Let's face it. There are some things we can do without -- fancy clothes, long car trips, magazines, movies, even television.
Besides shelter and the basic utilities, the only thing that's really necessary is food.
Here are a few pointers that can help cut costs. Before you go to market:
* Check your supplies. Open your cupboards, refrigerator and freezer to see what you already have on hand and how the foods you do have can be used for future meals. If you have very limited resources, try to keep your major shopping trips to two per month. The fewer the trips, the more you will save.
* Know the supermarket prices. Become familiar with the "regular" prices at the markets near you. This is the only way to make price comparisons. Then check newspapers, fliers and circulars for what's being advertised. Are the items on sale really on sale? Are the eight cans of soup for $2 really a bargain when you know that one market regularly sells the soup for 21 cents a can?
Watch for what the trade calls loss leaders. These are items designed to bring you into the market to begin with. Take advantage of these items, but remind yourself that when you get to the store you may need to resist buying compatible foods. For instance, spaghetti may be on sale, but the spaghetti sauce displayed next to the bargain boxes may be more than you would normally pay. Beware of coupons for new products with fancy packaging -- say, a frozen vegetable with an exotic sauce -- as the general rule is, the more a food is processed, the more elaborate the package and the higher the price. A few cents off generally is no bargain. Neither is picking up a couponed item that you and your family don't like.
* Know your market or markets. If you enjoy the shopping game and have the time to shop in more than one market, fine. Just be sure that the extra trip is worth the cost of getting there.
The most important thing is to memorize the layout of each store you plan to visit. You want to case the joint mentally. Then:
* Make a shopping list. Put down only items you know you need and can use. List the items according to the path you will take in the market, being sure that refrigerated and frozen items are last on your list so that you can get them home and rechilled as quickly as possible. Try not to backtrack on any one aisle, as backtracking can lead to impulse buying of foods not on your list. Vow to stick to your list. Once your list is complete, put a star or asterisk by those items you have coupons for. Either clip the coupons to the list or put them in an envelope.
* Eat! Never go to market on an empty stomach. The hungrier the shopper, the more likely he or she is to buy items on impulse. Remember, the key is to stick to the list.
* Choose -- and prime -- your shopping companions carefully. Ideally, shop by yourself. If you have youngsters and cannot leave them at home, be sure they contribute to the game plan. Even toddlers can help at times. Let them open cupboards to check your inventory; older children can clip coupons and/or make suggestions for the list. Be sure they know you must buy only those things on the list. Don't let them fall prey to the kid-oriented items that are apt to be at their eye level -- fancy cereals, candy and such. Also, where children have the capacity to be critical, let them know that shopping can be more than trading off money for food. For instance, buying a store or generic brand could save money to go into a fund for a new article of clothing the child wants or needs.
At the market:
* Don't rush, but don't dawdle either. If you are rushed, chances are you won't take time to check prices or labels carefully. Is the giant-size box really more of a bargain than the family-size box? Check the unit pricing, then select the better buy -- but only if you can use that size within a comfortable period of time. A huge box of cereal will not save you money if you are a single person and cannot finish it before it goes stale.
* Buy produce and meat or protein products first. These account for the biggest portion of your food budget. Check to see if you might do better buying some meat alternatives such as eggs, cheese, dried beans, peas or peanut butter. Could you stretch the meat dollar by combining smaller amounts of meat with vitamin-rich vegetables including potatoes, as well as rice or macaroni products?
* Watch for unadvertised specials. Occasionally you will find specials on foods that weren't in the newspapers or circulars you checked before making your list. If you can incorporate them into your menu plans easily, if they will help you stretch your food dollar, go for it.
Also, at this time of year there are apt to be end-of-the-growing-season specials that you can use now and in the months ahead. But, again, be sensible. A one- or two-person household would be hard put to use a 100-pound bag of onions or potatoes.
* Buy store or generic brands. Unless a specific brand will really make a difference, take advantage of store or generic brands, which generally are less expensive. Often their quality and taste are quite comparable to their name counterparts.
* Think of the environment for double savings. The fancier any kind of package -- the more it is wrapped and overwrapped -- the higher the cost economically and environmentally.
Also, put cleaning, paper and miscellaneous products last on your list. They may not be food, but more than any other items they can account for a large portion of your supermarket bill.