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Want to save? Don’t get tricked at the store

Knowing the tactics supermarkets use to maximize profits will help you shop wisely. Jean Chatzky has  details, plus another money tip.

There is no single, magic answer to reduce your grocery bills, but you can use a variety of strategies that will add up to savings. Knowing how grocery stores encourage shoppers to spend more can help you resist their tactics. The overall idea is twofold: Find cheaper prices and buy only what you need.

Comparison shop by unit price: When browsing the shelves, look past the overall price of an item and pay attention to the "unit price" that stores are generally required to list. Sometimes mismatched units (for example, one item might be in price per ounce while another in price per quart) can be confusing, so take a calculator along to help.

Use coupons (carefully): Stores often double or triple coupon values on certain days. Remember, if you use a coupon on an item you don't need, you really haven't saved any money.

Search for (real) sales: Newspaper circulars are the best way to discover sales, and if you have the time, visit different stores to stock up on their different sale items. Ask for a rain check at the customer service counter if something's out of stock. But be aware that just because an item is on a circular, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily on sale. And watch out for other tactics supermarkets use to make you believe you're getting a bargain. For example, a store might place an item at the end of an aisle to promote it, but that doesn't mean it's discounted.

Look past the packaging: Companies love to toy with packaging size, color, and redesigns to drive sales, but sometimes a "new look" can disguise less product. And marketing costs of famous brands are often reflected in their higher prices. Generic store brands, with their no-frills packaging, can be the equal of name brands in quality. Sometimes they're even made by the same companies.

Avoid impulse buys: Supermarkets place everyday staples like milk and bread at the back of the store so you'll be tempted to put more in your basket as you walk down the aisles. Items displayed at the checkout counter encourage you to spend a few more dollars while you're waiting in line.

The best way to resist the many tactics supermarkets use to drive up your grocery bill is to plan your meals, go prepared with a detailed shopping list, and stick to it. Also, don't shop when you're hungry. An empty stomach will tempt you to buy more than if you'd recently eaten.

Jean Chatzky’s Bottom LineThis week: Extra mortgage paymentsIf you've got extra money lying around – from a tax refund, for instance -- making an extra mortgage payment is a smart way to spend the loot. The earlier you are in your payment cycle, the bigger the effect the prepayment will have.

An example: Say you're a year into the payments on a $200,000, 30-year loan at 7 percent (with a total interest charge of $279,000), and you send in an extra $2,100 payment in the 13th month. That will cut 11 months off the term of your loan, which ends up being 349 months instead of 360 — and you'll save around $13,000 over the life of your loan.

Some info: If you're curious about the overall effects of prepayments, HSH.com has put together a booklet on the subject called A Homeowner's Guide to Prepaying Your Mortgage. You can order it online for $4.

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Copyright © 2004. For more information, go to her Web site, .