For some people, a spectacular meal at a five-star restaurant is worth missing a mortgage payment. For others, the act of cooking and subsequent mastication is a boring but necessary chore. No matter how you feel about food, one thing is for sure -- you gotta eat.
Americans spend a lot of money on food, to the tune of about $770 per month for a family of four [source: USDA]. But really, that cash could be spent more wisely.
There are plenty of ways to think smarter about food expenses. Here's one critical pointer -- eating out often costs more than cooking at home. So even if you hate cooking, it pays -- literally -- to do some reading up on easy, fast recipes that prevent you from calling for carryout seven days a week.
Buying ingredients for those recipes is itself an art form. You can opt for dozens of fancy, individually packaged products that actually cost more than restaurant food in the long run. Or, you can buy fewer (nonperishable) items, in bulk, and use them for months before running low on supplies. Items such as dry beans, pasta, nuts, sugar, dried fruits, flour, grains, vegetable or chicken stock -- and all sorts of canned vegetables -- save you money in the long run.
Grocery coupons are making a huge comeback, and for good reason. Americans clipped 3.3 billion coupons in 2009. The savings from those glossy bits of paper? Around $3.5 billion [source: Time]. The key is to plan your meals in advance with the items you see are on sale in store circulars, the Sunday newspaper and online at sites such as CouponCabin.com and Coupons.com. Don't forgot about coupons that are available directly through the manufacturer's Web site, too.
Of course, you still have to go out on the town now and then. That's where the social coupon phenomenon (from the likes of Groupon, LivingSocial, Scoutmob and others) comes in handy. Buy deals from great restaurants and wait to use them for special occasions, and you can eat very well for very cheap.
Food is just one facet of your budget. On the next page, we'll dive into making another necessity -- your home -- more comfortable.