Everyone’s feeling the shock of higher grocery prices these days: you run in to buy a few basics, and $60 later you leave the store wondering where your money went. In fact, grocery bills have risen about 5.7 percent in the past two years. The reasons are complex, but for the most part, economists blame water shortages; increased production of biofuels such as ethanol, which is made from corn; and higher oil prices. Here, a step-by-step guide to bagging some serious grocery bargains.
Before You Go
Don’t be listless Impulse purchases can eat up a sizable amount of your grocery budget if you’re not careful, says Amanda Freeman, cofounder of the health and wellness newsletter Vital Juice Daily. She recommends developing an “evergreen” list of items you need to replenish weekly, such as meat, milk, and produce, and personal staples such as soups or cereals you eat often. Having copies of your master list lets you add to it, yet ensures your highest-priority foods remain on top.
Study sales cycles Supermarkets feature what are called categorical sales trends, which cycle through about once every 12 weeks. If you shop exclusively for what you need each week, you may net savings on only about 3 out of 15 major categories, says Teri Gault, CEO of www.thegrocerygame.com, a website that offers money-saving tips, coupons, and regional sales information. But if you scan the weekly circulars and find sales on cereals, frozen foods, and cheese, put them on your load-up list—and the next week see what other trends (meat, pasta, baking products) you can spot. “After about 12 weeks, you’ll have stockpiled everything from all categories, and you can shop from your own pantry, smug in the knowledge you’ve never paid full price,” she says.
Make the cut Snipping coupons may seem more hassle than it’s worth, but statistics reveal it’s a supersmart savings strategy: according to the Promotion Marketing Association’s Coupon Council, 20 minutes of coupon clipping can shave 20 percent off your weekly grocery bill—which can add up to $1,000 or more in savings each year. To maximize savings, don’t stop with the finds in your newspaper; some stores hand you coupons along with your register receipt, and if you’ve got a computer, log on to www.thegrocerygame.com and www.coupons.net for even more savings.
Don’t prejudge Supermarkets fall into two basic categories—EDLPs (everyday low prices), which are the stores you think of as the cheapest in your area, and “high-lows,” which have a reputation for being more expensive. Surprisingly, high-lows often house the better deals, since their sale prices typically dip lower than those at the EDLP stores.
While You’re There
Patrol the border Staples, such as produce, meat, bread, and milk—items that make up the bulk of your budget—are stocked along the outer perimeter of the market, says Jyl Steinback, a fitness-nutrition expert and coauthor of Fill Up to Slim Down (Penguin, 2005). Her advice: You’ll cut spending on pricey prepackaged foods by cruising the edge of the store first and then tackling the aisles for the remaining items on your list.
Look high, then low Grocery stores place higher-priced items where they’re easiest to see and grab, so you’ll usually find lower-priced versions on shelves above and below eye level. “I’ll buy store brands of almost anything just to try, so I know whether the cheaper price is worth it,” says Steinback. “Even if it’s something I wouldn’t buy again, I haven’t wasted money, since my family’s already eaten it.”
Take your pick of the little Don’t assume that bigger boxes offer the better savings, notes Gault. Check the unit price listed on the shelf tab and do some basic math to find out if the larger box of cereal is a smarter buy than the smaller one. If the cereal is going to go stale before you get a chance to eat all of it, go for the smaller box.
Get carded Store cards can give you instant access to sales, so sign up even at markets you don’t usually frequent. And if you don’t know if a store doubles coupons (some stores will match coupons up to a limit), honors competitors’ sales, or offers rain checks, ask—you could be missing out on a slew of money-saving opportunities.
Find a peel deal Precut and premixed produce can cost more than double the usual price, so you’ll save a bundle by peeling, cutting, and mixing at home. And peruse the produce on clearance, suggests Freeman. While most selections may be past their prime, you can hit on some happy surprises, especially if your menu’s flexible—for example, those slightly soft tomatoes might be perfect for the pasta sauce you’d planned to make later in the week, as long as you’re willing to cook them tonight.
Meat and greet Meats put a strain on many a food budget, but getting to know the staff can ease the sticker shock. For instance, most butchers are happy to package smaller cuts of meat; plus, many butchers will run cheaper, tougher cuts through the tenderizer at your request. Even if your store doesn’t offer such special services, its staff is a great resource. “Ask them what time of day they do their markdowns, so you can schedule your shopping to suit,” says Gault. “And if you check a package and see that the sell-by date is today, ask if they’ll mark it down for you.”
Rethink frozen foods Frozen meals and ready-made dishes can command premium prices, so most food-budget experts recommend that you avoid them. But from a practical standpoint, convenience foods can net you major savings on days you’re too tired or time-pressed to cook. “It’s surprising how few people consider the cost of takeout and restaurant food in their overall food budget,” says Gault. “If you find you’re ordering in or eating out once or twice a week, having that four-dollar lasagna on hand can save you a lot.”
Play the match game Using a coupon is like holding an ace in a card game—you’ll get a bigger bang for your buck if you play it when the time is right. “You can get free food—or food practically for free—by combining a coupon with a great sale,” says Gault. Coupons rolled out in weekly newspaper inserts often coincide with in-store sales, so do a quick comparison to bag some immediate savings. Then save the rest to use later—most coupons have a life expectancy of three months or more, and thanks to those categorical sales trends, you’ll usually spot a corresponding sale before a coupon expires.
Mind the scanners Whether computer-based or the result of human error, costly mistakes can occur at the register. To avoid them, shop with a partner; that way one person can unload while the other stands lookout as items are scanned. If that’s not possible, use Steinback’s tactic: “I don’t hesitate to ask the clerk to wait until I unload, so I can step up in sight of the screen,” she says. And if savings don’t ring up until your order is totaled, don’t leave the store without checking your receipt.
Extra Saving Secrets
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Clear some storage space Stockpiling items when they go on sale can multiply your savings by however many you buy—but those dozen boxes of 25-cent pasta are only a bargain if you can eat them all before the bugs set in, notes Shel Horowitz, author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook. So check your pantry to get a sense of how much of something you have on hand, and clean out your fridge and cupboards to make room for bargains before you buy.
Choose the ideal day Hitting the market on the right day of the week is key to snagging the best sales, so don’t toss the grocery store sales circulars you find in your mailbox and newspaper. Typically, flyers that arrive in your Tuesday mail run their sales on a Wednesday to Tuesday schedule. However, you might find a coupon in the Sunday paper that would make a sale item look even better. “If your sales week is Wednesday through Tuesday, you’ll want to shop Sunday through Tuesday, so that you have all of the coupons available to you for that sales week,” says Gault. If you’re shopping the night before a sale expires, take the circular with you: the sale tags might already have been moved in anticipation of the next day's sales.
Eat before you go It’s human nature to buy more food when you’re hungry, and supermarkets can use some sneaky strategies—like parking mouthwatering items just inside the entrance or at the checkout line. To avoid blowing your budget (and your diet) on food you just don’t need, shop just after breakfast or dinner, suggests Steinback. And if you can’t sync your shopping with mealtime, at least have a filling snack before you head into the store.