Every time I read an article where someone suggests rummaging through grocery store dumpsters for shriveled produce to save money on groceries, I cringe. That’s because you don’t have to lower yourself to dumpster diving to shrink your grocery bill.
Here’s how I get by on $20-40 a week in groceries. You can too, if you’re strategic and willing to read grocery store circulars, use coupons wisely, and shop at more than one store.
1. Constantly compare prices
Did you know that one grocery store might charge twice the amount you’d pay for the same item at a different store? At a grocery store near my home, I can get a cantaloupe for around $3. At discount grocer Aldi, I can get the same brand, usually on sale for $1. Other produce and dairy items cost around half of what I’d pay elsewhere.
Here’s another reason to pay attention. Most stores offer “sales” where you buy one and get one free or for half price. Sometimes, though, the regular price cited is much higher than the actual usual price. So, pay attention so you don’t get duped.
2. See the big picture
Don’t shop for one meal. Instead, plan a few meals that use the same meat, produce and grains. For example, with one $7 bag of frozen chicken breasts from a discount grocer, I can thaw out one piece at a time for a quick pan-seared dinner, make simple slow cooker dishes, whip up some chicken salad or bake a casserole.
3. Stock up on Super Bowl Sunday
If you like pizza, this is the day to get the best deals ever on frozen pizza. I bought several tasty pizzas for .99 each one year. You’ll also find discounts on chips, dips and chili fixings any time there’s a big game.
4. Don’t focus only on food
Sometimes, I browse a few additional aisles just for the heck of it. That’s how I learned that I was paying $12 for a drug store brand of over-the-counter allergy pills when I could buy the same product in a grocery store brand for $5. Other pharmacy items you may find cheaper at the grocery store: vitamins and supplements; cold medicine; throat lozenges; pain relievers; lotion.
5. Study grocery circulars
Instead of tossing those weekly grocery ads you get in the mail, sit down and read them. Last week, a nearby store offered several items priced at “10 for $10, including yogurt, sour cream, lettuce, celery, carrots, lunch meat, bread, frozen sausages and two-liter bottles of brand-name sodas.”
I stocked up on sausage, froze the bread to thaw as needed, and threw together some salads with the lettuce, carrots and celery. I passed on the majority of discounted items. The key is buying only things that you might have bought anyway and never buying something just because it’s on sale.
6. Clip coupons selectively. It’s tempting to go crazy, clipping coupons for every good deal. Don’t do that. Just clip coupons for stuff that you’ll actually use. Then wait for those items to go on sale so you save even more.
Tip: If you hang out on Sunday mornings at a coffee shop, you’ll always be able to nab coupons from customers’ discarded Sunday papers.
7. Shop at more than one place
At one store, I’ll limit myself to sale items and a few other things on my list, trying to stay under $20. Then I hit the discount grocer for staples like butter, milk, cereal, produce and frozen chicken. Occasionally, I set aside $10 to $15 to treat myself at Trader Joe’s, where I can get a frozen lasagna and a couple of salads for under $15. This way, I still get a few luxury items so I don’t feel deprived.
8. Check out anything marked “clearance”
Keep an eye out for end caps and grocery carts filled with clearance items. I’ve scored boxes of Triscuits crackers and cans of name-brand soup for $1 each, deeply discounted hand soap and bottles of pricey beer for a buck apiece.
9. Set a limit and pay cash
Plan several meals, make a list and decide an amount that you won’t go over for that week’s groceries. Leave your credit card at home, since spending is more painful when you actually have to hand over cash.
The point of all this is that you don’t need to completely deprive yourself to save money. Instead, you can use the money left over in your budget for other things like paying down debt or going out to dinner or a movie, activities you otherwise couldn’t afford.
So, after you shop, figure out how much you saved on groceries and stash that amount in a coffee can to save for something fun or put toward paying down debt. Your little reserve fund will motivate you to save even more next time.
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