Food budget follies

Put your money where your mouth is. I knew when I had three kids that I’d spend loads on diapers and the equivalent of a second mortgage on childcare. And I’d heard parents of older kids complain about their astronomical grocery bills. But it wasn’t until this summer, when my kids would lumber in and I’d find myself writing to the rhythmic thumping of the refrigerator opening and closing, opening and closing, that it dawned on me how much food we buy. As in, an entire Costco cart full at least once a month, supplemented with very frequent runs to grocery stores closer by.

Being a money person, I should be able to tell you how much we spend on food each month and how that’s changed over time. Admission: I’m afraid to look.

Here are some tips for ensuring the food budget won’t lead to bankruptcy. 

Don’t waste. I’ve been guilty of overzealous shopping, particularly in the midst of Minnesota’s far-too-short farmers market season. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that homes and restaurants wasted close to $400 worth of food per U.S. consumer in 2008. Cutting waste is an immediate, painless way to cut your grocery bill.

Buy in bulk. I’m Mrs. Inconsistent when it comes to my opinion of snack-sized goodies. The little packages are bad for the environment, the cost per serving is too high, and my kids love to raid the stash when my back is turned. But they are very convenient for a working mom of three who loathes making lunch. So I take a balanced approach, purchasing such snacks when they’re on sale and trying to keep them out of little hands (if you saw a lady driving around with a giant box of chips in the passenger’s seat, it’s the only place I can keep them from sneaky kids). Most of the time, I buy in bulk and make my own individual snack packs—although there is also research that shows people are likely to munch through bulk food faster, negating any cost savings. You also don’t want cost savings to show up when you step on the scale.

Reap the rewards. Most stores have frequent buyer programs. Scan the card at the register and it will unlock lower prices and bonus rewards in the form of cash back, gas discounts, and other deals. If the greeter at Costco knows your name, consider becoming an Executive Gold Star member. It costs $110 per year—twice the standard membership, but you receive a two percent annual cash back reward (up to $750) on all Costco purchases. For example, if you spend $600 a month, you’ll receive a check for $144 at the end of the year. If you don’t spend enough to make the additional membership fee worthwhile, Costco will downgrade you to the standard membership and refund the rest.

If you bleed red and khaki, consider a Target Red Debit or credit card, which earns you five percent off your total, immediately, at the register.

Know your prices. My family goes through staggering amounts of applesauce, cheddar cheese, red peppers, and coffee. I can quote you good prices for these items to the penny. It’s tricky to stock up on perishable goods, because not everything survives a trip to our chest freezer and back. But when it comes to shelf-stable items, I’m not shy about stocking up. I’ve trained my eye for the best prices on about a dozen items by creating a price list by store, regularly checking prices to see if it’s true that Target still has the lowest price for said peanut butter when not on sale or if the honor now goes to the Cub Foods across the street.

Forget loyalty. Be loyal to your friends and family. Be not so loyal to stores and brands. If you’re trying to keep grocery costs under control, it’s all about the best price. Refer to that handy price list and buy based on price, not name, or nostalgia. Unless—and this is important—unless you’ve tried alternate brands and know they truly are inferior. Buying a cheap substitute and then never using it won’t save money, or space in the pantry.

Be willing to shop multiple stores, but don’t go crazy trying to save some change. Gas is expensive and time is priceless.

Careful couponing. I say careful because coupons can be alluring, drawing you to products you never would have purchased otherwise. The offers are often for unhealthful, processed foods, and the items may cost more than other substitutes, even with the discount.

But coupons can also be great money savers, especially when you use sites such as to combine store sales with store coupons and manufacturers coupons.

Make a list. If you’re like me, you make a list and still buy a bunch of stuff you didn’t plan to. But if you can use the list to keep track of all of your must-have items and steer you from temptation, your wallet will surely thank you.

Skip the store. Speaking of temptation, by using an Internet grocery delivery site such as or Lunds & Byerly’s, there’s less chance of impulse buying. If you aren’t buying things you don’t need, you will save money and reap the benefits of convenient pick up or delivery, too.

Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to