Grocery Savings Made Simple
Combine a little planning with some flexibility and new technology, and you could save hundreds on your monthly food bill -- without compromising quality. Here are some simple ways to get started:
Plan weekly menus
Plan at least four to five dinners for the week, based on what's on sale in your store circular (most are available online). If possible, double those recipes and freeze the second meal.
Be brand flexible
Use the store's loyalty card religiously, and be willing to buy different brands. "Brand flexibility has the most to do with saving money -- even more than using coupons," says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the website The Coupon Mom, who feeds her family of four on $100 a week.
While your store circular obviously tells you what's on sale, it doesn't reveal whether the price is a true bargain. That's where price-tracking websites fill the void. The two largest are www.thecouponmom.com, which is free but requires registration; and www.thegrocerygame.com, which charges a fee of $10 every eight weeks for a list of deals from one store ($5 for each additional store).
The sites track thousands of items for months at a time, and publish weekly lists by state and store showing the best deals. They also reveal whether a coupon is available for that item by listing the circular name -- such as "Smart Source" -- and its date.
Coupons: Clip Smart
To maximize your discount, subscribe to the local Sunday paper, pull out the coupon circulars each week, write the date on them and save them in a drawer. When you're ready to shop, go to the grocery website, click next to the items you want, print the list, grab your dated circular from the drawer, clip the relevant coupon and go.
"The only time you have to cut out a coupon is when you actually save a bunch of money with it," says Nelson. "That takes the manual labor out of using coupons for even the most coupon-resistant shopper."
Meanwhile, if you're a coupon queen, check out coupon sites such as coolsavings.com and myclipper.com. You can also order extras of a coupon for a small "handling fee" from a site such as thecouponclippers.com.
Delivery services, such as Peapod, Fresh Direct and Netgrocer, offer savings on gas and convenience for working families or those with small children. And they provide even more bang for the buck if you manage them with care.
First, order enough to get the lowest delivery price. Peapod.com, for example, delivers in 20 U.S. markets. It charges $6.95 on an order of $100 or more, and $9.95 for orders $50 to $100. Second, by scheduling a longer delivery window -- four hours instead of two -- and paying by debit card, you can cut the fee to as little as $4.50.
And while you can't squeeze the melons, everything else is similar to the in-person experience -- comparison shop, view nutritional labels and use your coupons (hand them to the delivery person and receive credit on your next order).
Jacalyn Guon, 40, lives in suburban Chicago and has two kids, 18 months and 2-and-1/2. She works full-time for a real estate developer, and has been a Peapod customer for five years. "I'd rather be home with my kids than running around doing errands," says Guon.
While the initial set-up can be time-consuming, Guon says, after that the site maintains a master list of everything you've ordered -- so shopping takes just five to 10 minutes. Peapod red-flags items on your master list when they go on sale so you can stock up, and features a "sales" tab with weekly specials.
Guon saves by monitoring her bill's running total as she shops. "If I see that my cart is at more than $100, I'll revisit what I bought and make sure I'm not impulse-buying," she says.
For families who buy mostly organic products, the coupon strategy doesn't work as well -- there just aren't as many available (though mambosprouts.com is one source). But that doesn't mean you can't create a healthy diet on a budget.
Amanda Louden, a holistic nutrition educator in central California, only buys organic or nutrient-rich foods that are in season. She blogs about healthy eating and posts her recipes online at www.mydailydiner.com.
"The key to saving money is buy big items first, on sale," says Louden. She shops twice a month at Whole Foods, stocking up on meat or poultry on sale and freezing. Then she plans a week's worth of meals from seasonal recipes, using vegetables and fruits from nearby farmers' markets. (You can search for a farmers' market in your area on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website; sites such as backyardgardener.com show you how to grow your own produce.)
"There is a dramatic price difference between the farmers' market and the grocery store, where people buy stuff in packages," Louden explains. "A bag of chopped lettuce costs $3 to $4 a package, as opposed to 50 cents a head at farmer's market." Instead of buying deli meat at $6.99 a pound, cook a whole chicken for less than a quarter of the price, and use it for sandwiches throughout the week, she suggests.
Also stock up on grains and beans in the bulk bins for as little as 99 cents a pound. "To save money, stay away from processed foods and go for rice and beans, spelt, faro and quinoa -- great grains we've lost on American dining table," Louden says.