Thursday, September 30, 2010

Grocery Shopping on a Budget - Part 3

Tips for the Actual Shopping Part

1.)  Don't Go Shopping on an Empty Stomach. 

Most people already know this one, but it's #1 for a reason.  I don't care if you have to pick up a Dollar Value McChicken from McDonalds on the way to the store.  When you're hungry, everything looks good, and much more than the usual amount finds its way into your basket.

2.)  Buy Frozen Produce. 

Now, when something is in season, the prices come down and I try to buy fresh.  But if it's not in season, I don't bother.  I head straight to the frozen section. 

Menu Pages

Once upon a time, before people starting shipping their food from halfway around the world, people HAD to buy local and had to buy in season.  And we ate much better food.  Growing up, my family's diet was heavily influenced buy two major seasons in Louisiana - crawfish season and strawberry season.  Yes, you can get that stuff year-round, frozen and shipped from China, but nothing beats the real thing.

Frozen produce prices usually stay pretty level.  The nutrient value is almost as good as fresh because it is frozen at its peak of ripeness.  It tastes much better than canned, and doesn't have the added salt or sugar used to preserve canned fruits and vegetables..  And if you buy something like chopped green peppers, it actually saves you some time when it comes to cooking.

3.)  Generic vs. Brand. 

For years I've heard the "experts" say to buy the generic - you'll never know the difference.  "Oh, it's made at the same plant, the same recipe, blah, blah, blah."  Now, I'm no label whore, but I don't buy generic most of the time. 

Nutrition Know How

Here's my take on generic:  Don't assume that it is cheaper.  With coupons and sales, I can usually buy the real deal for less.  The boyfriend ALWAYS buys generic. The brand name could be on sale right next to it for half of what the generic costs, and he still buys the generic - because he thinks it is cheaper.

And if it is cheaper - is it worth it?  Some generic stuff, I can't tell the difference, so I have no problem buying it.  But some things I've noticed a huge difference.  Like grated cheese, tuna, macaroni and cheese, milk, etc.  I'm always willing to give generic a chance, but if it doesn't satisfy - that $0.03 difference isn't going to matter to me in the long run if it just sits on my pantry shelf.  Do taste tests at home and decide which you like better.  Then you'll know if you are buying something for quality or paying for a costly ad campaign featuring a loveable cartoon.

4.)  Compare Price By Quantity - Not by Tags. 

40% more free!  But 4 for $X.XX!  Buy one, get one free!

They're all tempting, but the truth is - manufacturers are trying to make money.  These are gimmicks.  You have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

For example, around here we have a store called Randall's which offers cardmember only sales prices.  They do have some great deals, but more often than not I noticed that if they were doing a "Buy One, Get One Free" sale - their sale price on the one you had to buy was double what the going price was when it wasn't on sale.  So weren't actually saving any money (and sometimes you were paying more).  But people buy it because they like to think they are getting stuff for free!

I infuriate the boyfriend because I can stand in one spot in the grocery store for upwards of 5 minutes comparing the actual per oz. prices of items, then trying to do math in my head to figure out if a get one free deal is really worth it.  I think there is a law that grocery stores have to post the price by ounce - and it's a magical number.  Because what's the use of buying shampoo with 40% more free - when you're actually paying $0.05 more an ounce on the free part than if you had stuck with another shampoo?

And don't be fooled by "Buy 2 for $5" ads.  The boyfriend used to think this meant that you HAD to buy 2, but unless it specifically states that (which some stores do - so read), you can buy 1 for $2.50. 

Comparing by ounce/price is the best way to go, even when something isn't being advertised.  Look at the magically shrinking packaging.  To save money in the bad economy, a lot of items are getting smaller, but the price is still staying the same.

5.)  Stay Away from Prepared and Processed

It's a sad fact, and a leading cause of our obesity epidemic, that processed and prepared foods are cheaper than real food.  We're a culture that is over schedule and don't always have time to slow cook our meals.  I'm guilty.  When I first started cooking for the boyfriend, I thought Hamburger Helper (and its many varieties) was the best invention of all time.  It sells for $1/box, add some cheap hamburger meat, some frozen veggies, and you have a great meal for super cheap!  Only its super terrible for you.

I can't afford to feed my family purely organic food.  But I do try and stay away from prepared and processed foods as much as possible.  A good tip is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store.  Most of the processed food is in the middle.  Stay away from frozen entrees and just add water type of meals.  Not only will you be eating better food with less additives, but you can also save money on some options. 

Take frozen lasagne - it sells for like $10+ for a family size pack here.  For that price I can make two lasagnes and freeze one for later.


Unfortunately, I can't cook without processed food, be it a can of condensed mushroom soup, or dry bread crumbs.  But I do try and stay away from all-out junk food.  It's SO expensive.  If I'm craving something sweet, I try and bake cookies or a cake.  Yes, it's still bad for us, but at least I get more bang for my buck, and since I tend to cook sweets from scratch rather than a box, it has less preservatives.  I haven't quite figured out a way to get my salty snack cravings-fix yet, but I don't always keep it in the house.  Because I'm lazy, and if I have to go to the store to get something, I'll generally wait until I'm really in the mood for it.  But if it's in the house, I'm always in the mood for it.

6.)  Stock Up When It's a Good Deal

This is going to go back to knowing your staple items.  The more you buy certain items, the more you'll realize what the "regular" price is and what the "sale" price is.  This will let you take advantage of great sales.  I go through a lot of chicken stock, but I don't like making my own.  So when it is on sale I totally stock up.

Take advantage of sales, even if they are "limit 3 per customer" types.  If it's a great deal (like turkeys at Thanksgiving) I have been known to make the boyfriend get a shopping cart and check out separately.  And for the past couple of years, H.E.B. has been running a special around Earth Day where you can get free CFL bulbs with an in-store coupon, "limit 1."  So I'd stop every time I passed the store and get me a free lightbulb.  I don't do anything obnoxious like take all the on sale items off of the shelf and make the cashier check me out 4 separate times.  But I do try to take advantage.

8.)  Take Advantage of Coupons

I'm not a great coupon shopper.  Most of the food I buy, because it's not processed, doesn't have coupons.  If you want some great coupon tips, I suggest the site Hip2Save, where Collin is a coupon-clipping Queen.  For me, it's not really worth the hassle.  When I try to do couponing full-blown, I tend to spend more than I do without coupons because I'm buying items just because of the coupon deal.  And that doesn't really make sense.

But I do coupon some items - mostly household products like toilet paper, etc., and make-up.  It's really helpful to know your local stores' coupon policies.  For example, at H.E.B. they have in-store coupons taped up along the aisles - instant savings!  But you can also match these up with manufacturer coupons (that come in the Sunday paper, online, etc.) and get a really good deal.   Randall's doubles and triples coupons based on their face value.  At Walgreens, you can do a Buy One, Get One Free deal and use 2 coupons and get both items free.  Stuff like that.

7.)  Don't Be Distracted During Checkout

Cashiers make mistakes.  It's usually not even their fault - things don't ring up properly.  Those computer screens are there for a reason - read them.  If something doesn't ring up correctly, be polite but firm and you'll usually get it adjusted.  Once a long time ago, I was actually wrong about the price of some cheese.  It was a poorly marked endcap and the item on sale was actually chips, but they didn't have a price for the cheese listed - so I ended up getting the incorrect (lower) price because of their mistake.

And say you do miss something but notice it later when you're home.  Most stores know what their sales were - so there's no need to bring your food back to the store.  The next time you go, simply bring your receipt to customer service and they should be able to give you the difference.

8.)  Bulk Shopping

I don't have a Costco or Sam's Club membership.  My parents have Sam's Club, so I have shopped there.  They have good deals (we saved a bundle buying my son's birthday cake there vs. a regular grocery store), but not always.  Buying a year's worth of toothbrushes at one time might seem appealing, but look at the prices per item to determine if it really is a good deal or not.

Revive Your Life

And unless you are the Duggars (who don't buy in bulk - which I don't understand - why do you want to open up 10 regular-size cans of corn to make dinner?), you probably don't need to buy a gallon of mayonnaise at a time.  But it might make sense to buy a box of string cheese for your kid's school lunches. 
Always look at the quanity vs. price and ask yourself if you will use the item before its expiration date.  This goes for buying at regular stores too, which are offering large bulk sizes more and more.  It's only a good deal if you would have bought the exact same thing for more in regular size.

Bulk shopping can also come into play when you are purchasing small amounts.  A lot of stores have an area where you can buy unboxed items like flour, candy, coffee, etc.  I find this set-up really helpful when I'm cooking a recipe with an unusual item, or a small amount on it.  I want to try the recipe that calls for 1/4 cup of almonds, but don't want to shell out $8 for a bag of almonds.

9.)  Check out the Discount Meat Section

A lot of stores, including Wal-Mart, mark down their meat drastically when it gets very close to its sell-by date.  As long as you are going to cook it or freeze it by that date, it's perfectly safe to buy it. 

10.)  Grab the Smaller Shopping Cart

A lot of stores now offer different-sized shopping carts from the handheld basket to the double-wides.  For a while my son was obsessed with riding in the carts that look like racing cars, but I finally had to nix them unless we are at Lowe's (there were just a few too many casualties in the grocery store - I mean, those things are impossible to steer and he really only "drives" it for 2 minutes before losing interest).

But studies show that the bigger the cart - the more you feel like you need to buy.  Weird right?  A list will help with this impulse, but grabbing a smaller cart will give you a good excuse when it comes to buying something for a good deal.  This works wonders for me at non-grocery stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, where I almost always find something I like for a good price.  If I just have a handheld basket, that means I'm carrying it through the store.  If the item is truly worth it, it'll make it to the front.  If not, I tend to rethink the decision and put it back.

Okay, that's all I can think of right now.  Anyone else like to chime in with their grocery shopping tips?  Next time I'll talk about food prep.

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