Americans spend about one-eighth of our disposable income — $5,340 — on food. That’s less than we spend on housing and transportation, but more than we spend on anything other single line item, including health care, entertainment, even our mandatory social security contributions. Time and again, you’ll hear this high number explained away by people who insist that they don’t know how to cook. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we don’t know how to shop.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, we make 2.2 trips to the grocery store each week and spend $92.50 a visit. (Baby boomers and Generation Xers go slightly more often and spend closer to $100.) That doesn’t sound unreasonable, but it masks the fact that we’re buying food at everywhere from gas stations (my best solution for the there’s-no-milk-in-the-house panic that occurs at 10 p.m.) to Bed, Bath and Beyond. And it doesn’t take into account the take-out we pick up on those nights we’re just too tired to cook, but eat at our kitchen tables.
The fact that there are so many places to buy groceries — so many choices — causes confusion says Phil Lempert, publisher of SupermarketGuru.com, "and confusion causes overbuying." One quick way to eliminate a lot of the noise is to make one trip every month or so to a warehouse store where you can load up on paper and cleaning products. Then, when you do go to the supermarket, you can focus just on food. What else do you need to do?
What the cherry pickers have learned is that grocery stores have about a dozen categories of food, from paper products to fruits and vegetables to breakfast items. The sales cycle through the categories. So a smart cherry picker loads up on the item on sale, double and triple couponing if possible, and creates a stash at home — a pantry that resembles a store. You can do this for just about everything except for milk. If you have trouble figuring out what to buy when, you can subscribe to a Web site called thegrocerygame.com that’ll tell you what to buy in which store in neighborhoods around the country and where to find coupons to supplement the sales. You can get an intro subscription for $1 for 4 weeks, then it’s $10 for eight weeks. If you really use it, you’ll make your money back immediately and easily.
Steer clear of processed foods
It’s not that we don’t want to cook. We do. But rather than marinating, defrosting, and chopping we take a short-cut. We buy a bag of lettuce, sprinkle a bag of almonds on top and go, ‘Wow, we’re just like Julia Child.’" That’s precisely how Sandra Lee, who peddles "semi-homemade" cooking has become the number one daytime host on Food TV. Problem is, the premium on those short-cut foods is enormous. Lettuce is a great example. You can get a whole head of iceberg for 69 cents. Or you an buy a 10-ounce bag of Dole Just Lettuce for four times that much. You can buy a three pound box of rice for $2.49, or a six ounce bag of rice that's cooked and sauced for about the same. The closer you’re getting to nature the less you’re going to spend.
Don’t shop, and say you did
There are, literally, 150 pasta dishes that most people could be making with stuff they have in their house right now. So make one night a week "use-what-you-have" night. Involve your kids and create something with the food you have in your refrigerator or freezer. It may not be the best dish in the world, but they’ll eat it (trust me on this) simply because they made it. And you can feel good about knowing you didn’t spend another $40 ordering in.
Jodie and Larry Smoler, parents of two small kids in Westchester County, N.Y. (and, full-disclosure, my next-door neighbors) used to spend between $200 and $250 a week at the grocery store. Then once every few weeks they’d fill a hefty bag with everything they hadn’t eaten — vegetables on the wrong side of ripe, cold cuts that were past their prime. Once every few months they’d do the same with their freezer. Then, they discovered Peapod, the online grocer in their area. Jodie’s first foray on the site took over an hour as she searched for each item she needed. But now, every week, she starts with that same basic list, adds a few true necessities and is done in 10 minutes — for around $90, delivery charges included. "It’s true," Larry says. "Last week she was away so she didn’t order and I went to the store instead. I spent $150 and I can’t figure out why."
I know, it sounds completely old fashioned. But the folks at Real Simple magazine did a study of what successful women say makes them successful. On their top five: Making lists. About half do it the traditional paper-and-pencil way, the rest use some sort of technology to help. But making a list and crossing things off helps them accomplish tasks more quickly and not lose track of things. In the grocery store, that’s key. If you forget an ingredient you need for dinner you inevitably head back to the store — which takes more time and costs more money (particularly when, impulsively, you toss another couple of items into your cart). Stick to a list and you only get the items you know you need.
Get your kids involved
Most people today have given up on coupons (that’s why the redemption rate has fallen below 1 percent.) But if you have kids, putting them in charge of clipping and redeeming coupons can teach them a lesson in frugality — and save both of you some money. Offer them 50 percent of whatever money they save you as a reward. Specify up front you’re not buying something just because there’s a coupon — but that you’re looking for coupons on items you actually use. Then hand them the Sunday circulars (that’s where the best deals are) a scissors and let them go.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .