Bundle says no to canned okra: How to cut grocery spending by 12 percent

The mulling spices for wine and cider cost $3.50. I know, because even though I bought them three years ago, they are still shrink-wrapped and price-tagged in the kitchen cabinet. I can't be as accurate with the cranberry-flavored sugar crystals for the sugar cookies I didn't make, or with the almost full bag of masa for the tamales I made once, and never will again. And for my good intentions, my wallet suffered.

With recent Bundle community posts like Phil's Whole Foods plight, Angela's SoCal vs. NoCal grocery spend-off, and Jeremy's eating in versus eating out question in South Bend, I figured it was time to address a major source of financial pain when it comes to grocery shopping: The stuff that you buy and never use.

Over time, these kitchen castoffs can eat up some 12 percent of our grocery budget, according to research by Cornell consumer psychologist Brian Wansink. If the average U.S. household spends around $450 a month, the cost of food we buy and don't use averages around $654 a year — enough to cover more than a month's worth of groceries.

Of course, except for a Y2K-type emergency stash, everyone plans to use the food they buy. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't sales and promotions that make us think three cans of pearl onions are a good idea. It's our own optimism: 63 percent of grocery products "become abandoned because they are specific products bought for specific occasions or purposes." A third were bought for unmade recipes, 24 percent were purchased for specific purposes that were never realized (polish for those candlesticks you really do plan to shine), and 9 percent were bought for a special occasion that never arose.

With such lofty ambitions, how are we supposed to bring our spending in line? Wansink recommends three strategies:

1. Substitute versatile products for specific, single-use ones. If a recipe calls for okra, or bread flour, consider buying corn, or regular flour, instead. Unless you eat okra all the time, in which case, never mind.

2. Buy ingredients close to cooking time. If you're buying something for a specific use, like butterscotch chips for seven-layer bars, get them as close to when you plan to bake as possible. The farther away it is, the greater the chances that something will derail your plans, exiling the chips to kitchen purgatory.

3. Plan around the ingredients you have. Dig around the back of your cabinets, then search recipe sites or cookbook indexes by ingredient. Got a quart of strawberry preserves? A can of Manwich sauce? Why not make Fondue Wieners? There's a recipe for everything!

Good ideas, all. For dinner tonight, I suppose I'll be making something with pimientos. And mulled wine.

What's the silliest product hiding in your cabinets? Your most ingenious use of an ignored ingredient? Or how do you avoid buying kitchen products you won't use in the first place?

Related Links:

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