Food at Home

by Gregory Karp


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Excerpted with permission from The 1-2-3 Money Plan: The Three Most Important Steps to Saving and Spending Smart by Gregory Karp (FT Press; $17.99)

I call this category "food" at home, but I'm really talking about supermarket shopping. So, that includes paper goods, such as napkins and toilet tissue. It includes razor blades, shampoo, and other grooming products. It includes some over-the-counter medications you might pick up at the supermarket.

Food at Home, 1-2-3

  1. Maintain a price list.
  2. Stockpile sale items.
  3. Match coupons to sales

1. Maintain a Price List

You can't save money at the supermarket unless you can identify a good deal. The problem is that you buy so many items during a shopping trip that it's difficult to remember more than just a few prices.

  • Is $2 a box a good price for Cheerios breakfast cereal?
  • Is $1 each a great deal for Duracell AA alkaline batteries?
  • Is 2 for $6 a bargain on Oscar Mayer Bacon?

The solution is to maintain a price list. A price list is just a simple list of items you buy regularly. A price list helps you spot unadvertised sales. It helps identify fake sales, which are "sale" items at the end of the supermarket aisle that are really at regular prices or only lightly discounted. It might also reveal sales cycles for a particular item. In general, sales recur roughly every 12 weeks.

You can use anything from a small-ringed notepad to spreadsheet printouts to a personal digital assistant (PDA) to keep the list. Use whatever you're comfortable with. Set up several columns: store, item, brand, price, and unit size (pounds, ounces, sheets per roll). You might also want to note the date. Four-year-old prices aren't very helpful. As you expand the list, you might want to rearrange it into categories, such as meat, dairy, and beverages.

Don't bother noting one-time purchases or items you seldom buy. At first, just stick to items you use every week. You can always expand the list from there. The only way a price list works is if it's not too time consuming. After just a few weeks, you'll have a pretty good price list assembled, and it will start paying dividends. The point is to have a benchmark for what a good price is.

2. Stockpile Sale Items

This gets to the heart of the spending smart strategy on groceries. Each week, don't buy what you need. Instead, buy what's on sale, and stock up. This cherry-picking strategy sounds simple enough, but it has a few moving parts.

  • Loyalty cards. In most supermarkets, you'll have to sign up for a store loyalty card to qualify for sale prices. Supermarkets nowadays don't typically have sales that apply to everyone. Make no mistake: The supermarket is tracking your purchasing habits. That might give you the willies. But in the end, it's doubtful that anyone will ever examine what you were buying. And who cares? Someone could follow you around the store (a public place) and collect the same information. Anyway, a loyalty card is often the only way to qualify for sale prices, and shopping the sales is your best weapon to lowering your food spending.

  • Sales flyers. Examine the weekly sales flyers for advertised specials. They often come in the newspaper or by mail. You can also go online to MyGroceryDeals.com, which has digital versions of many sales flyers. Pay special attention to what's advertised on the front and back covers. They are likely to be loss leaders, meaning the store is selling them so cheaply they're actually losing money. They hope to attract buyers into the store to purchase more high-profit items, which compensates for the loss leaders. I'm not going to tell you how to plan your meals, but if you can plan dinners around these loss leaders, you can save big dough.

  • Unit prices. Some items are sold in different-sized packages. Unless your supermarket lists the unit price on the shelf, you'll have to do the math yourself. You could bring a calculator or reach for your cell phone. Most wireless phones have a calculator function. For each item, divide the price by the number of units, such as ounces or pounds. That allows you to literally compare apples to apples.

If you go to the supermarket every week with a list of what you "need," you'll be paying far more than you have to. The idea is that when you "need" something, you should go to your own pantry or freezer and fetch the item, which you previously bought on sale.

Try supermarket store brands. They're so much better than the "generics" of a generation ago. In fact, many store brands are made by the same manufacturers that make name-brand food products.

How much can you save by stockpiling sale items? Most experts put the savings at around 20 percent of your entire food spending for a year. Considering the average American household of four spends about $7,000 on grocery food, housekeeping supplies, and personal-care items, you're talking about savings of about $1,400 a year. And that excludes other categories of supermarket items that go on sale, such as over-the-counter medications. That's $1,400 in savings for buying the exact same items, but buying them at ideal times.

There can be drawbacks to this strategy. Obviously, perishables don't stockpile well. Don't buy more perishable food than you will reasonably use before it goes bad, or your savings will be lost. Also, some people, especially those living in urban areas, have less pantry and freezer space to stockpile supermarket items. The stockpiling system will only work on a smaller scale for those people.

Warehouse clubs, such as Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale, are great for some items and not for others. They can end up saving more than the membership fee if you're judicious about what you buy. For example, paper goods are often cheaper at a warehouse club. Your price list will advise you on what the best deals are. Of course, you don't want to buy perishable food in such large quantities that you end up throwing out a large portion that spoils.

3. Match Coupons to Sales

You can save significant money by doing the first two steps and skipping coupons. But you certainly will be leaving money on the table.

For the most savings, you'll want to match a coupon with a sale. This is the big secret for the most strategic of shoppers. For those shoppers, about two-thirds of their savings comes from shopping sales. An additional one-third comes from using coupons.

However, the key with coupons is to avoid hassle. If you have the time and inclination to clip coupons, neatly file them in some type of organizer and weed out expired coupons. Many people have their own filing systems. .

One low-hassle way is the CouponMom system. Get the coupon circulars from the Sunday newspaper, write the date on the front and put them aside, perhaps in a closet or drawer. In preparing to go shopping, go online to CouponMom.com. It is free, although you must register.

CouponMom has two main tools. The first is "Grocery Deals by State," which each week lists the best deals at your local supermarket, noting sales and coupons. For coupons, it will tell you the date and the circular to clip the coupon from. That way, you can fetch the coupon circulars from the closet or drawer and clip coupons only as you're going to use them.

The Web site also has a listing of all current coupons in its "Grocery Coupon Database." If your supermarket isn't listed in "Grocery Deals by State," you can choose sale items you want in the weekly circular and look them up in the database to determine whether there's a matching coupon.

A similar system is at TheGroceryGame.com. It has a small fee, but has a $1 trial. Some users like it better, especially because it includes unadvertised sales and firmly advises you on what's a good deal versus a great deal. HotCouponWorld.com is another good site, mostly for hard-core strategic shoppers. It has a robust message forum where frugal denizens trade shopping tips. It is free.

If you're looking for low hassle, just use Sunday newspaper coupons. If you're more enthusiastic, you'll want online printable coupons too. Besides some of the Web sites already mentioned, get online coupons from such sites as SmartSource.com, Coupons.com, and Eversave.com. There are literally dozens of other sites you can find with an Internet search engine, but after viewing a few, you'll discover they offer mostly the same coupons.

Pay attention to "Catalinas." These are checkout coupons handed to shoppers with grocery store receipts. The coupons, named after Catalina Marketing, the company that pioneered their use) often lead to savings and free items.

The big-picture strategy here is to recognize a good price on supermarket items. When you find one, you pounce, by stockpiling and slapping a coupon on it.


Greg Karp is the author of The 1-2-3 Money Plan. You can learn more from Greg by checking out his blog at Gregkarp.com

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