In this week's installment of USA TODAY's Taming your budget-busting bills series we look at how to cut your food costs and save money but still eat well.
Food can take a serious chunk out of your budget, whether you’re a college student trying to get by on ramen noodles or you’re cooking for a family of five.
The average American household spent about $600 a month on food in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 44% of that was spent outside the home at restaurants and bars.
Americans are spending more on food each year and may soon spend more on dining out than groceries. Millennials in particular have been criticized for prioritizing avocado toast over home ownership.
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The good news is your food budget is a lot more flexible than fixed costs like rent. We all have to eat, but here are some ways to cut down on your food spending.
Before you go shopping: Plan your meals
If you want to cut down your grocery bill, planning ahead is the only way to do it. Start small by planning out your meals one week at a time.
Instead of finding recipes and then looking for deals, Joanie Demer, co-founder of a couponing site, recommends building a menu around the sales and coupons already out there. Check websites like Demer's The Krazy Coupon Lady and Coupons.com, and apps like Ibotta.
Demer estimates that by couponing for just an hour a week, shoppers can save as much as $200 per month.
Making a list will help cut down on impulse buys, limit your trips to the grocery store, and ultimately keep you on target with your budget.
In the store: Shop strategically and shop deals
Be selective about what you buy: go for generic instead of name brands and only buy organic items that are the most perishable. Once you enter a store, look for the coupons and the latest deals.
Annette Economides, co-author of Cut your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family, recommends buying the sale items in bulk and locking in the discount price by stocking both your pantry and your freezer.
But be sure you know your family’s “burn rate,” or how fast you go through each product, so you’re not overbuying just because it’s a good deal. Americans lose an estimated $371 each year thanks to wasted food, especially produce.
Dining out: Cut back
Of course, one of the best ways to save money is to stop eating out. But no one can deny the convenience of picking up dinner and not having to cook or do the dishes.
If you’re going to eat out, lunch deals and happy hours are often much cheaper than regular dinner prices. Consider eating late lunches as your dinner meal or happy hour food deals.
Demer recommends sites like Restaurant.com and Gift Card Granny that sell discounted gift cards to major eateries. Economides says to decide what you can live without — for her family this means cutting out drinks, especially alcohol, appetizers and desserts. And don’t forget to take home the leftovers.
Set a budget for dining out and stick to it.
With the rise of apps like Seamless and UberEats, getting food on demand is easier than ever.
But these apps come with a ton of delivery fees which can make them even more expensive than dining out. Consider if the convenience is worth the extra expense.
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