Coronavirus and Your Money: Special Coverage
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Personal finance experts frequently tell shoppers to save money on food by buying in bulk, watching out for sales and cooking food at home. But according to a new study in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, those tactics could cause you to spend more money in the long run by encouraging you to buy more food than you’ll eat.

“Surprisingly, findings show that strategies used to save money — such as buying groceries in bulk, monthly shopping trips, preference for supermarkets and cooking from scratch — actually end up generating more food waste,” wrote Gustavo Porpino, Juracy Parente, Brian Wansink and John S. Dyson in the report. “This mitigates the savings made during the purchasing phase.”

Too often people buy more food than they can eat — especially when they buy in bulk — and then throw it out once it’s past its expiration date. People also tend to stock up on unnecessary items just because they’re on sale, the study authors found after following the shopping habits of 14 lower-middle income families in Brazil. “Families reported that some foods were not consumed because they were bought in abundance and past their expiration dates, or because they had forgotten to prepare it,” wrote the authors. “These products are usually the ones more prone to be bought on impulse, such as powder for preparing gelatin, cake mix, sauces and canned food.”

The authors also found that people frequently waste money by cooking more food than their family can eat, storing food improperly and, in some cases, refusing to eat leftovers. They also tend to buy what they think they need based on memory rather than a shopping list and overspend as a result. “Despite income constraints, the families studied tended not to plan grocery shopping and in several cases the amount of food they purchased seemed to be greater than they needed,” wrote the authors.

A separate study published June 10 in the open-access journal PLOS One also found that people frequently underestimate how much food they waste. According to a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers, 56 percent of consumers claim to throw out less than 10 percent of the food they buy, while 13 percent insist they never throw out food. Meanwhile, 73 percent believe they waste less than the average American household and a majority say they regularly take steps to reduce their waste.

For example, more than half of respondents to the survey claim to regularly check their pantries, estimate what they need and draw up a list before they shop. And yet, research shows that an estimated 31 to 41 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted. More than two-thirds of consumers also insist that they rarely buy too much food because of sales or tempting packaging.

“Based on what is known about wasted food in the U.S., it is clear that respondents as a group are substantially underreporting their waste levels, and they may also be overreporting their effort levels,” wrote study authors Roni A. Neff, Marie L. Spiker and Patricia L. Truant in the report.

How to reduce your waste
The good news is that you can take steps to reduce the amount of food you waste — and still save money by clipping coupons, cooking at home, scanning sales and buying food in bulk.

The key is to spend more time planning your meals, sticking to a shopping list and keeping a close eye on what you bought. If you find an item on sale, make sure you have a plan for how you’ll use it — and don’t buy bigger packages if you don’t think you can swiftly use them up.

Rather than buy a whole lot once or twice a month, you may also want to visit the store more frequently and buy only what you’ll cook that week.

If you spot a sale for more produce or meat than you can quickly use, go ahead and freeze it. Separating the meat and packaging it individually can also help reduce waste by ensuring that you only cook what you’ll eat that week.

“Fortunately, most of the factors that lead to food waste can be easily remedied by simple changes in food buying, preparing and storing,” noted researcher Gustavo Porpino in a news release.

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