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Spending Smart: Frugal ways for singles to save on food costs

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 20, 2014


Single people, who now make up the majority of American adults, often have spending and saving concerns that differ from those of married folks. Eating and drinking expenses are among the big ones ó buying a 5-gallon jar of pickles at the warehouse club to save money doesnít seem like such a good idea when youíre buying for one.

A "singles penalty" for buying small amounts is especially apparent with food, but strategies specific to singletons can help.

Recent government statistics show that single Americans make up more than half of the adult population for the first time ó at least since the government began collecting such statistics in 1976.

And a record 20 percent of adult Americans 25 or older, or 42 million people, have never married, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Of course being single can take different forms ó it doesnít mean weíre becoming a nation of "Seinfeld" characters. Single includes young people living alone, single parents, unmarried people living with partners or roommates, and widows and widowers.

Besides the obvious difference of potentially having one fewer income-producer, singles have a variety of money issues that differ from marrieds. For example, unless they have someone depending on their income, they might not need life insurance. However, disability insurance might be crucial.

But among singles who only have to financially fend for themselves, food spending can be a sticking point.

Itís no small expense. Single people who lived alone last year on average spent $3,654 on food, more than 40 percent of which was dining out, according to the federal governmentís Consumer Expenditure Survey. By contrast, a family of four spent about $2,400 per person.

If youíre single and find youíre spending too much on food and dining out, hereís what to look at.

Cook. Eating out almost always costs more than cooking at home ó unless youíre OK with fast-food dollar menus. So, the obvious advice is to dine out on special occasions and when you really want to, not because youíre a poor meal planner. Ditto for beverages, including morning coffee and evening alcohol.

Take stock. The main strategy for food buying is the same for singles as it is for families ó donít shop for what you need. Instead, shop for whatís on sale and stock up. In other words, buy multiples when itís cheap ó think half-price ó and few or none when itís full price. The difference for singles is the extent to which they can do that. Bulk-buying perishables is a bad idea, and some singlesí small apartments might not lend themselves to stockpiling jars, cans and boxes of food.

Bulk buying. "I donít think singles necessarily have to stop buying in bulk, but they certainly donít need to stock up the way families do," said Jill Cataldo, who teaches classes on supermarket couponing and founded SuperCouponing.com. "I continue to teach quite a few singles in my coupon workshops, and I hear from them that they may buy one or two extra of something during a good sale, versus buying six boxes of cereal like a family might want to do."

Buy larger sizes of nonperishable items that you know you will use, said Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com. "Compare the cost per ounce, and if the larger size of laundry detergent is half the unit cost of the small size, save by getting the larger size," she said.

Andrea Woroch, a savings expert with a site at andreaworoch.com, suggests splitting a warehouse club membership with a friend or family member.

"There are certain items that you can save money on and make it convenient to stock up on so you donít have to regularly replace them, like batteries, toilet paper and toiletries," she said.

The warning is to avoid buying too much perishable food in bulk that will just be thrown away, which greatly increases the unit cost of the food you actually ate.

"As a single person, you may have more social commitments throughout the week or be willing to make last-minute plans to meet a friend for dinner," Woroch said. "If you plan a week of meals and buy perishable items ahead, you may wind up wasting expired food."

The freezer is your friend. For some perishables, you can divide and conquer. For example, $3 per pound is a fine price on ground beef, but you wonít often find it in 1-pound packages. Go ahead and buy the 5-pound pack and divide into 1-pound portions and freeze them, Cataldo said.

More broadly and perhaps most important, use your freezer for batch cooking. "When ingredients for favorite meals are on sale but you canít eat the recipe that serves 12, make it and divide into individual portions and freeze," Nelson suggested.

That serves a dual purpose. First, you can buy in larger quantities for a lower unit price.

Second, you have ready-made meals that are only microwave minutes away the next time you arrive home late and hungry, perhaps reducing the urge to order pricier takeout food.

"You will be glad to have premade meals," Nelson said.

It also means you can vary your meals, rather than cooking a big batch and eating the same leftovers three nights in a row.

Buy fish in individually frozen pieces in a large bag to pay the lowest price, Nelson said.

She said frozen fish is actually fresher because it is frozen right after being caught, preserving its freshness.

"Take one piece out to thaw 24 hours before you need it," she said.

Coupons still work. Couponing, via coupons in the newspaper, printed from online sources or stored electronically, can still work for single people. They are most effective when you apply a coupon to an item already on sale.

"In some ways, itís easier to coupon as a single ó you can get by with just one newspaper per week because stocking up doesnít equate to buying a whole bunch of stuff," said Cataldo, who often advocates that families buy multiple Sunday newspapers to take advantage of coupon deals.

Nelson suggested paying attention to high-value coupons for non-food items too.

"You generally do not have to buy multiple quantities, and coupons for personal-care products can be $5 or more," she said.

Communal dining. If youíre especially social with a tight group of friends, consider taking turns cooking.

"One day a week, each of you cook for the entire group, with any leftovers divided among those attending," said Jeff Yeager, author of four books on frugal living, including his most recent, "How to Retire the Cheapskate Way."

"That way, you can shop for and cook in larger quantities, but only for a single dinner each week."

Lunch. Many people have intentions of bringing lunch to work to cut food costs, but it can be a difficult habit to form. When Yeager worked in an office, he would instead take a bag of groceries to work every Monday and make lunches on the spot, rather than keeping groceries at home and "having the hassle of packing an individual lunch every day."

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