My wife isn’t one of those women who can buy hundreds of dollars of groceries for $12.93. She is, however, a frugal shopper, and can often trim an $80 bill to a $60 bill. Here are some of her top tips:
- Don’t shop for groceries if you’re hungry. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s true. Studies show that folks who shop when they’re hungry buy more. It’s true for me: If I go to the store for milk on a Sunday morning without eating breakfast, I’m likely to come home with donuts and orange juice and Lucky Charms, too.
- Shop with a list. Make a list and stick to it. The list represents your grocery needs: the staples you’re out of, and the food you need for upcoming meals. When you stray from the list, you’re buying on impulse, and that’s how shopping trips get out of control. Sure, a magazine only costs $5, but if you spend an extra $5 every time you make a trip to the supermarket, you waste a lot of money.
- Choose a grocery store and learn its prices. As I mentioned yesterday, supermarkets monkey with prices. You can’t be sure a sale price is really a deal unless you know what the store usually charges. Once you learn the prices at one store, you can save even more by adding another supermarket to the mix. Learn its prices, too, and note how they compare to the first. Your goal should be to recognize bargains. You want to know when those Lucky Charms are really on sale.
- Buy in bulk, when possible. You can save a lot of money by taking advantage of economies of scale. But there are times you shouldn’t buy in bulk, too: if the larger bundle is actually more expensive per serving, if you don’t have room to store larger packages, if you won’t actually use more of the product before it spoils. You don’t want stale Lucky Charms.
- Stock up on non-perishables, if you have space. Investing in five tubes of sale toothpaste is better than buying one on sale now and four later at the regular price. If a favorite product goes on sale, buy as much as you will use before it goes bad. Again: be certain that the sale price is really a bargain. Great items to hoard include: dried pasta, canned foods, toiletries, baking supplies, cereal, and cleaning supplies.
- If you do seasonal baking, stock up year round. Dried fruit and nuts will keep in the fridge or freezer. Decorating supplies can be stored in a cupboard or cellar. By planning ahead, you can purchase seasonal goods when they’re cheapest rather than when you need them.
- Know when to shop at big box stores. Costco and Sam’s Club don’t always have the best prices, and their selection is limited. However, they do have great deals on many items, including vitamins, toiletries, baking supplies, pet supplies, and paper products.
- Compare unit pricing. The biggest package isn’t always the cheapest. Stores know that consumers want to buy in bulk, and so they mix it up: sometimes the bulk item is cheaper, sometimes it’s more expensive. The only way you can be sure is to take a calculator. (Mapgirl says she uses the calculator on her cell phone.) Our grocery store posts unit pricing for most items, which makes comparisons easy.
- Check your receipt. Make sure your prices are scanned correctly. Make sure your coupons are scanned correctly. Sale items, especially, have a tendency to be in the computer wrong, and yet few people ever challenge the price at the register. You don’t need to hold up the line: simply watch the price of each item as it’s scanned. If you suspect an error, step to the side and check the receipt as the clerk begins the next order. If there’s a problem, politely point it out. It’s your money. Ask for it.
- Use coupons, but only to buy things you actually need (or want to try). Gather coupons from your Sunday newspaper, from weekly circulars, from in-store booklets, or from online sources. Ask friends and family to save them for you. Sort through them while you’re doing something mindless — watching television, talking on the telephone, riding the bus. Clip coupons for products you use (or cheap alternates), or for products you’d like to try.
- Use coupons for staple foods and ingredients, not highly-processed foods.
- Take advantage of special coupons whenever possible. Double coupons are great. My wife’s likes the “get $10 if you spend $50 or more” variety. Coupons for produce are rare — seasonal produce is often the cheapest and freshest. These special coupons can yield big savings.
- For maximum savings, combine coupons with in-store sales. What happens when you combine a steep in-store discount on Lucky Charms with a 50-cents-off coupon and a double coupon? You get very cheap Lucky Charms, that’s what.
- Plan your meals around what’s on sale. Every week, before making a shopping list or planning what to eat, go through your flyers and coupons. Check the calendar to see if there are any big events approaching for which you’ll need food. If you like meat, plan your menu based on the sale cuts.
- Examine sale flyers carefully. On the front page are the things that the store really wants you to buy. Be wary of these. Note any special bargains. This week, for example, our store had many items on sale at ten for ten dollars, including dried pasta.
- Take advantage of “buy one, get one free” offers. Split with a friend, if needed. You many not need two pot roasts, but it’s the same as getting one for half price if you find a friend to split the expense. (Alternately, pay the normal price and give the second away as a gift. Who wouldn’t love a free pot roast?)
- My wife’s final piece of advice? “Let your husband come with you for the company, but don’t let him put anything in the cart.” The experts agree.
Highly-processed foods have enormous markups. “You shouldn’t even buy processed foods because the markups are so high,” my wife advises. Coupon savings barely make a dent in the price. If you must buy processed foods, wait for a good sale and then add the coupon so that you can get them at an excellent price.
Note: this entry started as a response to Punny Money‘s grand coupon experiment. Nick is convinced that he can’t save any money with coupons. I went to my wife for a rebuttal, but I didn’t get one. “Coupons are usually for things you don’t need,” she told me. “Sales are the same as coupons — you have to lump them together in your head. It’s all just finding bargains.”