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Managing your food budget 2004-11-06

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Money.
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‘When I tell people that my food budget has remained pretty much the same for five years, they look at me with incredulity. A lady even asked me, part humorously and part seriously, if I accomplished this by eating most of my meals at my friends’ homes instead of my own.

I keep my food costs consistent by being flexible in the way I shop and the food I buy. These skills have enabled me to expand the buying power of my money during my weekly shop, although the price of food has gone up. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I set a fixed amount of money that I will spend for the whole week. This includes what I spend on takeaways and at restaurants when I eat out with friends two or three nights each week. I do not enjoy takeaway food that much, so it is an expense easy to control.Having dinner at restaurants with friends of different financial means is a bit trickier. I am quite open and direct (as my friends are with me) about the amount I want to spend on each of our evenings out. I find these limits spur my friends’ creativity, rather than evoke their judgment. Over the years, we have developed a list of approximately 20 tried, true and consistently good, inexpensive restaurants where we eat.Sometime we do choose to eat at a more expensive restaurant. In this situation, we frequently agree to pay for each of our own meals. To keep within my budget, I order two appetisers and one glass of wine. I almost always leave the restaurant with my gustatory and financial senses satisfied.
  2. I shop at the supermarket with a written list and with cash – or a cash attitude (I say cash attitude because I use my credit card for the weekly shop so that I earn the air miles I love accumulating).When making my list, I think through the meals I’m likely to make during the week. I then set a fixed amount that I will spend and never go over it (in the past, I would only take the exact amount I planned to spend).I keep a running total of the items in my shopping trolley as I go along.

    If the total goes over my limit, I either remove whatever item or items I would probably end up throwing out at the end of the week, therefore wasting money, or rethink the meals I would be making that week.
  3. I take advantage of seasonal special offers. When crops are in season and there is an abundance of them, prices tend to be lower at farmers’ markets (where I buy fresh produce). Take advantage of these seasonal offers (friends joke that this is the northern Florida farm boy part of my background coming through).During the lovely autumn in New York, I enjoyed the wonderful, freshly-picked crops of organic apples and pears, sprouts, parsnips, carrots and swedes. My diet changes with the seasons and I constantly try to be experimental in the foods I eat and the ways I cook them, thanks to Nigella and Jamie.
  4. I buy different items at different supermarkets. Over the years, I have noticed there is significantly different pricing on certain items. For example, one store always has my favourite canned soups on special offer. It is usually 20-30 per cent cheaper than the other stores. I know which stores have the better values and buy those items only at those stores. I also keep my eyes open for any price competition on the items I buy regularly.
  5. I buy wines for my house that cost less than 5.50 GBP/ 8.00 EUR per bottle . This idea is not mine, but one I borrowed from a friend who is beverage manager at a famous New York restaurant. The challenge of finding a really good wine at this low price has proved interesting. I’m not sure all of the wine merchants I deal with like it, although I invariably buy a case or two of a particularly good wine. Over the five years, I’ve seen no reason to increase the amount I spend on my “house wine”. Good and reasonably-priced wines are always coming to the market. My challenge is to find them; that’s the fun part.

Food costs are one of the biggest expenses of most households, mostly because people buy lots of high-cost convenience foods. It’s that old battle of time versus the budget.

Ironically, food costs are also among the most controllable, if you are willing to do a little planning. Like most people, I love good food and wine. But for my day-to-day life, which has lots of time pressures and demands, I like food that is simple, easy to prepare, nourishing and reasonably priced.’.

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