Stretching Your Food Dollar


Grocery shopping can be a real challenge,
especially if you are on a limited budget. However,
food is a flexible budget expense which can be
reduced when money is tight. By planning ahead
and managing your money wisely, you can still serve
meals which are appetizing, easily prepared, and


Food Shopping Starts at Home

Most of us can change our food spending habits in
ways that make each food dollar go further and still
improve nutrition. Before dashing out to the
supermarket, it is important to do your homework.
Take the time to review newspaper ads, plan meals,
and make a shopping list. By doing so, you are more
likely to find the best buys, avoid impulse
purchases, and eliminate extra trips for forgotten

Be a smart shopper and get more for your money by
deciding in advance what foods to serve for meals
and snacks. As you plan your menus, follow these
important steps:

Check newspaper ads for special sales. Planning your meals around specials and seasonal
foods can help save money. Compare advertised
prices among stores to find where you can save the
most on your entire shopping list. Buy only what
you can use and compare prices with those found in
other ads. Be aware that specials and coupon offers
invite you to buy impulsively. And impulsive
buying can blow your budget. Even at special prices
and with refunds or coupons, some foods may not
be within your budget.

Clip coupons. You can save money if the item is
one you would normally buy and if the item is less
expensive than similar brands. Most cents-off
coupons offered by manufacturers or stores are for
the more expensive, highly processed foods or for
foods in abundant supply. But using coupons for
coffee, prepared foods, cereals, flour, and flour mix
products can save about 10% in most food
budgets. Do not use a coupon to justify buying a
food that your family does not need or that costs
more than a store brand, even with the coupon

Take advantage of seasonal specials. Foods,
especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are generally
less expensive when in great supply.

Consider food preferences. When you serve
popular foods, you increase eating pleasure. Make a
collection of economical, nutritious recipes that
your family likes and serve these often.

Think appetite appeal. Since we eat with our
eyes, plan meals using foods of contrasting colors,
textures, flavors, sizes, and shapes.

Plan the use of leftovers. When safely handled,
leftovers can be used in casseroles, soups, for snacks,
and in lunch boxes. If there is food waste in your
household, ask yourself why. Are youbuying food in
the right quantities? Is food refused or left on the
plate? Are servings too large? Is the food cooked
properly? Encourage family members to help in
menu planning and meal preparation so you will
have help in making decisions that affect the eating
pleasure of the entire family.

Making a Shopping List

One of the best ways to control spending and avoid
impulse buying is to make a list of the items
needed. Having already planned your menus, the
rest is easy. Some helpful hints for making a
shopping list follow:

  • Keep an ongoing list and jot down items as your supply gets low.
  • Look over the recipes you plan to use. Be sure you have the necessary ingredients.
  • Check the cupboards, the refrigerator, and the freezer for foods on hand. Are there staple items such as flour, sugar, coffee, salt, rice, which should be added to the list?
  • If storage space permits, stock up on sale items used regularly.
  • Organize your list according to the store layout. This will save you time and reduce the temptation to buy foods not on your list. This method is especially helpful in larger supermarkets or warehouse stores where backtracking is time consuming.

If you find that you are continually exceeding your
food spending plan, evaluate your menus and
shopping list for ways to cut costs. Serving low-cost
main dishes is one of the best ways to economize.
Another is substituting lower cost or on-sale foods
for planned foods on your list. If entertaining is
taking too much of your grocery money, you need
not become less sociable — just simplify the foods
you serve. Underline the items on your shopping
list which are basic to the family diet — buy these
foods first. Include other items as your food
spending plan permits.

Shopping Choices

With the planning done, you are now ready to
shop. But where will you do your grocery shopping?
There are several alternatives in most populated
areas from which to choose — supermarkets,
warehouse stores, convenience stores, farmers’
markets, and co-ops.

Food prices, of course, are one of the major factors
in determining where you will shop. No-frills and
warehouse stores can be less expensive because the
cost of doing business is lower. Many shoppers who
live in rural communities find a once-a-month trip
to a warehouse store saves on foods that store easily
and on nonfood household supplies.

Convenience stores almost always charge higher
prices on food, with the possible exception of dairy
products and soft drinks. Farmers’ markets and coops
have helped many families reduce their food
costs. The selection of products may be more
limited than in most supermarkets, but the prices
are usually lower.

Usually, it is more efficient to shop at one close
store that has reasonable prices. Shopping at
several stores each week just to pick up specials uses
valuable time and energy. Remember the more
often you shop or the greater number of stores you
shop in, the more likely you are to buy more food
than you need. Eat before you shop because
everything looks good when you are hungry. And,
if possible, try to shop when the store is not too
crowded. Keep in mind the following shopping
pointers so you can become a skillful shopper and
get more for your money:

  • Shop alone when possible. When family members are along, you tend to buy more.
  • Know the regular prices of items you generally buy. This way you will recognize when an advertised special is really a bargain. If you shop in stores where individual items do not have price tags attached to them, you may want to write the price on each package after you get home or on the shopping list.
  • Be alert for unadvertised specials in the store. These can save you money. But all items displayed at the end of aisles in the store may not be on special.
  • Compare national brand, store brand, and other products. While the nutritional value generally is comparable among brands, you may find a difference in quality and appearance. However, if you do not need top quality, appearance, or uniformity, less expensive brands can be substituted without sacrificing nutrition.
  • Take advantage of unit pricing. The unit price is the per-unit measure (the number of cents per ounce/gram) which is often posted on the shelf below the product. If a store provides this information, you can use it to find out whether the 16-ounce can of creamed corn is a better buy than the 12-ounce can. To figure unit prices on your own, divide the price of the container by the number of ounces it contains.
  • Ask for a rain check. If a specially-priced item is sold out, ask for a rain check. It allows you to purchase the item at the sale price at a later date.
  • Read labels. Food labels list the ingredients and valuable nutritional information, which is helpful in judging the nutritional quality of a food item.
  • Buy only amounts you can store and use. The large size packages may be less expensive, but they are not a bargain if you cannot use them before they become stale or spoiled.
  • Pay attention at the checkout. Be sure the cashier or the scanner rings the correct price.

When Your Shopping is Done

Go straight home after grocery shopping so
perishable foods can be refrigerated or kept frozen
so food spoilage will not be a problem. Warm
temperatures are the leading cause of food spoilage,
so refrigerate or freeze all perishable foods
immediately after shopping.

When you get home from the store, compare your
register receipt with your food cost goal. Then
check your purchases carefully and critically. Are
they economical when compared with other
choices you might have made? Did you buy some
foods not on your list? Can these extras be justified
as important for meeting food needs, being real
bargains, or providing a worthwhile tasty treat?


Managing food dollars wisely involves planning
before and during your grocery shopping. Some
knowledge of nutrition, plus careful meal planning,
skillful shopping, proper food storage, handling,
and preparation will help you to serve satisfying
meals while remaining within your food budget.