There's more to cutting your grocery bill than using coupons.
You may not realize it, but some common mistakes at the grocery store could be torpedoing your food budget. Knowing some of the potential pitfalls can help you avoid them, and cut your grocery bill significantly. Read on for eleven common mistakes people are making, and what to do instead.
1. You're shopping on the wrong days or at the wrong time of day
The best time to shop is statistically mid-week and either before the evening rush or after dinner. I regularly see more markdowns in the meat and deli areas at this time. (If you can’t use it all right away, freeze it!)
2. You buy more than you can realistically use or store
Remember those crazy coupon shows, where people were buying 50 tubes of toothpaste and spending nothing? That stuff has expiration dates, you know, and that’s just toothpaste. What about fruit, vegetables and dairy? If you don’t use it up before it spoils, that’s wasted money.
3. You’re not buying your spices in bulk.
On a recent trip to the grocery store, a tiny container of a national brand’s dried spice was more than $4.00. What was in my cabinet was old and didn’t smell like the herb anymore, so I tossed the stale spice and kept the container. Then I picked up a generous scoop’s worth of the same spice from the bulk foods area at my local Winco store. It was $8.79 PER POUND. You know what completely filled up that container at home? 27 cents!
Cover up the original expiration date on the bottle with a new one made from a label maker or a little tape and a marker, and you’re set. (If you need new bottles, you can get those for less than 50-cents each, right in the same bulk spice area.) I will never pay full retail price for name brand spices again.
4. You can't store your perishables properly
So this is related to #2 above, but keep in mind what you’ll go through. Flour goes stale, and you need to make sure you’ve got the right containers to store it. The plastic bag from the grocery aisle won’t cut it to keep bugs out or your items fresh. (Just don’t forget to label what it is so you can tell your bread flour from your regular flour!)
5. You don’t shop with a list
I don’t know about you, but if I shop with a list for anything more than 3 items, there’s a good chance that I can leave without one of the things I went to buy. I also might come up with a few more things that weren’t on my list (hello, Oreos!), and it tends to take longer as I crisscross the store to find things as they pop back into my head. Make a paper list that corresponds with the meals you’re going to eat this week, including any other items you’re out of, and stick to it.
6. You buy produce out of season
At the season's peak, produce is the least expensive. Think about it - it's supply and demand. The farms have a ton of it, and they want you to buy it before it goes bad. Also, the farther it has to travel to get to you, the more it costs. Those packaging and shipping costs get rolled into what you pay in the checkout line. Check out the Seasonal Food Guide site for a list of what’s in season every month throughout the year, according to state. Not only is this practice better for the environment (less fuel and packaging used!), but things taste better when they’re in season!
7. You're buying at the wrong store
Check out the ads in your area. While sticking to one big box store may allow you to get it all done in one stop, you’re likely paying more. I've noticed items like ketchup are priced higher at Walmart than at the Safeway down the street. The next time you're at one store, write down the prices of some of your staples - your preferred brand and size of ketchup for example. This doesn't have to be a fancy price book. Just note it at the edge of your grocery list. Then stick it in your purse and check it against another grocery store the next time you're there. Notice a difference?
I get local grocery ads in my mailbox every Tuesday, and I try to remember to pick up the Sunday paper to see the other ads and check out the coupons. But even without the coupons, I’m lucky in that I’ve got three different grocery chains within a 10–minute drive from my house, and some others that I can hit on the way home from work. Compare your local ads to your shopping list and split up the items, assigning each to the store with the best price. Not everything you need will be in the ad, but you’ll probably get a good start. Try and plan the trip so you're not going out of your way for just one thing - if you can combine a stop at that store with another errand nearby, you've gained some efficiency.
8. You're not recognizing a good (or bad) deal
So I mentioned that you didn't have to keep a price book just above, but if you need to jog your memory, it's good to have one around. I've gotten to the point that with regularly purchased items, I can spot the difference between an "ok" price and a "good" price when I see it, and I don't keep a price book. But at one point, I did have a little pocket notebook that I used to jot down the prices of those staple items. That helped a lot.
You'll also want to check that price tag on the shelf. In little print in the corner of the tag, you'll see the unit price. Beware of the "per ounce" versus "each" or "per gram" swaps when you're comparing one brand to another. Use your cell phone to help with conversions between different units.
9. You shop hungry or with kids
So sometimes these are unavoidable. But I know that when I shop hungry, I buy all kinds of things I'd never otherwise put in my cart, things that weren't on my list. (Cookies. Chips. Crackers. Cookies. Bread. Cookies.) I also know that when my girls are with me, I also end up with more than I went in for... and often times in a bad mood from denying 90% of what they begged me for... Eat something just before you go, and if you can, leave the littles with someone.
10. You don't meal plan
This might fit better above, right around the "you're not making a list" mistake. But when you make a plan for the week, or for two weeks, you can go into the store knowing what you're going to be cooking, and not only what you need, but also what you already have back at home. I can't overstate how much stress and money this one single thing saves us on a regular basis. Not to mention I'm not stressed during the week, wondering on the way home what I'm going to make for dinner, and hoping I've got something.
11. You're buying pre-packaged food
So this one I will give you some grace on. If you're trying to move from takeout and drive through stops to cooking and eating at home, then go for it. Pre-packaged foods will DEFINITELY save you money when compared to grabbing something on the run. It is also a big time-saver.
But when you've moved away from the takeout menus and you're better at eating at home, try to move away from the pre-packaged kits and go to things you can prep yourself. Pre-marinated Kalbi flank steak at one of our grocery stores is 1.5x more per pound than it is if I make my marinade myself. Next time, pick up the plain meat and put it in a gallon-size freezer bag along with a marinade. If you're not having it that night, pop it in the freezer. It will continue to marinate as it thaws on the day you cook it, and it's far cheaper than the prepared stuff at the store.
So how did you score? Any other tips you have for avoiding grocery store mistakes?