I usually spend less than $100 a week buying groceries for my family of four. And I don't use coupons — ever.
Yes, there are some extreme couponers out there who manage to spend next to nothing at the grocery store. But I don't have the time it takes to be that sort of coupon pro — nor would I benefit from the effort because coupons usually aren't available for the items I regularly buy.
So I've found other ways to keep my grocery costs under control. One reason I'm able to keep my weekly spending low is because I don't live in a large metropolitan area, where prices are higher. However, these ten tips should help you score savings wherever you live.
Choose the right store. The bulk of my savings come from shopping at Walmart rather than Kroger (the main options where I live). On average, my grocery bill is 20% less when I shop at Walmart. I compared the prices at both stores on 15 items I regularly buy and found that I paid $10 more at Kroger ($53.87 versus $43.50). The bigger the shopping list, the greater the savings. Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine writers conducted a similar experiment and spent nearly $20 less on the same basket of items at Trader Joe's than at Whole Foods (Get the Best, Spend Less).
It might seem a little time-consuming to actually run this experiment yourself. But you only have to do it once — and the savings could be substantial. Think of it this way: If you were buying a big-ticket item, such as a TV, you'd probably invest some time to shop around and research prices. Although your weekly grocery bill may not seem like a major expenditure, you're shelling out $10,400 a year if you're spending $200 a week. That's a lot more than most TVs — which you could easily afford to buy if you cut your weekly grocery bill in half.
Read on for more tips.
Find alternatives for the most expensive items on your list. The next time you go to the grocery, hang on to your receipt and circle the most expensive items. Then, consider lower-cost alternatives for those items to rack up real savings on future shopping trips. For instance, red meat — as you probably know — isn't cheap. A package of four sirloin steaks costs three times as much as a package of four chicken breasts. Pork is another lower-cost alternative. (You'll be doing your waistline and heart a favor, too, by cutting back on red meat.)
Other budget busters are organic items and pricey cheeses. But you can lower the cost of these items if you comparison shop, opt for generic brands, buy produce only when it's in season and become more selective about the items you buy.
For example, the Whole Foods 365 brand tends to be cheaper than name-brand organics. Even the Walmart where I shop offers organic items — and they're cheaper than at Kroger. Plus, I tend to buy organic only for produce that is most susceptible to pesticide residue (such as apples, lettuce and potatoes — see the Environmental Working Group's list of the dirty dozen) or antibiotics and hormones (such as milk and eggs). Buying frozen veggies (even organic ones) also can be a big money saver, especially considering they won't go bad if you don't eat them within a week. And I save by buying fruits and vegetables when they're in season — otherwise, they can cost twice as much. As for the fancy cheese, consider it a treat and buy it sparingly.
Before you shop, plan your menu for the week. This will limit the trips you make to the grocery, as well as impulse buys. A colleague of mine says he and his wife rarely plan more than a couple of days' worth of meals for their family of four. As a result, they go to the store almost every other day and spend at least twice as much on groceries as my family does each month.
The Web site ZipList.com makes it easy to create a grocery list, which you can access on any phone (not just a smart phone) while you're shopping. If you do have a smart phone, you can use it to scan items you have at home that you need to purchase, and they'll automatically be added to your list. Plus, the site has more than 300,000 recipes, provides recipe recommendations based on ones you've already chosen and will add the ingredients you need to buy for recipes you select to your shopping list. Just be sure to make your grocery list while you're at home so you can scan your refrigerator and pantry to see what you actually need.
Use what you have. This goes hand-in-hand with planning. Use what you have so it doesn't go bad and you don't waste gas money on an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. The cooking site Gojee.com can help you find ways to use food items you already have. (See Lower Your Grocery Costs for more information.)
Skip prepared and convenience foods. Don't pay extra for the grocery store to do your kitchen chores for you. For instance, I tend to buy my vegetables in their natural form — rather than washed, cut and packaged in sealed bags — because they're cheaper that way. For example, butternut squash recently was $1.28 per pound, but the diced, 12-ounce packaged version was about $1 more at the same store. And I stay away from the prepared food section of the store because you pay a premium for salads and other dishes already made for you. I also don't buy prepackaged meals, such as Lunchables ($3 to $4 each), because it's cheaper to buy bread, cheese and deli meat, and assemble sandwiches on my own (which don't take much time to make).
Stock up when items you regularly buy go on sale. Some people advocate planning your weekly menu around what's on sale at the grocery. But this approach can backfire for a few reasons. Although on sale, these items still might be pricier than things you normally would buy . And you might end up with a lot of food you don't know how to prepare or that few people in your family will actually eat. Instead, I recommend that when items you regularly buy go on sale, stock up. Don't think of that sale as a one-time opportunity to get a single helping of your favorite food for less. If the item has a long shelf life (or if you have room to freeze it), buy several and score big savings.
Check unit prices. Make sure you're really getting the most bang for your buck by checking items' unit price, which most stores display. This price typically shows how much you're paying per ounce and can point you to the better deal. For example, my kids like frozen waffles and I tend to buy a package of ten each week — overlooking the larger package because of its higher sticker price. But when I bothered to check the unit price on the 24-pack, I realized I was missing a good deal: 13.4 cents per ounce versus 18.1 cents per ounce for the 10-pack. For some items, though, you'll get a better deal buying several smaller packages rather than one large package. That's why you should always look at unit price.
Buy certain items in bulk. We pay a lot less buying toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, batteries, rice and pasta in bulk at the warehouse club (see Warehouse Clubs: Deal or No Deal?). We also buy chicken breasts at the warehouse club because the package of a dozen we get there is usually several dollars less than smaller packages at the grocery store. Notice, these are items that are nonperishable or that can be frozen. We don't buy bulk items that will go bad before we can eat the entire amount.
Look down. Name-brand items, which tend to be more expensive, usually are placed at eye-level. So when you're shopping, look down (or up) for cheaper items, including generics. Yes, I'm loyal to a few brands. But for most items, especially canned goods, I'll scan the bottom shelf to find them several cents to several dollars cheaper than their strategically placed name-brand equivalents.
Don't buy personal-care products at the grocery. Unless you do your grocery shopping at a SuperTarget or a Walmart Supercenter, you're better off buying shampoo, toothpaste, cotton balls and other personal-care products at a drugstore or dollar store, where they're cheaper.
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