When gas prices were soaring in the summer of 2008, my family was scrambling to find ways to save money. We could not reduce the prices at the gas pumps, we were locked into the lowest interest rate on our mortgage, and our budget was maxed out. I knew the only way we could continue without running into the red each month was to reduce the line item marked Grocery — but I didn't know how exactly to go about doing that.
At that same time, I discovered the world of personal-finance blogs and frugality blogs. It was through these blogs that I found myself a “job”. It wasn't a job that earned our family any income; it was a job that involved spending less of the income that my husband worked so hard to earn. My new job? Grocery store savings expert!
My new grocery-shopping techniques allowed me to save over $100 the first month, and close to $200 the second month. Our monthly grocery budget dropped from around $500 to $300. (And sometimes less!) Here are the steps I took to save at the supermarket:
- Get a store loyalty card. Sign up for a card that will help you save money each week at the store (and maybe even earn money back, like with the CVS Extra Care Bucks card.)
- Study your store's circular. Look through your grocery store's weekly circular to see what is on sale. Products on the front page are called “loss leaders” and are priced very low to entice you into the store, where you will then purchase the loss leaders, but other items as well. Loss leader prices are typically the lowest prices of the season, so it is worth buying extra items if you know that you will use them. For example: If boneless skinless chicken breasts are on sale for $1.77/lb (regularly $5.49/lb), it is worth purchasing 5-6 packages to freeze for use in the coming weeks.
- Make a meal plan and a shopping list. After studying your grocery store circular, plan a few meals using the products that are on sale that week. (If you need extra help with this, my $5 Dinners blog has a feature called the bargain meal of the week, where different contributors from all over the country post a recipe based on their grocery-store circular. Also check out $5 Meal Plan.) Create a shopping list based on your meal plan and what you already have in your cupboards. Do not buy anything that is not on your list. You didn't need it when you were at home creating your list, and you don't need it when you are standing in the store — even if you think you need it.
- Look for marked-down proteins. Watch for meats, chicken, pork and fish that are on sale. Or, better yet, marked down for “quick sale”. These products can be used right away or frozen for future use. A vacuum sealer or food saver system is a worthy investment if you aim to get the very best prices on protein sources.
- Buy your produce on sale. Purchase produce that is on sale that week. This is often based on what type of produce is in season. This will not only help your pocketbook, but it will also help you explore new foods and experiment in the kitchen.
- Clip coupons from the newspaper or print them from online. “But they don't make coupons for the products that I buy,” you might say. Do you purchase toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo? I hope so! All of these products can be purchased with a coupon. I don't remember the last time I paid for toothpaste. When name-brand toothpastes go on sale for $1, you can match a $.50 coupon that doubles to $1 (if your store doubles) to get the toothpaste for free.
- Consider digital coupons. If you're not up to the paper-and-scissors task of couponing, then load your store loyalty cards with electronic coupons. Shortcuts.com, Cellfire, P&G eSaver, and Upromise are four websites that allow you to save money electronically on a wide variety of products. Sign up at each website and the coupons will be deducted automatically from your receipts. Upromise electronic coupons are deposited back into a college savings account you can set up for your children.
- Resist the displays. Purchase items from the top or bottom shelf, as opposed to the ones at eye level. Manufacturers pay a premium to have their products displayed at eye level, which translates to higher prices for those products! Look above and below for other products that might be similar to what you are looking for. Walk past the large displays for holiday/seasonal items or the cardboard displays that jump out at you as you round from one aisle to the next.
- Leave the kids at home. Shopping with the kids makes it difficult to focus on your shopping list, your coupons and your mission: To get in and out as quickly as possible, saving the most money possible! Leave the kids at home. There's something to be said for shopping at 10pm! [J.D.'s note: I love to shop late at night. Kris and I used to do that when we were younger.]
- Make it a game. Challenge yourself to save $5 one week, $10 more dollars the next week, $20 more the following week, and so on. Before you know it, your grocery bill could be half of what it once was!
With a little time, planning and extra effort, saving money at the grocery store can be both fun and rewarding. By utilizing these techniques and becoming a “professional” grocery shopper, I prevented our family from running into the red during the months when our budget was just about stretched to its limits. Happy saving!