How to Save Money on Groceries - Part Three

Many thanks to all who are encouraging this series, especially the readers forwarding thoughtful tips. I am increasingly aware how difficult it is to buy groceries without falling prey to the temptations of the food companies. They're good at selling! So we must be equally good at buying.

To start at the beginning of this series about How to Save Money on Groceries:
Introduction
Part One: Frugal Eating Starts in Our Heads
Part Two: Frugal Food Shopping Requires a Plan


Part Three

HOW TO SHOP WISELY FOR GROCERIES


We're finally mentally ready to shop for groceries, frugally. We are motivated to save money. We're armed with good intentions and smart grocery shopping tips. We've gathered the fortitude to withstand all the marketing messages that will bombard us once inside the stores. We'll understand that it's easy to fall to temptation: food companies don't become successful by selling us less. Stay strong. We're up for it!

"Just food, only food." This is our mantra when planning meals and shopping for groceries. We're only going to buy food, just food and only food. No health and beauty aids. (That's 'supermarket speak' for shampoo, aspirin and all the other personal care items). No paper products. (Think toilet paper, plastic wrap and paper towels.) No cleaning supplies. (Think dishwashing liquid and laundry soap.) No pet food. As a reminder, call your local store what it should be, a grocery store, not a supermarket. All the other items are considerably cheaper at big-box discount stores and warehouse clubs. (Think Wal-Mart. Think Target. Think Sam's Club and Costco.) If you track family expenses, separate food costs from all the other stuff.

Real food. This tip is perhaps the most important of all. To save money, to be frugal grocery shoppers, we are only going to buy real food. Much 'real food' is one ingredient long. Lettuce. Carrots. Milk. Chicken. It's an ingredient. It hasn't been cooked by a company. It likely doesn't have a brand name and a promotion budget. It's real food, it's 'whole food'. It's at the bottom of the dinner chain, it's low on the food chain.

Shop the priorities first. At the grocery store, fill the cart with all that 'real food' first. This means vegetables and fruit, protein and milk. These departments are nearly always on the outside walls of the store, which is why some people suggest to 'shop the perimeter'. Okay, the 'real food' is in the cart so let's stop a moment. Add up what's been spent so far. Is there money left over?

Bypass the empty calorie aisles. Don't even go there! Avoid the temptations of wasting money on non-essential commercial foods mostly found in the center aisles. They are budget killers and also largely unhealthful, full of empty calories. Think potato chips. Crackers. Candy. Cheap pizzas. Ice cream. Soda. The deli counter -- especially the deli counter. Frozen meals. These are food 'products' and not 'food', not 'real food' anyway.

Invest in the future. If there's money left in the budget, use it to make next week's food dollar go further. Buy an essential food in bulk. (Think a big bottle of olive oil or a huge bag of brown rice.) Buy a pantry item that will enhance the taste of home-cooked food. (Think dried herbs and spices.) Purchase packaging that makes it easier to store and carry food. (Think freezer containers and portion-sized plastics.) Purchase a kitchen tool that makes it easier to cook in large quanties or to save money. (Think a slow-cooker or a Dutch oven or a Food Saver for preserving food.)

Eyes averted, make quick forays into the middle of the store. One 'processed' food that delivers value is frozen vegetables. Even so, make sure to buy one-ingredient vegetables -- just peas, just broccoli, just green beans, just frozen spinach -- no butter sauces, no herbs. The plain bags of frozen vegetables are often on sale for $1 a pound, a real value worth stocking up on. Other 'real food' finds worth our dollars found in the middle aisles: frozen orange juice concentrate, canned tomatoes, bags of dried beans, bags of rice, big tubs of old-fashioned oats and baking staples like flour and sugar.

Name brands versus store brands Private-label products -- that's the industry term for products made by food product companies but branded with the store's name or the store's branded food line -- are often comparable in quality but lower in price. Stores like private-label products because (1) the products offer consumers lower-priced alternatives (2) the products create the impression that the store offers something other stores do not and (3) even when sold at a lower price, the store makes a higher margin (another word for 'profit').

Do try store-brand, private-label products. But take notes on the quality. For example, I find store-brand oatmeal to be fine for baking but for eating, I really do prefer the Quaker Oats Old-Fashioned Oatmeal. Since I cook oatmeal for breakfast nearly every morning, I'm happy to pay the small premium. In contrast, I've learned that my favorite cottage cheese is private-labeled by a local grocery and sells for $.30 to $.40 cents less.

Watch out for semi-prepared food, especially in the meat and seafood departments. A few spices or a little bit of marinade or skewered kabobs will double the price of meat, easily. These feel like 'real food' (and compared to the drive-through or carry-out alternatives, they are) but here again, we're paying someone else to do very simple prep work.

Don't fall prey to sale signs. We can't help ourselves, our eyes are drawn to sale signs on shelves. Some times products on sale are a good value. But when potato chips are on sale, they're still empty and expensive calories. Ask: is it 'real food'? is it a necessity or a want? can we do without? is it on the list? how good a deal is it, really?

What's 'on sale' isn't necessarily a bargain. What's 'on sale' isn't always a good price. In July, my grocery store sold blueberries 'on sale' for $3 a pint. A week later, the price dropped to $2.50, still $.50 higher than last year's low price of $2. Watch for unit costs, too. I often see that the unit cost on a small package on sale is higher than the unit cost of a larger package at the regular price. If you can actually use the extra amount, then it's the better value choice.

Don't fall prey to the suggestion of X for $Y. Price quotes like these are suggestive of sale prices, even when the price is nothing special. Unless the fine print dictates otherwise, unless you need four of whatever, get what you need, not what's suggested.

Watch for purchase limits. Chances are, if a store applies limits (for example, "purchase limit 2 with $25 purchase" or "purchase limit 4"), the price is good.

Don't shell out for water. It's well known that bottled water is expensive, both on our budgets and on the environment. But think of the other products that contain water. Cartons of orange juice. Juice boxes. Cans of chicken broth. Cans of cooked beans. Low-fat coconut milk. Jello cups. Applesauce. Popsicles. Chicken and pork injected with 'flavoring' (think water and salt). Canned soup. Kool-Aid bottles. Soda pop. (Many thanks to Nupur from One Hot Stove for enlightenment about the many places that expensive water is hidden.)

Don't pay for salt. Specialty spice mixes are all the rage - there are dozens of them, especially during the grill season. They're also 90% salt. Instead purchase the base herbs and spices, then make homemade spice rubs.

Speaking of dried herbs & spices. Herbs and spices are 'pantry staples' that add flavoring and satisfaction to many dishes. But do beware of grocery-store's every-day prices in the spice department, they are astronomical! Sale prices are more reasonable, especially right before Christmas.

Avoid the temptation of the "huge" containers of spices at some groceries and especially, warehouse clubs. Herbs and spices have a relatively short shelf life: try to buy no more than might be used in a year.

Better, find a good source of high-quality spices. A St. Louis institution is the Soulard Spice Shop -- think 20-30 people lined up to buy herbs and spices on a Saturday morning. It's an old-fashioned shop: there are no online sales but they do take telephone orders during business hours. The number is 314-783-2100, there's no answering machine so you may need to keep trying.

Another source of good-quality often inexpensive dried herbs and spices is an international grocery. Often, the packaging is decidedly low-key but I've had great success with both quality and price.

Don't drink up your food budget. No, this isn't an Irish novel where Pa is downing a week's pay at the corner pub. But it's still easy to save money by considering -- and then consciously deciding -- what we drink as well as eat. Coffee. Cans of soda. Bottled water. Even wine.

Personal examples: For many years, I insisted on coffee beans from my neighborhood coffee shop. Then a friend introduced me to big tubs of Folgers' 100% Colombian Coffee which costs perhaps 1/10, either on sale at the grocery store or at regular price at Wal-Mart -- and just as satisfying. For some years, I purchased several cases a year of bottled water and soda at Sam's Club. Now I drink good tap water -- though I still buy a case or two on occasion, because it's cheaper, in the long run, to have a few bottles and cans on hand for long car trips, when otherwise I'd buy them a few expensive bottles or two at a time from convenience stores.

Pay for food, not disposable packaging. It's so easy and inexpensive to make chocolate pudding, why do we buy it pre-cooked in plastic containers? Buy old-fashioned (and whole grain) oatmeal, not instant oatmeal packets. Buy a bag of popcorn kernels, not popped corn or worse, microwave popcorn bags. If a food is heavily packaged, chances are it's not 'real food' and the price is many times higher than the commodity price of the base ingredient.

Pay for nutrition, not snacks. Some of the worst nutrition:values in the grocery store? Breakfast cereal. Snack crackers. Potato chips. Taco chips. Breakfast bars. Pie crusts. Boxes of mashed and scalloped potatoes. Mac 'n' cheese. The list is longer than could be listed here: it all makes me weary.

Pay for quality when it counts. While house-brand and private-label products are often a good value, some times there are meaningful quality differences. I go through butter, here, like you wouldn't believe, for baked goods, for vegetables, for eggs. For awhile, I bought large blocks of less-expensive butter at Sam's Club -- until I twigged that Sam's butter is less expensive because it contains less butter fat! Plus, it just didn't have that sweet, creamy butter flavor so important to cookies and cakes. So I returned to my favorite Land O' Lakes butter, though with an eagle eye on prices so that it's easy to buy a few pounds for the freezer when it goes on sale.

Pay for pleasure, not convenience. That box of pizza that calls out, "Buy me! Buy three of me!" Sure, it's convenient. But does it taste good, really? So many of these food products are laden with high levels of fat and salt that deaden our taste buds to the pleasures of real food. They create a viscious cycle of purchases without pleasure, stuffing our faces and padding out bodies, without pleasure.

Coupons. Who's ever seen a coupon for broccoli? or milk? Unfortunately, there are few if any coupons for 'real food' because there are no 'excess margins' (for the consumer, read 'savings') Coupons are printed only for the most highly processed foods. If we begin shopping only around the edges of the grocery store for real food, the time spent clipping and sorting coupons will soon become a big waste of time.

Contrary point of view: Kris from the great website CheapHealthyGood makes a good case for clipping coupons, following her tips for eating healthy while clipping coupons. I know one mom who asks her neighbor to save the Sunday coupon section for her.

Coupon exception: Non-food items are often included in newspaper and online coupon source. Go for it! (Just don't buy these items at -- what do we call the place we buy food? -- the grocery store.)

Possible exception: The food magazine Eating Well has a new coupon program called Health E-Savers. While some coupons are online, others are included in an occasional e-mail. The last one to hit my mailbox included several coupons for real food -- $1 off any Organic Valley product (so milk and other dairy products, especially useful since there's a where to buy tool), $.50 off Mori Nu Silken Tofu. These are promising, especially since there's an e-mail newsletter for coupons only.

Watch the price signs. Back to this summer's blueberries, which one week were priced "4 for $10". This, of course, suggests the need to buy four pints for the $2.50 a pint price, a common technique to 'upsell' shoppers. But I've learned that this store will charge $2.50 at the register, unless -- this is where you have to watch -- the fine print reads, 'Must purchase 4 pints, regular price $3.' or something similar.

Carry a calculator & a shopping notebook. Okay, sorry, this is admittedly a little nerdy. But unless you're a math whiz in your head, the calculator will help figure unit costs, to help make decisions between brands. The notebook will make it easier to track the sources and prices of the foods purchased most often. Be organized.

Focus on the essentials. When getting started, don't get bogged down (and so overwhelmed you give up) by tracking every single food item on your grocery list. Start with the items purchased every week, milk, bread, eggs, chicken, etc. The next week add another 5 or 10 items to your tracking list. Saving $1 a week on eggs adds up to $52 a year, where saving $.30 on chocolate chips purchased once or twice a year, well, the difference of the impact is obvious.

Don't sacrifice value for price. White bread may be cheap-cheap-cheap but nutritionally, it's without value. Pay for whole grain bread, with more fiber, nutrition and flavor. It's not just about expense, it's about our health.

Learn to calculate unit costs and percentage difference. If the one-pound bag of brown rice costs $1.00 and the three-pound bag costs $2.70, the unit cost is $1 per pound for the smaller package and $.90 ($2.70 divided by 3) for the larger package, a difference of $.10. (Duh. I'm using easy figures so the concepts can be visualized.) So buying three pounds saves 3 x $.10 or $.30. To calculate the percentage difference, divide the difference, $.10, by the first price, $.10 divided by $1 = .10, move the decimal two places to the right, you've saved 10 percent.

Advanced math: For families with debt and savings/investments, calculating the percentage saved is particularly useful. If you're paying 15% interest on a credit card, say, it doesn't make sense to save 10% on brown rice today so long as you use what the difference to pay down the card balance with a higher rate. If savings and investments are earning 8%, then saving 10% on rice makes sense but saving 5% doesn't.

Talk to your grocer. A personal pet peeve is that store shelves quote unit prices for the regular price but not the sale price, making it more difficult to compare. Ask the store manager, write to the company owner. The more of us who ask, the more likely it will happen.

Watch prices and sizes both. Food companies are notorious for dropping the package size while keeping the price the same. I subscribe to Mouseprint for a regular reminder about the importance of vigilance.

But it goes further, too. With the costs of ingredients rising, food product companies are dropping the quality and quantity of the ingredients used to manufacture their own food products. Maybe this will be a good thing? that when food products are increasingly less tasty, more of us will begin to cook our own food? I live in hope!

For easier comparison, think price per pound. For all foods, not just meat, and for the 'edible' portion of the food. For example, chicken thighs and chicken legs are often sold for half or less the price of boneless chicken breasts. Are they worth it? (Nearly always, by the way, they are.)

Contrary point of view: Think price per serving, not price per pound. This is especially useful for comparing two groups of essentials, meat and vegetables. I use 1/4 pound per serving for both.

Watch prices and price tags with an eagle eye. We're in a rush, we've got our list, it's oh-so-easy to just toss food into the grocery cart. Just yesterday, however, I noticed lovely pears on sale for $2.00 a pound at the entry to the produce department; further in, a similar variety of pears were regularly priced at $1.50 a pound -- some 'sale price', those $2 pears. Later, in the frozen vegetable section, a 10-ounce box of spinach was $1.09 and a 16-ounce bag was $.99. In the cleaning supplies section, a gallon of bleach was $1.54 and a half gallon $1.34. For weeks now, seven of the eight varieties of apples have been $1.80 - $3.00 a pound while one variety, the Empire, a good eating and baking apple, is only $1 a pound.

My supermarket is also, ahem, sloppy about placing price signs. I've seen price tags for store-brand butter placed above my favorite and the more expensive Land O' Lakes butter; I've seen a pile of apples priced "$10 for 10lbs" right next a pile of oranges for "$10 for 10" so $.50 an apple versus $1.00 an orange. For what it's worth, when I've pointed out these errors, store personnel have been quick to correct them.

Loose versus bags. On occasion, packaging pays. Bags of onions, apples and lemons are often less expensive than individual onions, apples and lemons - so long as you can use them all.

Remain vigilant at the check-out. Errors are often made at the check-out. Products are scanned twice. The checker inserts the item code for radicchio rather than radishes. Or perhaps you accidentally picked up the name-brand product next to the store-brand product. In addition, make sure all your groceries get into your bag, your cart and into the car.


YOUR TWO CENTS = TWO DOLLARS = TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS = TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS = TWO MILLLION DOLLARS Collectively, Kitchen Parade readers have thousands of their own money-saving tips. Please: do share them, either in a comment or via e-mail. I'll collect reader tips for a special post to close this series. Your two cents, multiplied by thousands of readers, can really add up.

BLOGGERS You know you want to chime in! Write your own post about how you save money on food and groceries, then link to the introduction post of How to Save Money on Groceries. I'll collect your posts to share with readers at the end of the series. Together, we can make a difference!


HOW to SAVE MONEY on GROCERIES

The Introduction
Part One - Frugal Eating Starts in Our Heads
Part Two - Frugal Food Shopping Requires a Plan
Part Three - Finally, How to Shop Wisely for Groceries (you're here)

Part Four - Investing in the Future (coming soon)
Part Five - Reader Tips & More Resources (coming soon)

To follow this series of posts over the next few weeks (plus Kitchen Parade's usual recipes), sign up for a free e-mail subscription.

If you think a friend might appreciate this series (plus the usual recipes), forward this post!


"How to Save Money on Groceries" is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg, author of the recipe column Kitchen Parade and 'veggie evangelist' at the food blog about vegetables, A Veggie Venture.




I know one of my best shopping "secrets" is going to our neighborhood bulk food store, aptly named "Mr. Bulky's". Since I live alone it is very hard to follow all the money saving tips I would like too. If I want pizza buy the time I buy all the stuff sometimes it is cheaper for me to just by the $3.99 one that is on sale. It is hard for me to use up all those leftovers and my freezer only holds so much, and then things go to waste. That is why I love Mr. Bulky's. It reminds me of an old time general store (minus all the "general" stuff lol) It has bins and bins of anything you could need for cooking. You can by candy, candy making supplies, there are tons of different flours, salts, sugars, spices, nuts, loose teas, gourmet coffees, you can even find cheese powder like they put in the mac and cheese boxes, or rice pilaf or couscous mixes. And the wonderful thing is not only is it cheep, but you only buy as much as you need so you know you always have the freshest. For example living alone it is hard for to justify spending say $4-$6 on a bottle of say rosemary when I know it could take me 2 years to use it all. I could go and by a tablespoon or two at Mr. Bulky's for say $0.30. Their spices are so cheap that I could even buy as much as in what is in a regular sized bottle of Spice Island and still only spend say a $1. They get shipments every week so I know it is fresh, and because I can get as much as I want it has encouraged me to try spices I may never have thought of or been willing to because spices at the "grocery" store are so expensive. I love their variety it is probably my favorite place to go! I don't bake too much but say I wanted cake flour I can go and get just enough for that cake instead of buying a huge bag I won't use in time, and even if I wanted the whole bag buying it there is $$$'s cheaper. I can get steel cut oats for like $.50 lbs! When at the store it may cost me a few bucks! So if you have a bulk food store in the area I would highly recommend checking it out. You can find some really great products for fantastic prices!
 
Lauren, what a great tip. We all should be so lucky to have a Mr Bulky's in our neighborhoods! I do think that for many people, cooking for one or two is its own special challenge for both cooking and saving money on groceries. Hmm. I might deserve its own attention. Thanks for the idea, I shall mull that over.
 
I am loving this series on Kitchen Parade! You'd be proud of me today. The commissary had a Manager's Special on pork shoulder roasts (Boston Butt)-- 69 cents a pound! I only bought one because I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. I made Kalua Pig in a slow cooker, served with rice (it's a Hawaiian thing), cabbage, and fresh pineapple. Then I filled up a quart size freezer bag for a future meal+leftovers, froze 4 Kid Thermos Size portions for school lunches, and have another 2 cups or so of meat for later. That's a lot of meals from a $4.50 hunk of meat!
 
Excellent series, though I found it late, and can't find the conclusion. My sister, who works in the international division of one of the major US food companies, points out that in India, flour in a bag is considered a convenience food. It's a reminder that even buying whole wheat bread rather than white bread is still paying someone to make something for you. A bread machine is simple to use, if you don't want to do the whole thing by hand. However it's also very very simple to mix flour, water, salt and yeast (OO optional) and make your own pizza crust - make a triple recipe and freeze the rest. We can get much closer to 'real' food without much effort.
 
Karen ~ Thanks for all your kind comments in recent days! I love the idea of 'flour in a bag' being a convenience food, isn't it funny what we get use to?!

As of the series, it got 'interrupted' by life and so still remains to be finished. Thanks for the reminder!
 
I used to ocasionally buy herbs at our bulk store, but then, my daughter-in-law bought the place. She explained just how much we pay for those pretty bottles of name brand spices. So, I emptied my old bottles, took them to her, and she fills them without charge (it saves her buying the plastic bags, and that saves the environment.) Now I get fresh spice, lower prices, and I don't even have to empty the spices into the bottles.
 
Thank you for starting this inspiring series. Sometimes a few common sense reminders and fresh perspective on what we know we could be doing is what it takes to get excited and moving into action. I'm ready to revisit a concerted effort at cutting 10% off of our 'food' spending in the months ahead (and hopefully my waistline while I'm at it!)
 
I hope you remember to finish this!
 
Aiii Kate, it wasn't so much forgetting as losing the ambition. But thanks to your encouragement, it's back on the list for early 2011. Feel free to keep bugging me!
 
I hope you are working on the next phase of this blog. It has been so refreshing to read and I realize there is more I can do. One thing I didn't read is how to handle the real food once it comes home or is ready to be stored for later. I was losing alot of food to the trash bin until I got organized. Food gets pushed to the back of the fridge and tossed in the freezer - forgotten very easily. I bought some colored plastic caddy type bins with holes in the sides, and organized my fridge first. Lunch items, veges, fruits, small misc items. Measure your shelves first, height and depth. I haven't lost a slice of cheese or a green onion since, because you have to pull the bin out - you see what else is there and needs to be used! Same for the freezer - was worse than the fridge. I have one for meat, veges, fruits, soups, baking. I do have a chest freezer, so the big big stuff goes in there, in covered plastic stacking bins - labeled in the front. it's much easier to pull off the bins than to rummage through the bags of unlabeled mysteries. Even with only two of us at home, we still manage to make a mess of the bins. But in order to get something out, you gotta pull the whole thing with it - so it forces you to look at the big pic. One more thing - I invested in two vacuum sealers. One large and one small. I can make my own sized bags for left overs - perfect for lunches at the office. I put the food right in the bag, don't seal, then freeze solid (sometimes overnight), then seal the bag. saves a ton of messy liquid spills and unsealed bags. Also handy as "tv" dinners for the spousal unit, when I am out of town. All store meat is immediately repackaged into the vacuum sealed bags. The cost savings in being organized has been shocking, hundreds of dollars a year. Let's not render all the planning and shopping pointless once we get these groceries home! And for the record, my trash bin is very sad - I save most of my cooking scraps in the produce bags and place in the freezer container marked - 4 THE GARDEN. Come spring I thaw them for the lasagna garden beds. I love to grow my own veges, very frugal and healthy, given many fresh produce items lose their nutritional value over short periods of time. Keep up the good work here, please!!!!!
 
Very useful information, thanks!
 
Hi Alanna,

It is Dec 31 2011 and we are just about to head into the continuing economic uncertainty of 2012. Perhaps this year we can all work together to finish this series??

Thank you
Susan
 
Here it is late August 2012...and we are still waiting...please finish this cliffhanger. lol. Loved it so far
 
Busted! That's me - but you're all right, it's time to finish this series. Thanks so much for the gentle encouragement!
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna