For many people, the grocery bill is one of the largest flexible budget items. Everyone needs food and water to survive, but after meeting this basic necessity there is a lot of flexibility in the amount of money that is spent on groceries.

The type and quality of food purchased is also a very subjective matter. Some people believe strongly in eating only organic foods, others use only high quality meats and dairy products, and yet others prefer prepared meals. These choices are personal and often of high value to individuals; yet have a major impact on the amount of money spent.

Regardless of your personal food preferences, there are several strategies you can use to maintain control of your grocery expenses.

  1. Prepare: Decide in advance what you want to eat for an entire week at a time. Plan your breakfast, lunch and dinners and make a list for only the ingredients necessary to prepare those meals. Preparing also means going to the grocery store on a full stomach. Grocery shopping while hungry is certain to lead to impulse purchases.
  2. Focus: Stick to the aisles you need. Don't walk each aisle looking for things you might need.  You made a list. You know exactly what you need. Stick to it. Think about passing up on those free samples they are offering. Those serve one purpose, to activate your appetite. Like shopping on an empty stomach, an activated appetite is certain to lead to extras finding their way into your cart.
  3. Track: Most importantly, keep track of your costs as you shop. If you know your budget in advance, you can watch the total cost increase and approach your budget as you shop. You'll notice expenses that were easy to overlook when not tracking. You'll feel the money being spent as you proceed. It will help you stick to your list, or even remove luxury items if you exceed your budget. And with current smartphone technology, it's easy to track your costs. There are many shopping calculators both for iOS and Android that allow you to quickly enter the cost and amount purchased, and provide you a running total.
  4. Coupons: Coupons can be a dual-edged sword. Using coupons appropriately can unquestionably lead to lower grocery expenses. But coupons can also lead to impulse purchases and a loss of control while grocery shopping. Make your grocery list first, and then look for coupons that you can use for items on your list. Don't let coupons dictate your purchases. Use coupons to minimize the expense of the purchases you already planned to make.
  5. Use cash: Cash gives you a natural barrier. If you bring cash and no others forms of payment, you've created a hard limit on the amount you can spend. If you go over budget, you have no choice but to eliminate some purchases. There is no easier way to control your grocery spending than by using cash and creating a hard limit.

It is very easy to spend more than expected on groceries. Grocery stores are designed to compel you to make impulse purchases. The packaging of products is intended to get you to purchase things you don't need. The placement of sale items and requirements to use a coupon are intended to make you buy something you did not plan to buy.

By following the strategies outlined above, you can navigate the grocery store maze. Be prepared and focused. By tracking your spending and using cash, you can remain in control and on budget.

FPA member Nathan Gehring, CFP®, provides financial planning services to young individuals and couples at My First Financial Planner, a service of Conceptual Investment Advisors, Inc.

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