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Food budgeting 101: how you can reduce your weekly food bills

Being a little clever about what you eat isn’t just good for the waistline. It can work wonders on your savings, too.

Food budget blowouts

How many trips to the supermarket do you make each week? On each trip, how many times do you walk away from the checkout with more items than you planned on buying? Shopping for groceries can trigger the chocolate biscuit effect (that is, once you eat one biscuit, the whole packet is a goner). Same goes with shopping. Once you start popping the things you planned to buy into your trolley, other things (like chocolate biscuits) quickly follow.

It’s well known (surely there’s a PhD thesis on this somewhere?) that only the most disciplined shoppers can stick to their shopping lists. The rest of us? We blow our food budgets, week in, week out. Walk in to the shops for milk and bread, come out with ice-cream if you’re stressed out, a bag of chips if you’re hungry, or a massive jar of coconut oil if you spot a shopper in their active wear and get inspired to start a health kick. You get the idea.

So how do you go about changing this behaviour? How can you turn your grocery budget blowouts into a source of savings? Your first step, obviously, is to try and reduce the number of trips you make to the supermarket. To do this requires (gasp!) a little menu planning.

So how do you go about changing this behaviour?
How can you turn your grocery budget blowouts into a source of savings?

Made to order

Know what you’re having for dinner tonight? What about tomorrow night? Three nights’ time? Planning ahead is one of the keys to cutting back on food bills. By creating a set menu for the week ahead, you can write up one almighty shopping list, do your almighty shop on the weekend, then avoid the supermarket for the rest of the week (and be almighty smug about it).

For your mid-week meals, try quick and easy recipes that don’t need a squillion ingredients. There are loads of ideas on the interweb – get searching and find some delicious inspiration that will keep you on track. Things like pastas, soups and curries are great. They are relatively cheap and easy to make, and can be divided up and stored in the freezer so you’ve got instant meals for those times when you really need them.

As well as keeping you away from the supermarket aisles, planning your weekly meals means that you’re less likely to cave in to the allure of the mid-week takeout or – more expensive – the mid-week dine-out. When you’re flat strap at work, it can be tempting to head to your local pub or restaurant for dinner or order in. But these trips can really add up. With food at home ready to go, or at least easy to prep, then you can steer yourself away from the temptation.

Proof in the pudding

If you’re serious about reducing the amount of money you spend on food each week, you need evidence that you’re overspending. Collect all your shopping dockets over a couple of weeks, and tally them up. Try to include all those incidental ‘just-buying-milk’ runs (because, invariably, a trip to the shops to buy milk sees you coming home with more).

If you want to get a little more scientific, then categorise your food shopping. Work out how much you spend on meat, fresh fruit, vegetables, processed foods, and so on. Patterns will emerge. According to ASIC’s MoneySmart, did you know, for example, that residents of the Australian Capital Territory spent nearly double what people in the Northern Territory spent on chocolate each week in 2012? Look at your own spending patterns and see what you could save. You might be surprised at how much money is being spent on meat, and decide to add a few more vegetarian meals to your weekly meal plan. If fresh vegetables are a massive line item, then you might get the motivation you need to kick-start that vegetable garden you’ve always talked about putting in.

While you’re examining the evidence, take a good look at how much food is wasted in your household. Are you constantly ditching wilted carrots and slimy greens? Maybe you need to scale back on the volume of vegetables you buy each week (or, as mentioned above, cook some cheaper meals with them!). If you’ve always got weeks-old leftovers sitting uneaten in the fridge, then you might need to teach yourself how to cook smaller portions. Wasted food is money down the drain.

Armed with all this proof that you’re overspending, then you are more likely to be motivated to do something about it, right? Sure, it might take a little effort to change your behaviour. But if you’re really keen to reduce your food bill, then keep your eyes on the prize of saving money and see what difference a few changes can make.