Whether you reuse leftovers, efficiently cook with what’s in your pantry or prefer seasonal produce, to really save money, budgeting begins when you grocery shop. Here are ten cardinal rules to help you cut costs before you check-out.
1. Shop Online or Leave the Kids at Home
This may sound basic, but preventing in-store meltdowns and the impulse purchases that follow will save you cash in the long run. Shopping online is the easiest solution because you won't need a babysitter and you get the flexibility of purchasing your groceries from the comfort of your home after hours, while the kids are sleeping.
Example: By shopping solo, you forego purchasing snacks and juice drinks for the kids in your shopping cart, in addition to the box of single-serving yogurt squeezes that they really, really want.
If you must … bring kids:
Make the experience fun! Online, have the kids participate by helping them "load" the shopping cart. Just make sure to check it over before you pay. At the store, give toddlers jobs like finding all the green items in an aisle or have older kids match brands to coupons or send them on a hunt to gather items from other aisles. If you need to buy treats in the store, pick something you’re planning to purchase anyway.
2. Never Shop Hungry
Since everything looks good on an empty stomach, eat before you shop so you won’t buy something expensive (and unhealthy) to munch on.
Example: Shop on a full stomach so you don’t have to buy an energy bar to tide you over.
If you must ... eat something:
Snack on something that’s a shopping list purhcase.
3. Look for Store Brand Savings
Don’t be name-brand loyal; instead, compare prices with generic or store brands. These items are usually positioned on the top and bottom shelves while the bigger ticket items take up most space on the middle shelves. When shopping online, use broad search categories like “cereal” or “pasta” instead of name brands.
While you’re scrutinizing labels, take packaging into consideration. According to Phil Lempert of supermarketguru.com, generic cereals packed in plastic bags typically cost around a dollar less than the boxed variety.
Example: Buy store brand pasta at .59 a box instead of name-brand pasta for $1.79 a box.
If you must … buy a certain brand for a particular item:
Watch for sales and stock up when it hits the lowest price.
4. Compare Unit Price Labels
Looks can be deceiving. Manufacturers are constantly downsizing products (from shorter and fewer sheets in a role of toilet paper to adding a dome to the bottom of a peanut butter jar). Don’t let redesigned packaging confuse you.
Always check the unit price per label to compare products. The item’s cost per unit (CPU) is usually listed on the shelf sticker next to the price. By focusing on what an item’s cost per pound or ounce is, you won’t get distracted by fancy packaging.
Example: Different size cans of tomato sauce will cost varying amounts per ounce. Some times it costs less to buy four 8-ounce cans or two 15-ounce cans than one 29-ounce can. On the other hand, sometimes the 29-ounce can is the real bargain.
5. Check Yourself Out
While it may be tedious to use the self-check lane, by scanning the items yourself, you’ll be more conscious of how much things cost than when you aren’t the one doing the scanning. Use the opportunity to decide what you really need and leave unnecessary items. Online, you always have the built-in benefit of reviewing your cart before checking out, so take a few minutes to delete items you don’t really need.
Example: When you personally scan or review your cart and notice the hefty price of the maple syrup, consider making that purchase another time. Or maybe you don’t need two of a certain item.
If you must … head to a cashier:
Don’t be intimidated by the cashier’s presence. Scrutinize what you’ve placed in the cart and determine if you really need the expensive items. Make sure the price that comes up on the screen is the same one posted next to the item.
6. Bulk Up When the Price is Right
This rule of thumb applies to produce like oranges, onions, and potatoes and, particularly, to canned items. When you buy produce in bags instead of individually, you’ll roughly pay half the price; a smart move for staples which will get eaten before going bad. Always check out larger quantities and if you can use all the food while the flavor is still tasty, go for it!
Example: If you often make cholent and potato kugel buy a 10lb bag of russet potatoes for $4.50 instead of the 5 lbs at $2.50 or loose russet potatoes marked at .99 a pound.
Savings: Between $2.50 and $5.50
If you must…buy smaller quantities at more expensive prices:
Purchase exactly what you need and don’t make it a habit!
7. Don’t Buy Non-Grocery Items at the Supermarket
When you need cleaning supplies, cosmetics or diapers; head to mass-market retailers like Target or Walmart. You’ll find the best deals on paper goods and cleaning products at warehouse clubs.
Example: Instead of paying premium prices for glass cleaner and stain stick at the grocery store, purchase them for less elsewhere.
If you must … purchase non-grocery items:
Use a coupon or purchase if it’s part of a sale, such as “buy one, get one free.”
8. Take Advantage of Reduced-Priced Perishables
You can save quite a bit by purchasing perishables that need to be eaten or used immediately. Conventional supermarkets often mark down things like bananas, mushrooms and apples, all which will still be tasty if used or cooked that day.
My local supermarket reduces the price of organic dairy items when the expiration date is five days away. Since my kids can easily go through 32 ounces of yogurt in half that time, I take advantage of buying good-quality dairy items at half price.
Examples: Opt for quick-sell bananas at .19 a pound (eat immediately, freeze for smoothies or banana bread) instead of green ones at .79 a pound. Use reduced price assorted apples to make homemade applesauce.
Savings: Between $1.83 to $4.00
Use coupons only for foods you normally would eat rather than for “extras” you probably wouldn’t buy.
Don’t miss out on potential sources of valuable coupons. Check your grocery receipt, sometimes there are great coupons on the back. Before you shop, check the store’s website for printable coupons, in addition to the website of name-brand items you want to purchase. And sign up for money-saving e-mail's. Kosher.com circulars and e-blasts go out weekly (sometimes even bi-weekly) with lists of sales that can be 20% to 50% off regular market prices.
Example: Forego the $1.00 off for a product you don’t use and use two .50 cent coupons on items you do use.
10. Have a Plan
Shoppers who stick to their list spend less money than those who shop with only a vague idea of what they need to buy. By planning your meals around sale items and making thorough lists, you prevent spending money on gas coming back to the store for the dreaded forgotten items. And, of course, by using coupons, the shopper with the plan has the potential to spend 50% less than the shopper without the plan, says Stephanie Nelson of couponmom.com. Shopping online bargains and coupons can save even more, when you factor in gas and parking.
Example: Plan dinner around sale items and use online circulars and coupons from the Sunday paper to reduce the already low price.
If you must … arrive at the grocery store without a plan:
Jot down a shopping list in your car. Grab the store’s circular as you walk in to make sure you shop the sales. Stick to your list and shop quickly to avoid spending more time and money than necessary.