By now, nearly everyone has seen one of the “Couponing” shows on TV, where obsessive coupon-cutters demonstrate how to get a boatload of groceries for nearly nothing. I’m among those who wish they had the dedication to keep an organized, dated coupon binder — and the spare square footage to house three years’ worth of canned goods.
For the rest of us, here are a few easy tips to make that beeping noise at the checkout stand a little less panic-inducing:
1. Check the Price Per Ounce: If we see two packages of cereal that look the same size, and one costs $1 less, common sense tells us to buy the cheaper one. But that’s where common sense fails and product design wins.
Food manufacturers know that we tend to look at the cost of an item overall, and they’ve devised a way to trick us into purchasing their product by putting less in the package rather than raising the price.
You can outsmart this little trick by looking at the Price per Ounce, which is printed on the price label at most grocery stores. This is the most reliable way to ensure you’re getting the most for your money.
For example, two boxes might look like they contain the same amount of cereal, but it could vary widely. If Cereal A contains 17 ounces of cereal and costs $3.79, and Cereal B contains 12 ounces of cereal and costs $2.99, the Costs per Ounce are $0.22 and $0.25, respectively — making Cereal A the better value, despite its higher price tag.
2. Don’t get reeled in by “Loss Leaders”: Traditional grocery stores employ the use of “Loss Leaders” — A handful of items offered each week at an incredible discount. The stores advertise these on the front page of their circulars, knowing that customers will come in for those items and end up doing the rest of their shopping at the same store.
Warehouse grocery stores, on the other hand, don’t generally rely on Loss Leaders to draw in customers. Instead, they discount the majority of their items by a smaller margin, resulting in overall savings on your grocery bill by up to 50%.
If you think that warehouse grocery shopping means buying everything in bulk at places like Costco or Sam’s Club, look around online for places like Winco (a warehouse store in Western states). There’s no membership fee, and everything is available in the same sizes and varieties you’d find in a traditional grocery store.
3. Plan your week’s meals ahead of time and make a list: I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone grocery shopping with only a foggy idea of what meals I was going to make. The result? I’d buy an endless variety of things, inevitably forgetting key ingredients or having to throw away items I didn’t end up using.
Planning your meals ahead of time allows you to make a list of exactly what items you’ll need for the week, and you get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in your cart will be put to good use.
4. Try the generic brand at least once: Many of us are wary of generic or “store” brands, worried they won’t taste the same as our favorite name brands. Quite often we’re right. There are some brand-name items, such as salad dressings, that I find the generic brand just doesn’t compare to.
However, I’ve also discovered that there are many generic-brand items that taste the same or even better than their name-brand counterparts. Ice cream is my favorite example — the store brands taste just as good as name brands and often come in a few unique flavors that name brands haven’t tried.
Generic-brand items usually retail for 25% less than their name-brand counterparts, so try them at least once. If you like them, pat yourself on the back for the savings. If you don’t like them, at least you can say you tried.
5. Keep a list of what you don’t use and what you use most: The most painful part of grocery shopping, to me, is cleaning out the fridge before re-stocking it. Everything we throw away is money we could have saved by not buying those items.
The solution is to keep track throughout the week of what you do and don’t use. This doesn’t have to be complicated: just divide a piece of paper into two columns. On one side, write down an item if you go through all of it during the week. On the other side, write down what you throw away when you clean out your refrigerator.
For me, this was an eye-opening experience. I tended to buy tons of lettuce each week, sure that I would convince myself to eat salad nearly every day. When I started keeping track, I realized that I was throwing away about $5 worth of that lettuce each and every week. That’s $22 a month I could have been saving on just one item!
Conversely, I always bought half-gallons of milk rather than full gallons, but the half-gallon would be gone before the week’s end — meaning I’d end up with uneaten cereal. I noted it on my chart and started buying full gallons instead.
Making all of these changes takes a little bit of time, but they’re well worth it. Watch as your grocery bill plummets, and enjoy the savings!