A couple of years ago it was a tradition to have dinner with my boyfriend’s parents every week. They always had a ton of ingredients in whatever they made. I often saw $8 cheese to go with sliced apples, fancy little horderves from Trader Joe’s, and a host of other decadent table offerings that would’ve been a meal fit for a king in the 18th century.
The dinner was always lovely but I knew that grocery shopping was pretty much a hobby for them. I mean, I guess when you’re older and married food becomes a lot more important and exciting. They always flaunted some new item they’d bought and told us how much money they’d saved. I have to say “It was on sale” is one of the silliest justifications I hear for buying something.
I’ve done quite a bit of grocery hacking in my few years on this planet. If I didn’t know a little something about grocery shopping they would probably revoke my cheapskate card. Though my living situations didn’t always require it, I always tried to be aware of how to shop for myself and especially how to use ingredients. I could see a time in the future when my grocery hacks would serve me well in a society that always wants bigger and better, but at the lowest possible price.
Learn to Cook
This is the absolute first thing you have to do to get your grocery life up to snuff. If you don’t learn to cook you’ll end up buying all kinds of pre-made food that you don’t even think about. I know it looks like the same price in the store but that is the insidiousness of not doing the research. Trust me, if it’s quick and convenient you are always going to see that reflected in the price.
You need to learn to cook because sometimes you buy things that wouldn’t normally go together. Say there’s a huge sale on nuts and oatmeal and you could totally make yourself some granola for cheap– if only you knew how. Like so many money-saving steps the process of learning to cook is going to take some time. You experiment with recipes and find what works for you.
Forget Grocery Store Loyalty
If you truly want to save the most money you’d do well to forget about your favorite store. I ask people all the time why they always go to “that” grocery store. Their answer is always “they have the best price!” There are a lot of grocery stores out there they can’t possibly all have the best price. If you observe the grand champions of grocery shopping, stay at home moms, you’ll find they go to different stores. They might have one they frequent more often but they’re pretty much going to go where the cheapest items are that week.
People will bring up to me gas rewards programs. I’ve never used gas programs myself because I simply don’t spend enough. My $50 a month isn’t enough to get me any savings even if I did choose to shop at the same store all the time. If you do spend a lot of money on groceries you might get as much as 25 cents off but I’m not convinced that 25 cents is a real savings once you factor in being able to go to other stores and save, say, $1.50 per item because of sales. Also, I’ve noticed the gas stations that partner with grocers are generally the expensive gas stations. Ahem, looking at you Chevron. You could just go to a cheaper gas station and save yourself the trouble of having to hit some spending number at the store to get the gas rewards.
Use Coupons/Know the Sale Cycles
I used to be a couponaholic. I got very good at finding high value coupons and matching them with the store sales. The thing about couponing is it takes a lot of time and I realize some of you might be raising families and you just don’t want the hassle. There are a lot of places you can print coupons online now instead of having to buy the sunday paper. Also, there are a ton of websites out there that exist solely to match sales with coupons to give you the best deal. Here’s my favorite one thekrazycouponlady.com.
Another part of spending less is knowing when you should stock up on things. Condiments, for example, always go on sale in the summer time for BBQs and you can hoard that stuff for eons before it expires. Also you may see a sale for something like cream cheese (which freezes nicely) buy you know the rock bottom price for cream cheese happens in a couple months so you hold off for now. I learned from my couponing career that you shouldn’t always stock up like crazy like the extreme couponers do. Especially for those of us who’ve decided to live in smaller houses for a simple life, we don’t have the space. I’m still using tampons I bought probably three years ago and I’d love to have the space free. Here’s your ultimate guide to sale cycles.
Go to the Dollar Store First
I realized not too long ago that my local dollar store has so many food items that I buy each and every week. I’m not sure how it is in the rest of the country but in Southern California the 99 cent store has been quietly turning into a grocery store. I can find fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, eggs, and lots of great boxed meals like rice-a-roni. My strategy is to visit the dollar store before I go to the supermarket to see if they have any items on my list for cheaper.
After years of paying meticulous attention to prices I know what to look for. Some items at the dollar store are actually going to be MORE expensive. That’s because they portion things differently to make them seem cheaper. Some of the worth-while items I’ve found at the dollar store lately are milk, 1lb organic strawberries, asparagus, name brand granola, and fancy yogurt.
Know Your Protein
In my grocery adventures I find I’m always looking for reasonably priced protein. Depending on how frugal you want to be a low grocery bill can sometimes mean you subsist on a lot of cheap carbs like rice or noodles. Meat can throw a wrench in your budget if you’re not careful that’s why I’m well versed in the high protein foods. I buy lots of eggs and drink more milk than I used to because they replace the protein I was previously getting from a lot of chicken and ground turkey. I still do pretty well with my Jennie-O coupons and buy discounted meat when I can but it’s good to know I can find protein outside of meat. Here’s a guide that’ll break down your price per gram of different proteins.
Grow When You Can
I used to have an awesome garden where I grew all kinds of leafy greens and fruits to supplement my grocery budget. These days I’m in school part time and working full time while regularly writing 3,000 words a week WITH math involved. So needless to say I’m busy and my garden has suffered a bit. I realize a lot of you have families and busy lives like I do so I don’t expect you to be green thumbs right away.
That said, growing things can be a great way to get fresh organic produce without even leaving your house. Some things I’ve found grow like weeds in my area are kale and collards, summer squash, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, and oranges. Ideally, these plants take less care and you can have some homegrown food to show off to your yuppie friends. Best of all, your wallet won’t be frowning.
What are your thoughts on grocery store gas programs?
Does anyone have their own grocery store tips they’d like to share?
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