Grocery Savers for Everyone

by Debi Taylor-Hough

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Groceries are one of the few flexible items in a family budget, but it can sometimes be challenging to find creative ways to save on regular family food costs. The following are some simple tips for reducing your grocery expenses. If you're an old pro at frugal living, some of these may be old hat, but I'm amazed at how many people still find these types of tips helpful.

  1. Plan ahead. Whether you're cooking your meals ahead of time to store in the freezer, or just planning your menu and shopping lists in advance, it helps to know what you're going to eat, and when. With fewer last minute food-related decisions, this also helps keep your family away from developing a first-name relationship with the pizza delivery guy! (And your own home cooking is probably a lot healthier than the pizza guy's wares, anyway.)
  2. Set your grocery budget and then make sure your menu and grocery list fits your budget. Don't plan on eating Chicken Cordon Bleu tonight if your budget only allows for rice and beans. And don't let yourself give into a pity party, thinking, "We can only eat rice and beans tonight. Boo hoo!" Rice and beans are good food! Just think how healthy your family (and your budget!) will be.
  3. Plan your meals around items you already have on hand, and around the sale flyers from your local grocery stores. But be warned: Moderation in all things. One time I found ground turkey on sale for four pounds for a dollar. Well, being the good little frugal person that I am, I bought forty pounds. Forty pounds?! Yikes! Do you have any idea how sick and tired my family got of ground turkey? I tried sneaking it into spaghetti sauce, casseroles, meat balls, you name it. Before they'd take a bite, someone in the family would always ask (with their nose crinkled up funny), "Is it turkey, Mom?" Now please understand -- my family likes ground turkey. In moderation. But too much of a good thing is ... well, too much of a good thing.
  4. Shop with cash. This is a surprisingly effective means of staying on budget. Somehow writing a check seems less "concrete" than paying cash, making it easier to spend more than intended.
  5. Keep a running total of how much you're spending at the store. If you find that you're about to spend more than you had budgeted for that trip, put items back and re-shop for better bargains.
  6. Keep a price diary. List all regularly purchased items (food, toiletries, paper products, etc.) in a small notebook small enough to slip into your purse or pocket when you go shopping. When you're browsing through store advertisements or doing your actual shopping, write down (in pencil!) the lowest price you see for each item listed in your Price Diary (change the prices when you see lower prices than you've already written in the notebook). This way you'll know for sure if a sale price is low enough to make it worth stocking up.
  7. A simple rule of thumb when you're shopping is: "Look high, look low." Stores often place the most expensive items at eye level. Don't be embarrassed to crawl around on your hands and knees in the grocery store looking for bargains. You might get some funny looks from other shoppers, but the cashiers will be amazed at how much food you're buying for so little money. And the look of approval you'll give yourself in the mirror when you've stayed within your budget is worth a few laughs in the store, believe me!
  8. Stores often place their advertised specials at the end of aisles. The advertised special might be a good buy, but the item will often be displayed with non-sale (and very expensive!) products to entice you into impulse purchases. "Oh, look ... spaghetti sauce is on sale. Now, to go with the sauce, I'll just grab some of these handy packages of gourmet pasta ... and this expensive container of Parmesan cheese ... and these cute little imported canned mushrooms ... and this lovely bottle of French wine ... and ..." Well, you get the idea. Just say, "No!"
  9. Sometimes a store will offer what's known as Loss Leaders -- those items the store will sell so cheaply, they'll actually take a loss on each sale. They're hoping to entice new customers into the store who will then purchase other items in addition to the sale item. You need to hold strong against impulse purchases in these situations. Just run into the store, buy the Loss Leaders, don't do any browsing, and get out of there fast before temptation strikes -- or you may find your best laid money-saving plans way- laid by cute little floral arrangements for the upcoming holiday.
  10. Only use coupons for those items and brands that you would normally purchase. And always check the expiration date on your coupons.
  11. Some stores offer double coupons. Check with your favorite store and see if they do. Some stores will even accept competitor's coupons.
  12. Hand your coupons to the cashier before they start to ring up your order so you don't forget later.
  13. Stock up on frequently used items when they go on sale (canned goods, toilet paper, shampoo, etc.).
  14. Natural food co-ops are becoming quite common. This can be a great way to purchase organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other usually expensive items at competitive prices.
  15. Only bulk buy those items you know you'll use before they go bad. Stockpiling toilet paper is a good idea, but bananas might be another story (unless you plan on baking with them or freezing the pulp for use in recipes later).
  16. Watch for sales on lean ground meats. Divide the meat into one pound batches and freeze in individual resealable freezer bags. (But remember my story about the forty pounds of ground turkey! Repeat after me: Moderation in all things ... moderation in all things.)
  17. One simple approach to meal planning is setting a price goal for each meal. For example: Breakfast = $0.50 per person, Dinner = $3 - $4 total.
  18. Don't shop when you're hungry. You're more liable to make impulse buys when your stomach's rumbling.
  19. Check store entrances or bulletin boards for special flyers, and don't forget to look in local newspapers for additional coupons.
  20. For the healthiest and freshest foods, shop the perimeter of the store. Dairy, meat and produce departments are usually located around the outer walls, while you'll find those pre-packaged "food" (and I use the term "food" lightly) items located in the center of the store. Avoid going down the aisles. These are not only less healthy spots for buying "food," but they're also the location of many impulse buys. (Did you really need that box of chocolate- covered frozen cream puffs? If you'd stayed on the perimeter, you wouldn't have even seen the cream puffs.)

Deborah Taylor-Hough is the author of the bestselling Frozen Assets: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month and A Simple Choice: a practical guide for saving your time, money and sanity. She also edits the Simple Times email newsletter. To subscribe, visit Debi online at:

Take the Next Step:

  • Once you trim the grocery budget, don't waste that extra money! Consider opening a savings account to start an emergency fund or save for some other financial goal.
  • Continue to trim food costs by visiting our food & groceries section to get tips and tools for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.

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