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By Marla Walters /Wise Bread
December 22, 2015
filled grocery cart
Shannon Fagan—Getty Images

Food is something we need in order to survive, and like all good things, it doesn't always come cheap. When you live on a budget, as most of us do, many expenses are "fixed" expenses — your mortgage or rent, car payments, and insurance premiums. So where is there flexibility to save? In your grocery budget, believe it or not. If you work at it, you can not only stay within a grocery budget, but you can also save a lot of money. (See also: Credit Cards with Bonus Rewards for Grocery Purchases)

Here's why you keep sabotaging your grocery budget, and how to avoid the overspending trap we all tend to fall into.

1.You Don't Do Meal Planning

There are dozens of websites and apps that will do this for you, but all you really need is a pen and a piece of paper. Map out each day of the week, and write next to it what you plan to eat that day. From that list, make a grocery list. The advantages of planning your meals are plentiful:

  • You can shop once per week.
  • You can check the grocery ads for what is on sale, and cut coupons.
  • You will stay out of stores and restaurants (and away from temptation).
  • You will be eating healthier meals.
  • If you let your family chime in, you will have less food waste, if they get to eat what they like.
  • You'll make an effort to bring more variety into your diet.
  • You can quickly track your spending week to week.
  • Meal planning makes life easier, and reduces stress.

2. You Don't Cook

Maybe you don't like to cook, or you don't know how. For those of you who don't like to cook, there are a couple of solutions. First, you can do batch cooking of a couple of things and eat them all week. Another idea is to trade the cooking chore for some other household chore. In our household, I cook, which I love; and my husband does the laundry, which I despise.

If you don't know how to cook, you can certainly learn through classes, YouTube, reading cookbooks, or just asking someone to show you how.

Read More from Wise Bread: 10 Foods With the Most Bang for Your Buck

3. You Don't Do Batch Cooking

Years ago, I was in a "casserole club" where we would all make casseroles and exchange them, and then be done for the week. It meant spending a good part of Sunday cooking and delivering, but cooking once per week was great, at the time. Lately, some of my younger coworkers have taken this idea and are doing healthy batch-cooking. (I have been jealous of the breakfast burritos filled with peppers, quinoa, egg whites, and spinach.)

Batch cooking has benefits such as saving money, wasting less food, and being able to relax more. Try making a lasagne and freezing half. It's so nice, after a long day, to just pull something out of the freezer to reheat. Chili and Jambalaya also freeze really well.

4. You Don't Like Eating Leftovers

Maybe that's because you get bored easily, and like more variety. The trick is to transform the leftovers into something interesting. Try out apps and programs like bigoven, where you enter what leftovers you have, and voila, you get suggestions for "new" meals.

Read More from Wise Bread: The Best and Worst Times to Go Grocery Shopping

5. You Are Buying Trendy Stuff

Oh, look, a section of your grocery that has all gluten-free items! Unless you have been medically diagnosed as having celiac disease, you shouldn't assume you have it. And these items labeled as "paleo-friendly"... what does that even mean?

And watch for store markups. The biggest markup is bottled water, at up to 4,000%. Fancy coffee is a 300% markup. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables have a 40% markup. I love those in-store bakeries, but after learning about their 100% markup, I dragged my breadmaker back out of storage.

6. You Buy Lunches Out

I have coworkers who eat out every day. Let's look at that cost:

If you're spending $5 a day (average) x 5 days per week = $25 a week x 4 = $100 per month, x 12 = $1,200 a year. According to Forbes, most Americans go out for lunch on average twice a week and spend $10 each time. Do you fit the average? Would you rather spend that money, or a least a portion of it, on something else?

Instead, try to pack a traditional "brown-bag" lunch as often as possible. Make an effort, though, to pack foods you really like, or you'll take one look at your peanut butter and toss it in favor of going out.

Read more from Wise Bread: 5 Ways to Cut Your Grocery Bill

7. You Refuse to Use Coupons

Confession: I don't enjoy using coupons. They usually get lost in my purse, and I really have to force myself to wade through the grocery circulars. My trick? On Twitter, I followed a local coupon-cutting maniac. She tweets the best specials at local stores and I just go get them based on her very solid recommendations.

8. You Are Spending Too Much on Fruit

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the most expensive way to buy fruit is fresh. That is followed by frozen, then canned, and finally dried. Fresh can be a good deal, so long as it is in season. Unseasonal fruit is a budget-wrecker. Grocers know this, and about the time we're sick of winter apples, pears, and oranges, they roll out some strawberries.

By buying unseasonal fruit, you're also being a lousy locavore. That produce had to be shipped from far away. If you prefer summer fruits to winter fruits, try these strategies:

  • During the summer, prep and freeze some of your favorites (berries do very well in the freezer).
  • Learn to can (home-canned peaches in January will be very welcome) or invest in a dehydrator (mine even makes fruit roll-ups).

9. You Like to Shop at Nice Stores

I appreciate the soft lighting, wooden floors, and attractive displays of produce, cheeses, and wines at nice and somewhat luxurious grocery stores. You can buy coffee and sip while you shop. They have olive and sushi bars. It's pleasant! Who wouldn't want to shop at a store like that?

Unfortunately, you are paying about 20% extra for that ambiance. If you are a family of four, paying around $800 per month for groceries, that extra 20% takes you up to $960. Compare prices of items on your list at a store with harsh lighting, linoleum, no coffee and very few "upscale" products. You are bound to be surprised at how much less those products are.