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Friday, September 25, 2009

Prudent Penny: Food Shopping

I think of all the foolish mistakes we make with our money, food shopping is the most common and most insidious because it's usually a small amount multiplied many times over.

Here are some tips to save money at the grocery store.

• Survey your fridge, freezer and pantry first. This is usually where I do my meal planning too.

• Make a list, but make it a smart list. I list my items by category: Meats, dairy, produce, etc. My items are also listed in order of my store's layout. It saves me steps because I won't have to double back for an item.

On this list, I also put a notation using a C with a circle around it to indicate I have a coupon for that item. I look for the coupon in my coupon binder and pull it out to the front. (More on coupons later.)

• Before I head out the door, I get on the internet and look up the weekly flyer for the stores I will be going to (for me, there are only two). I see if they are running any specials that coincide with my coupons and I pay particular attention to their loss leaders, those items they drop below normal to draw people into their stores.

•I also look up Red Plum, Smart Source and and see if they have any coupons that can be used frugally.

• At the store, the produce aisle is my first stop. During the summer I don't buy as many fruits and vegetables, but there's always something I don't grow so into the basket it goes.

• The interior of the store is where all the packaged and canned items are. This is where most people are parted from their cash.
The real secret to saving money at the grocery store is learning to make things from scratch. I can't think of a single homemade scratch item that doesn't taste better and is healthier than the prepackaged stuff. But sometimes the cost savings isn't worth your time. This is when you have to make an executive decision on what's worth more.

I am not a baker. I can't go through the steps as seamlessly as real bakers can. I'll bake from scratch maybe a couple of times a year, but recently I've been calculating the cost difference between a store bought muffin and one made from scratch.

Holy Moley!

Greg had to revive me with smelling salts.

It's outrageous what they charge compared to what you can do at home. So I've made it my mission to practice my baking more, especially for things I love like cranberry muffins and fresh flour tortillas.

With other people it might be something like chili. Give up the canned stuff and make your own from scratch. I guarantee you, you won't go back to cans. It's yucky compared to what you can make at home.

Everybody has their crutch food, food that is easier for them to buy ready made than to make from natural ingredients. It could be spaghetti sauce, French onion soup or orange chicken. Start with one product that you normally pay high dollar for and see what it'll cost you in time and money to make from scratch. Every little bit helps.

• When you shop, check out the price per unit or ounce to see if buying bulk will give you more value. Don't be surprised if occasionally you find a product that's cheaper in the smaller size. Don't ask me why that is. It's a mystery.

• The meat department: Here's my sinful little secret. I try to hit my stores at around 9:30am. I know that's when the butchers (at my stores) start relabeling their meat to up to half off if it expires the next day. With the economy the way it is, more and more people are beating me to the punch, but I will grab every rib eye and porterhouse I find if it's on clearance.

Pork butts make the most heavenly shredded meat for fajitas or BBQ sandwiches. Cheap chicken goes to the dogs and some of it to our grill. Pot roast will bring Greg running to the table every time. The only thing I won't buy on clearance is fish. Maybe it's just my area, but I always think they are a day too late when labeling expiration dates. I like my fish very fresh.

But meat is more forgiving. And they're not selling you old meat. They just don't want to be stuck with it when it expires, that's why they mark it down. Buy as much meat as you can freeze. It will keep for several months with no detectible deterioration to taste.

Household goods: Don't waste your money on a multitude of cleansers. Buy some bleach, ammonia, baking soda and vinegar. This list will take care of most of your cleaning needs. I do buy deodorizers, dishwashing soap, and the occasional wood oil, but that's about it.

Paper towels? Invest in some good bar towels for the counter and cloth dinner napkins for the table.

Resealable plastic bags? Use generic or invest in containers.

Plastic containers? That's a tough one. I'm seeing a lot of research that seems to indicate that some plastic ware has toxic chemicals that leach with time and heat. I've slowly been switching to glass containers, using plastic only for items that will go in the freezer.


Coupons are only frugal if:

• you buy that particular brand anyway
• it is used when the item is on sale
• if you can double or triple the coupon

I have to admit, I don't use a lot of coupons. I will clip them if it gives me a free product, or on the rare occasion when it's a product we normally buy. For example, Greg is rather particular about the ketchup in our house, so I specifically hunt for the brand name he prefers.

All these coupons go into my black book, a binder with plastic sleeves in it. I place however many coupons will fit on one page so I can see what I have at a glance. I sort the coupons by category.
For example, dog food or dog cookies go on one page, tomato sauce or pasta goes on another.

If the coupon is about to expire and I know I won't buy the item, I will often leave the coupon by the item in the hopes someone else will use it.

My black book of DOOOOOOM! ---kidding.
They're just coupons....of DOOOOOOM


Grocery shopping is a battleground. Manufacturers will do whatever it takes to part you from your money. Go on a full stomach, with a list, but without the spouse or kids. Shop with a menu in mind. Know what you're going to fix for the week and for the month.

And my #1 shopping rule: If it's a good price (especially a loss leader), stock up. If it's something you or your family likes to eat, it will not go to waste.

Next week: Stocking up

Copyright © 2009 Maria Zannini --
For more posts on saving money go here and here.


Mike Keyton said...

you sound like Napoleon planning the conquest of Europe :)

Mind you, if you grew up in Britain in the immediate postwar years you imbibed a make do mentality from your mother's milk. I'm a demon with left-overs. My children hate me for it, but I tell them even Mick Jagger with all his millions insisted his children switched the lights off on leaving a room - No, not a mean old lech, but a postwar babe!

Jennifer Shirk said...

Wow, good tips!

I'm going to check out those coupon sites.

I find when I shop online--and without my daughter--I buy less, because I'm less tempted to pick up those extras that just "look" too good to resist. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: LOL! I do like to run a tight ship. But I understand the postwar mentality. My parents lived during the depression and a lot of their ways were passed down to their kids.

PS Greg hates leftovers and I am constantly trying to find ways to disguise them so he doesn't grumble.

Maria Zannini said...

Hi Jennifer. Glad you found it helpful.

I have to shop alone, otherwise my basket is filled with ice cream, chips and video games. :o)

Marianne Arkins said...

The meat at our stores is marked down on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that's when I shop for it especially when it's time to make dog food. :-)

I almost never use coupons, either, but I look every week. All the stores where I shop offer to double anything under $1, sot that's something to keep in mind, too. And, like you, if I take them and end up deciding it's not worth it, I leave them behind.

I buy spaghetti sauce. It's my one splurge. But I only buy it when the better brands are on sale for $1 and then I stock up with 30 - 40 jars. I'm lucky to have a basement with four tall bookshelves I can fill. My freezer costs me about $15 a month to run, but the way my DH eats meat, I save at least that much by buying it on sale and freezing it.

But, yeah -- the biggie is to buy on sale and stock up. And for folks who say they don't have the room? My brother/SIL used to put cases of food under their bed when they lived in a tiny apartment. Not very feng shui, but very frugal.