The call of the aisle: Flexibility helps fend off urge to overspend

March 02, 1994|By Rosemary Black | Rosemary Black,New York Daily News

Temptations beckon from every corner. Soft music and enticing aromas fill the air, and a white-coated salesman offers samples and a smile. Before you know it, you've done it again -- spent more than you should have and gotten less than you should have.

Sound like your favorite department store? Wrong. The scene -- acted out at least once a week for millions of Americans -- is your supermarket, where more than 10,000 items are competing for your food dollar.

Many shoppers still practice tried-and-true methods to cut back spending -- like clipping coupons and going with a list. (In fact, nearly half of all the consumers in a recent Food Marketing Institute survey say they use coupons.)

But the best route to saving money at the checkout counter may be the simplest and most sensible, from a health standpoint, experts say. Buy what's in season, and follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide pyramid, which emphasizes complex carbohydrates like grains and beans (read: cheap).

Stop serving "big hunks of meat at every meal," says Pat Edwards, author of "Cheap Eating: How to Feed Your Family Well and Spend Less" (Upper Access Books. $9.95). "Even a lifelong habit of sirloins can be broken if the alternatives taste good. Eat more rice and pasta and potatoes."

"Buy food in its 'original' form and you'll save money," says Amy Dacyczyn, author of "The Tightwad Gazette" (Villard Books. $9.99) and the monthly newsletter of the same name. Adds this mother of six: "I'm not convinced coupons save you money. People who use coupons tend to stress what they are saving, not what they're spending, and they buy more convenience foods because these are what coupons are issued for. You'd be better off changing your diet and eating meals made from scratch."

Finally, be flexible when you shop, advises Melanie Barnard, co-author of "Cheap Eats" (HarperPerennial, $9.95). "We've all been told to go to the store with a list. But the biggest mistake people make -- and this sounds like an old adage, but it's true -- is not to wing it at all. If your list says asparagus, and that's expensive, you have to be flexible enough to switch to another vegetable."

Resisting the siren call of the supermarket can be tough, especially for time-pressed shoppers who tend to rely heavily on convenience foods. But you don't have to be a slave to the kitchen to shrink your weekly food tab. Ms. Edwards, Ms. Dacyczyn and Ms. Barnard tell how.

Breakfast

* A 2-ounce serving of a popular pre-sweetened cereal cost 42 cents in a Tightwad Gazette survey. By comparison, a 2-ounce serving of oatmeal costs 15 cents, two pieces of French toast cost 8 cents, two homemade muffins cost 7 cents, and an egg with a slice of toast costs 11 cents.

* The worst choice of all? Frozen microwavable single-serving breakfasts, priced at $1.49 apiece in the Tightwad Gazette survey.

* The best cereals (from a price standpoint) are puffed wheat, puffed rice, store-brand cornflakes and store-brand oat circles. If you like them sweet, add your own sugar.

* Depending on whether it's generic or name-brand, pancake syrup costs $1.59 to $3.19 for a 24-ounce bottle, says Ms. Dacyczyn. So make your own in minutes for 80 cents a batch. Her recipe: Bring to a boil 3 cups granulated sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, 3 tablespoons molasses, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 teaspoons butter flavoring and 1 teaspoon maple extract. Stir until sugar dissolves, turn off heat, and leave pot on burner until bubbling stops.

Lunch

* Use leftover meat, vegetables and noodles to make a big pot of soup, and serve this instead of sandwiches made with cold cuts.

* When you do buy cold cuts at the deli counter, only buy what's on sale -- you'll save more than $1 per pound, in many instances. For sandwiches, use Swiss for provolone if it's on sale that week, or substitute sale-priced Alpine Lace for Muenster.

* Freeze odd bits of cheese and use them for tacos, omelets, lasagna and souffles.

* Don't buy processed blends of fruit juices, which cost more than other juices. Make your own lemonade from water, lemons and sugar.

Dinner

* Choose the tougher cuts of beef, such as flank, brisket and chuck. Braise or stew to tenderize.

* Only buy meat on loss-leader sales (advertised on front and back pages of the store's weekly fliers). These are the items stores actually take a loss on, hoping to lure you in to buy other items not on sale.

* Beware rice-plus-pasta mixes, and rice mixes. They're less nutritious than plain rice, and contain additives. Get in the habit of adding your own spices. A box of rice, an onion and a pinch of oregano costs slightly more than half what a box of "gourmet" rice mix costs, says Ms. Edwards.

Snacks

* Serve homemade popcorn instead of potato chips or cheese curls.

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