Financial Literacy

Big Budget Blind Spot: Food Shopping


Did you know the most common budgeting blind spot shows up while shopping for food? It is easy to think that, because food is a necessity, it is the one area where your budget doesn’t have to hold true. Let’s take a look at some tips that can help you stay within your budget- even when it comes to food!

Written by BALANCE & Nicolette Fee

Your relationship with food is probably pretty complex. Rather than just being sustenance, you may use food for comfort, for social bonding, distraction or pleasure. When you really commit to tracking your food expenses as part of putting together a spending and savings plan, you realize food can be a complicated part of your financial life too. While meals are of course a necessity, your food buying habits can become so deeply ingrained in your routine that you take all the decisions you make for granted. Making changes will take a little work, but the rewards can make it all worth it.

When you look to maximize your food money, your mind may be geared toward eliminating certain expenses. That is fine for line items like dining out or buying those extra steaks. But also keep in mind that a successful food purchasing plan isn’t just about cutting things out. It’s also about understanding your habits and making sure they are as wise as possible.

Going out to lunch at work

You may grab “a quick bite” at work because it’s easy. But it might actually take you less time at home to put together the same meal. Then you get to spend more of your lunch period at work relaxing, going for a walk or reading a book. Or you could just spend the time thinking about the hundreds of dollars you will save this year by brown-bagging.

Convenience store or check-out aisle buys

If you actually look at the prices, you realize that the mark-ups on the quick-grab items near store cash registers are incredibly high. But that’s just the thing. Stores realize you don’t stop to examine and consider prices in those situations. If you find yourself reaching for a pack of gum or some candy as you are about to check out, instead make a commitment to stock up ahead of time and keep these items in your car or your purse or your desk. By buying them online or at a bulk retailer, you could pocket a bunch of extra dough.

Fast food

The fast burger or taco for $0.99 sounds like the perfect recipe for our modern sensibilities; we want food in a hurry and we don’t want to pay a lot. While the speed of delivery may be enticing, the end price may not be all that great. Consider: how many times have you gone to a fast food restaurant and ordered just one thing? The advertised item may under a dollar, but when you add on a drink and fries or another side order, you begin to put your purchase in to the not-so-economical category.

Shopping when you are hungry

It’s silly to think that you are always going to shop on a full stomach. So instead of feeling like you need to plan all your grocery shopping excursions in tandem with meals, just be aware of why you are putting each item into your cart. Are you reaching for that plastic canister of candy rope because it’s a part of your budget or because your blood sugar is a little low?

“High end” grocery stores

You may like to go to the more expensive grocery in your area because they have a few specialty items that you can’t find at other stores. That is certainly understandable. But make sure those items aren’t available for a lower price at your regular grocery store first. They may be tucked away in a place you hadn’t thought to look.

Buying prepared items

Any financial counselor worth their salt will tell you that cooking your own meals instead of buying prepared meals saves you mounds of cash. But also think about the fruits and vegetables you buy. Fruit medleys or even individual chopped fruit packages can cost much, much more than just buying the fruit in its whole form. Same goes for salad mixes. Is it really worth the extra money to have someone cut up your fruit or mix up some greens for you?

Failing to plan

If you are one of those people who wander around the grocery store until they find some things that look yummy, you are probably paying more than the list makers of the world. In a perfect world you would plan out your meals for a couple weeks and create a shopping list based on that. But at the very least, try to formulate a list of necessities. Allow yourself one impulse buy if that helps you stick to the plan.

Meat-centric meals

If you plan your dining experience with meat as the centerpiece, you are not alone. It’s a common tactic. But it doesn’t have to be an all-the-time way of looking at meal construction. By sometimes substituting in tofu, beans or legumes as your protein source, you can save significantly at checkout time.

Brand name insistence

There are certain consumer items for which you can make an argument that brand name goods are a better choice. But that isn’t generally the case with food. Lima beans are lima beans, whether the name on the can is the one you heard on TV or it is completely new to you.

Making money-smart choices about your food purchases doesn’t have to mean denying yourself the things you love. Instead, think of putting the above tips into practice as a way to still get all the food you enjoy while giving yourself some extra money to put toward other areas of life enjoyment.