Your supermarket is a great place to really save money in this prolonged recession. Supermarkets have become ultracompetitive, enticing customers with aggressive sales, coupons and other sorts of discounts. My secrets for saving $100 a month per person at the supermarket…
- Choose one primary supermarket. I used to chase sales all over town, but it was a waste of time and gasoline.
Reason: Supermarkets within the same county tend to have similar sales cycles. So the same deal you get on spaghetti at one store will be matched by another store at the same time or within a few weeks. Shopping at the same store also lets you familiarize yourself enough to know when a “special” really is special.
- For certain items, the bargains are consistently better at stores other than supermarkets. If you use a lot of these items, it may be worth it to make separate stops. For milk, over-the-counter medications and personal-care items, shop at drugstores. For snacks, cereals and cleaning supplies, shop at superstores, such as Wal-Mart. For alcohol, eggs, frozen appetizers, kitchen storage containers and cakes, shop at warehouse clubs, such as Costco. For fresh, seasonal produce, try local farmers’ markets.
- Stockpile enough of a sales item for about 12 weeks. Supermarkets typically cycle their rock-bottom sales over that period through every section of the store. I buy nearly every item in my pantry and freezer at a 30% to 50% discount off regular prices. For example, my favorite cereal goes on sale every 12 weeks. I know I use a box of cereal every two weeks, so every time the cereal goes on sale, I replenish my inventory back to six boxes.
- Clip coupons for the items you intend to stockpile. Many people think coupons are mostly for junk food or products that only large families with kids will want. But over the past couple of years, manufacturers’ coupons have extended to many more meats, vegetables, healthful foods, organics and household products. They also now extend to their customers more “multi-purchase” offers that save $1 to $5 if you buy several different items from the same manufacturer, such as Kraft or General Mills. These offers can be combined with coupons.
You don’t have to have an Internet connection to track down coupons. Ninety percent of all coupons are printed in the Sunday newspaper supplements.
Bonus: Many supermarkets will double the value of any coupons you use. However, supermarkets that do not double coupons often issue their own coupons with a higher face value.
- Use your coupons on sale items. The week a coupon appears in the paper is often not when the item is on sale at your supermarket.
Reason: Coupons are the first wave of promotion, designed to entice you to buy the item near full price. Stacking a coupon on top of a sale is how I’m often able to get items for free.
Example: I recently bought Colgate toothpaste (regularly $2.19 for a 5.8 ounce tube) on sale for just 99 cents. But I had a 50-cent coupon, which my store doubled — so I paid nothing.
- Buy meat that has been marked down for same-day sale. Supermarket meat departments put meat on sale on the last day of its “sell-by” date. The meat is safe and palatable until the “use-by” date on the package, which is typically five days after the “sell-by” date. Ask the butcher at the meat counter what time of day perishables are marked down (usually the morning of the “sell-by” date).
- Watch out for shrinking package sizes. Manufacturers know that price hikes will drive away consumers. Instead, they maintain the same price but reduce the size of products, hoping that you won’t notice. Major ice cream makers have shrunk their standard containers to 1.5 quarts from 1.75 quarts, so you’re getting 14% less in every carton. Dial bath soap bars went from 4.5 ounces to four ounces, making them 11% smaller.
Self-defense: Ignore the total price and check the tags on the shelf that list the price per ounce or unit cost when comparing similar products. Consider store brands, which typically cost 10% to 30% less than “brand names” and are often the same product made by the same major manufacturer — just with a different label. One of the nation’s largest grocery retailers, Kroger, lets you try the store brand and if you don’t like it, return it for your money back or the comparable brand-name item.
- Skip prepared foods, such as cut vegetables, sliced fruit and cheese, and washed lettuce. The premium you pay, often 100%, is not worth the time you save preparing the food yourself.
Exception: Work-intensive meals. For example, a ready-to-eat chicken on sale costs me only about a dollar more than a raw one, but I save an hour of washing, seasoning and roasting it.
- Pass on the organic produce unless it really matters. Fruits and vegetables grown without chemicals or pesticides can cost up to twice as much as regular produce. So I purchase only the ones that as regular produce tend to be the most highly contaminated according to the USDA — apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.
- Use your supermarket loyalty cards to save on more than just groceries. Privacy advocates have criticized rewards cards because they give grocers access to personal information, such as your e-mail address and what you buy each week. But the advantages now outweigh the dangers. For example, my Vons Supermarket card offers discounts at affiliated businesses in my area, such as oil-change franchises, car washes, theme parks and restaurants. I also get alerts about product recalls. Some supermarkets recently e-mailed club cardholders about the potential danger of peanut products that they had purchased.