smart spending

5 big bills you can cut fast

2. Food and groceries 
Americans spend an average of $6,111 a year on food, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Consumer Expenditure Survey. But with prices rising quickly, food is taking an increasingly bigger bite out of our budgets.

How can you save on something so fundamental? It's actually not difficult. A family of four can slash $240 from its monthly food budget by switching from pricey meals to lower-cost options, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The key is to embrace culinary change rather than fearing it.

"We can't be doing the same thing the same old way," says Sheryl Garrett, author of the "Personal Finance Workbook for Dummies."

Store shelves are crammed with relatively expensive prepackaged convenience foods designed to save time, Garrett says.

"But what we need to do is try to remember two simple words: whole foods," she says. "Instead of buying prepared, frozen, twice-baked potatoes, buy a real live whole potato. It costs a fraction of the price, pennies per pound. And it probably even tastes better."

Here are some ideas for saving at the supermarket:

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  • Buy food less frequently. If you're running to the market before dinner each night, it's time to quit. Instead, think about what you want to eat for the next few days, and buy groceries at once. You'll save money, time and gas.
  • Use a shopping list. A full two-thirds of purchases at grocery stores are impulse buys, according to Paco Underhill, CEO and founder of Envirosell, a market research and consulting company. To reduce that temptation, make a shopping list and stick to it.
  • Pay with cash. You'll be more likely to stick to your shopping list.
  • Stick to the perimeters of the supermarket. That's where you'll find all the unprocessed basics you need -- dairy products, meats, bread -- while avoiding inner aisles brimming with tempting, processed foods that drain budgets.
  • Buy in season. Craving strawberries in January? You'll pay top dollar. With that in mind, make it a habit to eat seasonable, locally grown produce. Guard against cravings by canning or freezing fresh items so you can enjoy those berries any time of year.
  • Cook cheaper meals. Instead of serving huge portions of meat, use it to supplement larger portions of rice or pasta in affordable casseroles. For other low-cost ideas, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals."

For more tips on cutting your grocery bill, check out the Bankrate feature "32 ways to save on groceries."

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