By Gregory Karp Chicago Tribune
Spending smarter on food is a great idea. Problem is, most supermarket-shopping strategies are overwhelming and time-consuming.
Saving doesn’t have to be that hard. Start with a few techniques, and watch your food spending plummet. You won’t have to clip or file a single coupon.
It’s worth doing. The average American family of four spends $9,172 on food each year, according to the federal government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey. Cutting that total by just 20 percent using these tips saves you more than $1,800.
We talked to Annette Economides, co-author of the upcoming book “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half,” and Stephanie Nelson, author of “The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half,” to learn some simple strategies for the grocery aisle.
First ingredient: cooking. Many Americans’ simply don’t know how to prepare a meal, Economides said, adding, “People don’t even know where to start.”
Cooking allows you to spend less on dining out and less on convenience foods at the supermarket, Economides said. And it doesn’t mean cooking every night. When you cook, make double and triple batches and freeze the rest. It’s minimal extra hassle and about the same amount of cleanup.
Then on busy nights, you’re only microwave-minutes away from an entree that will be cheaper — and probably more healthful — than you would order off a restaurant menu, she said. Consult family, friends, cookbooks and cooking TV shows to improve your culinary skills. Taking a cooking class at a community college could pay for itself many times over.
True, people seem busier than ever and have irregular schedules, but if you want to save money on food, you must cook.
Then add: planning. Planning meals and shopping trips ultimately takes less time, Economides said. And you’ll save a bundle in the process by curbing impulse buys and reducing the number of trips to the store.
“People think planning is too much effort, but it actually is an unbelievable time saver,” said Economides, who shops just once a month. The typical American shops two to three times per week.
Start with a seven-day menu, she said.
Need help brainstorming? Look at the weekly supermarket advertisement, which will give you ideas. Pay special attention to the front and back covers, which will have the best deals, called loss leaders because the store loses money on them. “Even if you don’t have time to plan, you can save 50 percent or more on loss-leader items,” Nelson said.
The authors shared other tips:
Get a loyalty card. Sales in most supermarkets are tied to loyalty cards. Seek out the items on your list that are on sale.
Be brand-flexible. If you must have Heinz ketchup and will tolerate no other, that’s fine. But, surely, you don’t have such strong opinions about all products. Substitute a brand that’s on sale or try store brands, which are much better in quality than they used to be.
Know a deal. Keep a price book, a small notepad of items you buy frequently. Unless you have a photographic memory, it’s the only way to spot a good price.
Stockpile. When your price book tells you a nonperishable item is offered at a great price, buy multiples.
Price match. If your store matches competitors’ prices, bring along other supermarkets’ sales fliers to get the lowest prices on more items at your own store. Wal-Mart and Target, for example, have national price-matching policies.
Want someone else to do the grocery bargain-hunting for you? Try these two online sites. They will show you how to reap savings by matching coupons with weekly sales at your supermarket and chain drugstores.
TheGroceryGame.com. Price: $10 for eight weeks for one store after free trial. Get access to “Teri’s List,” named for founder Teri Gault. It advises on when to “play” your coupon — the ideal time to match a coupon to a store sale. It includes alerts to unadvertised sales.
CouponMom.com. Free. See “Grocery Deals” section for lists that detail weekly deals and the date of the Sunday newspaper that contained the coupon. Sort by savings percentage to scout the best deals each week.