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Yes, there are some extreme couponers who manage to spend next to nothing at the grocery store. But you might not have the time it takes to be that sort of coupon pro -- or perhaps you wouldn't benefit from the effort because coupons usually aren't available for the items you regularly buy.
However, you can keep costs under control without coupons. Just follow these ten tips.
One of the best ways to lower grocery costs is to shop at stores that have the lowest prices on the things you buy. For example, when we priced a basket of ten items at Kroger and Harris Teeter, the tab at Kroger was $7.50 less. And when we compared 12 similar items at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, the total at Trader Joe's was $14 less.
It might seem time-consuming to run this experiment yourself. But you only have to do it once -- and the savings could be substantial. Think of it this way: If you were buying a big-ticket item, such as a TV, you'd probably invest some time to research prices. Although your weekly grocery bill may not seem like a major expenditure, you're shelling out $10,400 a year if you're spending $200 a week. That's a lot more than a new TV -- which you could easily afford to buy if you cut your weekly grocery bill in half.
Don't think of a sale as a one-time opportunity to get a single helping of your favorite food for less. If the item has a long shelf life (or if you have room to freeze it), buy several and score big savings. You can cut your grocery bill in half by stocking up on discounted items. The trick is planning your weekly meals around what you already have plus perishable items on sale, rather than buying only what you need for a week's worth of meals, says Teri Gault, founder and CEO of TheGroceryGame.com.
The next time you go to the grocery store, hang on to your receipt and circle the most expensive items. Then, consider lower-cost alternatives for those items to rack up real savings on future shopping trips. For instance, red meat isn't cheap. The average price per pound of sirloin steak is twice as much as the price per pound of boneless chicken breasts, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Other budget-busters are organic items and pricey cheeses. But you can lower the cost of these items if you comparison shop, opt for generic brands, buy produce only when it's in season and become more selective about the items you put in your cart. For example, consider buying organic only for produce that is most susceptible to pesticide residue (see the Environmental Working Group's list of the dirty dozen). As for the fancy cheese, consider it a treat and buy it sparingly.
Don't pay extra for the grocery store to do your kitchen chores for you. Buy vegetables in their natural form -- rather than washed, cut and packaged in sealed bags -- because they're cheaper that way. For example, we recently found a head of romaine lettuce for 99 cents per pound, but the chopped, 10-ounce packaged version was nearly $2 more at the same store. And stay away from the prepared food section because you pay a premium for salads and other dishes already made for you. Also avoid prepackaged meals, such as Lunchables ($3 to $4 each), because it's cheaper to buy bread, cheese and deli meat, and assemble sandwiches on your own.
Make sure you're really getting the most bang for your buck by checking items' unit price, which most stores display. This price typically shows how much you're paying per ounce and can point you to the better deal. For example, a 24-pack of frozen waffles at Kroger recently was 3 cents less per ounce than the 10-pack. For some items, though, you'll get a better deal buying several smaller packages rather than one large package. That's why you should always look at unit price.
Name-brand items, which tend to be more expensive, usually are placed at eye level. So when you're shopping, look up (or down) for cheaper items, including generics. Scan the top and bottom shelves to find items that are several cents to several dollars cheaper than their strategically placed name-brand equivalents.
Some items are at their lowest prices of the year around certain holidays. Use these opportunities to stock up. For example, condiments, salad dressing, ground beef, hot dogs, chicken, chips, soda, beer and paper goods are deeply discounted around Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day, says Gault of TheGroceryGame.com. Around Thanksgiving, you can find sales on canned goods, stuffing, turkey, frozen pies and baking items such as flour, yeast, sugar and chocolate chips. Purchase low-calorie frozen meals, diet items, cold remedies, frozen appetizers, teas and soups around New Year's Eve and into January. And you'll find the cheapest prices of the year on steaks on Father's Day and Valentine's Day, Gault says.
Don't be afraid to ask for a discount on food items that are near their "sell by" date. Stores must sell items by that date, but it doesn't mean the item will be bad after that day (see Confusing Packages Lead to Wasted Food, Money). If you buy sandwich meat at the deli counter, ask the deli manager if the store has meat that's about to expire and is discounted. It still should be fresh several days after its expiration date.
You can pay a lot less for laundry detergent, batteries, rice and pasta in bulk at the warehouse club. You'll also save money by buying meat, fish and poultry in bulk at the warehouse club rather than in smaller quantities at the grocery store -- as long as you have enough freezer space to store what you don't eat within a few days of purchasing.
Unless you do your grocery shopping at a SuperTarget or a Walmart Supercenter, you're better off buying shampoo, toothpaste, cotton balls and other personal-care products at a dollar store, where you can get off-brand goods for just a buck. Alternatively, purchase personal-care items at the drugstore, when they're on sale and you can use your loyaly card to add to the savings.
Copyright 2014 The Kiplinger Washington Editors