Money mensch: Save thousands on your food bill

By Martin Lewis, October 23, 2008
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Brits are facing a kitchen nightmare. Mammoth food-price inflation means the annual cost of feeding your family has increased by £750 in the past year and no end is in sight.

Yet, if you know what you're doing, it is possible to save thousands of pounds annually.

Just remember that a supermarket is a cathedral of consumerism.

Everything about the place is designed to improve its profitability by targeting our impulse to spend more money and buy more food.

A supermarket's job is to wrestle our cash from us

If you want to teach an eight-year-old how companies try to wrestle our money from us, take him into a supermarket. Show him the goods at eye level, which provide the supermarket with its best profit, and the sweets at the till that remind the child to ask the parent to buy them.

Yet you can win by turning these marketing techniques on their head. The powerhouse savings come from "downshifting". This is a technique I developed a number of years ago that has proved itself time and again.

Take the downshift challenge

My "Downshift Challenge" is designed to let you take advantage and save cash without noticing the difference.

When you go to a supermarket, you will normally find four brand levels. These are premium brand, like Tesco Finest; normal brand, like Heinz Spaghetti; the supermarket's own-brand; and basics or saver brands.

The challenge is to try buying each item at one brand lower than normal. So, if you buy top-of-the range ice-cream, try a brand name instead, or if you already buy the supermarket's own brand, choose basics.

The impact on your shopping bill is amazing. Having studied this using a sample of 400 goods, I found that the average cost reduction you will make by downshifting just one brand level is 33 per cent. On a family shop of £100 per week, it adds up to a saving of £1,700 a year.

Of course, if you are able to downshift more than one brand level, the savings are greater still.

Alternatively, you can downshift your supermarket. Places like Aldi and Lidl provide good-quality food at lower prices than the major chains.

Waste not, want not

The next big way to cut your food bill is to waste less. In the UK, each household throws away £600 worth of perfectly good food. This is food that could be eaten but is not. It's a mammoth amount of waste, yet there are easy ways to reduce it.

The first is using what I like to call a "two-dimensional piece of linear planning equipment", aka a shopping list.

The reason I give it a complicated name is that people cannot believe that doing something as simple as listing what you're going to buy before going shopping can save so much. By preparing a list, you're buying what you need, rather than allowing the supermarket to tempt you into buying items they want to sell.

Of course, the old adage "eat before you go" is also applicable. Never go food shopping on an empty stomach. It has been proven that if you are hungry you will buy more than if you are well-fed.

But if you really want to be in control of your shopping, then it is best to plan the menu before leaving home. Not just for one meal, but for all or most meals for a week or even a month in advance.

Another big way to avoid waste is to understand the food labels. There are four main pieces of information on food found in supermarkets. Two of them, "sell-by" and "display until", are completely irrelevant. They are there for supermarkets' benefit, not ours.

"Use by" means just that. If you do not eat it by the specified date, then throw it away because there are health risks if you eat food past that date. "Best before" is a guide from the manufacturer and simply means the product will be at optimum quality prior to this date. It does not mean there are health implications beyond that. Indeed, many tinned and frozen goods can be eaten months and possibly years after their "best before". So do not chuck it unnecessarily.

Quickly find the cheapest supermarket

For those who supermarket shop on the web, here is another tip. The website www.mysupermarket.co.uk allows you to compare online supermarkets. You simply list what you are planning to buy and the website will tell you which supermarket is the cheapest. It will also then link you directly to that store so you do not have to re-key your shopping list.

The same website also has a "Downshift Challenge" section based on my own theory, which will reveal how much you can save online by dropping a brand.

There are more savings to be had by using money-off coupons. In the States, shoppers often save £10-£20 a week using them. Over here they are not used as much, but perhaps now is the time for that to change.

There are hundreds of money-off coupons available on the internet. All you have to do is print them and take them to the supermarket.

If you go to www.moneysavingexpert.com/grocerycoupons, you will find a huge list. Do not despair if the coupons do not apply to goods you want. Many supermarkets will allow you to use them to reduce your total bill. For example, a coupon offering £1.50 off the price of dog food does not have to be used to buy dog food but the supermarket will still give you the discount.

However, this does not apply to every store and is at the discretion of the management. So it is vital to check first before presenting the coupons at the till.

    Last updated: 2:36pm, October 23 2008