University of Illinois Extension

Stretching Your Food Dollar

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. Here are some helpful hints for making a shopping list.

  • 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 – flour, sugar, coffee, salt, rice – which should be added to the list?
  • If storage space and budget 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’re 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 that are basic to the family meal plan – 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 find a once-a-month trip to a warehouse store saves on foods that store easily and on non-food household supplies.

Convenience stores almost always charge higher prices for food, with the possible exception of dairy products and soft drinks. Farmers’ markets and coops have helped many families reduce food costs. The selection of products may be more limited than in most supermarkets, but prices are usually lower.
Usually, it’s more efficient to shop at one store, close to home that has reasonable prices. Shopping at several stores in order to pick up specials can waste time, money, and energy. Remember the more often you shop or the more 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 usually 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 not all items displayed at the end of aisles in the store are necessarily on special.
  • Compare national brand, store brand, and generic products. Generic products can best be identified by their plain, simple packaging. These products are usually less expensive. While the nutritional value is comparable to national or private label (store) brands, you may find a difference in quality and appearance. However, if you don’t require top quality, appearance or uniformity, generic foods can be substituted without sacrificing nutrition. Generic brands of canned vegetables could be used in soups, stews, and casseroles.
  • 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 12-ounce can of creamed corn is a better buy than the 7-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 packages may be less expensive, but they are not a bargain if you can’t use them before they become stale or spoiled.
  • Pay attention at the checkout. Be sure the cashier or the scanner ring the correct price.

When Your Shopping Is Done

To prevent food spoilage, go straight home after grocery shopping so perishable foods can be refrigerated or kept frozen. 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 taste 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 serve satisfying meals while remaining within your food budget.

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