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Whenever you walk into a supermarket or restaurant, you’re entering an atmosphere that’s designed to make you spend more money than you had planned.
Because staples like milk and eggs are placed at the rear of grocery stores, customers are forced to walk past enticing food displays. By moving various goods to new locations periodically, stores force consumers to hunt for the products they need. That keeps them in the store longer and leads to more purchases.
Restaurants also have tactics to increase food sales. Menu placement draws attention to the most expensive items. A study released in 2010 found that background music can put diners in a good mood that leads them to become repeat customers.
Saving money when you buy food takes effort, but not as much as you might imagine. What follows are 27 tips for reducing your food costs in grocery stores and restaurants.
1. Avoid designer coffee
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You’ll spend more than $1,000 per year if you drop $5 on coffee on weekdays. Many workplaces offer free coffee to employees. Rather than making the trek to Starbucks or other designer-drink shops, stick to the brew in your office. It may not be as tasty as fresh espresso latte, but at the end of the year you’ll have extra money in your bank account.
2. Plan your meals
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You can easily slash $10 or more off your weekly grocery bill if you carefully plan out your meals and buy only what you require to meet your needs. Also, don’t be afraid to visit more than one store so you can comparison shop for the very best bargains. Go where the best prices are, including the places that sell day-old bread and discount wines.
3. Buy only what you need
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One of the best ways to save money on food is to buy only what you need. You can do this by planning your meals ahead of time and being realistic about what you can use. A bargain price on bulk food isn’t a bargain if half of it spoils before you can eat it. Check your refrigerator before you head to the supermarket to make sure you’re not buying things you already have. Remember to move older food to the front of the refrigerator so it won’t be overlooked.
While we’re on the subject, check out: “16 Simple Tips to Organize Your Refrigerator and Save Money.”
4. Don’t shop when you’re hungry
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If you shop for groceries when you’re hungry, everything will look good and you’ll wind up buying more food than you intended. You’re also more likely to buy high-calorie junk food when your stomach is growling. Always try to get in a snack before you leave home. That way you won’t be tempted to buy too much. This approach may help your waistline too. A 2013 study found that hungry people chose more high-calorie foods than those who ate just before shopping.
5. Start a vegetable garden
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Gardening is fun. Growing your own food will give you a sense of pride and it can mean making fewer trips to the fresh produce section of the grocery store. According to the Michigan State University Extension, you should grow items that are expensive to buy — such as tomatoes and melons — and the items you buy most often. Vegetables that provide the biggest return on your investment of time and garden space include beans, beets, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peas, peppers, lettuce and spinach.
6. Take home your restaurant leftovers
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You’ll be wasting money if you walk away from your restaurant table with edible food still on your plate. Take the time to ask your waiter or waitress to put the food into a take-out container so you can bring it home. Even if you end up feeding it to your dog, you’ll know that the food wasn’t wasted.
7. Be wary of the middle shelves
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Supermarkets often place the most expensive food where it is most likely to be found by shoppers. Because of this, you need to compare prices carefully before you drop items into your shopping cart. Be especially careful of food you find on the easy-to-reach middle shelves of supermarket aisles. Also, be aware that prominent food displays at the end of aisles don’t always feature bargains.
8. Beware of free samples
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Everyone loves to sample free food at the grocery store. If you doubt this, just watch the shoppers flock when desserts and baked goods are set out for customers to try. It’s fine to sample! But remember that these displays are there to slow you down and influence your purchase decisions. Make sure you’re not buying food you don’t really want or need.
9. Pack a lunch when you go to work
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How much do you spend each time you each lunch out? If you can visit a restaurant for less than $10 dollars, you’re doing well. Why not save that money and pack your own lunch? You should be able to cut your costs in half. Once you get accustomed to packing food for yourself each day, it takes very little time. A savings of more than $2,000 per year on weekday meals should make the time it takes well worth the effort.
10. Stop eating out so often
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The best cure for restaurant price shock is not to eat out so often. Yes, sometimes it’s a pain to prepare your own meal after a long and difficult day, but think about how much money you’ll be saving each week if you utilize your own kitchen. The meals you make yourself generally are less expensive and are healthier. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average household spends about $3,000 each year dining out. That’s more than $50 each week that you could be saving or spending on something else.
If you must eat out, study up: “7 Surefire Ways to Save on Your Next Restaurant Meal.”
11. Become a vegetarian (or just eat less meat)
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Meat is one of the most expensive items at the grocery store. You can eliminate this expense if you are willing to become a vegetarian or simply reduce your meat intake and increase your consumption of vegetables. To see if this can work for you, try skipping meat a few days each week. In addition to saving money, you’ll be doing the planet a favor. According to a National Geographic report, in the United States the raising of livestock is responsible for 55 percent of land erosion, 37 percent of use of pesticides and 50 percent of antibiotics consumption.
12. Make a list before you buy groceries
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Have you ever wondered why supermarkets keep moving their food to new locations? That keeps you in the store longer as you search for the items you came to buy. The longer you stay, the more things you’ll see and possibly buy. Make a grocery list before you go shopping and try to stick to it. Don’t allow tempting displays to change your shopping plan.
13. Find stores that match prices
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If you don’t have time to drive to multiple stores to shop for the best prices, you may be able to find supermarkets that match the prices of other grocers. Some retailers will match all their rivals’ weekly food advertisements. Others will match prices only of certain stores. If you shop this way, you won’t have to spend as much money on gasoline as you drive from store to store looking for bargains. If you’re not sure if your local grocery store will match prices, don’t be afraid to ask.
14. Pay attention to food dates
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One way consumers frequently lose money is allowing food to spoil before it is eaten. That’s why it’s important to pay close attention to food expiration dates whenever you’re shopping. If you think there’s a good chance that you won’t finish a product before it’s no longer fit to eat, don’t buy it.
15. Don’t choose only brand-name items
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Brand loyalty can be an expensive habit. There’s a comfort in buying familiar, well-known brands, but it’s a practice that will cost you money. Many stores offer much cheaper versions of popular food products under their own brands. If you check the ingredients, they typically are very similar. Sometimes store brands are manufactured by the same companies that make major brand products. The main difference is price.
16. Leave your children home when you shop
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You may enjoy the social interaction of having your children with you when you shop, but there’s a hidden danger. While you’re preoccupied with reading ingredients or comparing prices, your little companions may be putting things into your shopping cart. These products may not reflect the best bargains the store has to offer. If you don’t notice this until you’re at the checkout stand, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. Next time leave the kids home or make a rule that only you can make food selections.
17. Don’t forget to bring your own grocery bags
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Some local laws require grocery stores to charge you for bags. The idea is to convince consumers to recycle. By reusing paper and plastic bags, you’re helping the environment. You’re also saving money by not paying a small fee for each bag you purchase at the checkout counter. You may only save a quarter or 50 cents per visit by bringing your own bags, but this can add up to $25 or more over the course of a year.
18. Dine out for lunch rather than dinner
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If you’re tempted to eat at an expensive restaurant, you likely will find a better bargain if you’re willing to go for lunch instead of dinner. One reason restaurant prices often are cheaper at lunchtime is that people tend to eat dinner at a more leisurely pace. That means they spend additional time at tables, enabling fewer patrons to dine. To make up for this, dinner prices may be higher. In contrast, people often are in a hurry during lunch. Restaurants can charge less because of the higher turnover.
19. Sign up for supermarket reward cards
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Supermarket prices often are cheaper for people who sign up for reward cards. These cards increase customer loyalty and help supermarkets track what people are buying. Rewards programs typically are free. The cards easily can be swiped at checkout, just like credit cards. There may be added benefits, such as gasoline discounts. Just be sure that having a card doesn’t lead you to buy more food than you planned to get added rewards.
Also, if you have not already done so, move into the age of digital coupons. Learn all about how to do that here.
20. Take advantage of restaurant “early bird” specials
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You can drastically reduce the amount of your restaurant bills if you don’t mind eating your dinner a bit early. Many eateries have “early bird specials” that offer meals at a discount. The purpose is to attract frugal customers at a time when restaurants normally have little traffic. Often the early-bird menu has a more limited selection than the regular menu. The timing for early-bird meals varies from restaurant to restaurant, so check ahead.
21. Use a smaller shopping cart
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Many supermarkets now offer small shopping carts for people who don’t plan to purchase a great deal of food. In addition to offering better maneuverability through narrow aisles, these carts make it less likely that you’ll buy more food than you intended. You’ll be more likely to choose between what you want and what you really need. The reward is that your wallet will contain more cash when you leave the store.
22. Commit to a healthy diet
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Buying healthy food isn’t just good for you. It’s actually cheaper, according to a report from WebMD. You’ll get a better return on the dollar because you’ll be getting more nutrition and satisfying your hunger. For example, sodas have very little nutritional value. A healthier choice is fruit juice or plain water. If you have a sweet tooth, you can substitute fruit for cookies and ice cream, which taste great but aren’t good for you.
23. Keep track of food prices
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Knowledge is power when you go to the supermarket. When people see something on sale, their impulse may be to buy it without first determining if it’s truly a bargain. Some items on sale actually cost more than other comparable products. One way to recognize a good deal is to keep track of prices for the foods you purchase regularly. That way you’ll immediately know when something on sale is really worth buying.
24. Research restaurants in advance
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Have you ever opened a restaurant menu and got a sinking feeling as you realized the prices were more than you could afford or were willing to pay? You can avoid this simply by asking to see a menu before you’re seated, but a better approach is to research eateries online before you choose a place to dine. You often can see menus on restaurant websites. You also can check out review websites, such as Yelp, to see what kinds of experiences other diners have had. In addition to offering star ratings based on customer reviews, Yelp will tell you if the establishment is right for your budget.
25. Check grocery store ads
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Supermarkets typically distribute weekly food advertisements through the mail or newspapers. They also display stacks of grocery ads at their entrances. You can save money if you read these ads and use them to plan your meals each week. For example, if beef is on sale you can plan several meals using beef recipes. When something you use often is on sale, you can stock up while prices are low.
26. Make a weekly food budget and stick to it
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If you make a weekly budget and resolve not to exceed it, you’ll be forced to shop for food items that you can afford. You’ll be surprised how creative you can be with recipes once you’ve limited the amount of money you can spend at the supermarket. Your budget will force you to look harder for bargains and opportunities to save money. For example, bargain hunters shop for meat later in the day, when stores mark down items that must be sold before they hit their “sell by” dates.
27. Split a restaurant meal
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Restaurants often serve you larger portions than you can comfortably eat during a single meal. Instead of taking home your leftovers, another option is to split an entree with a friend. This approach to dining can cut your costs in half. If you ask your waitress or waiter for an extra plate, you can divide the food yourself at your table. If the single entree isn’t quite enough to satisfy two appetites, each of you can order a small side dish, such as soup or a salad.
Do you have tips for saving on food? Share them in comments below or on our Facebook page.