According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an American family of four spends an average of $1,071.40 a month on food at home. That's a lot of money for groceries, no matter the size of your family.
Good news: You can slash your grocery costs. These tips require effort, but when combined, they can add up to significant savings and make a big difference in your household finances.
NO. 1: SHAKE IT UP, BABY!
When buying produce such as spinach, lettuce, celery or broccoli, shake off excess water before you weigh it. Water weight can add about $1 to your grocery tab per trip — costing you at least $50 a year if you buy groceries each week.
NO. 2: DON'T PAY FULL PRICE
Here's the golden rule of groceries: Eat the sales. Don't put anything in your basket that is not on sale. If it's not on sale this week, then it will be next week, or at least soon enough. Don't plan meals around beef if chicken is the loss leader this week. And when that happens, try to buy enough chicken to last until the next time it's on sale. Most supermarkets and grocery stores have weekly sales. Consider the sales in several stores to reduce your food budget by taking full advantage of the greatest number of rock-bottom prices.
NO. 3: PASS UP THE GROCERY CART
Walk on by the carts when all you need are a few items. Surely, you can carry the "few things" you need. Or, get one of the hand-held baskets. The point here is that you won't be buying more than you can carry.
NO. 4:. DON'T DAWDLE
This is not the place you want to hang out to soak in all the great sights and smells from the bakery, the deli and the rotisserie chickens. If you weren't hungry when you arrived, you will be soon. Get what you need, and get out of there. For every 10 minutes you delay, plan on spending about another $35.
NO. 5: PAY WITH CASH
The best way to stick to the budget is to go in with a plan, and pay with cash. When you go to the store with cash in hand, you know exactly how much you can spend. And when you've spent what you came with, then that's it. There is no room for unplanned purchases.
Plus, it'll help you prioritize the meat-and-vegetable necessities rather than the ice-cream-and-cookie impulse buys. Those little extras are OK if you plan for them!
If you still find that you're eating like royalty at the beginning of the month and then scraping by at the end, take out cash for groceries every week instead of once a month. That way, you'll have a better picture of how much you can actually afford to spend each week.
NO. 6: ORDER AHEAD
Another way to prevent impulse buys is to stay out of the store altogether. Grocery pickup services offered by mainstream retailers such as Kroger, Target and Walmart allow you to order your groceries online and then have them brought out to you while you wait in your vehicle.
NO. 7: PAY ATTENTION TO SELL-BY DATES
Items such as dairy, meat and even some bagged produce come with sell-by dates. As that date nears, stores often slap a discounted price tag on them, but not always. If you find items that are close to their sell-by date that are not discounted, speak up. Ask for a discount. As long as you plan to use these items soon, there's no problem at all. Sell-by dates allow for that item to be safe and delicious for at least seven days past the date.
NO. 8: LOOK HIGH AND LOW
Supermarkets and grocery stores regularly place the higher-priced, brand-name items at eye level. Have you ever noticed that? That's no coincidence. It's on purpose, and you're being set up to behave impulsively. Here's how to beat 'em at their own game: Look high and low. Expect to find generic alternatives, lower-priced brands and other options. Compare prices. Don't give in to the manipulation.
NO. 9: SHOP THE CHEAP STORES
Most dollar stores offer random nonperishable food items and even fresh produce at hugely discounted prices, so stop there first. You may be able to mark some items off your grocery list. Private-label stores such as Aldi and Trader Joe's are also notorious for their super-low prices.
NO. 10: SNAG MANAGER SPECIALS
Most supermarkets' meat and bakery departments feature "manager specials." Depending on the season and that particular store's inventory, you'll often find discounts up to 50% off on anything from meat to bread, poultry, fish and seafood. Buy enough to last until the next time it goes on sale (you can always freeze some). Of course, you won't know exactly when that will be, so estimate, provided that stocking up doesn't bust the budget.
NO. 11: CHECK OUT ETHNIC MARKETS
Even if you're not into these kinds of cuisine, Asian, Ethiopian and Latin American food markets are harboring some terrific bargains on items you're regularly buying at full price elsewhere. It can't hurt to check them out. You're sure to find items such as rice, flour, fresh poultry and produce in ethnic markets that beat prices in your supermarket by a mile.
Would you like more information? Go to EverydayCheapskate.com for links and resources for recommended products and services in this column. Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com , "Ask Mary." This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a lifestyle blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."
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