7 unconscious mistakes that make you waste money on food

7 unconscious mistakes that make you waste money on food
Saving money on groceries and takeout can be easier than you realize. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Saving money on groceries and takeout can be easier than you realize. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

It happens to the best of us: You go to the grocery store and get so excited by all that gleaming summer fruit that you buy a bunch, then let half of it go bad in the fridge. Or you order the lobster special at a restaurant and end up eating enough for two. Or you buy a “fancy” ingredient like truffle oil for one recipe and then never use the bottle again.

Food waste — and the financial waste that goes along with it — is a huge problem in the United States. Americans lose out on $29 billion worth of food annually just because they don’t know what sell-by dates mean, as Mic has reported. We also throw out 50% of all produce grown annually and we lead the world in food waste. And when we actually eat the food we buy, we often tend to eat the wrong stuff, in large part thanks to bad dietary advice that has worsened American health.

When you buy foods you don’t end up eating or splurge for a fancier brand when a generic or store label would do, not only is that bad for the planet or your health, but you also are wasting money that could be better spent on an emergency fund, a fun trip or just about anything other than food that ends up in the trash.

“Food habits are extremely hard to change,” Yann Cornil, assistant professor of marketing at Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, told Mic. And, unfortunately, “consumers generally ‘overshoot’ when trying to estimate what will satiate hunger.”

But luckily there are key ways to modify your behavior; it all begins with becoming more self-aware. First you must identify the unconscious mistakes that are making you buy food you don’t need — so you can tweak your habits and start saving more money. Consider these seven common errors, and their solutions, which will help you save cash and maybe even improve your health.

1. You anchor to the wrong serving size

Anchoring is that psychological phenomenon that makes you unconsciously attached to whatever default value or quantity you learn about first, whether the cost of a wedding or a car — or the appropriate serving size for food.

Maybe you just have to have the Instagram-famous large, decked out drink at the coffee shop with all the whipped cream — and that scrumptious-looking chocolate cake, too — because everyone else is doing it? Or maybe you grab the double-sized bag of chips at the grocery store, thinking it’s better value, but then end up eating it twice as fast?

The truth is, there’s a reason for the saying “my eyes are bigger than my stomach.” When we aren’t aware of the true relationship between food size and the pleasure of consumption, the Harvard Business Review reports, we tend to overcompensate, even though that actually makes us less happy.

One study asked 367 adults to make a prediction about how much enjoyment they would receive from consuming different portion sizes of brownies. While most anticipated they’d prefer to eat a mid-sized portion, people who ate a smaller part of the brownie actually experienced higher satisfaction levels than people who consumed the whole brownie.

The reason: The last bite of food consumed determines overall satisfaction, but the first bite of any food is most pleasurable, and each preceding bite provides less pleasure than the one before it. “When the portion is large, the last bite of it is now pretty bland and it eats away at our entire evaluation of the consumption experience,” the Harvard Business Review notes.

Solution: First, be more calculating about serving sizes by reading labels, asking questions of waitstaff and doing the math when grocery shopping. If you buy a bag of apples, will you really eat the whole thing before it goes bad? Could you cut them up and freeze the pieces for a smoothie? Second, after you buy or order food, eat slower: Focus on enjoying your food, not wolfing it down. If you start to feel full, consider saving the rest for leftovers or sharing your food. Finally, invest in a good measuring cup, if you don’t have one. Learning the true suggested serving sizes of different items might surprise you.

2. You get overwhelmed by menu options

You’re out to dinner with friends and everything on the menu looks great. After a long deliberation, you order two appetizers (”to share!”), an entrée and dessert because it all looks so good and everyone else is having three courses. Soon you’re stuffed and out an extra $20 you didn’t mean to spend.

Indeed, going out to eat can be expensive, with millennials devoting around 44% of food dollars to dining out and spending close to $3,000 annually, according to Forbes. Sadly, some of this cash gets wasted because of the way ordering off of a menu affects your choices.

“People eat more at the restaurant than they normally would at home,” Yann Cornil said to Mic. “There are many reasons for it. First, consumers do not have control over portion sizes at the restaurants like they would at home, and in restaurants portion sizes have dramatically increased over the past 30 years because, for restaurant managers, it doesn’t cost a lot to put more food on the plate, while the perceived value for consumers is significantly higher.”

What this means is that choosing multiple options will often end up buying you way more food than you realize. While, of course, some people are great at always taking home leftovers and finishing them, just make sure you are actually one of those people — and won’t just end up tossing the doggy bag.

Solution: Zoom in on the one food you are most excited to try and stick with that — and don’t let your dining companions’ orders influence you. “Just because everyone gets an app doesn’t mean you have to get one as well,” the Kitchn wrote. Consider having a snack before going out so you’re not starving and tempted to over-order. And, if portion sizes are large, share a meal, order an appetizer instead of a main course or ask for a doggy bag right away so you’re not tempted to finish everything on your plate. Then, be sure to have a plan to eat the food you took home.

3. You rely on a shopping buddy

You and your BFF went out to eat or hit the grocery store together and now you’ve bought such a big cart full of stuff that you’re not sure you’ll be able to fit everything in the fridge.

When you grocery shop with a partner, you spend about 38% more, according to the Globe and Mail. Why is it so expensive to take a friend along? Your friends could encourage you to buy more, could distract you from your shopping list or could cause you to stay at the store longer so you buy more impulse items.

Your friends can be a bad influence when you’re dining out too. “Eating in the company of friends generally has a disinhibiting effect,” Cornil said. “People no longer try to control their food intake because they’re just having a good time.”

Solution: Plan social activities with friends that don’t revolve around food shopping or food consumption. Go on a walk instead of hitting the store together or go for a coffee instead of a full meal. When you do go shopping bring the only best friend you need — a grocery list.

4. You are a sucker for good marketing

That salad dressing came in a cool glass bottle or that new brand of gluten-free cookies just caught your eye. Plus, those 10 bags of chips you bought were on sale 10 for $10 and you’ll definitely eat them eventually, right? Unfortunately, food marketing is effective at making you think you should buy more products and pricier items when cheaper ones will do.

“Foods with descriptive names are rated as more appealing and tastier,” according to the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab. “Consumers are also willing to pay more for foods that sound trendy, luxurious or yummy. The use of vivid adjectives triggers our expectations before we even taste the food.”

Solution: Opt for the generic brand to save more than $800 annually on food and drink purchases. Don’t be taken in by fancy labels or catchy descriptions on products you walk past at the store, but instead stick to your list. At restaurants, ignore meaningless adjectives on menus like “rustic” and focus on clear words that indicate ingredients and preparation. And use tools like this pizza calculator — which tells you whether to get the small or large pie — to help choose the best-value menu item for your group size.

5. You go into a trance at the grocery store

You brought your shopping list and were doing so well — so how, exactly, did that multi-pack of cookies, that watermelon and that new mango salsa end up in your cart? And are you actually going to eat them?

If you do eat every grocery item you buy, you’re definitely in the minority. American families throw out anywhere from 14% to 25% of food and beverages purchased, according to the Washington Post. This wastefulness comes at a cost of $1,365 to $2,275 annually.

Why are we wasting our hard-earned cash? In large part, it’s because grocery stores are set up to make us interact with a ton of enticing products. It’s no accident produce is in the front and lit up to look enticing, nor is it just a coincidence that premium products are all placed at eye level. “The more you interact with a product ... the more likely you are to buy it,” Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, told Rachel Ray Every Day.

“One of the things that the Food Marketing Institute and the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute have told us is that roughly 60% or more of what we buy in the supermarket wasn’t on our list,” Underhill told the Chicago Tribune. “If I stop somebody on their way into a store and have them review for me what their mental list or written list is, and then I look in their basket as they walk out the door, roughly 60% of what’s in that basket they didn’t tell me about.”

Solution: If you always stray from your grocery list, consider using a delivery service so you can order only the items you actually want — and won’t be tempted by treats the grocery store has on display to encourage consumption. Love Sam’s Club or Costco? Beware: Bulk buying can be cheaper, but only if you don’t waste what you purchase and only for some items.

“We rarely take into account how much we throw out in the end,” said Anita Bhappu, who studied food purchasing and preparation habits of U.S. consumers, according to the University of Arizona. “If you factor in the cost of what you are throwing away, it is very unlikely that you are saving anything.” So if you want to buy in bulk, split purchases with friends or use ingredients right away to make meals you freeze for later.

6. You rarely plan ahead

You’ve got to eat something this week, so you go to the grocery store and throw a few bags of broccoli, some lettuce, a pound of hamburger and some other random stuff into your cart because it looked good. But now you’re standing in front of the fridge wondering exactly how you’re going to make a meal of this stuff. Plus — oops — you already had broccoli that was going bad.

Not checking the pantry before you go to the store, failing to bring coupons to the store and not making a grocery list are all key reasons why we overspend on food and buy food we don’t eat, according to PopSugar.

And if you are the type who gets excited by recipes — like for that beef bourguignon — it’s important that you plan ahead so you can actually follow through. Otherwise you might be stuck with that special bottle of Cognac plus a bottle of Côtes du Rhône after realizing you’re not really sure how to cook cubes of chuck beef without poisoning yourself.

Spontaneous eating out is also a problem that leads to wasted food and wasteful spending. “If you throw away a meal because you’ve eaten out when you weren’t planning to, the cost of that restaurant meal is higher than you think. People don’t account for that at all,” Victoria Ligon of the University of Arizona said to Slate.

Solution: Plan your meals for the week. Make a grocery list with the foods you need and buy only what’s on your list. Stick to the basics if you’re not (yet) a gourmet cook. Pick ingredients you can use in multiple recipes and look for cheaper substitutes over expensive aspirational food items: Buying a bunch of ingredients for recipes that are too hard for you, or for recipes you’re only going to make once, can be a big money suck, the Kitchn warns.

If you haven’t planned to eat out and get an invite, either decline or freeze the items you were going to have for dinner the night you made the impromptu trip to the cool new restaurant that just opened around the corner. Finally, invest in time-saving kitchen gadgets — like a salad chopper, fruit slicer or freshness extender — that will cut down prep times and increase the life of your food.

7. You forgot the H.A.L.T. rule

The acronym “HALT” — for “hungry, angry, lonely and tired” — is a helpful mnemonic to remember the emotional factors that might be making you choose a less wise choice at any given moment: That includes while buying food at a store or restaurant. Maybe you were starving, and a little tipsy, when you stopped at the grocery store on your way home from happy hour to pick up a few items. Now, you’re not exactly sure why you have a big box of blueberry scones, several kinds of kids’ cereal (even though you don’t have kids) and four boxes of mac and cheese.

Shopping while hungry leads to buying more food and especially more unhealthy food. Hungry shoppers bought more non-food products and spent as much as 60% more overall because their hunger made them more acquisitional, the Smithsonian reported. Shopping while drunk, either online or in person, is also a bad idea, as is shopping while you’re too tired. Even a single night of sleep deprivation leads to buying foods that are less healthy and spending too much on all of the foods you buy, according to Everyday Health.

Solution: Shop sober, after a good night’s rest, after having a snack and while in as positive a mood as possible. You’ll be better able to plan ahead and stick to your list. For more advice, see Mic’s guide to spending just $5 a day on food and story on eating healthier while on a budget.

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