Judith A. Wakefield

IC Extension Service


August 17, 2003

Spending Less Money At The Grocery Store


Does it seem like your grocery bills are going up and up?  One of the reasons is there are more and more convenience foods available and we buy them to save time and effort even though they do cost more.  For instance, if you bought a head of leaf lettuce and took off the amount that is in one of the pre-washed packages, it would cost a lot less than the pre-washed package.  To save money we can purchase two or three kinds of regular lettuce, wash and trim them, dry the lettuce then put it in plastic re-sealable plastic bags.  If it isnít dry, put a dry paper towel in the bag to absorb excess moisture or punch a couple holes in the bag to allow for air circulate.  Youíll have lettuce for salads for days at a fraction of what the pre-washed versions cost.  Sure convenience is nice, but we are spending money we could possible use for something more important.

The pre-seasoned or marinated meats are a convenience, but we could buy the same cuts of meat, think ahead and season or marinate them at a fraction of the cost.

The tried and true way to save money at the grocery store is to make out menus for a week.  Plan meals that provide the variety of foods needed for a healthy diet.  Include fruits and vegetables, meat or meat alternatives, dairy foods and grain products.   Check the cabinets and refrigerator/freezer to see what you have on hand that you can plan to use up.  You have money invested in what is in your freezer, you donít get the value until you use it.  Check to see what ingredients you need for the meals you have planned and put these on your grocery list.  While you are at it check to see if you need laundry detergent, pet food  or cleaning supplies.  The more complete you make your list, the less likely you will be to have to go back.

Check the grocery store advertisements to see what is on special that you can plan to take advantage of.  Planning meals that use up what you have already and that make use of less expensive ingredients can put a big dent in your grocery bill.  Include healthy snacks on your grocery list. 

Since meats are a high ticket item look for ways to save on meat.  Some stores have two for the price of one specials on some cuts of meat.  This writer got twelve servings of sirloin beef recently for fifteen dollars.  The vacuum seal appliances are a great way to make use of specials.  You can cut meat or fish into the size portions you use and freeze them using the machine.  The appliance removes air space from the package, the plastic bags are extra thick and the package is sealed with a heat strip.  Freezer burn is eliminated.  When you are ready to use it you can put a frozen package in cold water to thaw for at least fifteen minutes and you have meat ready to cook, or cook from the frozen state.  Use a meat thermometer to determine when meat has reached a safe temperature.   When you do have time to cook you can make double batches of the familyís favorite foods and freeze half.  When you are ready to use the food just  drop the sealed package in boiling water or in the microwave to thaw and heat.  It can also be used to save leftovers for a future meal.

Since you are planning menus for a week (if you do a good job) you wonít have to make other stops at the grocery store to pick up an item or two - knowing you will really buy more than what you went after.  When you make out your grocery list check any cents-off coupons you have on hand for items you are going to buy.  Discard the ones that have expired and clip the ones that are still good that are for items you need to the list.  A handy way to shop is to make out your grocery store list on an envelope and put the coupons in the envelope.  Coupons donít save you any money if they never make it to the grocery store!

Pay attention to the prices of items you buy regularly so you can recognize and take advantage of specials.  If you donít know what it usually costs, how will you recognize a good deal?  Just because itís in an advertisement, doesnít mean it is a lower price than usual.

Itís not easy to figure out in your head if a thirteen ounce can for ninety nine cents is a better deal than a fifteen ounce can for a dollar thirty nine.  The shelves have unit pricing labels on them that make it easy to make comparisons.  They tell the price per ounce or other unit so you can easily see which costs less. Stock up on those items you know you will use that have low per unit costs.

Consider buying store brand food or cleaning items.  They are often made by the brand name companies and just put in the store brand packaging.  They are usually less expensive unless the name brands are on special.  Check the unit price to see which is a better deal.  If youíve never tried the store brands before, buy just a few to try them out and if you are satisfied with the quality of it you can plan to save by using store brands in the future.

Shopping at shopping clubs can save money if you can store and use up the larger volumes of merchandise they offer.  For a large family it may be great, for a single person (with limited storage space) not so great. Some grocery store chains have saving cards that provide savings on certain items.  They have little cards that can go on your key ring so they are always handy. 

With fresh produce buy only what you need and will use.  Itís a waste of money to buy fresh produce and it end up going bad and being thrown away.  Store what you buy so it will stay fresh as long a possible.  Once fruit is ripe it will keep longer in the refrigerator.  Make sure fresh fruits and vegetables are stored where they are readily visible so the family will eat them.  They are not likely to go searching through the refrigerator for a nutritious snack!

As you shop look at the nutrition labeling on packages to see which offer more nutrition or are higher in fat or sodium than is good for you.  Convenience foods are often loaded with sodium, which is a problem for people with high blood pressure.  Try to cook from scratch as much as possible so you can have control over the salt.

Donít shop when you are hungry.  You wonít be as tempted to buy munchies if you arenít hungry.  If possible, shop alone.  Children and spouses can add items to the cart that you didnít plan to buy, increasing the cost of your groceries.

With todayís busy life we have to make decisions, is the extra cost of partially prepared food worth the few minutes of work that is saved?  Is the money we paid for convenience really needed to pay for something else.  If it is, we can go back to the basics and shop to save money, and spend a little more time on food preparation.