10 things not to buy at the grocery store

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Americans spend a hefty chunk of money at the grocery store. But there are some items the average family can skip buying there.

According to the latest survey by the government, the cost of providing healthy meals for a family of four ranges from $131 a week for the thriftiest folks to $299 a week for more liberal spenders. Five years ago, the weekly range was between $117 and $266.

That's a lot of money. Smart shoppers use coupons to shave some dollars off of their weekly bill, but studies have shown that in many cases, coupon clippers end up spending more because they buy things they don't need.

A better strategy might be to skip buying some items altogether and finding alternatives for others. This list can help you get started. Read on for 10 things you shouldn't buy at the grocery store.

1. Salad dressing

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Thinkstock

Thinkstock

A bottle of Kraft's buttermilk ranch dressing has more than a dozen ingredients, including soybean oil, sugar and egg yolks, and it has 120 calories per serving. Do you really need that on your salad?

A better idea is to skip the dressing and make a light vinaigrette at home. Many use just three or four ingredients and taste fresher and better than the stuff in a bottle. Another plus: You aren't left with bottles of half-used salad dressing filling up your refrigerator.

2. Gift credit cards

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Thinkstock

Thinkstock

It's teacher appreciation week and you forgot all about it. You need a last-minute gift, and the sparkly gift credit card at the endcap of aisle nine is beckoning. It's fast and easy -- and it comes with a hefty activation fee.

You know what else could work? A gift card from the grocery store itself. It doesn't have the same fees and the recipient will appreciate it just as much. It doesn't look as pretty as that shiny Visa card, but it's practical and will save you $5 or so in activation charges.

3. Greeting cards

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AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

It's painful to buy greeting cards for $3 or $4 knowing that they could end up in the trash bin within days. In many cases, there's a better alternative that costs pennies.

Amazon sells a 50-pack of colorful cards and envelopes for a bit more than $10. That works out to around 21 cents a card. They're blank cards -- but you can fill them with a hand-written note that the recipient will love more than a bland message from Hallmark.

4. Name-brand spices

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AP Photo/Richard Drew

AP Photo/Richard Drew

How did spices at the grocery store get so expensive? Even basics like cinnamon and garlic powder seem to get pricier all the time -- forget about the fancy stuff like saffron and whole vanilla beans.

Consumer Reports ran a blind taste test using pricey name-brand spices versus cheaper generic versions in different recipes, and asked tasters to compare them. For the most part, the tasters couldn't tell them apart. "You don't need to spend more unless the spice is the main attraction," Consumer Reports said in this video.

Here's a better idea: Skip the grocery store spices completely and head to the nearest health-food store where spices are sold in bulk. Buy just a small amount at a time -- it's much cheaper and keeps your spices fresher. Another option is to grow your own herbs and have a supply of fresh basil, oregano and thyme always on hand.

5. Pre-arranged flower bouquets

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AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Those colorful bouquets of flowers look amazing at the grocery store, but they aren't worth the cost. "I find that the pre-made grocery store bouquets are often less fresh," writes Faith Durand on the Apartment Therapy site. "They seem to wilt faster. Also, they are usually padded with a great deal of unnecessary greenery."

This doesn't mean you need to skip grocery store flowers altogether, however. Durand recommends just buying single varieties of flowers, looking for the freshest bunch with buds that aren't fully opened yet. Make your own arrangement, or just display a single flower in a small vase for an elegant look.

6. Party supplies

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AP Photo/The Times-News, Drew Nash

AP Photo/The Times-News, Drew Nash

A trip to the dollar store is a must for party planning, and these stores know how to work that niche. You can buy just about everything you need there, from candles to cheap plastic tablecloths to helium balloons.

Grocery stores offer all of these items as well, along with the convenience of one-stop shopping, but you'll pay two or three times more.

7. Lunchables

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AP Photo/LM Otero

AP Photo/LM Otero

There is simply no reason to buy something named by Men'sHealth as the worst supermarket kids' lunch in America.

The magazine was speaking specifically about the deep-dish pepperoni pizza Lunchables, which it says has "a back label that reads like a chemistry textbook." The meal has 500 calories, 890 milligrams of sodium and a whopping 28 grams of sugar. That's more sugar than your child should consume all day, the magazine says.

Other Lunchables packs have less sugar and fewer calories, but in many cases the healthier alternative is a homemade turkey sandwich or leftover pasta.

8. Batteries

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Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Grocery stores hit batteries with a steep markup and for good reason: When you need batteries, you often need them fast.

One of the best places to get batteries is in bulk at Costco or other warehouse clubs. Amazon can have some pretty good deals as well.

9. Bottled water

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AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

You've likely heard the arguments against bottled water before, but in the heat of the summer it's a good time to run through them again. Bottled water can cost about 1,000 times more than water from a home faucet, according to National Geographic. And sometimes, bottled water is not any safer or cleaner than tap water.

Many people buy bottled water for the convenience and portability, but the environmental cost can be steep. A better alternative is to buy several stainless steel water bottles, such as ones made by Klean Kanteen, and store them in the refrigerator for on-the-go use.

10. Diapers

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REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The grocery markup on diapers is hefty because, like with batteries, when you need them, you really need them. But if parents can do enough smart planning, there really is no reason to buy diapers from the supermarket.

Warehouse clubs such as Costco sell monster boxes of diapers at decent prices. You can find good deals on diapers at drugstores, too, but only when they have great sales, the WiseBread site reports. And Amazon has diaper discounts through its Amazon Mom program.

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