- Make a list. My preference is to make a list, shopping for 1 or 2 weeks worth of meals at a time. I order the list loosely by the departments in the store (produce, meat, dairy, baking, etc.). Unless I happen upon an incredible deal on an item we need, I do not buy anything not on my list. It takes some discipline, but it’s easier if you follow the next two tips.
- Shop alone. Nothing bloats your grocery bill like a kid or two at the grocery store. Or a spouse! It makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on your list and the extra requests are likely to get a nod, just to stop the interruptions. If at all possible, leave the family behind. When the kids get old enough and you are teaching them to shop, that’s an entirely different scenario.
- Don’t shop hungry. If you’re tummy is telling you it’s time to eat, you’re much more likely to buy convenience foods and snacks, making it difficult to stick with your list.
- Know your prices. I used to have a price book and I think it is a very useful tool when you are first trying to save money on groceries, because you have to know what something costs before you know if you are getting a good deal. After a while, you’ll get a much better sense of the prices (and how much they’ve been creeping up the past few years). If you’re new to frugal shopping, make a price book. You can find instructions for doing so on sites all over the web. Or check out the Tightwad Gazette from your local library.
- Use coupons from the newspaper and internet. Using coupons to save on groceries can save you a dramatic amount of money. I did it the “wrong” way for over 20 years, wasting time and not saving much. In spring of 2008, I read an article in The Dollar Stretcher (a free ezine I’ve been getting for more than 12 years) and “saw the light.” I’m a total couponing evangelist now. One of the places where you can get great information on how to make couponing work for you is The Coupon Mom website. She has ebooks at that link that you can download for free and she really covers the basics well.
- Seek out supermarkets that will double or triple your coupons. This is where the power of couponing really shines. Combining a coupon with a sale when the store doubles or triples your coupon can bring you prices down to just pennies on the dollar. In my area the stores that double, and sometimes triple coupons, are stores that I used to avoid because their overall prices seemed very high to me. I’m fortunate that they are close and compete with each other. In some areas, particularly retirement communities or small towns with only one grocery store, they don’t have to compete, so they don’t offer the discounts.
- Stock up when a deep discount is available. Stocking up (within reason!) on products that you will use anyway, when you can get them cheaper just makes sense. Make sure to consider shelf life, though. You aren’t saving any money if you buy food and it spoils before you can eat it. I have two freezers and only buy meat when it’s at rock-bottom prices for my area.
- Plan your meals in advance. This is my starting point for item #1. I have a list of about 60 dinner menus that I’ve made and my family enjoys, using the contents of my freezer and the grocery store inserts for sales as my guide. I like to serve a variety of foods, so I make a 2-week list of days and try to alternate the meals by meat (chicken, pork, fish, beef), cooking method (casserole, fried, roasted), and ethnicity (Italian, Mexican, Chinese). Further consideration in the order of the meals is planning for leftover of one meal to be used for another. For example, if I’m planning on roasting a chicken, I plan to make Enchiladas or Chicken a la King with the leftovers. I have a basic idea of what side dishes I serve with the entrees, so I can take a quick peek in the pantry or freezer to see if I need any of those items.
- Compare unit costs. Bigger is not always better. Grocery stores have been required to list the unit price on the shelf for decades now. With the variations in packaging it makes it hard to tell how much of a product you are getting without the unit price. Occasionally you’ll see different units (pounds vs. ounces) on the label (more so at the “club” stores) and will need to do basic calculations to see which is the better buy.
- Consider generics and store brands. I don’t personally care for generic hot dogs, but paper goods, canned food, and for scores of other items, my family can’t tell the difference. Generics and store brands are frequently made in the same factory as the name brands, with minor differences and a different label. Not all are equal, though, so try out a product before stocking up. Again, you don’t save money on something if you later throw it out. If I need a product for a recipe and I don’t have a coupon, I’ll nearly always buy the store brand or generic version. Sometimes even with a coupon the generic brand is still cheaper, and the brand-name coupon gets re-filed, or left on the shelf for someone else to use.
- Don’t buy non-groceries at the grocery store. Most personal care items are less expensive at discount stores or chain pharmacies (Walgreens, CVS, RiteAid). Hardware, lightbulbs, extensions cords, office supplies, greeting cards, etc., are usually all sold at “suggested retail price” at the grocery store and can be purchased for much less at the “big box” stores. There are exceptions to this, of course. With double or triple coupons many cleaning supplies and personal care items (shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) can be a steal at the grocery store. Lysol wipes, for instance were on sale recently during a couponing event and when the coupon doubled, the item was free. Great way to stock up for my school teacher husband’s classroom!
- Buy fresh produce when in season. Green beans in season are usually about 80 cents a pound, off season they are nearly double that. During the winter months buy frozen or canned. (Or alternatively, buy or grow a lot of them and freeze them yourself for use in the off season.) Off-season produce is rarely at it’s peak, so paying a premium for shelf-ripened fruit and veggies just doesn’t make sense. Plums in January? Ew!
- Understand marketing ploys. For sale and on sale don’t mean the same thing. Just because a product is in the store’s ad doesn’t mean it’s a sale price. It’s just advertising, and frequently they are advertising it because there is a higher profit on that particular item. Usually, if an item is ON sale, the regular price is listed in the ad so you can see what the savings is. The end caps with the great big signs at your store don’t necessarily signify a sale either, but since many people assume they are there because of a discount, they stock up. Oftentimes, if the end cap is stocked with sale items, the store will display non-sale accessory items there as well. For instance a big display of sale-priced peanut butter might be accompanied with the most expensive grape jelly in the store or expensive breads or crackers. (This is when it really pays to know your prices.) The science of how people shop is fairly well documented. The most profitable items in the grocery store are shelved at eye-level (except in the cereal aisle, they’re at eye-level for a 7-year-old). Usually, you’ll find your best prices on items on the top shelf or the bottom shelf. Compare unit prices, though, as each store has it’s own way of doing things.
- Consider shopping at multiple stores. Let me qualify that by saying, shop at different stores if it makes sense! My stores are all within a few minutes of each other, some are across the street from each other. I only go to more than one store if the savings is going to make up for my time and gas. Usually that means I’m buying lots of stuff super cheap (with coupons), or stocking up on meat that is being sold at rock-bottom prices. The thought of driving even a mile to save 50 cents makes me a bit crazy. But if I’m going to buy 20 pounds of chicken breasts at under $1.80 a pound, (less than half of what many stores charge), yup, I’m there, because the thought of paying what most people do makes me even crazier.
- Sign up for store discount cards/memberships (free only!). It would be great if all stores would just give you the sale price and nix the store cards, but since they don’t you have to play along if you want the deals. It takes 5 minutes to fill out the application and is well worth your time. Many stores are now giving you even more discounts if you are a member of their “club” and allow them to send you emails as well. I’ve got some great deals that way and it takes about half a minute to browse that weekly email and make a mental note of whether I’m interested in that deal. I’m not a big fan of the the membership stores (Sams, Costco, BJs). There are only a handful of items that they sell that I can’t get a better price on using coupons and/or sales. For the membership fee it just isn’t worth it.
- Find out when your store marks down meat, bread and produce. When the “sell by” date is approaching grocery stores will deeply discount perishables. I’ve got some great deals meat and produce just by shopping their clearance products. Times/days vary, so check your store, and make sure to use or freeze the item so it doesn’t go bad on you. One of my favorite deals is the roasted chickens at my local Harris Teeter. Between 3 & 3:30 they mark down the chicken that was put out for the lunch crowd. It’s been kept hot, but is losing some of it’s freshness. Usually they’ll knock the price down to about $3. For a whole roast chicken?! Wow! That’s enough meat for 2 meals in my house. If I’m going past during the sale period I’ll grab one or two and head hope to de-bone them and pop the meat in the freezer.
- Know what you have on hand before shopping. This is particularly important when buying food with a short shelf-life. You don’t save money on a jar of peanut butter that goes rancid before you can use it. But be sure to have on hand the items you need to make the meals on your list from item #8.
- Get rain checks for sale items when they are out of stock
- Cut back on meat. Consider serving one meatless meal (at least) per week. We do meatless Mondays. My family hasn’t figured it out yet. Usually it will be soup and salad or breakfast for dinner. They enjoy the meal and don’t seem to realize there’s no meat. Well, unless and until they read this post!
- Drink more water. Soft drinks, juice, coffee, etc., can really cut into your grocery budget. And if you’re buying individual bottles of water, investigate other ways of getting drinkable water. I live in an area with great well water, yet I see people all over the place buying bottled water that tastes exactly like what comes out of the tap here. Yipes! I’ve lived in areas with really awful tap water; after filtering failed to produce anything remotely drinkable we bought two 5-gallon jugs and had them filled with purified water every other week. Consider scaling back on juice for the kids, too. Most of what is out there is flavored sugar-water with no nutritional value except for the added vitamin C (you may as well give them kool aid at that point). Even the latest “juices” by V-8 don’t have much in the way of nutritional value. And, for the record, I have two teen age boys who bounce between drinking iced tea (they make it), Kool-Aid (they make it) or soft drinks that they purchase with their own money. I don’t buy a lot of juice for them for the stated reason.
- Keep an eye on the cash register to make sure items scan correctly. It seems like every time I’m not paying close attention something scans wrong (either the product or the coupon), so I try to be aware. Item #2 helps with this. Many stores have an accuracy guarantee of some sort, and all will fix the problem if you bring it to their attention. Between humans and the computers, errors happen. Pay attention so you can get it fixed immediately. (I personally won’t drive back to the store because of a small error, time vs. money.)
- Avoid pre-packaged snacks. Individually-wrapped packages of cookies, crackers, cheese, etc. can be really convenient, but the per-unit prices for these items is astronomical compared to the cost of baggies or re-usable plastic dishes. Unless you’re getting the items free or nearly free by combining coupons and sales, just don’t buy them.
- Shop at no-frills stores. Stores like Aldi’s and bag-your-own stores have lower prices because their overhead is low. If your store has a walk-in cooler for beer, hardwood floors in it’s wine department, etc., they have to make up the money for all the extras somewhere, and they do — by having higher-than normal prices. Compare prices, couponing policies, locations, etc., to see what YOUR best options are.
- Make your own baby food. I had to throw this in there even though I haven’t had to make baby food in 16 years. The prices for those little jars is just crazy! Search the internet for recipes and techniques. Mostly it’s just a matter of pureeing mildly-seasoned “grown up” food. At 50 cents to a dollar a jar, you can save hundreds of dollars a month by making your own.
- Don’t waste food. Doesn’t get much simpler as a strategy. Make sure to use the food you buy before it goes bad. This goes for meat, dairy products, produce, baked goods, boxed goods like crackers. Everything. Use it up! All the other strategies are fairly pointless if in the end the food spoils without being eaten.
If you’re military or a military dependent…
Shop at the commissary!!! For the myriad of items that you won’t have coupons for, the commissary will save you 20%, easily, on the price of groceries. Make a big list and stock your pantry if it’s out of the way for you (closest one to me is 20 miles each way, I only go once a month). Using the commissary if you’re eligible is really a no-brainer.
I’d love to see some comments from readers about this list. Love it? Hate it? Disagree? More items? Other suggestions?