14 - 2009

21 ways to save on groceries

Welcome Denver Post readers! 10 of these tips appeared in today’s paper, and more are added below. If you like what you read, please subscribe for a regular dose of Cheap Like Me.

We all know the bad news: Food prices have been going up as employment, home values and credit lines go down. The scenario can be even worse if you are trying to make your shrinking dollars pay for more organic foods … or so it seems. But you can squeeze more out of your grocery receipt with some tried-and-true methods.

Ready to pinch a few more pennies at the grocery store? Here are 21 ways to trim your grocery bill.

1.    Use coupons. Some people claim coupons aren’t worth their while (i.e., “If I spend 20 minutes cutting coupons to save $2, I’m only making $6 per hour”), but unless someone is actually paying you for the 20 minutes spent clipping coupons, you’ll come out ahead — especially considering that most local groceries double them. But only cut out coupons for things you usually use — you’re spending, not saving, if a coupon drives you to buy something extra.

2.    Use the grocery store “club” card. It lets you access grocery store sale prices, and after you shop for a while, you can receive extra coupons in the mail that make a big difference.

3.    Check prices by the ounce, not the package. Packages can be deceiving. Be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Consider it good exercise for your brain — even if you use a calculator.

4.    Go with a list — but not too much of a list. Don’t plan meals and shop to the list. Instead, buy what’s on sale and cook with what you get for maximum savings.

5.    Piggyback coupons and sales. Use more than one coupon if you have one. For example, tea costs $2.75 a box, but it’s on sale for 2/$5. If you buy two boxes and have two coupons for $0.55, which will be doubled to $1 each, you will pay $1.50 per box — saving 45 percent. Stores usually will accept coupons even for “manager’s special” or markdown items.

6.    Price check. Use a price book. (This blog post explains how.)  Record the lowest prices you see on items, and consult it before you buy. For instance, cream cheese is sometimes “regularly” $1.14, and sometimes $1.50. It might go on “sale” for $1.25, but you might see in your price book that it has gone on sale in the past for $1.00. If you can wait to buy until it hits that point, and if you can use a $0.20 coupon (with doubling) you actually paid $0.60 — which makes the $1.25 price look like highway robbery. Buy several of an item at the lowest price (but do check expiration dates and be reasonable about how much you can use up) to keep your entire stock of that item priced low.

7.    Take advantage of manufacturers’ programs. For instance, I buy a brand of fish oil tablets that offers rewards. Typically, I stock up when the tablets are on sale for 40 percent or 50 percent off regular prices. I try to also use a coupon. Then I record the vitamin purchase at the manufacturer’s site, and after a few bottles, they send a coupon for $7 off. I choose to accept the coupon in the form of a check to Costco, because then I can be sure of using all $7 — if I use it at King Soopers, it’s a regular coupon, and if the vitamins I buy cost only $5.50, I won’t receive the full $7 value. Counting the value of the coupon, the bottle of fish oil tablets might cost just $5 or so instead of the listed $12. That’s a savings of nearly 60 percent.

8.    Look at local coupon books for extra savings. In the Denver area, the E-Book has King Soopers coupons for $5 off a $50 grocery purchase every other month. The book costs $10. If you regularly shop there and buy a book now (available at King Soopers) you can still save $15 on groceries alone. See a full list of offers here and consider if you would save enough to make the book buy worthwhile.

9.    Use meat sparingly — it is expensive. But enjoy it on sale. Stretch smaller amounts of meat to fill out multiple meals, and you’ll benefit your health and your wallet. Think of adding leftover chicken to chili or salad, dicing ham to add to fried rice, soup or potatoes, and saving bacon grease (if your health permits) to add smoky, rich flavor to sautéed onions.

10.    Always check the sale bins. Grocery stores have “manager’s special” sections in the dairy, cheese section, meat department and for general items. Buying “gourmet” bread at half off makes it a reasonable expenditure. Sunflower Market and Vitamin Cottage put older or bruised produce in bags for a few dollars or less. But always compare prices — once I almost bought some manager’s special natural sausage for $3 — a good savings from the regular price of $4.99. But then I saw the same brand of sausage, with a regular expiration date, was on sale at 2/$5.

11.    Watch for deals on new products. Often, a coupon for a new product signals that it also will be on sale. I recently got salsa for free, because it was on an introductory sale of $1 (from its regular price of $3.99), and I spotted a $1 coupon.

12.    Don’t buy what you won’t use. It’s not a great deal if you’ll throw it away or it will just take up room in the cupboard.

13.    Learn new ways to use cheap food — like beans, cabbage and squash. These foods are nutritious and very inexpensive. Stretch them into your menu in a variety of ways that will hold your interest.

14.    Learn to make some of your own staples, like bread, pizza, soup and yogurt. You’ll save money and create healthier foods.

15.    Minimize purchases of prepared food. It is expensive, more likely to be encased in wasteful packaging, and less healthy than home-cooked food.

16.    But save on dining out by buying “luxury” foods. Judicious use of packaged “luxuries” can save big bucks on going out. Keep a few things in the freezer to whip out when you are too tired to cook, but you won’t really enjoy a meal out. Prepared pasta from the freezer section can cost $4 to $8 for a family’s meal, compared to $12 a plate at a restaurant. A bag of prepared dumplings costs $9; whip up some fried rice for about $3 using frozen veggies and an egg. You can feed a family of four for under $10, compared to $40 ordering in. Frozen pizza can be had for $5, compared to $15 delivered.

17.    Buy items where they are mundane. Cilantro, shrimp and avocados might cost less at a Mexican market. Spices are available in inexpensive bulk at Indian markets. Some “exotic” ingredients (like artichoke hearts) might cost less at Whole Foods than at Albertson’s.

18.    Leave wiggle room in your budget so you can stock up on good deals. If you set aside a few grocery dollars every month, you can afford to invest in items like a CSA share (community supported agriculture) for local, organic veggies (last year we paid $18 a week for six months of more vegetables than we could eat), a portion of a locally raised beef cow, or a great manager’s special, like last year’s after-Christmas deal on Coleman beef roasts for more than 50 percent off.

19.    Be wary of non-food expenditures. Non-food purchases at the grocery store can be priced much higher than elsewhere. On the other hand, if all you need is a box of laundry soap, and you know in your heart that if you go into Target or Wal-Mart to buy it you’ll come out with a cartful of goods, you might find that paying a few cents more at the market will save you $100 at Target.

20.    A freezer is a good investment. It lets you stock up for the future, make your own freezer jams, buy in bulk and freeze goods to eliminate any possible insect infestations (like when you open that older bag of cornmeal and … ugh).

21.    Bulk foods can be great savers. Think staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, coffee, nuts. Calculate how much you can save on these items (and non-food items like pet food, cat litter and diapers) to determine if a warehouse membership (Costco, Sam’s or the like) is worthwhile for you.

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