Monday, November 5, 2012

25 Unconventional Ways to Save Money on Groceries!

Times are tough, and food is expensive. There are lots of ways to save money on your grocery budget, but unconventional thinking with these simple tips can help you spend less on your food, use more of what you have and waste less.



The conventional tips to saving money at the grocery store are a great start:

  • Buy things that are on sale
  • Plan menus around the sales flyer
  • Limit your shopping trips--once or twice a month is ideal
  • Use a grocery list
  • Buy in bulk and keep your cost per-ounce low.
  • Emulate Extreme Couponers, use price matching and sale surf.
But I find that the things that can make the biggest difference in my grocery budget are tips that think . . . a little more outside the box. They might sound like common sense, but they go beyond or even run contrary to a lot of the "conventional wisdom" of saving money on groceries. Like these:

Look at what you're going to use. I recently did this with broccoli. We like broccoli fine, but sometimes it takes us a while to get around to eating it. I needed a little broccoli for a specific recipe. The regular broccoli often comes two stalks bound together. Broccoli crowns, on the other hand, are more expensive, but you can buy them individually. You might not be eating the stalk (peel it first if you are!)--but you're still paying for it. For a small amount of fresh florets, broccoli crowns might be a better deal.

Look at the per-unit price, not just the per-ounce price. For example, if your family can't drink a full gallon of milk before it expires is might be not only less wasteful but cheaper to buy a half-gallon. Now, if a gallon costs $3 where you live, and a half-gallon is $2, the gallon is clearly less expensive by the ounce. But if you're not going to be drinking all those ounces, instead of saving a penny an ounce, save a dollar on the whole unit!

Use a grocery list, but use categories. Let's say you're going to make a stir-fry this week, and you need meat. You can look at the sales flyers to figure out what's cheapest in advance, or you can leave the category a little more open, and find an unadvertised sale, something that's close-dated (i.e. needs to be cooked soon anyway), something that's cheaper by the unit (if you won't use more than what you need this week), etc. I do this especially with fresh fruit for snacks, vegetables for stir-fries, etc.

Keep a running subtotal (or written) as you shop. Not only will you know what to expect at the register instead of playing the supermarket sweepstakes, but you'll be able to pick things that you might not need as much to keep your costs down.

Study the sales flyers--but not necessarily to find the best deals each week. This takes time, but paying attention as you plan and shop over time gives you a good sense of what's really a "sale" and what's actually a good deal. For example, name brand cereal often goes on sale for $3.88 for a large box. That might sound like a deal, but if you've watched the sales cycles, you might know that you can get it for $2 a box or less every quarter. (Sales repeat in 12-week cycles, and you can stock up on durable items--but that's a conventional tip I hope we're all using!) (Side note: name brand cereals often have coupons available.)

Know the stores and their schedules. Aside from saving time instead of walking all over the store for hours, if you know their layouts and schedules you'll know when and where to find the very best deals, such as when they mark down their day-old bakery goods or close-dated packaged produce. Or, if the store closes on Sundays, you might be able to find highly perishable fruits, veggies and bakery items cheaper on Saturday. If you live in the West, you'll frequently find case-lot sales for great savings on canned goods.

Find local Internet forums for sales and coupon advice. Extreme couponers make using coupons a full-time job. Unfortunately, most of us already have jobs. However, there are many "extreme couponers" who have free local forums where individuals can pair up the best sales and coupons for you, or let you know about other good local deal.s

But use coupons wisely. Like I said, extreme couponing is a full time job. Knowing easier ways to take advantage of coupons helps even more. Every once in a while, you'll find a store that accepts expired coupons (which they're supposed to do if you're overseas military, BTW), or doubles, triples or rounds coupons up to a dollar periodically. You can find extra coupons on the Internet, especially ones that load directly onto your grocery store savings card from Cellfire.com and Shortcuts.com. And of course, remember to compare the price with coupon to the store brand, and know that a coupon is not a contract. If you don't really need it and you might not use it, don't buy it!

On that note, know the difference between needs and wants! You do need to eat. You do not need to eat filet mignon every night . . . in fact, you don't even need to eat meat every night. Be open to cheaper options, including cheaper meal plans. Eliminate unhealthy and unnecessary snacks.

Know what's worth it to you. Things are usually cheaper if you buy the parts, pieces or ingredients and put them together. It's cheaper to make your own artisan bread, for example, but is your time worth it? (No judgments--I make my own of some things, other things I'm willing to pay for.)

You do not have to buy something just because it's on sale, nor do you have to buy everything that's on sale. It sounds like common sense, and it is, but sometimes the people who are the smartest about saving money on sales just can't resist a good deal. But again, if it's not something need and/or will really use, it isn't a deal. It's a waste of money, and even if it's free, it's a waste of space in your home.

Learn when a sale isn't a deal! Our local grocery stores will frequently run a "Buy 10 participating items get $5 off" sale. If you're going to eat or use all 10, and they fit into your meal plan already, then that's a great deal! But if you only need three or four items in the near future (and how many boxes of PopTarts does anyone need?), you will probably be spending more than $5 to get the $5 discount. Is that a deal?

Pay attention to when you do--and don't--have to buy a certain # of things to get a deal. Sometimes, the ad says "Buy 2 get one free!" but really, they're all just half off. On the other hand, some sales you do only get the discount if you buy two items. This is especially true for the buy 10 participating items, get $5 off--the fine print will specific that you must by 10 items, and a limit of 10, 20 or 30 items.

Meat is one of the most expensive items on your budget--even the best sale on meat is still well over $1/pound where I live (and we have low food costs!). If you go meatless for a meal or two, you could be saving $5/week pretty easily. That's >$250 a year. Protein-rich foods like beans (dried or canned) and lentils (usually dried) are much cheaper and still tasty.

Know what's almost always cheap. This might vary by where you live, but where I live, onions and potatoes are always pretty affordable, as are dried beans. Along with this, knowing your fruit seasons and buying fruits that are being harvested now can help you save money.

Check out the bulk section for small amounts, too. Most of the time, when we think of "bulk" we think of buying a lot. But sometimes it's perfect for just a little, too. Many stores have some sort of bulk section with nuts, grains, chocolate, dried fruit and granola. A few stores have more extensive bulk sections, and this is a great place to pick up smaller amounts of things, too. For example, around here things like couscous, bulgur, panko and the like come in boxes and are a little expensive. I usually don't need as much as is in the box (and the rest might go to waste or just sit around taking up space for a while), so I go to our best bulk store and buy a cup or two of what I need.

Learn substitutions (or bring a smartphone). I was making mushroom ravioli the a few months ago and I needed dried criminis. My usual grocery store didn't care of them. Instead of driving all over down after them (and then spending a bundle on them), I pulled out my phone and looked up a substitute that I could find in my store for much cheaper.

Ask for help finding what you want. Time is money, they say, and in the grocery store it's true. The longer you spend there, the more you spend. If it takes twenty minutes to find the couscous, you'll probably pick up a couple other things while you're looking. And if the first person doesn't know, ask again. Last month I asked a grocery store employee where the couscous was, and she had no idea what I was talking about. I explained it was a type of very small pasta, and she said if it wasn't where I was looking by the pasta, they didn't have it, and she'd seriously never heard of it. (I didn't give up. It's by the rice.)

Check your freezer, fridge and pantry before you go. Don't buy things you already have! Also, be aware of how much space you have for new food.

I'm bucking convention here (gasp) in buying in bulk and shopping infrequently, but I think aiming for weekly grocery trips is really the most helpful to the budget. The more you go, the more you may fall prey to impulse buys, but if you don't go each week you'll run out of highly perishable items like bread, milk and fresh produce, and then have to go back for "a quick trip." And what are those quick trips but an even easier excuse to go without a list and pick up a few other things? Plus, if you're already there each week, you can take advantage of each week's best sales.

Know your food: how to store it, how to use it, how long it will keep. It's a waste of money to bring home your produce and ruin it. Peppers go in the fridge, tomatoes don't. Pears ripen in paper bags, then go in the fridge. Keeping bananas near apples make the bananas ripen faster. If you need peppers for next week's meal, but they're on sale this week, will the keep? Etc. Etc. 

Process your food once. If you stock up on peppers and you're planning to use them this week, why not chop all the peppers at the same time (and freeze the extras)? When you use your bulk chicken or beef for dinner Tuesday, wrap up the extras for the freezer, or cook it all, chop it and freeze it. I have thrown away a ridiculous amount of food (including expensive meat!) because I keep meaning to freeze it . . . and then it's too late.

Eat your food twice. Okay, that might sound a little gross, but what I mean is to incorporate any leftovers into your meal plan. I tend to make big meals for my family on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, then I leave Wednesday and Thursday open for leftovers. Friday is more flexible: I keep the ingredients for homemade pizza on hand, or we can pick up a quick pizza, or we can have another night of leftovers if we still have some hanging around. Saturdays are often similarly flexible. We throw away a lot less food (that I work hard on!) this way.

Look into local co-ops, stands and farmers' markets for groceries, and really do your research. One of our local grocery co-op options costs four times as much as the one we used for a while. Also keep in mind that with grocery co-ops, you might have to take what you get. The one we used gave you about 5 kinds of fruit and 5 kinds of vegetables, but it was always a toss up whether you'd get Swiss chard and white sweet potatoes or carrots and bananas. It made menu planning a challenge, but the real reason we stopped using them was the decline in quality. When fruits and vegetables are in season, you can also find great deals at roadside stands and local farmers' markets--but again, it pays to know what's really a good deal.

Form your own co-op. Yes, you can do that! In Mom's congregation, a group of families get together and (if I understood this right) buy wholesale produce from the local farmers' market, then split up the cost and the food. Wholesale prices are generally lower, but the minimum purchase is large, so it's still expensive (and who needs 25 lbs of zucchini?), but if you share the costs, you can also share the harvest.

What do you think? What are your outside-the-box tips to save money on groceries?


Photo credits: money: Julien GONG Ming; carrots: F Delventhal

2 comments:

Lisa said...

I try to watch different stores and see who has the best deals on certain things. I know Target and Walmart tend to be less on cereal so I'll stock up there when I go, but the grocery store is better for other things. I also tend to try to buy generic brands for certain things that don't matter that much.

Just Jaime said...

"Know your food: how to store it, how to use it, how long it will keep" This is the MOST important tip!

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