Tips for Eating Well on a Budget

Reducing your monthly food budget doesn’t have to mean macaroni, beans and Top Ramen. With a little planning, and minimal effort, you can eat like the rich folks do, and save money at the same time.

Here are a few tips on the basics of how to pare your food budget to take greatest advantage of available dollars. Next time, we’ll look at how to prepare what you buy for maximum cost savings.

1. Create a budget

There are a number of ways to go about creating a food budget you can live with. You can track your normal expenses to see where you might be able to cut back. Or you can aim for a percentage of your take-home pay (the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 12-13% of after-tax income as the average). Or you can set a dollar amount per meal: $2-$3 per meal per person generally allows for tasty, nutritious meals without extravagances. You might want to try each approach for a month or two to learn which affords the greatest cost savings.

2. Refine your budget

Once you find a budgeting style that appeals to you, you’ll need to tweak it to accommodate your and your family’s lifestyle and taste preferences. You’ll also want to take into account such special occasions as birthdays, holidays and one-time events (weddings, graduations, etc.). Also, be aware that—as with dieting—strict isn’t always the best approach. Remember to build a little leeway into your budget to allow for the occasional splurge. Because deprivation sucks, and no one wants to live that way all the time!

3. Shop wisely

Of course you know about sticking to a list, avoiding impulse purchases, shopping for sale items, using coupons, checking the unit price, using apps to compare prices at different locations. Be penny wise, though: Does it make sense to drive across town to save .50 on a loaf of bread and spend .60 for the gas to get there and back? If the unit price on the larger package of strawberries is less than the smaller package, will you end up throwing away the difference in savings because you won’t eat all the berries before they go bad?

4. Plan menus

Plan menus. Boring, right? You’re not a planner, and didn’t you just go through all the trouble of creating a budget? Now you have to plan out every meal? What if you’re not in the mood for what’s on the menu that night? Sorry, but it’s really the only way to stick to your budget. You can solve the mood thing by switching Tuesday for Thursday, or breakfast for dinner, but there shouldn’t be things you hate on your menu to begin with. After all, the food police won’t be knocking down your door for not putting liver on your menu. If you wouldn’t normally enjoy eating it, don’t list it in the first place.

You need to plan your menus to accommodate the way you shop. Are you a daily or every-other-day shopper? Then you don’t have to worry about things going bad in your fridge by the end of the week. Do you shop weekly? Then plan your menus so that the perishable items are used up earlier in the week. After you lay out a basic menu, you can play around with it over a period of weeks to better adjust it to your liking, but then that’s it. You’re done, and you don’t have to think about it again!

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