Few spending categories can kill a budget faster than food. For some families the art of frugal grocery shopping comes naturally. We have to work a little harder, but over time we have developed a few tips to help navigate the grocery aisles and save money every month.
Sign up for customer loyalty programs. Larger grocery chains such as Kroger or Publix have a customer loyalty program designed to enhance repeat business. Take advantage of “member’s only” pricing by signing up for a store in your area with the best incentives (double coupons, members-only hours, savings on gasoline purchases, etc.). While you are at it, check out UPromise, a free service that ties your grocery store spending to college savings accounts for your kids.
Coupons are your friend. If your Sunday paper was delivered with a $10 bill attached, would you throw it away? Of course not. Well, that’s effectively what you are doing each week by not taking a few minutes to clip and organize coupons. Combined with store sales, coupons have helped us shave over 30% off our grocery bill. My wife and I have been Grocery Game subscribers for some time now, and it is a great service for helping identify those rock-bottom deals.
Plan meals two weeks in advance. Don’t be one of these daily grocery store shoppers who stops by on the way home from work every day to pick up tonight’s dinner. The more times you enter a store the more chances you have to forget frugality and succumb to the grocer’s marketing efforts.
Make a grocery list – and don’t leave home without it. I think the art of making a list is lost on most people because we are an impatient society. Who wants to take the time to make a list, when I can just “wing it.” Any good efficiency expert will tell you that organizing your thoughts in list form will make you more productive, and is well worth the time. A grocery list will also help you stay focused and lessen the chances of you picking up frivolous items on a whim.
Shop without the kids. Older kids can be great helpers, and shopping creates many teachable moments that parents can share with their little ones. However, toddlers are typically impatient and don’t have the stamina to make a full lap around the store. They are also bad about grabbing items and throwing them in the shopping cart, leading to a total meltdown when you have to explain that we can’t buy seven boxes of Lucky Charms to get each color of the magic decoder ring. Better to leave the kids with grandparents or a trusted babysitter.
Never shop hungry. I used to make the mistake of shopping on an empty stomach. Shopping while hungry makes everything look good and before you know it you’ve completely blown your grocery budget.
Bring a calculator. We use a cash envelope system for our household budget, so it’s important for us not to overspend and get embarrassed at the checkout. Take along a calculator to keep a running tab of your purchases. An easier method is to simply keep a tab on the back of your grocery list, rounding up items to the nearest dollar to make the math easier.
Look high and low for deals, literally. The hottest real estate on a grocery store shelf is eye-level, and is usually where the worst deals are found. Make the effort to look at lower shelves to find the best deals, and look for store-brand alternatives frequently stored along the top.
Search the end-caps. End-caps are the space at both ends of a grocery aisle where great deals can be found. We’ve discovered that end caps on a snack aisle (cookies, crackers, chips) often have the best deals because the idea is to draw shopper’s attention up the aisle. Save time and avoid walking the length of the snack aisle – the best deals are found at both ends.
Forget brand loyalty. Most of us grew up eating only one kind of peanut butter, or using only one brand of mayonnaise. If you want to save money on groceries you have to be willing to try new things. Using a coupon to get a different brand of peanut butter for half price makes sense, and I’ve learned to enjoy the taste of savings.
Store brands offer a cheaper alternative. Most people don’t realize that many manufacturers roll products off a conveyor and slap different labels on them – a national brand and a local store brand. Many generic or store products have nearly the same ingredients as their name-brand counterparts, but are much less expensive.
Compare unit costs, not list prices. Bigger packages don’t always mean cheaper prices. The calculator you brought along can help convert price to unit cost to compare which items are really cheaper. Simply divide the price by the total number of units (ounces, items, etc.) to get each package’s unit cost. Many times you will find it is cheaper to buy two smaller packages than one slightly larger. This is especially true of paper products, where stores rely on consumers believing the myth that bulk packages are cheaper.
Buy only the minimum amount you need. Many people are suckered into buying more than they really need by store’s “2 for $4” sale prices. All this means is that the cost of each item is $2, and you can either buy one for $2, or 2 for $4. If you don’t need two items, just buy one. Some specials require a certain quantity, so be sure to check the fine print. If the pricing represents rock-bottom pricing, and you have more than one coupon, it may make sense to stock up, but don’t do it unnecessarily because the store’s signage persuaded you.
Don’t buy non-grocery items at the grocery store. Our primary store recently remodeled and included several middle aisles dedicated to plates, silverware, etc. These items are priced much higher than discount store equivalents. Resist the temptation to stray outside of grocery products.
Pick up toiletries, medicines and hygiene products at a discount store or pharmacy. Stores like CVS and Walmart typically have much better deals on toiletries and other personal care items than grocery stores. Unless you have a coupon that makes the price competitive, avoid these types of purchases at a grocery store. As an aside, Be Thrifty Like Us does a great job of reporting on deals at stores like CVS, and their “Frugal Friday” is a weekly must-read.
Look for manager’s specials in the meat department. Meat products have a “sell by” date and as that date approaches items that haven’t moved are tagged “manager’s special” or some similar designation. Many stores have a designated space for items marked manager’s specials, and other times the items are mixed in with regularly priced products. Ask the manager on duty if you need help finding special deals. If you plan to cook or freeze the meat right way you can find some great discounts on meats, which usually make up the largest percentage of our family’s grocery store budget.
Buy 2-liter soft drinks instead of cans. 2-liters represent a much better deal, even though they aren’t as convenient as canned soft drinks. If you must by canned drinks look for multi-unit specials on “fridge packs” such as a “3 for $10” sale. A better plan would be to eliminate soft drinks from your diet altogether. Here is some inspiration if you are so motivated.
Keep eyes front in the checkout line. Candy, magazines and useless gadgets fill the sidelines of grocery store checkout lanes. These items typically represent the highest margin products for grocery stores. You are a captive audience while in line, and stores know that many of the items are bought on impulse. A couple candy bars to snack on during the ride home costs the same as a giant box of spaghetti noodles used to feed a family of four, with leftovers. Use the time more effectively to organize coupons, check your grocery list and get your loyalty card ready for scanning.
Recycle your grocery bags. Not only is this good for the environment, but many stores will offer a few cents off your grocery bill for each bag you bring in from home.
Keep an eye on the scanner. Grocery stores are notorious for incorrectly ringing up sale items. The other day I bought two loaves of a name brand white wheat bread on sale for $1.19 per loaf. The bread rang up $2.64. I notified the clerk who asked for a price check. Turns out I was right, and saved nearly $3.00 just by being observant.
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