Americans spend $600 to $720 a month on groceries, according to a 2012 Gallup Poll. And whether you spend more or less than the national norm, there are easy ways to start saving money on groceries that don’t involve America’s extreme couponing craze or wasting your valuable time and energy.
With your busy life in mind, here are 10 tips to help you cut back on your weekly food expenses.
1. Buy in season. Berries and tomatoes taste better (and have more health benefits) in the summer months because they’re in season. Pears and apples are most delicious in the fall months. Because fruits and vegetables in season are plentiful, that makes them less expensive.
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2. Buy local. Meats and produce grown locally don’t have to bear the added cost of transport, so they are often less expensive than items shipped from across the country or overseas.
3. Stop paying full retail. How can you organize your shopping trip, save money and buy only items on sale without ever clipping a single coupon? CouponMom.com is my secret. I just sign in, select my state, click on my favorite grocery store, and sort the list by clicking on the far left column heading. This sorting method groups together all the items the store has on sale that week. I simply select the checkbox next to each sale item I want, click “print” and take my list to the store. No coupons required.
4. Compare apples to apples. Shrinking packaging can be tricky, so be sure to compare items on a per-unit basis so that you get an accurate measure of what they cost. For example, a 16-ounce package of bacon at $5 is actually less expensive per ounce than a 12-ounce package at $4.50.
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5. Shop later in the evening. Grocery stores are required by law to throw away food on its “sell by” date. Most of this food is perfectly good, usable and, sadly, going to tremendous waste. The bakery department will often mark down bread and baked goods to half price at the end of each day. I recently bought fresh mahi-mahi steaks and fresh bay scallops for only $1.99 a pound because we happened to show up at the seafood counter at almost 8 p.m. when the manager was getting ready to toss it all into the garbage. We cooked the scallops that night and the Mahi is in the freezer for another time.
6. Buy store brands. If you’re a brand snob, you’re spending more than you have to. Now, I admit there are a few items I’m (mostly) brand-loyal to, such as bacon, mayonnaise and trash bags. But overall, the vast majority of the store brands I’ve tried are as good as — if not better than — their brand-name counterparts, so I buy them and save a ton of cash doing it.
7. Stock up on sale. When items you use regularly go on sale, stock up (within reason of course), bearing in mind the product’s shelf life. Salad dressing doesn’t last very long in the grand scheme of things, but condiments like mustard, hot sauce, and barbecue sauce tend to be shelf-stable for longer. Use your freezer to keep a back stock of proteins, bakery items and veggies on hand.
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8. Avoid the deli meat counter. Processed deli meats are some of the most expensive products per pound you can buy in the grocery store. I recently saw roast beef in the deli case for over $9 a pound! Why would I do that when I can buy fresh, whole, unprocessed New York Strip steaks for the same price (or less when it’s on sale) and make sandwiches out of it?
9. Sometimes buy only perishables. Many people have a bad habit of keeping a freezer and a pantry full of food they’ve forgotten about. The purpose of having a freezer and a pantry is to keep food on hand to eat, not just to store. Try to “shop” from your pantry and freezer about half the time. Creating meals and recipes from the items you already have keeps your food stock rotated, fresh and you won’t waste your money buying things you already own.
10. Buy larger. Packaging adds to the cost of an item, which explains why buying in smaller quantities is usually more expensive. Even if you don’t have space to store the huge 24-pack of paper towels, opting for a 6-pack rather than individual rolls will typically save you per roll. One caveat: Only opt for the larger quantity if you think you’ll use it all without throwing any away.
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