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Cutting Costs On Your Grocery Bills: How To Save Money On Your Weekly Shopping Trip

Updated on October 4, 2012

Keeping Food Costs Down: Save Money, Be Frugal, Tightwad It

Food costs: they just seem to be going crazy at the moment, along with all the other items you need to keep a household running in good working order. I guess there are reasons for it, or at least the food manufacturers and retailers tell us so: fuel costs, raw material costs, falling sales, the recession, because they can… well, that’s just my suspicious mind! Not that everyone even admits that grocery costs are even rising. Ask some government departments or journalists and it seems it’s just a figment of our imaginations, that prices are actually on a downward spiral. So they say!

Grocery Bills

On the other hand, if you take a look at the British government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Retail Price Index (RPI) basket, you’ll see some interesting stuff. (They assemble a basket of theoretical household goods, then monitor the prices as they change in order to get a handle on inflation). First off, goods are taken out and put in the basket as the government sees fit. Now pardon my nasty suspicious mind, but to me that seems awfully convenient. If the price of a particular good skyrockets by 500%, do you suppose it's going to be allowed to remain in the basket? Personally, I wonder...

Is Inflation Rising In Terms Of Food Prices?

The other point that occurs to me is that some awfully odd items are included in the ‘basket’, and I do wonder if that is a matter of ‘convenience’ also. What I mean by that is that many normal household groceries and cleaning products, for example, which are rising drastically in price day by day, fail to make a showing in the basket. On the other hand, a number of ‘luxury’ items – which have remained stable in price or even had price falls – do appear in there. (Flat panel televisions! Horse racing admissions! Nanny fees!) I wonder why that is? Especially considering that luxury items are going to be the first ones cut out of the budget in a household that is experiencing financial stress, due to inflation on ‘regular’ items.

Suspicion about governmental 'lies, damned lies and statistics' aside, there are reasons to be gravely concerned about food expenses shooting up. In these recessionary times, with unemployment rising and redundancies looming large in the minds of many of us, most people are seeking to tighten their belts financially. But if food and grocery prices cannot be relied upon for stability, then how to do so? Here I present some tips for cutting your food bills in the face of rising prices.

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Take A Look At The Alternatives

Now you're no dummy: you've already looked around for the cheapest sources for the items on your food and grocery shopping list. You may even have looked online at price comparison sites, and considered online food shopping. Have you started substituting and looking at alternatives for your food shopping list yet? Sometimes that's what's necessary to make a real saving rather than knocking off nickels and dimes.

For instance, soya mince is drastically cheaper than reasonable quality beef or lamb mince. No, it doesn't taste quite the same (which may be regarded as a drastic understatement). For the truly dedicated meat-eaters, you can combine it to 'stretch' your meat out and only the most picky carnivore with a truly sensitive palate is going to catch you out. If you're willing to experiment and try vegetarian and vegan options in the name of saving money on your food bills, then try it straight! (Tip: I find that the addition of a teaspoon of miso or some soy sauce vastly improves the flavour, if not the admittedly slightly rubbery texture, of soya mince. I like a little mustard in there too.)

As well as substituting alternative foods, you can look at substituting brands. Do your family insist on a particular (pricey) brand of, say, ketchup or chocolate biscuits? Well, it won't kill them to try an alternative just the once to find out if it's palatable or not. Even another 'name' brand can be a little cheaper: but if you go for a supermarket 'basic' generic own brand, you can save big money. Duplicate this over a few products and you multiply your savings!

Take A Look At The Macronutrients

To save money on your grocery bills, it helps to think in terms of broad macronutrient categories rather than narrow and specific items. For example, if you put 'granary loaf' on your shopping list then that's a specific item. On the other hand, if you put '2x carbohydrate options', then you're leaving yourself some flexibility and allowing yourself a little wiggle room. If you're out to buy a granary loaf and the store only has three to choose from, then the cheapest one determines the lowest price you can pay.

Now if you have listed, '2x carbohydrate options' on the list, then you have a whole lot more options open to you. You can compare prices per serving on pearl barley, rice, potatoes, millet, maize meal, and the options just go on and on. I'm betting you're going to halve your expenses on that item most of the time! Yes, you need to be a little more flexible, yes, you need to explore new recipes and ingredients you're not used to. But you'll get the hang of it, and so will the family.

Get More Meaty Variety!

Meateaters! Do you always go for the same cuts, and the same butchers? Now that's not the way to save the moolah. Have a browse through some recipe books and have a little adventure: after a word with your butcher, try some cuts and parts of the animal you've never tried before. With the right recipe and a rejection of apprehensive squeamishness, you could be in for a tasty, nutritious surprise from your liver, heart or stewing steak recipe. And your wallet will thank you too.

Go Veggie – Part-time

Are you a dedicated carnivore? I'm not going to lecture you about that: I'm not vegan myself (though my partner is). On the other hand, opting more frequently for vegetarian and vegan options when shopping doesn't just bring benefits for animal welfare and environmental concerns. It can also do wonderful things for your food budget!

Even in these inflationary times, pulses and grains are a wonderfully cheap option for your shopping list. And guess what, you just have to combine them together to provide a complete protein for your family! Cornmeal fritters and refried beans, brown rice and bean chilli, rye bread and houmous: all fabulous, tasty bean and grain combos that will have protein spilling out of your ears! (Okay, not literally: you wouldn't want that.) And are they cheap? They're super-cheap! (Certainly when compared to lean cuts of meat or an organic chicken.)

Tofu, tempeh, veggie sausages, quorn etc., can also all be found reasonably priced if you are careful where you purchase (usually not from dedicated healthfood shops where they are sold at premium prices, but rather at supermarkets) and keep an eye out for BOGOFs (that's Buy One Get One Free for the uninitiated!)

BOGOFs and Reduced To Clear Items

Are you concerned about buying 'BOGOF's? It seems that even the government is getting involved on this issue: apparently we're all scarfing down too much cheap food and getting obese as a result. My advice: worry about it when you're obsese (or when food prices are lower.) If you don't want the family (or yourself) scoffing both your chickens/packs of veggie sausages/quarts of milk, then you can stick one in the freezer. Make it difficult for them, and save money at the same time!

On the other hand, are you just a little squeamish about purchasing yellow-stickered 'reduced to clear' items? It may be just a trace of embarrassment about being seen as 'cheap' if you take advantage of over-purchased (and sometimes over-priced) stock. If so, then get over it! Seriously, if you don't get in there and grab any bargains that are going, then that just means that somebody's going to beat you to it!

On the other hand, perhaps you have concerns about food safety in relation to food that's just barely within its 'sell-by' dates. This is a rather more reasonable issue, at least to me: whatever the date, I have some qualms about purchasing stickered, discounted egg salad or prawns, for example. But aside from that, I think that supermarkets are very conservative about the dates they use for fresh food, and by and large I don't worry too much about it. If you don't need it right away but it's a huge bargain, then again, there's always the freezer!

Stretch That Meal!

Stretch it? What am I talking about? I'm talking about taking the most expensive ingredient in a meal, e.g. the mince in a shepherd's pie or chilli, and adding (much cheaper) ingredients that will enable it to go further and you to use less. (The end result being, hopefully, something close to undetectable.) Examples, in the case of mince, are porridge oats, lentils and pearl barley. Try it: you have nothing to lose but pennies on your grocery bill!

Patronize Your Local Market

Do you rely heavily on supermarkets in order to fulfil your weekly or monthly food shop? If so, you may not always be getting the best deal on price. Due to economies of scale in purchasing, supermarkets are often able to offer real bargains to their customers: but beware, it's not invariably the case. Sometimes, in my experience, you're better off shopping at your local market, especially for things like fruit and vegetables. (I tend to find that supermarket fruit is overpriced and underripe, in any case – and it doesn't always ripen eventually when you get it home, either.)

Grow Your Own Food!

How About Growing Your Own?

There is one time-honoured way to reduce your food bills quite considerably – and that is to do your best to grow as much of your own fruit and vegetables as you possibly can. Now, I will concede that this is in some cases barely possible. Apartment dwellers don't really have the option of digging their own potato patch or planting fruit trees! Even so, there is usually something, however minimal, that all of us can do to make a contribution to our fruit and vegetable budget. There are very few people who can't at least sprout a few seeds and grow some herbs on a windowsill. Alternatively perhaps you can 'borrow' a garden from someone who is happy to exchange use of it in return for it being kept tidy and orderly.

If you do have a garden and some time to devote to it, then it's surprising just how much produce you can, well, produce, given some determination!

Now take a look at all my suggestions: how many of them can you implement? People, it's time to take action to cut our ridiculous, outrageous food bills. Get out there and save money!

When Money Is Tight!

What's your favourite cost-cutting move?

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