Obviously, we all need to eat! The typical American spends 13% of their total expenses on food. See here https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/CostofFoodJan2017.pdf for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s four food budget plans, which they label as Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate and Liberal, and which serve as a basis for decisions about government food assistance etc.
If you think you are spending too much on food, try tracking everything you spend on groceries and eating out for a month, then work out how much it is as a percentage of all of your expenses. If you are spending more than 20% on food, try to cut back. Read on for ideas that might help.
EATING IN VS. EATING OUT
It can be tempting to eat out when you are too busy to cook or shop, or just as an opportunity to socialize but it’s almost always cheaper to cook at home than to eat out. This Canadian website http://canadianbudgetbinder.com/2012/02/25/eating-out-vs-eating-in-the-comparison/ shows that for the cost of a single meal (at a mid-priced family restaurant) you could pay for several meals at home.
But everyone wants to eat out once in a while. See below for advice on how to spend less when you do:
- Compare menus online before you go out so you can choose an affordable place. Consider taking cash only, limiting yourself to the amount you’ll be comfortable spending (don’t forget to include an extra 15-20% for the service charge).
- When dining out with others, share your food (ask for an extra plate and a cup). Sharing charges are rarely applied (but check first).
- Specials or combination plates which include extras (e.g. soup or salad) can be a bargain
- Most fast food restaurants have low-cost value menus items including healthy options like salads for $1-2. Rather than buying bottled ask for tap water which is very safe in this region (http://www.rwater.com/water-quality). You may only get a small cup but you can always ask for more.
- Finally, remember that the less often you dine out, the more you can spend each time you do with the same money! Why not put some money aside every day or week, then treat yourself at the end of the month with whatever you have managed to save?
GROCERY SHOPPING TIPS
The Consumer Reports Grocery Store and Supermarket Buying Guide (www.consumerreports.org/cro/grocery-stores-supermarkets/buying-guide.htm) and U.S. News and World Report (http://money.usnews.com/money/personal-finance/slideshows/12-ways-to-save-money-on-food?slide=8) have several useful tips, which are summarized and elaborated on below.
- Prepare a monthly and weekly food budget in advance, and keep checking to see if you are sticking to it.
- Make a shopping list before you leave home, and stick to it. Keep the list somewhere convenient (such as on your fridge) and add to it as you notice things you need.
- Eat a snack before you shop so you aren’t shopping on an empty stomach.
- Use coupons, which can be found online, with apps on a smartphone, in store circulars and mail. Manufacturer’s coupons can often be combined with retailer’s coupons for added savings. When looking online for coupons, search for brands you want and add the word “coupon” afterwards. For a guide to shopping with coupons see http://www.howcast.com/guides/1077-how-to-use-coupons/.
- Use loyalty or bonus card programs.
- Buy store brands. You could save up to $20 savings on a single grocery trip even when name brand items are on sale. Store brands are sometimes produced by manufacturers of name brand items (as a means of generating volume sales at lower price points) and may be identical to those branded items. Others are produced by private label manufacturers and are comparable if not identical to the name brand items (https://www.quora.com/Where-do-store-brand-and-generic-foods-come-from)
- Shop online. Leading providers include Amazon Fresh, Peapod (by Stop& Shop in this area), and Fresh Direct. Some stores allow customers to order online or by smart phone and pick up groceries or have them delivered (for a fee). Shoprite is the only supermarket in the area that accepts EBT cards for online/phone purchases (for 06513/Fair Haven zipcode only as of this writing). The delivery charge might be cheaper than taking a taxi home from the supermarket. You can also pool your resources and place one order for several people.
- Compare prices, and shop at different stores for different items. Favado, an app created by Savings.com, will tell you about items on sale from different stores, and whether manufacturer’s or retailer’s coupons are available. Remember that the unit price of an item is key to comparing the cost of one purchase vs. another. For help understanding shelf tags which list unit prices see www.cleverlysimple.com/three-money-saving-clues-on-a-grocery-shelf-tag/.
- Look for clearance items.
- Shop seasonally. Fresh food that is grown, caught or prepared during the season you are buying it tends to be cheaper than when you are buying out of season. For further information consult https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/seasonal-produce-guide.
- Consider joining a wholesale club such as Sam’s Club, BJ’s and Costco which charge an annual membership fee, but provide deep discounts.
- Small local markets have some advantages, including convenience and your knowing the owner, who may extend credit to you (which you should only do when necessary and in small amounts). Prices are generally higher so you may want to consider only making small purchases to supplement your larger food purchases (e.g. if you are out of milk).
BUYING IN BULK
Buying in bulk means buying in large quantities. The more you buy of an item at once, the lower the unit price. For example, a 12 oz. can of soda purchased singly may cost $1.00, whereas if you buy a 12 pack of the same soda you’d probably pay only 40 cents per can.
It can be difficult for some people to buy in bulk as you need to pay more money upfront. If you get paid weekly or biweekly, shop when you get paid, and on each shopping trip choose a few things to buy in bulk, so you don’t have to do it all at once. Spreading your bulk purchases through the month can also help if you don’t have a car, so can’t buy a large amount of groceries at one time.
Beware of buying perishable items in bulk. Only do it if you are going to eat what you buy before it spoils or if you can freeze or can it.
Buying clubs like Sams Club, B.J’s or Costco sell bulk items very cheaply, but you can also buy in bulk from discount supermarkets, such as Aldi’s, Save-A-Lot, Pricerite, and Walmart.
Join or start a food cooperatives and food buying clubs, which is a group of individuals and families who order collectively to save money. See here www.assocbuyers.com/ordering.asp?cid=6 for more information. You can do this informally by getting together with friends or family to buy in bulk items, split the items and share the cost.
Natural food stores often sell grains, nuts, dried fruit, flour and other items loose. You can buy exactly the amount you want, and it can be cheaper than buying them ready-packed.
Cityseed runs farmer’s markets in New Haven selling produce and other goods from local farms. Details on locations and times of these markets (Wooster Square, Downtown, Fair Haven, Edgewood Park, Mobile Market and Winter Market) are available at http://cityseed.org/farmers-market/ (scroll down for information about each market).
Farmer’s markets accept WIC and SNAP (food stamps). Cityseed offers double value for SNAP at all of its markets for snap eligible products, matching up to $10 per day in purchases.
GROWING YOUR OWN FOOD
Save money by growing your own food. A well-maintained 4-foot by 8-foot garden can produce $600 in food savings over a single summer. One $1.50 pepper plant or packet of tomato seeds can produce anywhere from six to 100 times the amount of produce for the same amount of money spent at the grocery store. Even better, herbs such as parsley can grow like weeds in pots by the kitchen window, providing a year-round supply of flavor for the same price you'd pay for a single packet of fresh herbs in the produce aislehttp://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/budgeting/how-much-save-growing-food-at-home1.htm). You can also grow vegetables such as tomatoes in pots, if you don’t have yard space.
If you are worried about soil contamination, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has a soil testing program where you can submit samples to be evaluated (http://www.ct.gov/caes/cwp/view.asp?a=2836&q=378202). You can build raised beds and purchase soil to avoid using the soil in your yard, and build a fence to keep out animals. If you’re planning on keeping hens in your backyard, be aware that there is a New Haven ordinance limiting you to a maximum of six. For a guide to keeping chickens in your backyard which references the ordinance see http://www.ctnofa.org/documents/Chicken%20Manual.pdf.
There are many community gardens in New Haven, maintained by the New Haven Land Trust. The Land Trust provides gardeners with topsoil, compost, water access, seedlings and seeds when available. Initial instruction, assistance, and materials are provided as well. Anyone who starts a garden is asked to make a small donation ($5-$25) to help cover costs. )
To apply for a plot in one of New Haven’s community gardens or to create a new community garden in your neighborhood, click on this link http://www.newhavenlandtrust.org/garden/plot-request, contact the New Haven Land Trust at 203-562-6655 or email email@example.com.
NEW HAVEN FARMS
New Haven Farms http://www.newhavenfarms.org/ is a non-profit organization that promotes health and community development through urban agriculture.
Patients of Fair Haven Community Health Center, Cornell Scott Hill Health Center, or Yale Primary Care may be eligible for New Haven Farm’s Farm Based Wellness Program. To qualify, you must have two risk factors for chronic diet related disease and fall within 200% of the Federal poverty line. Qualified participants enroll in a 16-week program including weekly 2-hour classes where they receive cooking, nutrition and garden education and a basket of organic produce as well as recipes and weekly health goals. This program is offered in Spanish and English, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings June through September. Participants are encouraged to bring their children to the program. Qualified families pay a one-time fee of five dollars for the season. Ask your clinician if you qualify!
New Haven Farms also offers a Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) program for $800 or $425 for full and half shares respectively. This includes a donation to our other programs that support low income families with healthy foods. Payment plans are available. Slots fill up quickly but check back regularly to see if there are spaces. Families paying for a full share receive around $35 worth of produce per week; those in the half-share receive around $17.5 worth.
New Haven Farms’ Farm stand runs Saturdays 9-12 at 613 Ferry Street from June through October. SNAP, Farmers Market Nutrition Program checks and WIC checks are accepted and DOUBLED! Saturday Mornings are also an Open Farm Time - anyone is welcome to volunteer at the farm for the morning.
Free food can ease stresses on your budget while ensuring that you have the ‘fuel’ to function. To find free food see the Get Connected New Haven site (www.getconnectednewhaven.com/services/food/), or http://uwc.211ct.org/categorysearch/food/, or dial 2-1-1. You can also text 211 to 898211 to find soup kitchens nearest you).
Some food pantries are open to all New Haven residents. Others require proof of residence in a particular neighborhood and request proof of family. Others provide food to people with a particular condition (e.g. HIV +) or financial circumstance. You may be limited to visiting a food pantry a set number of times a week.
Free meals are served in soup kitchens, schools, senior centers and congregate housing, summer programs and other venues. Lunch is the meal most widely offered, but breakfast and dinner are available at some sites as well (see websites above).
Some non-profit organizations offer free meals to their clients and members, such as Fellowship Place, which provides support services for adults with mental illness (www.fellowshipplace.org, tel. 203-401-4227) and Columbus House’s homeless shelters (www.columbushouse.org/programs/shelter-services/, tel. 203-441-4400). You may qualify for meals and other services from these organizations which can be accessed through the general 2-1-1 or Get Connected New Haven sites or by calling 2-1-1.
Many religious congregations host food pantries and soup kitchens, not all of which are listed online and many of which are open to congregants and the general public alike.
There are many public events where you can avail yourselves of free food and beverages, often in the form of light refreshments at art openings in galleries which are open to the general public. These events are often listed in newspapers and magazines.
Many people gather with friends, family and colleagues to eat potluck dinners. Each person brings a dish to feed several people (not necessarily as many as are dining if it is a large group). The “luck” in potluck refers to the fact that nobody can predict exactly what will show up on the table though sometimes people sign up to bring in certain types of food or beverages. For a modest sum, you can prepare one dish (e.g. a salad) or bring some fruit or a beverage and be treated to an entire meal. Doing this once can be fun and making a habit of it can save you a significant amount of money.
You can find used kitchen equipment (blenders, microwaves, silverware, plates, bowls, tools for free or at a discount online at freecycle.org (must sign up for this website), craigslist.com and other sites. Tag and estate sales, or flea markets like the one on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard (www.fleact.com) are good places to get cheap items.
FOOD WASTE AND SPOILAGE
To avoid waste, (1) plan your meals and only buy the perishable items you need, (2) eat leftovers, (3) freeze or can items that would otherwise spoil and (4) compost if you have a gardens. See here for more ideas https://www.epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home). For information on canning, see canninghttp://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_home.htm.