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Four Ways to Put Your Diet on A Budget

What do grocery bills and bathroom scales have in common? These days, they’re likely to make us gasp. Both are going up rapidly. And it’s costing Americans a fortune.

According to the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the average monthly cost for a low-cost meal plan for a family of four in the United States is $786; the liberal food plan rings in at $1,195 per month. With health care costs (insurance premiums, doctor bills, prescriptions) rising at twice the rate of inflation, shopping smart can cut both bills.

Plan to Be Healthy, Wealthy and Wise

Taking the time to meal plan can save you hundreds of dollars and calories. Why? Because without a plan, you end up with food, but no meals. Or you rely on expensive, often unhealthy prepackaged items.

Build around what you already have. It’s easy to forget what’s lurking in your pantry or freezer. Use healthy cooking websites (like www.CookingLight.com) for healthy meal ideas and plan your week. Then plan your shopping trips. Impulse shopping can lead to impulse buying.

Work the System

Grocery stores are designed to overload your senses and entice you toward higher cost items. That’s why the highest priced items are generally stocked at eye level. So go in with a plan, and look high and low for savings!

Clipping coupons has gone high tech. Numerous websites match coupons with in-store deals to maximize savings or offer hundreds of manufacturer coupons to print (www.coupons.com). Just remember to use them!

Go Big or Go Broke

Think about shopping for non-perishable items in monthly cycles, not weekly ones. Stock up on items such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies or toiletries when they’re on sale.

Bulk bins at the natural or whole food store can save you a ton. Since items are usually sold by weight, light-but-normally-pricey items can be inexpensive. Spices, tea, grains, pasta, dried fruit and nuts can all be found in these departments.

But bigger isn’t always better. Be sure to compare unit pricing, which is usually on the shelf sticker below the product. That will help you make sure you’re comparing apples-to-apples when you’re comparing sizes or products.

Keep It Local

The best kept secret for savings (and health) may be in your own neighborhood. Farmer’s markets can provide produce of superior nutrition, taste and quality — and because they’re local, a lower price tag.

Make friends with local ranchers, too. Meat is often one of the biggest expenses on your grocery bill. Buying beef in bulk (such as a quarter beef) can save you a lot. You can go in with some friends if you’re concerned about storage space. Your local butcher may be able to save you money on other meats, too. Look online for local ranchers and butchers, or ask around at the farmer’s market.

You can take control of your grocery bills. With a little planning, discipline and time, you’ll save money and calories — which improves all your bottom lines.

Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.