Financial Fitness #3: Groceries on a budget

31 Jul

Good morning! Did you see Missy Franklin win the gold in the 100 backstroke yesterday!? Wow!

I just love her.

As I said yesterday, the AC wasn’t working and it was miserable, but I refused to let it get me down. I think I was rewarded for my positive attitude, because we ended up closing at noon and I got a half day off! It was much appreciated, as I got a lot done. The AC still isn’t fully functioning, but I’m going to keep up with the positive attitude and hopefully good things will come to me.

Let’s talk about saving money at the grocery store. Other than living expenses, most people spend the largest chunk of their income on food (or at least I do!) So it stands to reason that you want to try to save as much money as possible. Healthy living on a budget, however, can be tricky. If you watch ‘Extreme Couponing’, you know that most of the people on that show aren’t buying produce and whole grains. Which is why I’m going to make kind of a bold statement: Coupons don’t work. 

I hope you are still with me. I know it’s an unpopular sentiment, but I’ve been working toward saving money on my grocery bill and I’ve tried clipping coupons for some time. I’ll tell you that, at least the way I shop, most coupons are completely worthless. Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule — I’ll get to the exceptions in a few minutes — but generally, this is how it goes: Recently, I had a coupon for $1 off 2 Ortega products. We have tacos at least once a week at my house so I found this coupon to be quite a good find. I brought it to the store every single time, but I realized I never used it. Why? Because buying the store-brand version of salsa and whole wheat tortillas was cheaper than buying the equivalent of the Ortega products and using the coupon. Here’s the thing: Coupons are a marketing technique, not a money-saving tool. Ortega is counting on me not realizing that buying a cheaper brand is more cost-efficient than using their coupon.

Editors note: I actually just had a Twitter conversation with a friend about this, and I think as far as couponing goes, it matters where you live. None of my local grocery stores double coupons, and store brands are relatively cheap, so take my coupon disdain with a grain of salt. 

Now, exceptions. I’m not sure if all grocery stores do this, but my grocery store chain (Kroger) has a loyalty card program (as most everywhere does now), and occasionally they will send me coupons on the items that I most often purchase. These coupons are invaluable. Usually I’ll get a coupon for a free pint of cherry tomatoes, or a free frozen vegetable as well, so that’s always exciting.

So, if coupons don’t work, how do we save money at the grocery store? Well, here, with photos are my favorite ways to save money on food:

1. Store brand items are usually the cheapest
Ok, this is isn’t the most surprising thing I’ll say, I’m sure. Usually, even if I have a coupon, it’s cheaper for me to buy the “Kroger” brand items. However, sometimes, you feel very strongly about a particular brand, but if you save money where you can, you don’t have to worry about spending a little more on the name-brand items. I love Frank’s Red Hot, but I’m obsessed with Sriracha, so I settle for the $1.49 Kroger brand hot sauce and splurge on Sriracha. It evens out.

Confession: These hot dog buns totally have high-fructose corn syrup, but we don’t eat hot dogs all that often. Oh well.

2. Sometimes buying in bulk isn’t the cheapest way to do things
Yesterday, I was at the store and I knew we were out of ketchup. Zach loves ketchup, and won’t let me buy the store brand — it’s Heinz or nothing. I noticed that the 40 oz. ketchup was $2.18, and the double pack of 50 oz ketchup was $6.98. So, basically, I’m paying $0.05/oz for the smaller size, and $0.07/oz for the larger size. Right, it’s only 2 cents, but think about it. For that particular trip, I saved $2.62 by buying 2 40 oz bottles of ketchup instead of that double “value” pack. 10 oz of ketchup just isn’t worth the immediate extra expense. Sometimes, it’s ok to save your money now, rather than ‘stocking up’. As with anything, there are exceptions  to the rule, but a good idea is to bring a calculator with you to the grocery store. If you calculate the cost per unit of things, you can usually figure out if you’re getting a good deal or not. I just use my cell phone’s calculator.

Really, how much ketchup do you need?

3. Pre-packaged greens are not worth it.
Unless you just really enjoy throwing money away, try to avoid buying pre-bagged, pre-washed produce. Especially Kale! I can’t imagine why anyone would buy pre-chopped Kale — it’s the easiest thing to wash and chop in the world, and a huge bunch that will last me a week is less than a dollar. The pre-bagged stuff is almost $4! Absurd. Exception: Manager’s Special. Sometimes, at my local grocery store, produce will get marked down significantly when it is close to expiring. As someone who eats their weight in produce weekly, it’s no problem for me to consume this reduced produce before it goes bad.

My $1 Kale and pre-packaged, pre-washed green leaf lettuce for $1.88 on special

4. Consider going to more than one store
I know. This is not what you wanted to hear. Trust me, I fought it for quite some time. But, I realized that shopping at more than one store really increases my savings (increasing savings sounds awkward, no?). Usually I’ll go to the local discount store for produce, dairy and spices and then head to Kroger for the rest of my shopping trip. It’s important for me to go to the discount store first, because the produce, dairy and spices are cheaper, but also because they don’t always have everything I need. The discount store I go to is Aldi, and they really have great deals on produce. Between Aldi, discount produce at Kroger and the Farmer’s Market, I can keep my produce costs pretty low.

I got apples, bananas, peppers, tomatoes, a few spices, cottage cheese, string cheese and a few other items at Aldi for $15.

5. Meal plan and make a list
Maybe I saved the best for last, but this is the single most important thing you can do, besides always eating before you go to the store. Plan your meals out for the week, make a list and stick with it. Also, try not to run back to the store. If you are missing an ingredient, unless it’s crucial (if you plan, you won’t be missing crucial ingredients), make do with what you have.

If you follow these five simple rules, you will see a vast improvement in your grocery bill.

Question of the Day:
What are your best money-saving tricks for the grocery store? 



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