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Be savvy! 10 ways to save on groceries

Learn how to save dough in the supermarket from Dollar Savvy magazine's Winter 2009 issue, which shares tips on cutting costs without changing your lifestyle drastically.
/ Source: TODAY books

Learn how to save dough in the supermarket from Dollar Savvy magazine's Winter 2009 issue, which shares tips on cutting costs without changing your lifestyle drastically. Below are the golden rules of grocery shopping, to help you eat right even when the money's tight.

Does grocery shopping seem like a chore? It doesn’t have to be! Think of it as a game instead, and you’ll find that you can have fun on your next outing — and you’ll save tons of money at the same time. Just like any game, though, grocery shopping requires a bit of strategy. Just follow these 10 rules and you’ll always walk away a winner.

1. Read grocery ads before shopping.
Like so many other retailers, grocery stores constantly have popular products on sale as a way to lure you into the store. And to get the word out, they advertise a lot — through mailings to your house, inserts in newspapers and local shopping guides, commercials on TV or the radio, and sometimes even online. They are worth studying each and every week! That’s because what is on sale changes on a weekly basis. Knowing that lettuce is on sale, you might map out menus that focus on that ingredient: For example, use lettuce for a mixed salad one day, for topping a taco the next day, and to wrap chicken for a low-carb dish the next. Building your menu around sales items will save you a fortune over time.

2. Navigate the store like a pro. The most successful money-saving shoppers are those who approach the grocery store with a solid game plan. Here are some of their secrets:

Make a beeline for the back of the market. Ever notice how the milk department is at the very back of the store? That’s no accident — supermarket layouts are designed such that you have to walk by all the nice-to-have snack and gourmet foods before you get to essentials like milk, bread, and eggs. Make a beeline to the back of the store, and try to avoid the tempting center aisles.

Shop the perimeter of the store. Food essentials (produce, meats, dairy, and bread) are usually located around the store’s perimeter. The middle aisles have the more costly prepared foods. The more you concentrate your shopping on the edges of the store, the healthier and cheaper your food-buying will be.

Be familiar with your grocer’s aisles. Every store has an aisle or two that has no temptations for you (pet food, paper goods, baby supplies, cosmetics, and so forth). Make that aisle your passageway to the departments you need at the back of the store. Why tempt yourself by walking down the candy aisle?

Shop the middle of the aisle. Food companies pay big money for grocery stores to place their products prominently on the ends of aisles (also called “endcaps”), where you can’t help but see them. Sometimes these endcaps display genuinely good deals on nonessential products, but pantry staples are usually smack-dab in the middle of the aisles. Grocers reason that you’ll seek out the staples you really need, and in so doing, you’ll have to pass (twice!) all the extras they want you to buy.

Look up, look down, look all around. Generally, the most expensive brand-name items are on shelves at eye level. Less expensive store brands are on the upper and lower shelves.

3. Get organized!
With grocery store sales in mind, make a list of what you need to buy and stick to it. If you shop on Sundays, for example, make decisions on what you’ll have for dinner Monday through Friday. Your shopping list should include all the food you’ll need for those dinners, plus fruit, yogurt, milk, eggs, and bread for breakfasts, and whatever food you need for lunches or snacks. Weed out expired coupons and put new coupons into their appropriate slots in your coupon organizer. Make sure your store loyalty cards, rain checks, and a calculator are in your wallet, and you’re ready to go. By being this organized, you not only make fewer trips to the grocery store but also end up throwing out less food.

4. Do the math.
Calculate the savings. One bag of chips is $1.49, and a seemingly same-size bag is $1.79. The cheaper one is the better deal, right? Not necessarily, if in reality, the higher-priced bag has a couple more ounces of chips. When comparing prices at the store, always compare price per pound (or per gallon, for liquids). It’s the only objective way to compare costs. Most stores put that number in the small print of the product shelf tags; get used to comparing those numbers, not the total price. And keep a calculator with you — it makes comparison shopping a breeze.

5. Study your store’s selling patterns for sales.
Grocery store sales often occur in patterns. For example, we know of a grocery store that puts our favorite ice cream on a “buy one, get one free” sale on the third week every month. On the first week of the month, it’s only a dollar off. Learn the patterns (and keep track of them in a notebook). Hold off buying these items until you know that they’ll be at their rock-bottom prices — then buy enough of it to last you until the great sale is run again. By learning these cycles and adjusting your purchasing habits to them, you can guarantee never paying full price for many of your favorite staples.

6. Learn the tricks of their trade. Here’s a well-kept secret: When a grocery store advertises a special — say, buy ten containers of yogurt for $5 — you don’t have to buy the number of items they’re advertising. In this case, you could buy one container for 50 cents. Unless the store specifically states otherwise, you should buy as few as you want.

Here’s another: Sometimes it’s hard to find handheld grocery baskets — they are usually tucked into a corner at the store’s entrance. You feel like a cart is your only option, and that’s what the grocers want. Once you have a cart, they reason, you won’t even think twice while filling it up. If you only need a few things, seek out the baskets … and stick to that shopping list!

7. Use coupons (wisely).
Remember all those articles about women who go grocery shopping and get $300 worth of groceries for $2.67? They have many tricks up their sleeves, but their biggest trick is using coupons. Here are proven strategies for following this golden rule.

Read more, save more. If your Sunday newspaper offers a high-value coupon on an item that you buy often, it may be worth the cost to buy extra copies of the paper for the extra coupons, or to ask neighbors if you can have the coupon inserts from their papers. This is particularly worthwhile if you know that an item you want is a “buy one, get one free” sale; you can then get four for the price of two and have ample supplies in your pantry.

Trade and save. Have friends or family that you know use coupons? Offer to host a twice-a-month coupon-trading session over coffee. Even better, do your “swapping” long-distance over the phone, and then send friends and family their coupons through the mail. That way, the mix of coupons will be wider — the types of coupons on offer (and the coupons’ savings amounts) vary by region.

Go online to save. More and more Web sites are offering coupons you can print out. Before you go shopping, log on to the Internet and in your favorite search engine, put in the names of a product on your shopping list, plus the word “coupon.” Chances are better than not that deals will pop up. Just be careful — some sites want lots of personal information in exchange for access to coupons or discounts. Read the fine print and be sure it is a reputable Web site before surrendering personal information.

Sort smartly. Organize your coupons the way you organize your shopping list: in the same order as the store aisles. Some people use a plain envelope, some people use recipe boxes with dividers — find the way that works best for you. If you are organized, you’ll find the coupons you want more quickly and will be less likely to overlook a useful one. As you clip them, put each coupon in a product category. Within each category, put them in expiration order, putting the ones closest to expiration on top.

Seek out stores that double or triple coupons. Some grocers double coupons up to $1 in face value; others triple coupons regularly (or on certain days of the week).

Know when small packages can yield the biggest discounts. Buying the largest size of most items is usually the thriftiest option, but calculating bargains might work out differently when using coupons (especially “two-fer” coupons that require you to buy two of the same item to get your discount). Using a coupon and buying two smaller-size items may yield you a better price per pound.

8. Save rain checks for a rainy day.
This rule works best when you shop at a popular, high-volume grocery store: Say the sales circulars come out on Thursdays for sales that begin on Friday. There’s a great deal on 12-packs of cola, but you don’t have the money (or the space) to stock up on it this week. If you go shopping on Saturday or Sunday, these sale items are probably already out of stock. Good — that’s exactly what you want. Ask for a rain check on the sold-out bargains, and you can cash in on those sales when it’s convenient for you.

9. Layer, layer, layer.
Use a manufacturer’s coupon with items already on sale at the grocery store. Some people call this “layering,” others call it “stacking” — but it’s really a simple way of “saving!” Say a $1.99 package of taco shells is on sale for $1.49. If you have a 50-cents-off coupon and the store doubles coupons, you’ll only pay 49 cents for it!

10. Watch the register. You’ve probably seen those investigative shows that uncover just how many errors supermarket scanners make — the numbers are staggering. Knowing this, keep a watchful eye on the cashier’s display as the cashier scans each product. Make sure that discounts for sales and coupons are applied. Make sure that the clerk keys in the proper produce codes for perishables without price tags, so that you’re not paying for exotic mushrooms when you’re buying green peppers. And make sure that the register is logging items with price tags correctly — when there’s a mistake, many stores give you the product for free when you point out their errors.

And after you’ve confirmed that your purchase was correctly tabulated, be sure to keep your receipt. This is a good practice for a few reasons: If the item is on sale but doesn’t ring up with the sales price, you can bring the receipt back to the store for a refund. (Some stores may refund you the difference if that grocery item is on sale at a competing store, too.) If you get home and find out that one of your items is damaged or has a broken seal, you can easily return it. Finally, many register tapes are printed with valuable local coupons on the reverse side. Read carefully and keep saving!

Excerpted from "Dollar Savvy: 317 Ingenious Money-Saving Tips." Copyright (c) 2009 The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. To read more from Dollar Savvy, click here.