The $60 a Week Grocery Challenge begins on February 1st, and in preparation for this momentous occasion, I’d like to share some smart shopping tips with you:
1) Have a plan. Don’t just wander into the store and grab whatever looks good to you at the time. Take some time before you leave the house to look at sale flyers, clip coupons, and make a list. Shop strategically.
2) Get to know employees at stores you frequent. I always take the time to chat with one of the guys behind the meat counter at my favorite grocery store, and because he knows me, he often gives me a heads-up about specials.
3) Find out when your store shelves new inventory. It’s usually the day before a new weekly sale flyer comes out, and this is beneficial to know because the store will mark down items close to expiration, in an effort to move them quickly and make room for new stock. Here’s a good example:
These pizza kits are ordinarily $4.58, but they were clearanced for only $1.99 because they were close to expiration. I bought several because the kit includes pepperoni and sauce, and while the crust is not as good as my homemade dough, this is a very inexpensive, quick, and easy supper on Thursday nights when the girls have dance class, and we’re always pinched for time. The day I bought these, I also bought Hungry Jack instant potatoes marked down to 75 cents because of a slightly smooshed box, and (2) half gallons of 1% chocolate milk marked down to only 99 cents because the sell by date was two days later. I knew this wouldn’t be a problem because at my house, a gallon of chocolate milk never lasts more than two days.
4) Ask for rainchecks if a store is out of a super-sale item. I do this all the time. Just make sure to use your raincheck before it expires. Some stores (such as HyVee) have no expiration, but others only give you a week.
5) Always, always compare unit prices. Carry a small calculator with you whenever you go to the store. Advertised sale items are not necessarily the cheapest, and even if you have a coupon for a name-brand product, the generic equivalent may still be a better deal.
6) Don’t wait until you run out to purchase essentials. If you do, you’ll be far more likely to pay full price because you need an item right away.
7) Even if it’s on sale, it’s not necessarily a good deal. If you don’t need it, or won’t use it, don’t buy it!
8) Do your research. Sometimes people mistakenly believe that everything is cheapest at a certain store (Aldi, for example), but if they take the time to really check prices, they’re often surprised. Some products at Aldi are not cheaper when you compare unit price, and though HyVee is, in general, more expensive than other stores, I still check their sale flyers every week because they frequently have terrific sales. Don’t discount a store until you’ve researched its prices.
9) Know your store’s sale cycles. I touched on this a bit in my post about stocking your pantry. Most stores have a discernible sale pattern, and if you watch flyers regularly, you can see it emerge. For example, at my favorite store, chicken breasts go on sale for 99 cents per pound about every three months, so I buy enough to last that long. However, cereal goes on sale much more frequently, so I usually only buy a month’s supply at a time.
10) Know your frugal achilles heel. Remember that your physical well-being and your emotions affect how you shop. If possible, stay out of stores when you’re tired, unwell, bored, or sad. You’re far more likely to fall into the “I deserve a treat” trap.
11) Stock up at the end of the season, when items are clearanced. Example: nuts and chocolate are often clearanced after Christmas, so I buy them in bulk and put them in my freezer.
12) Stock up when prices are low. This goes without saying, but it’s amazing to me how many people don’t do this.
13) Investigate all sources of goods in your area. You might be surprised at what you find. For example, I recently ventured into an Asian market, and found that I can buy rice in bulk there for less than I pay at the grocery store.
14) Shop alone. Husbands and kids will distract you from your budget goals, and they beg for stuff you don’t need. Leave them at home.
15) Know your prices. If the idea of creating a price book is daunting, enlist other frugal friends and divide up the work. Assign one category of goods to each person, and make copies of the finished product for everyone involved.
16) Do not overbuy! I simply cannot stress this enough. Some people spend a lot of money on “bargains” that they don’t really need. Buy only what you can neatly and properly store, and what you can consume before expiration. Remember…wasted food is wasted money.
17) Keep an eye on the register when you check out, and examine your receipt. I catch lots of mistakes this way, and I’m sure it will be no surprise to anyone that they’re never in my favor. Some stores have a policy that if an item rings up incorrectly, they’ll refund the full price of the item plus an extra percentage, so it pays to pay attention.
18) Don’t be afraid to return anything that doesn’t meet your expectations. For example, I once purchased ground beef packaged in a plastic roll (a “chub”) and it had a distinctly terrible odor when cooked. I took it back, and the meat department manager explained that this sometimes happens when meat is packaged this way because of gases that build up inside the plastic. He gave me a full refund, and I haven’t purchased a “chub” since because, to be frank, I don’t like to eat anything that smells like barnyard.
19) Don’t buy anything, even if it’s the best deal, if you don’t like it. There are some items (American cheese, some salad dressings, ketchup, mayo) that I won’t buy generic, because the generics are just not as good. For these things, I pay extra for the brands we like because I know that the food won’t be wasted. I don’t believe in forcing my family (or myself!) to eat anything that we don’t enjoy, just because it’s cheaper (TVP, anyone?) Good food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and in my opinion, happy, peaceful mealtimes are worth spending a little extra.
20) Never pay full price. Enough said, right?
For more information about how I shop for groceries, please see, “Let’s Go Shopping with Heather.”