The Indispensable Grocery List
To get started, go through your pantry, fridge, and freezer. For two weeks make a list of the staples your family uses. For instance, every week you may buy milk, bread, cereal, ground beef, carrots, tomatoes, and rice. Use these foods to create a master list to save time. Then post that master list on the refrigerator, and when you run out of a food make a note on the list.
The rest of your list should come from ingredients you need for your planned meals. Note the amounts you'll need and any specifics on the list. When you go shopping, abide by the list. But at the same time, be open to change! You may find that there are in-store specials on certain foods, especially meats, that might change your meal plan. Be flexible when you see something is a good buy.
Coupons can save you a significant amount of money. But be sure to use coupons only for those products you know you will use. Sometimes manufacturers offer coupons for a free sample; that's a good way to try a product to see whether you and your family like it. If they do, look for more coupons!
Be organized when you use coupons. Use a small folder or expandable notebook to keep your coupons organized by type of food. And be sure to review your coupons regularly, making sure you use them before they expire, and discarding those that are out of date.
There are many coupon sites that offer free, printable coupons, like SmartSource.com and The Grocery Game. Browse the sites, and if they offer coupons for the things you actually use and like, sign up for their mailing lists. Then each week you'll be reminded to check those sites for new coupons.
Run the Grocery Store Gauntlet
Did you know that grocery stores are planned to keep you in the store for a longer period of time and to tempt you with the layout? The items people shop for, especially on quick mid-week runs, are located at the back of the store.
Grocery stores are usually laid out so you enter at the produce aisle. The gorgeous fruits and vegetables are a tempting visual feast, and often there are samples of fruits in season, laid out so you'll drop “just a few” into your basket as you walk by. The bakery aisle comes next, with its fabulous aromas and gorgeous loaves of bread, racks of cookies, and beautiful cakes.
After you've made it through these aisles, you'll finally come to the dairy aisle. But the milk, which you originally came in for, is at the end, past the cheeses, prepared meals, deli foods, and yogurts. You pick up the jug of milk and turn to leave. But first you have to pass the meat counter, and the snack food aisle, and oh yes, aren't you out of soda?
Meanwhile, pleasant music is piped throughout the store, and the ends of the aisles (known as “end caps” in the business) are packed with wonderful “bargains” to tempt you.
The only way to learn how much food is at the regular price, and therefore how much you save when it goes on sale, is to keep a running list. A small notebook will do. Take it with you when you shop, and make notes of the prices. After a few weeks you'll see a pattern emerge. So when that round steak goes on sale, you'll know if it's a good buy!
Choose a fixed time to go grocery shopping. For some people, first thing in the morning is an excellent time to shop. For others, late at night, when the stores are empty, shopping can be an efficient and soothing activity. And please, if at all possible, leave the children at home. Not only will they be tempted by special products placed exactly at their eye level, but they will slow you down. And it's too easy to give in and let them have that expensive box of cereal or candy just for some peace.
Always shop at a grocery store that you know well. If you have to search for items, not only will you waste time, but you may become so frustrated that you'll buy things you weren't intending to just because they look good at the moment. You don't have to limit yourself to one store, though! If you learn the layout of two or three stores, you can increase your chances of finding more bargains.
Never shop hungry. Foods that aren't on your list will look very appealing when you get a whiff of them or see them packaged so prettily in that colored wrap. Hunger distorts your judgment and will weaken even the strongest resolve.
When you shop for groceries, you'll notice a small plastic tag on the shelf below all of the products. This contains information about the food, including manufacturer's information and the cost per ounce, called unit pricing. Use this information to compare brands and product sizes to get the best value, and the most food for your money.
And finally, be sure to watch the prices at the checkout. Sometimes coupons aren't scanned properly, and the computer does make mistakes. Whether you are buying generic or have a “buy one get one free” coupon, be sure to check that cash register tape — before you leave the store.
The Biggest Budget Buster
The biggest budget buster isn't that $1.00 candy bar or $4.00 bag of grapes. It's waste! Americans throw away as much as 45 percent of the food they buy. If you spend $500 a month on food, you may be throwing away $225 a month. Whether it's a head of lettuce that languishes in the fridge until it wilts, or a steak imperfectly wrapped so it develops freezer burn, people are experts at wasting food.
Products that save steps in cooking are called “value-added.” They can range from a fully-prepared seafood entrée stuffed with cheese to refrigerated biscuits to a can of tomatoes with garlic and herbs added. These products almost always cost more than the raw ingredients assembled by you. Be sure to compare prices and shop wisely.
Leftovers, even those that are not planned, can make another meal. Be careful to save leftovers, refrigerate food promptly, know what's in your fridge and freezer, and plan your weekly meals with leftovers in mind. You can find a collection of recipes specifically developed to use common leftovers, and more recipes like those are also sprinkled throughout.
Alternative Food Sources
Food co-ops may offer some significant savings. Use your notebook and compare prices. Sometimes, even if a food is more expensive at a co-op, you may purchase it if it has a special attribute, like organic certification or a label showing it's locally grown. Be sure that, before you join a co-op, you have walked through the store several times and are familiar with the foods it carries. Bulk bins in co-ops can be a significant budget saver.
If you have a fisherman or hunter in the family, all the better! But be sure that the food is quickly prepared and refrigerated or frozen. Also be sure that the lakes or ponds that your family member is fishing from are clean and wholesome. Many states post information about water quality and any warnings about eating fish from certain lakes.
In the spring, summer, and fall, farmer's markets can be a good source of inexpensive produce. Be sure you know the supermarket prices of foods, though. Sometimes the prices at these markets are higher than the regular grocery store. But again, there may be mitigating circumstances: you are supporting local farms and farmers, and you are buying the freshest possible produce.
Pick-your-own farms are a great idea, as long as you have the ability and space to process, preserve, and store the food. You'll never taste juicier, sweeter strawberries or crisper apples than those you pick yourself, right off the vine or tree.