Are Food Costs Ruining Your Money Diet?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

America’s eating habits are causing more than just bloated waistlines. Across the nation, budgets are busting as consumers indulge in their most gluttonous desires.

A new survey finds that food costs are the most common area where Americans break the budget. According to the Principal Financial Group, 22% of respondents say they went over budget on dining-out expenses in the fourth quarter, followed by 18% who spent more than planned on grocery bills. Those levels are relatively unchanged from last year. Entertainment spending was the third most commonly-cited problem area at 15%. Coffee also made the top 10 at 3%.

Breaking the budget to enjoy gluttonous or convenient meals may not seem like a serious financial faux pas, but food is a major component of expenditures. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average American household spent $6,602 on food. In fact, $2,625 of that total was spent on food away from home. Adding more salt to financial wounds, a good portion of this spending is not exactly nutritious. A survey earlier this year found that Americans spend an average of $1,200 on fast food each year.

The nation clearly has a need to reduce food expenditures. The Principal Financial Group’s survey reveals that 17% of respondents say “not saving enough” was their top financial blunder of the year. “Accumulating credit card debt” and “spending outside my means” followed at 9% each. Overall, 44% feel better about their finances now than they did at the beginning of the year, but 46% do not feel better financially.

Fortunately, there are several simple ways to help shrink budgets and waistlines. The first is to view dining out as a luxury, not a necessity. Preparing most of your own meals will significantly help you save money — from packing a homemade lunch for work to enjoying a healthy dinner cooked at home. Making a weekly schedule for homemade meals will also help you stay on track. Websites such as Budget Bytes and Cooking Light offer great ideas for budget-friendly meals.

Slight changes to your shopping methods can further improve savings. If you can handle the responsibility of a credit card, the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express offers 6% cash back on U.S. supermarkets for an annual fee of only $75. If the annual fee doesn’t work in your favor, the Sallie Mae Mastercard offers 5% cash back on groceries with no annual fee. When you do visit restaurants, skip the appetizers and keep in mind that a glass of water is usually free while other beverage drinks have the biggest markups you can find in the industry. Your waistline and wallet will thank you.

Follow Eric on Twitter @Mr_Eric_WSCS

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