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Work & Money

Save $1,200 or More on Groceries in 2020

This simple practice can help your family eat better and lower your bills.

I have good intentions when I go grocery shopping. I shop with a list. I only buy what I need. I compare prices. I use coupons. Yet even with all of that, after I decide what to cook for dinner, I sometimes have to go back to the store because I don’t have the items I need. Or I’ll find myself tossing spoiled food from my refrigerator at the end of the week.

When those things happen, it’s usually because I didn’t plan my meals for the week. I first started meal planning well before I became a personal-finance blogger. I was in the process of paying off debt and looking for ways to decrease my spending when I discovered that I could stretch my grocery budget by couponing, learning the best prices for my staples and meal planning.

Meal planning is figuring out how you're going to use your food in advance. You do it by working with the food you have already and making decisions ahead of time about what you’re going to eat and cook. It can transform your approach to grocery shopping and save you time and money.

For instance, with meal planning, you no longer have to waste time gazing into your cabinets to decide what to eat — you’ll already know. You can avoid buying expensive carryout and limit dining out on the fly. And you can reduce or eliminate midweek runs to the store, and plan to buy items when they’re on sale when you do go.

Meal planning also reduces waste. In the United States, we waste about a third of our food supply. When you toss food in your cart at the store without planning how you’re going to use it, some may end up being thrown out. And if you shop at warehouse stores, it can be easy to overestimate what you’re able to consume. Meal planning helps you decide how to use your produce and other fresh items and cuts down on what you discard.

Once I started meal planning, my approach to grocery shopping shifted. Now my trips are more about stocking up on the staples we consistently use when they’re on sale (like olive oil and rice) and filling in the rest of my list with what I need to cook that week. Shopping that way and pairing that approach with couponing helped me reduce my monthly grocery spending from more than $800 to $400 for my family of four within just a few months of consistently following those strategies. Meal planning alone, even without couponing or other saving strategies, can save you $100 per month.

Also know this: Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated. Follow these steps to start saving money on groceries.

Set aside a time each week to meal plan. I like to set aside an extra 20 minutes or so to plan my mealswhen I write out my grocery shopping list. You can plan your meals with pen and paper, create a simple list on your computer or store a note on your phone. You can also search “Grocery Game Plan” at ChooseMyPlate.gov to download a free template.

Start with the food you have on hand. Examine the fresh items you have and incorporate them into your meals. If you realize you won’t use them, don’t buy them again. Then, check the items in your freezer and cupboards, and base your meals around them. You may have pastas, sauces, beans, rice, and other staples just waiting to be used.

Look at what’s on sale at the store. Then, grab your store’s circular, or shop online when sales are listed, and fill in your meal plan with items that are on sale. If you have special dietary restrictions or needs, or someone in your household does, factor those in. When planning your grocery shopping trips or shopping online, be sure to stock up on your frequently-used “high-impact” items when they’re at their lowest prices, even if they’re not on the menu for the week. Keep in mind that you might find the lowest prices via sales, bulk purchases or subscriptions using online retailers that deliver, such as Amazon, Costco or Boxed. Be sure to compare prices from purveyors beyond your regular supermarket.

Plan your recipes and nightly themes. Planning meals all at once will take a little time, especially when you first start. But you can reduce this time by coming up with a formula or having themed nights that regularly rotate a core repertoire of dishes. For example, you can decide that Sunday is always a slow-cooker meal, Mondays are meatless, Tuesdays are for a southern dish, Wednesdays are for rice or pasta and so on. Also, you can have someone do the planning for you by signing up for a meal subscription service such as eMeals, Platejoy or $5 Meal Plan.

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