Signs that you spend way too much money on food

Anyone else wonder where all their money has gone at the end of every month? I remember sitting down to write out a budget with my husband and feeling so surprised at how much money we made each month. It was a lot more than I thought, so why did it still feel like we were barely getting by?

A huge part of our problem was overspending on food. There were mindless trips to the grocery store with no plan, eating out every weekend, and food subscription services going unused. Food spending can quickly creep up without you noticing, and if you're not careful, can start to take over your finances. Here are just a few signs that it is time to make a change.

Your fridge is full of spoiled produce

This is one that I am still guilty of. If you open your fridge toward the end of the week and have to start throwing away the moldy berries and rotten apples, then you bought too much at the grocery store. "Take a look at your fridge," New York City chef and culinary producer Clare Langan told me. "An excess of deteriorating produce, unopened jars, and expired products indicates you are overbuying and creating waste."

An easy way to prevent this is by taking a quick inventory of what you already have before doing your grocery shopping. I have bought staples like tomato sauce time and time again when a full jar was already sitting in our cabinet. An extra five minutes of prep time before the store can help you save big.

It always feels like you have nothing to eat

The old problem of having a closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear does not just apply to clothes. After shopping for food on Sunday, there's nothing more frustrating than opening up the fridge on Monday and not knowing what to make. "Another indicator is when you've done a big grocery run, but still have 'nothing to eat,'" said Langan. "Are you spending too much on snacks and ingredients for meals you will never make? Take a look at your week and be realistic with how many meals you are eating at home. You don't need to do a full-blown meal plan and meal prep session, but be honest with your habits and shop accordingly."

I often get overly excited by Pinterest recipes, add the ingredients to the shopping list, but never actually get around to creating that Christmas tree made of grapes and berries. Be honest with yourself as you make a grocery list and take a look at foods that you've wasted in the past. Stick to the staples and a few extras each week.

You don't know how much food is supposed to cost

Every now and then, I end up getting sucked into an episode of The Price is Right. You know you've been there. There's usually some kind of grocery-themed game where contestants need to guess the price of common grocery items. It's amazing how many people have no idea. If you don't know what a reasonable price is, then you'll be much more likely to pay too much.

"Some signs you spend too much on groceries is by becoming aware how much food actually costs. Most people have no idea except for the big three: bread, milk, and eggs," Jamie Logie, nutritionist, health and wellness coach, and personal trainer, told me. "After that, most people don't know if they're getting a deal, so learn how much food costs. Look at flyers and around the stores. This way you'll know if you're getting a good value on something."

You don't look at your receipts

How often do you return home from the grocery store and toss your reciept in the recycling without looking at it? It's a good idea to skim it, just to look for patterns or new ways to save. "Keep your bills each time and just compare to see if you're staying in the ballpark or going a lot over each time," advised Logie. "If you want to know how you stack up, the average household spends around $585 a month on food. Of that, $385 of that is spent on food to eat at home." If that number sounds low for you, start making some adjustments to bring down your food bill.

Groceries are your biggest expense

No one likes to spend their Sunday going over a budget, but a few minutes of pain could really add up when it comes to savings, vacations, and paying for college. Take a look at your monthly budget and determine which areas require the most funds. If food is your biggest expense, it's time to shift. "Other signs include if you spend more on food than any other expenses or if you spend more on eating out than you do on groceries," said Logie.

Your pantry is full of foods you don't use

Our family recently moved, and it was downright embarrassing how much food I threw away. Most of the wasted food came from deep in the pantry. Old cereals and spices that I had forgotten about for years just sat on the shelves unused.

"If you notice that you have 'hidden' things in your pantry that never get used, you might be spending more than you need to at the store," financial coach Jessi Fearon told me. "We challenge ourselves every couple of months to go a week without buying anything at the store other than milk, eggs, and bread in order to use up what we have on hand. It's surprising the things you can find in your pantry that you don't remember buying." I will definitely be adopting this challenge.

You're buying pre-cut and prepared foods

Time is a precious commodity, and I love finding ways to save it. However, sometimes saving time can really cost you money. If you've fallen into the habit of buying pre-made and pre-cut food, you're leaving a lot of money at the grocery store when it could be in your pocket.

"Many grocery items are not worth the money. You pay a price for convenience. Anything that is precut, pre-seasoned, or precooked is likely overpriced," physician and finance coach Jennifer Miles-Thomas told me.

"You can save a lot on fresh fruits and vegetables if you are willing to spend just a few minutes cutting or chopping. Also consider purchasing larger portions of meat for a discount. You can separate meat into smaller portions and freeze for later use." If you've been trying to save money on food, commit to ditching the pre-made stuff and spend a little time each weekend getting prepared.

Your cart is full of boxes

There's a common misconception that eating healthy is very expensive. However, pay attention to how much the processed foods cost. "You know that you have spent too much on groceries if you have more boxes than bags in your cart," explained Dr. Miles-Thomas. "Shopping the perimeter of the store is typically healthier and cheaper." Stick with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains.

Your whole social life happens in restaurants

Eating out with friends is always a fun and relaxing experience. You can enjoy an amazing meal without anyone having to prepare it or clean up afterwards. However, all those trips to the restaurant, bar, and coffee shop add up.

Try finding new and creative ways to get together that don't revolve around food and spending. You could exercise together, go for a walk, or simply get together at each other's homes.

You only shop at Whole Foods

The lights are perfect, the colors are vibrant, and everyone just looks so put together. Yes, I'm talking about shopping at Whole Foods and other high end grocery stores. I'm not going to lie. I much prefer the Whole Foods experience to the bargain places, but it's important to realize just how much more that costs. For example, Whole Foods came under fire when they were selling pre-peeled oranges for $6.

According to The Huffington Post, Whole Foods later removed that item and explained that "a lot of our customers love the convenience of our cut produce offerings, but this was a simple case where a handful of stores experimented with a seasonal product spotlight that wasn't fully thought through. We're glad some customers pointed it out so we could take a closer look."

Remember that many of the items at high end grocery stores are there purely to entice you to spend too much.

You buy food to feel better

One spending trap that many of us fall into is buying things like food to reward ourselves for good behavior. You had to work late, so you deserve that pizza, right? According to one study, when we don't think we have a lot of willpower, we tend to reward ourselves by buying too much. However, when we think that we have a lot of willpower, we're able to stay the course. Take a moment and think about the last few times you bought food or went out to eat. Were there times when you were rewarding yourself or trying to make yourself feel better?

Next time you're tempted to hit the drive-thru on a rough day, remember that you have an abundant supply of willpower and don't need to waste money on food you don't even want. And if you're just not able to resist, make sure to set yourself up for success. Don't even go near the restaurant if you may be tempted. "If you know you've had a bad day and you're prone to go shopping to reward yourself, you might want to avoid heading in the direction of the stores on that day," study author Veronika Job told the Wall Street Journal.

You don't use a grocery list

Hitting the grocery store without a plan is a recipe for disaster. You will most likely be all over the store and start noticing all of these amazing products that you don't really need, but end up in your cart. Never go to the grocery store without a list in hand. Consider using an app like Grocery IQ where you can easily add items as you think of them throughout the week.

You toss your leftovers

When it comes to leftovers, it seems that people either love them or hate them. I happen to fall into the love category and could eat the same meal all week long. However, many people can't stand repeating the same meal and end up throwing away their leftovers. This adds up to a lot of food and money wasted.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about one-third of prepared food worldwide is wasted every year. They also say the foods most likely to be wasted are the ones that our bodies need the most — fruits and vegetables. If you won't end up using that leftover fresh spinach, get creative and toss it in a smoothie. Look for new ways to use the food to prevent boredom and keep it fresh.

You buy organic everything

When food is organic, most of us just assume it's healthier and higher quality. Maybe that's why we're willing to pay so much more for it. It sounds crazy, but we consumers are willing to pay twice as much for a product labeled "organic," and we do it without even thinking about it. This is a problem, because food is such a large part of most people's budgets. "Typically, after mortgage or rent, which are fixed costs, most of my clients' highest monthly expense is food," Shannon McLay, author of Train Your Way to Financial Fitness, told Daily Worth.

If you typically buy all organic food, do a little research to find out if it's truly worth it. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, there is little proof that organic foods are more nutritious or safer. Buying organic may reduce our exposure to chemicals, but even that hasn't been strongly proven.

You throw coupons into the garbage

If you're the kind of person who throws away the coupons you get in your mailbox each week, you're potentially throwing away a lot of money. While it can be tempting to bin the papers and dismiss them as junk mail, a few minutes going through them could save you a lot on grocery costs. The same goes for the coupons that are often handed to you with your receipt at the grocery store. Hundreds of billions of coupons are handed out to consumers each year, but only a small fraction of them are redeemed. If you're putting yours in the trash, you're spending more than you should. 

You shop while you're hungry

Shopping on an empty stomach? Bad idea. Studies show that going to the grocery store while hungry means that you'll be more inclined to purchase less nutritious food and spend more money overall. The phenomenon isn't restricted to food, either. Even shopping for clothes while hungry can lead to a much higher bill than if you put off your shopping spree until after you eat. You might think you're not susceptible to this phenomenon, but chances are, if you're shopping with a grumbling stomach, you're also overspending. 

You never pack a lunch

A lot of people think spending a few dollars on lunch every day is a small splurge, but that money adds up pretty quickly. Americans spend thousands of dollars on lunch each year, a cost that can easily be reduced by bringing your lunch to the office. While the average cost of buying lunch is $11, packing your own costs just over $6 per meal. Bringing your lunch to work just a couple days a week can help you save money. If you never brown bag it, your food costs are probably higher than they should be.

Your budget exceeds the U.S. average

If you want a surefire way to know whether or not you're spending too much money on food, look up the national averages. A liberal food budget, according to official guidelines published by the United States Department of Agriculture, is between $1,089-$1,273 per month for a family of four. That comes to between $251-$294 each week, so if you're spending more than that you might want to take a look at what's driving up your grocery bill.

You and your partner buy the same things

If you and your partner both have a habit of running to the grocery store throughout the week, make sure to compare notes on what you're buying. If you both stop to buy avocados for the happy hour you're hosting this Friday, chances are you'll have too many, and some will go bad.

"Another issue is if you and your partner share the shopping, but are both buying the same things," explained Logie. "It comes back to how much we throw away each month, so be aware of that. That 20 pounds of wasted food is costing you around $2,000 per year."