often contain added fat, salt, sugar and calories but fewer nutrients.

Serve “Planned Overs,” not Leftovers: Cook once, eat twice. Buy enough ingredients to cook more than one meal, and freeze meal-sized portions for later. Sometimes you can get two meals for the price of one, plus you aren’t tempted to grab fast food when time is limited!

Grow Some of Your Own Food: If garden space is limited, plant items like tomatoes and strawberries in pots on your patio. Grow herbs in a flower pot or windowsill container. Plant beans to run up a small trellis.

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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.