Marianne McQuarrie sort of smiled at the question.
Have you found that you’ve needed to tighten up on your spending over the last few years, due to the economic slowdown?
“We’ve always tightened up,” McQuarrie said, noting that her mother grew up during the Great Depression and passed that understanding of the value of a dollar on to her daughter. “I try to use the bus [to get to work]. I really look at the [grocery store] fliers. You find ways to tighten.”
These techniques for stretching a dollar particularly a food dollar were on McQuarrie’s mind, because she had just participated in a Smart Shopping class on Oct. 24 at Lexington Park library and presented by Jane Kostenko, nutrition educator for the food supplement nutrition education program with the University of Maryland Extension, St. Mary’s County.
“It’s an enormous part of our everyday expenses,” Kostenko said, as she discussed the value of watching what you buy at the grocery store.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures cited by Kostenko, a family of four spends between $525 and $1,000 each month on groceries. “That’s $6,300 to $12,000 each year,” Kostenko said.
Just realizing the cost of the food bill is the first step to understanding the value of controlling that expense. “If you could save just $5 per week, you would have an extra $260 to spend at the end of the year,” Kostenko said. Cut back $20 a week, and you’ve saved more than $1,000 by the end of the year.
To illustrate how a simple change can make a big difference and even be more nutritious for a family, Kostenko referred to a large display she’d brought for the class that showed how much buying a drink from a vending machine every day can end up costing by the end of a year.
If a person buys one soda a day, they end up spending $580 a year and ingesting 87,000 calories. A juice drink is even more costly, adding up to $726 a year and 87,600 calories. If a person exchanges that habit for drinking a glass of tap water instead, Kostenko pointed out that the cost would be nil and there would be no calories ingested.
Kostenko spent two hours offering tips on how to get more food for a dollar and offering activities that demonstrated the value of those tips.
Know the price of something you buy frequently so you recognize when a store’s price is a good deal.
Read the grocery ads in the newspaper and plan meals around the advertised specials.
Keep a running shopping list of items you need so you will be more purposeful in your shopping.
Shop only once a week if you can.
Avoid shopping when you are hungry.
Use store brands or generic brands rather than national brands when possible.
Purchase larger sizes of items if you know you will be able to use them. Larger sizes are usually less expensive.
Pay attention to the unit pricing sticker on items when comparing the cost of different brands and different sizes of an item.
Plan at least one meal a week without meat because meat is expensive.
Avoid convenience foods and try to make us much as possible at home. Not only is that approach less expensive, but it is generally a more healthy way to feed a family.
Don’t buy more than you can eat.
Buy fruits and vegetables at a farmers market or roadside stand where you can often purchase foods that are both less expensive and fresher.
But Kostenko said the shopping list is key. “Studies show that making a shopping list and sticking to it is absolutely the easiest way to save money,” she said. “It truly, truly is a good way to rein in spending and make you more aware of what you are buying.”
Some of Kostenko’s tips were revelations to class participants. Some ideas, however, were already in use by the class. When Kostenko talked about using coupons, she was preaching to the choir. Corolito Monsiva said she does her food shopping once a month and she is a regular coupon user.
“It ranges, $20 to $25 a month,” Monsiva said she saves by clipping coupons. “The most I’ve saved is $85 ... But I’ve only done it once.”
Monsiva also pointed out that some stores allow customers to use both manufacturer coupons and store coupons at the same time, allowing for double savings.
Kostenko recommended coupons for frequently used items and when a coupon can lower an item’s cost even below a generic or house brand. But she noted that coupons do not always offer the best deal.
Kostenko also noted that signing up for frequent-shopping cards can be “an astounding way to save money,” she said. However, some people feel uncomfortable that the store might be tracking their purchases if they do that.
Funding limits where Kostenko can offer her Smart Shopping class. However, she recommends a University of Maryland Extension website on good nutrition at www.eatsmart.umd.edu or www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsavings for those who would like to learn more.