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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Verda Vivo January 14, 2009 at 8:14 am

Excellent tips! I haven’t used a price book before but may give that a trip. Using a grocer club card saves you a bundle. So does buying in season. Check the sale bins early in the day when the butchers rotate their product.

Attagirl for the Denver Post article! ~ Daryl

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Brett January 14, 2009 at 8:17 am

Here’s my plug for mygrocerydeals.com. Every week, the site loads up all the deals from every flyer/circular from every store in the country and lets you search, select, and print your grocery shopping list according to the best prices. And it is completely free to become a member. I’ve of one member who says her grocery spend has dropped from $300 to less than $120 for her family of eight! That’s pretty darned good savings.

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erin January 14, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Excellent list. Thanks for sharing. By the way – your website shows some wierd text just on #1.

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Rachel January 15, 2009 at 5:28 pm

I disagree with tip 4 about making a list, but not planning for meals. You’ll end up with stuff left over (countering tip 12) and having to run to the grocery in the middle of the week to get items to complete recipes.

Here’s what I do and nearly every week my fridge is bare (no exaggeration) when I go to the grocery.

First, if there are any leftover items in the fridge or pantry that will expire soon figure out (which really only happens if I have to buy a bundle of produce or cheese and the size I had to buy exceeding my recipe’s demands) how you can make them a meal and determine what other ingredients you need to complete the meal.

Second, go online and check out the store circulars/ads. Make your meal decisions based on what’s on sale. (or what you have coupons for.)

I plan every single thing that we’ll eat during the week – breakfast, lunch (we both take our lunch), dinner, and snacks and only buy what I need. The exception to this rule is that something is wonderfully on sale and I will include that ingredient into recipes this week and pick up some extras if they can be stored for meals in the upcoming weeks.

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cheaplikeme January 15, 2009 at 8:19 pm

@Rachel – Thanks for the detailed tips! A list from the sale circular is a great way to go.

I guess it depends how you define “stuff left over.” My family would scream if our fridge was bare. I keep a well-stocked pantry, including some items in the fridge, so we don’t usually find ourselves having to run to the store.

Often, we have many long-term ingredients on hand, because I stock up like crazy when I find a great deal. If we don’t have something, we either don’t make that recipe, or we make do with omissions, substitutions or general creativity. Usually it works fine; sometimes we have to promise never to repeat that experiment.

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Beatrice January 15, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Re: number 4: I do plan meals and generally stick with my list unless I find a really good bargain, but I keep an eye out for sales on non-perishable goods that I know I use a lot of – like canned beans and tomatoes – and stock up when they are on sale.

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pennypincherpolly January 22, 2009 at 9:03 am

I’m giving Angel Food Ministries a whirl this month and I’m going to be blogging on how that all works out. For $74, I got the basic box, the steak box and the veggie box.

Yesterday, I found an online coupon for Sam’s Club. Renewed my membership, was given a $25 gift card so that reduced the cost of membership to $15 for the year. I didn’t see that many bargains but I also didn’t spend a lot of time looking yesterday. I bought bulk yeast, good olive oil, a huge can of crushed tomatoes and some pasta. Gas was also eight cents a gallon cheaper at Sam’s. The Sam’s Club offer expired yesterday however.

If I recruit friends and family to split these jumbo sized products and the cost, it appears the membership will be worth it.

Since I do most of my shopping at stores like Shop n Save and Aldi’s where there is not a lot of price fluctuation from week to week, I decided that if I do a price book, the number of items I track will be minimal. I also rely on online grocery flyers when planning grocery shopping. Saves the clutter, saves the paper version and I get info I need to track grocery prices electronically.

I also believe on keeping a well-stocked pantry. The temptation to eat out is less. I have a couple of easy meals that take about 30 minutes to cook using canned and packaged items and that’s about the same amount of time it takes to get a $22 pizza delivered. I’m also making an effort now that I’m not working to keep the kitchen cleaned up so I’m not discouraged by a sinkful of dirty dishes when meal prep time arrives. I also am making an effort to cook once, eat twice and portion food into one serving containers that thaw faster than bigger containers.

Back to taking my Angel Food Ministry menu that’s coming and doing some meal planning.

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cheaplikeme January 14, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Looks great – and I love the free membership.

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