Feeding a family on a stagnant income is getting tougher. Before you quit your job to become an extreme couponer, learn some simple money-saving tweaks to your usual shopping strategy.
Food is getting expensive, and shoppers everywhere are hyperventilating at checkout. We're all foodies now, and we want our grass-fed beef, our Matcha powder and our fresh figs - or our pea protein and gluten-free cookies, or the soy mac-n-cheese for the kids - but we don't want to take out a second mortgage just to buy food for the week.
Lists about saving money at the supermarket are everywhere, and much of the information is common sense. Avoid impulse buys, buy in bulk, shop from a list, etc., but did you know that many of these tips can actually cost you more at the register?
And here you thought you were doing everything right. If you're happy with your food budget, you are - but if you find yourself pining for the swordfish you used to be able to afford, learn when to eighty-six the tips.
The Grocery List
The experts say that you should make a list of everything you need before you leave the house, and buy only what's on the list. Makes sense, right? No impulse buying means no superfluous spending. Except, no.
Say you planned to buy sirloin steak, chicken breast, ground beef and flounder as the basis for the week's dinners. When you get to the store, you notice that the sirloin steaks aren't looking very good, but there's a two-for-one deal on ground beef. And that hot Italian sausage you love is 30% off. And they're out of flounder, but the shrimp is only $7/lb that day.
Had you stuck to your list, you would miss out - but if you're flexible enough to plan meals on the go, you snap up the bargains and save a bundle.
The cavernous discount club is touted as one of the biggest money-savers out there. If you don't mind buying institutional-sized packages, you can save a fortune, right? Not necessarily.
It all depends upon the club, the item and the brand. Sometimes, the package is larger but the price is comparable to what you find in your regular supermarket. And if that giant package is perishable food, will you go through it all before it goes bad? If not, that's money wasted.
Sure, there are deals, but you shouldn't rely upon them - they're frequently fleeting. Hit the discount club no more than monthly and scoop up any truly great finds - but don't grocery shop there. A car-sized box of toilet paper may be fine - a similar-sized crate of lemons is not.
Shopping the Perimeter
By sticking to the perimeter of the store - dairy, produce, meat, seafood, bakery - you save a bundle by buying only raw, non-processed ingredients, right? Not even close.
Perimeter shopping is the healthiest way to shop, not the cheapest. Fresh meat, seafood and produce are more expensive than frozen and canned, and by skipping the aisles you miss out on pasta, packaged bread, beans and rice - staples of the budget-conscious diet.
Joining a CSA
By paying a monthly fee to a local community-supported agriculture project, you save money on fresh produce and get the freshest stuff straight from the farm, right? Well, sort of.
Yes, CSAs are trendy, yes they're great for small farms. But they are not cheap. Full memberships can run $300-$400 per month or more. Sure, you get a weekly crate of delectable fruit and vegetables, but would you typically spend over $100 per week on produce at the grocery store? And because your weekly haul is dependent upon that week's harvest, sometimes you may get a load of eggplant, which you hate. Other times you might be overrun with onions. Or this particular farm stinks at strawberries.
In other words, if you're concerned about cost, be very sure to get the best for you that your budget can buy. Stick to your grocery store and shop the sales, and keep an eye out for roadside produce stands and local farmers' markets, where you can frequently find bargains on exactly what you want, in a sensible quantity.