When you are making an effort to save money, a trip to the grocery store can be a big stressor (and not just because you have your preschooler in tow). Prices are always changing week to week, everyone in the family likes to eat something different, not to mention you'd like to get something healthy on the table -- who knew this everyday experience could be so nerve-wracking? Still, learning how to save money on groceries is not a complicated process and, is a skill that will keep your wallet happy in the long run. Here's how to get started.
Make a plan and a list. I love to grocery shop. Seriously, it's one of my favorite things to do. I think it is because it combines my love with shopping with nourishing my family. The thing is, I love a certain kind of grocery shopping. The kind where I go by myself, at night when the store is empty. I leisurely stroll through the aisles, picking and choosing foodstuffs as I go, catering to my every foodie whim. Sounds heavenly. Luckily for our budget, as the mom to three kids, that dream scenario I just described hardly ever comes true. Because while choosing up what you buy each week is fine, shopping without a plan or a list is one real fast way to blow the grocery budget. So instead of spending time skipping through the grocery store by myself, I spend one hour a week planning out not only what we need for the week, but what I think I'll be cooking for breakfast lunch and dinner each day. I make a list, being sure to match up any coupons or items that are on sale in our grocery store's circular. So for example, if I had my heart set on my husband grilling London broil for Wednesday's dinner, but it isn't on sale, I'll look for something else that is less expensive for him to cook over the goals and re-plan our side dishes accordingly.
What's important here is sticking to your list and your plan. It does no good for you to painstakingly write out and research what you are going to buy, only to ditch your hard work because you see the most gorgeous peaches and you have to have them even if they are $3.99 a pound. It will be hard in the beginning, but staying on course is what will help you to stay on budget. Don't worry, it's likely that peaches will be on sale another time and you can budget for them.
Compare the right prices. When comparison shopping between brands (and brand loyalty isn't necessarily a good thing), pay attention to the unit price of the item. This is the price that shows how much you are paying per weight. A 16 ounce package of frozen carrots might be cheaper at $1.39, but it might be worthwhile to spend $1.98 on the 32 ounce bag and freeze what you don't use. In some cases, smaller is better. Read every label carefully. This is especially true at warehouse-type stores where it can be tempting to spend a lot because you think you are getting a great deal.
Consider shopping at more than one store if it is practical. If you have more than one grocery store or a big box store that sells groceries in your area, be sure to check all of the circulars to see what they are offering on sale. While going from market to market isn't necessarily practical for parents and caregivers of young children (not to mention the time and gas it takes), if you regularly shop at these stores, it's a strategy that might make sense for you.
Don't be brand loyal. My grandmother always only bought certain brands of toothpaste, peanut butter, detergent and other household staples. While that's a nice sentiment, these days, with so many different offerings, it's not the most practical way to shop, not to mention it will probably cost you more money. If your favorite brand is on sale and it makes sense to buy it, by all means, do so, but if you are running low on dish soap and another brand (or even the store one) is on sale, give the new one a try. Now there may be some cases where you don't like a different brand or maybe someone in your household is allergic to certain ingredients, but certainly, trying out different names is a good way to save money.
To that end, try store brands too. Compare the ingredients list of your favorite pantry staple brand name to that of the comparable store brand and you'll see that they are either exactly the same or pretty darn close. The best part is that store brands are a whole lot cheaper than name brands. So give it a try. If you don't like it, you can always switch back. But if you do, you'll save a lot in the long run.
Avoid "convenience" foods. Oh, it's so tempting that box of pre-cut, pre-bagged apples sitting there in the produce section. Especially when you have a picky eater preschooler who will only eat her apples cut up. But a box of eight 2 ounces bags is $4.99 and a pound of apples is $1.49. You don't have to be a math genius to see which one is the better deal. Yes, convenience foods will save you time. But is the time you save washing and cutting up lettuce really worth the $2 (or more) more you'll spend to buy your lettuce in a bag (that you should wash anyway)?
Cut coupons. While there are entire television series dedicated to the wonders of couponing, most of us don't need to go quite so far to save money. Clipping coupons can easily part of your weekly planning out your shopping time and doesn't involve more than some scissors and a place to put your findings. Pull out the circulars that usually come in every Sunday newspaper and have at it (you can also find coupons online and in other magazines.) There are lots of strategies that you can employ (check out some articles here for more information), but for me, just clipping, saving and using seems to work pretty well.
Stock up when things are on sale. If you regularly buy a certain brand of mayo and your local store has them on sale for $1 a piece, it would be a good idea to stock up -- even if you have one or two at home. Adding to your pantry is never a bad idea, especially if these are items you use on a regular basis. That's the key, though. Don't buy something just because it is on sale -- buy something that you use regularly and that is on sale.