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How to save money on groceries

Grocery shopping can take a huge bite out of the family budget, but there are some simple steps you can take to save hundreds on groceries.

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    A woman looks at produce at the Market Place grocery store in Beijing, China on June 26, 2011. Grocery shopping can take a huge bite out of the family budget, but a few changes to your shopping habits can add up to huge savings.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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Thrifty shopping may seem like a pain at first, but the savings can really add up. If you're used to a liberal spending plan, you might be able to save hundreds per month, just by eating at home more and shopping thrifty at the grocery store. Below, you'll find some realistic estimates of just you much you can save, and easy ways to do it.

1. Keep a Budget

According to the USDA, the average family of four can expect to spend around $606.20 per month with a thrifty spending plan, $786.50 with a low-cost plan, $977.80 with a moderate-cost plan, and $1,197.75 with a liberal plan. While $606.20 per month may seem low, the average low-cost plan budgets a more reasonable $786.50 per month. According to USA Today, the average family of four spends closer to $870 per month on groceries.

By just keeping a budget and maintaining a low-cost meal plan, your family can save up to $411.25 every month, compared to a family with a liberal spending plan. If you can stick to a budget of $786.50 per month for a family of four, then you're halfway to becoming a thrifty shopper.

2. Pack a Lunch

According to Forbes, when the average American eats out, they spend about $10 on lunch. However, Visa found that the average man spends about $21 per lunch and the average woman spends about $14 per lunch. Alternatively, packing a lunch costs about $3 per meal. This means that you can save at least $7 per lunch, Monday-Friday, or $140 per month. Imagine how much more you could save by eating breakfast and dinner at home, as well. Make eating out a special occasion and you'll see the savings pile up. (See also: 25 Quick, Cheap Lunch Ideas)

3. Stop Throwing Out Food

Any food that you throw out becomes the most expensive food in your kitchen. Unfortunately, Americans throw out more than 25% of the food and beverages they purchase, according to the EPA. Based on a study conducted by the University of Arizona, it was determined that the average American family of four throws out approximately $590 worth of food every year, which comes out to about $49.16 per month.

Find interesting ways to use your leftovers (such as healthy soups and smoothies) and you're on your way to less food waste. You can also find ways to better freeze and preserve your food (such as canning and pickling) so that nothing goes to waste.

4. Take Advantage of Credit Card Rewards

Every credit card is different, so your rewards program will depend on which card you have. For instance, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card offers 6% cash back on groceries. If your family is spending approximately $786.50 per month on groceries using a low-cost shopping plan, then you can earn $47.19 per month just by using your credit card to purchase groceries.

5. Stop Dining Out

Keep reminding yourself that every time you dine out, you are wasting money. For the simplest example, consider a pizza. At Pizza Hut, a large supreme stuffed-crust pizza costs $18.00, while the exact same pizza from DiGiorno costs $8.87. By making this swap just once per week, you'll save $36.52 per month. By cooking at home, you also won't need to worry about driving to get food or dealing with the crowds. Imagine the savings if you also took your lunch to work (rather than eating out) and swapped your morning coffee run with a cup brewed at home.

6. Go Vegetarian Twice a Week

According to Eating Well, one pound of sirloin costs $5.99, while a 14-ounce block of tofu only costs $1.96. By swapping meat for tofu or veggies only twice weekly, you'll save $8.06 per week and at least $32.24 per month.

7. Choose Cheaper Cuts of Meat

Eating Well also found that one pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts costs $4.99, while one pound of boneless, skinless chicken thighs costs $3.49. By making simple swaps like this just once a week, you'll save at least $6 per month. By replacing one pound of fresh tuna (at $7.99) with one pound of canned tuna (at $3.68) just once a week, you'll save another $17.24 per month.

You will realize even greater savings by swapping out other expensive cuts of meat for more affordable alternatives. Get out the slow cooker and find other ways to transform affordable cuts of meat into extraordinary meals to really benefit from the savings.

8. Prep Your Own Food

By just spending 10 extra minutes after returning from the store, you can prep your produce for the week and stack up the savings. For instance, on average, a pound of four apples costs $1.99, while sliced apples cost $4.99; a head of romaine or iceberg lettuce only costs $1.99, while one bag of lettuce costs $3.99 on average. By just prepping your own apples and one head of lettuce once per week, you'll save $5 per week, or $20 per month.

9. Take Advantage of Grocery Rewards

Every store offers their own unique rewards programs; some stores offer rewards points based on what you spend, some offer discounts at the pump, and others offer food discounts and unique perks. For instance, Save Mart, Lucky, S-Mart Foods, and FoodMaxx offer one point for every $1 spent and another 100 points just for enrolling. Then, you can use your points to earn rewards of your choice (like $1 off for every 100 points).

By enrolling in this free program, you would earn 786 points per month based on your monthly spending of $786.50 per month. This would translate into $7.86 off your next transaction. More importantly, joining a reward program provides you with better deals at the store.

There are other ways to earn points and find rewards that can save you even more in the end. For instance, stores like Giant Eagle and Safeway offer savings when you fill up at the pump, based on how much you spend in the store. Ask your local supermarket about what they offer and how you can join the program. While you're at it, find out if there is a rewards program at any restaurant or store that you frequent. You can save big money by joining the rewards programs for stores like Starbucks, Best Buy, and other large stores that you shop at frequently.

10. Plan Ahead

You can also save more money by cooking more items from scratch, choosing frozen and canned produce when possible, choosing generic over brand name, and planning your meals around sales and specials. Services like the $5 Meal Plan can help.

To keep your spending in check, the USDA recommends using the smart shopping strategies found on ChooseMyPlate.gov, which can help you find ways to eat healthy on a budget. Remember, saving money every month can be fun. Challenge yourself to see if you can save more every month or find a way to treat your family when you stay within budget.

Follow CSMonitor's board Money Saving Tips on Pinterest.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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