Hang on to your grocery coupons! All you ever wanted to know about grocery shopping.
How much do you spend on groceries? The answer varies depending on where you live, how many people you live with, and what your buying patterns are and can range from a very thrifty $50 a month per head in the most frugal American households to a more typical $150 a month per person or even to a more extravagant $300 and higher a month, per head. You may cringe at thousand dollar grocery bills for your typical family of four but they’re not unheard of, especially in California.
I have one particular colleague who shops exclusively in San Francisco Chinatown every weekend for the cheapest food items and buys everything else in bulk at Costco, adhering to a carefully planned budget. His family consists of himself, his wife and young toddler and yet their grocery bill hits $500 a month — an average $166 a month per person. As for us, I’m too embarrassed to divulge our grocery bill numbers (though they’re not that far from that monthly $166 per head quoted figure): let’s just say it’s something that we can definitely improve upon but just haven’t had the inclination to do so in recent months. Since food sensitivities and allergies run in our family, we’ve shifted to organic and gluten-free products, thereby adding quite a bit to the bottom-line.
In looking at what we could do to slice those bills down, I found some really good pointers that can easily be applied to make a quick difference.
There’s so much fodder here to get started: apparently, your average bill can probably be diminished by 30% to 50% by following some of these tips. I never knew that grocery shopping can be so strategic, almost like a science, so I’m convinced many people aren’t aware of even some of the basic actions they can take to save money on this front. Nothing earth-shattering here: but the key is in the execution!
Easy Ways To Save On Your Grocery Bill
#1 Gather your grocery coupons and use them “the right way”.
Read your coupons carefully because the fine print can yield information you may not be aware of. The picture on a coupon may not tell you the whole story: for instance, discounts can apply to items of like kind or by the same brand, and not just the item displayed on the coupon. Unfortunately for us, we’ve only attempted passive coupon collecting — the kind that involves waiting for the coupons in the mail and using what’s there. But if you’d like to be a more aggressive saver, you can be more proactive by going to web sites such as CouponMom.com or using coupon brokers online! The downside to coupon hunting is that it can be time intensive so you may want to see if it’s worth it to try.
#2 Come in with a plan and a list.
Do you have a shopping plan? The easiest plan you can make is simply to write a list of the things you need before your trip to the store. Beyond that, there are serious savers who prepare menu plans and who develop shopping systems that involve knowing the sales schedule of the stores they frequent, being aware of when discounts and markdowns are available, and buying loss leaders. Consumers who have a list or a plan actually spend 40% to 50% less than those who don’t! One tip though: I’d create a simple plan first so I’d have better success with sticking to it for the long term.
#3 Check and re-check your receipts!
The bane of my grocery shopping experience is the checkout counter because I always feel anxious about getting overcharged by mistake. And you know what? My worries are NOT unfounded. There’s actually the issue of store scanner errors, which actually cost shoppers between $1 billion to $3 billion a year! Just to show you how prevalent this is, a few weeks ago we found out that we were charged $37 for 1.55 pounds of shrimp, instead of the rightful price of $7.73 — a transposition error that could have been easily missed out!
#4 Comparison shop.
This is one of the more obvious things to do — but we don’t realize how strong our brand loyalty sometimes can be. A good system is to break that loyalty. Instead, follow the price and go with alternatives that are offering grocery coupons and discounts during your shopping exercise.
#5 Shop when you’re relaxed.
Another behavioral modification trick is to shop when you are relaxed and when the store is emptier. Shop during non-peak hours so that you’re not hassled enough to act impulsively. During this time, you are less frazzled and less likely to be in a hurry to get out. The less stressed out you are, the more likely you’ll be to carefully inspect the goods that pile up in your cart and to avoid additional charges.
#6 Don’t shop hungry.
Yet something else to try — shop when you’re full. Apparently, studies show that if you’re hungry, everything looks more palatable to you and you’re more likely to make more purchases. Stores will enhance the shopping experience further by making sure their stores smell nice and aromatic, in an effort to titillate your taste buds.
#7 Check expiration dates so things don’t spoil and waste.
Do you know what’s in your fridge and pantry? Statistics show that Americans waste a lot of food: around 14% of purchases, in fact! A quick look at the expiration dates of your food and drug items can ensure that they have longer shelf and fridge life. You wouldn’t want to have to discard stuff prematurely before it even makes it to your plate.
#8 Avoid convenience items.
Bypass the junk aisle. Prepackaged foods, diet foods and other conveniently packaged items tend to be more expensive. Consider frozen food as an alternative to fresh foods for the lower cost. You may think they’re less healthy, but surprisingly, the difference in nutrition that you receive isn’t significant.
#9 Check if medicines you buy can be covered by your flexible spending plan.
If you’re prescribed regular medication, buying them through your flexible spending plan (FSA) will save you money because what you contribute to such a plan is not subject to payroll taxes. Check with your employer about how this can work out for you. But make sure you monitor and track how you’re using your plan: I’ve had sore luck on this matter and lost over a $1,000 on it last year because I failed to use my FSA sufficiently throughout the year. How did this happen? Though I made proper claims, they were denied and not considered eligible for FSA use. So beware! Such a plan is subject to a “use it or lose it” policy which can bite you unexpectedly. Take note of the details of your policy before you sign up and start contributing.
#10 Check unit pricing.
We’re all trained to think that bigger is cheaper and by buying more, we could be saving more per unit. That’s not necessarily the case! Here’s an example of this illusion. You may be surprised that some smaller items can be cheaper than larger packaged goods. Also, by applying discounts to smaller, lower cost items, the savings are even greater! When grocery coupons allow you to take off a certain number of dollars and you apply it against lower cost items, this results in bigger percentage savings.
#11 Shop on the outside.
That is, shop by starting out at the perimeter of the store. Those areas are where the highest priority items are usually located. The stuff you can’t do without — such as bread, dairy items, fresh fruits and vegetables and meats — should be stacked in your cart first before everything else so that you’re less likely to make room for non-essentials.
#12 Recognize that products at eye level are pricier.
Marketers want your money to follow where your eyes go. So they place the more expensive items at eye level for easy plucking. Be aware that this is their ploy so that you have the option to look elsewhere for what you need.
#13 Buy in bulk, stock up on discounted items.
Bulk buying is a common way of getting materials at a better price. Here’s an informal study made by an individual who discovered that buying from a warehouse club such as Sam’s Club, Costco or B.J.’s really costs less. His findings (from SoundMindInvesting.com):
I found that a great majority of the items were indeed cheaper at Sam’s. On average, the savings amounted to 31%, more than enough to easily offset the $35-45 annual membership fee. The big winners: cereal/bread, cooking/baking, snacks, and other averaged nearly 40% savings. Still not impressed? Buy some raisins, syrup, bottled water, and sandwich bags and you can save an average of 66%. And it doesn’t stop there. You can rack up even more savings by buying generics in bulk, where I found savings of up to 83% on items like aspirin and hand sanitizer.
#14 Use cash.
Though some may say it’s not for them, you may try using cash to do your purchases. This is because it is recognized that those who use cash to make their purchases save 10% to 30% more than those who use credit. More formally, a study by Dunn and Bradstreet reveals that on average, we spend from 12% to 18% more using credit cards than if we used cash.
#15 Buy at lower priced stores and even your local markets.
You may find that by checking a variety of stores and locations, that prices vary quite a bit across the board. We have a farmer’s market close to where we live and during the summer months, we buy our produce from there. We found that the savings here were significant and the food so much fresher than if we got them from the neighborhood supermarket. Plus, at these markets, there are so many stalls selling affordable organic fruits and vegetables! I’ve also got several friends who get their low-priced food items from the city’s Chinatown district.
#16 Don’t shop with kids.
Supposedly, shopping with kids actually adds $100 to $400 a month to your bill. That’s because you end up lingering longer at the store when you have them in tow, plus impulse buying tends to go up when your kids get hit by the “gimmes”. So either don’t bring them along or be strongly conscious of your buying behavior when you have them tag along.
When grocery shopping, if you go unprepared, you’ll pay more. So knowing what you can do to make small changes to your routine can help you bring your tallies lower. The magic number seems to be the $50 a head that the incredibly Economides family has achieved with their groceries including food and other products they purchase weekly. Of course, you may know about a lot of these pointers already but unless you apply them (and yes, some of them may seem a bit more work than others), you won’t make headway. I’ll admit that all these tips may not be something I’d try out right away since there are tradeoffs involving time and practicality, though I’m very certain that I’ll be tackling some of the easier tips by our next grocery trip. I’d suggest you start with the easiest changes to see where that takes you.
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