Heather Murray’s Good Question: Grocery store has the right ingredients for saving

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Question: I’m trying to reduce my monthly spending. Where should I start?

Answer: When tackling monthly expenses and looking for ways to save money, one of the first places to start is with your grocery costs. Most of us can probably think of ways to save some money at the grocery store. You might be thinking: How much of an impact will saving money at the grocery store have on my monthly budget. Saving an extra $20 per week amounts to more than $1,000 a year.

First, you need to give up store loyalty and shop where you can find the best price on the items you need. Most of us tend to shop at the chain grocery store closest to our home or work. However, if we shop the sale ads and consider discount grocery stores, we will be able to see a reduction in our grocery bill.

Discount grocery stores typically have better prices on produce as they only sell what’s in season. You can also find generic versions of name brand products that cost substantially less.

If shopping at a discount store isn't for you, then you need to evaluate how you’re shopping at the chain store. Are you buying only name brand items? Switch to the store brand and see what kind of impact that has on your grocery costs. Only buy name brand products if you have a coupon, and even then confirm you’ll be spending less than if you buy the store brand.

Other money-saving ideas:

• Do your own prep work. Buying items that are pre-washed, pre-cut and pre-prepared typically cost more than items that you have to do the prep work yourself. For example, typically a bag of pre-washed lettuce costs about $3 when a head of lettuce costs around $1.25 — and you typically get more lettuce.

• Plan your meals. Take some time during the week or on the weekend to think about your family’s schedule for the week and figure out your meal plan. Typically, breakfast and lunches are easy to plan for. Dinner can be more challenging. Pick out several recipes you want to make for dinner and buy the ingredients to make them.

Planning dinners will help keep you from stopping at the store after work or during the day trying to figure out what’s for dinner and it will help keep you from ordering take out or fast food at the last minute because you’re unsure what to cook. Extra trips to the grocery store during the week can typically cost about $40 a pop. Shop once a week and keep your grocery costs down.

• Plan a night for leftovers or take the leftovers to lunch. This will keep you from wasting anything you've already cooked.

• Consider making meals in advance. Take some time on the weekend or a free evening and make some of your meals for the week ahead of time. This makes your week much less stressful and also keeps you on track with your planned meals. Maybe you can’t make the entire meal ahead of time, but look at the recipe and see what you can prepare.

While you’re cooking ahead, see if the recipe and your supplies lend itself to making an extra casserole to freeze for particularly busy weeks or weekends.

Examine your grocery costs over the past three months. If you haven’t been tracking your expenses, check bank statements for your trips to the store. Figure out exactly how much you have been spending and set a goal for how much you want to reduce that by. Stick to it and keep that number in your mind as you shop.

Heather Murray is manager, regulatory compliance and education, for Advantage Credit Counseling Service (dba Consumer Credit Counseling Service). For more information about the agency’s services, please visit www.advantageccs.org, or visit www.onlinebudgetadvisor.com to access the free online budgeting tool. If you have money or credit management questions, you can email Ms. Murray at hmurray@advantageccs.org. Please provide your name, address and daytime telephone number with all inquiries. Ms. Murray tries to reply to all inquiries but, because of the volume of questions she receives, cannot always respond.

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