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An edible emergency fund

Felicity Hannah

Food is one of the fastest-rising expenses for UK families just now, with food costs being blamed for a surprise spike in inflation to 3.5% in March.

If you’re worried about your job security or that a month of unexpected bills could push you over the edge, food costs could be a real concern.

In fact, the food distribution charity FareShare said last year that it had seen a 20% rise in demand, fuelled by unemployment and reductions in benefits.

Hopefully things aren’t quite that tight for you, but it still makes sense to build up some savings in case of an emergency.

It’s generally recommended that people have between three and six months-worth of salary saved up in an easy access account, as a rainy day fund.

But building up a stock of surplus food is another good way of getting ahead so that you can manage longer if disaster did strike, and even if it doesn't you can save money by cashing in on good deals and cutting out last-minute trips to the shops.

Stocking up

If money is tight then it can be hard to make regular savings and impossible to start dramatically increasing your weekly shop in order to build up a surplus.

But if you spent an extra pound or two every time you do a big shop, you could have enough spare food for a week saved within a few months.

Make use of special offers, such as buy-one-get-one-free, buy-one-get-one-half-price and multi-buy savings to keep the cost per item right down, and aim to buy at least one extra essential every time you shop.

Even if you’re just adding a can a week, you’ll gradually build up a decent surplus.

Getting ahead

This is about more than simply stocking up on sale items at the supermarket; the whole point is to get ahead in your household shopping. You want to gradually build up enough spare groceries to carry you through a week or more without shopping for more than basics such as milk and bread.

So aim to actively manage your emergency food, keep a note of what you’ve bought in, what’s for eating and what’s in your stockpile.

You may also need to get creative with your cupboards in order to fit your extra food in the house. One good tip is to double your shelf space using shelf inserts, like these ones from IKEA.

It’s also essential to rotate your stock, just as you would if you were running a shop. Use up the oldest tins and packets first, and replace those with your newest shopping. Otherwise you risk wasting money when old food goes past its use-by date.

[Related feature: A fanatic’s guide to supermarket savings]

Save money with out of date food?

One way to build up your surplus for less is to stock up when you see a good deal. The website allows you to buy food that’s nearly out-of-date, or has past its sell-by date, at a much-reduced price. That’s good for the planet and for your pocket.

It only sells food that is past its sell-by date, not past its use-by date, so it’s perfectly safe to eat. The website explains: “The 'best before' dates are more about quality than safety, except for eggs. So when the date runs out it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.”

But you might find the prices worth any loss of flavour, and you can always jazz dishes up with your own herbs and spices.

For example, the website has Ragu Bolognese Sauce Spicy 500g, which normally retails at £1.93, available for 40p or three for £1.

Delivery costs start at £5.99, so consider sharing an order with friends to keep the cost down.

[Related feature: Slash your supermarket delivery costs]

Stock up the freezer

It doesn’t have to be tins and dried goods, you can stock up on frozen goods when they’re on offer.

Some of the most expensive food has the shortest shelf life, for example, fish, meat, and fresh fruit and veg.

But you’ll be amazed at what you can freeze perfectly successfully; read our article ‘Never put eggs in the fridge: A dozen food myths that could cost you’ for tips on storing food.

Full up on essential non-perishables

If you don’t fancy too much frozen fruit and veg, you can always stock up on non-perishable essentials when they’re on offer. For example, one major supermarket is currently offering 12 toilet rolls for the price of one, one packet of washing tabs for £4 or two for £6, and three-for-two on shampoos.

All of those things are expensive essentials, so stocking up while they’re on sale makes sense.

Others ways an emergency store can save money

If you have plenty of savings or insurance then potentially you won’t ever need to rely on an emergency stock of food.

But getting ahead with the grocery shopping doesn’t just help you manage for longer during bad times, it can save you money.

After all, if you have a larger stock of food ready then you’ve always got food ready to throw together a supper in a hurry, so you’re less likely to succumb to the temptations of the takeaway.

Not only that, but if you have plenty of staple foods already in the house then you won’t have to pop into the supermarket for ‘just one little thing’, which is always a recipe for buying non-essentials that catch your eye as well as the potential cost of petrol getting there if you live a fair distance from the shops.

And, of course, you can take advantage of the sale prices to stock up on various ingredients, rather than buying them as you need them and potentially paying more than you have to.

Finally, a full freezer is more efficient than an empty one, so keeping it topped up will keep your running costs down.

[Related feature: How ugly food can save you money]