If you're like most people, the biggest check you write each month is for your mortgage or rent. However, the amount you spend at the supermarket might be a close second. According to a GOBankingRates survey, Americans spend 12.4 percent to 33 percent of their income on groceries each month.
Fortunately, you don't have to reconcile yourself to a diet of ramen noodles to protect your budget. Find out how to be a smart shopper and avoid these common mistakes at the grocery store.
Make a List
"Without a list, it's easy to buy things just because they're on sale or because it looks yummy," said money expert Rachel Cruze. "Your list will help you stay on track and avoid buying groceries you don't need and might not even eat."
While making a list, it's important to have your meal plan all figured out. If you're known to pick up some extras on each grocery trip, sticking with your list could very well knock off more than a few bucks.
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Before you run out the door, make note of what you already have in your kitchen. This should go hand in hand with meal planning and your grocery list. Some things to consider when taking inventory: how many items you have and expiration dates. You should also make an effort to move expiring products to the front of the pantry or refrigerator.
Forcing yourself to take note of your goods will save you from buying duplicates and wasting money.
The more people you have in your shopping crew, the more likely you are to buy beyond what you truly need. So, if savings is what you're after, leave the kids and spouse at home and fly solo on your next grocery run.
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Look High and Low
Grocery stores are a business and, like any business, they have tricks that get you to spend more. For example, some stores tactfully place higher-priced items at eye level. It's a well-known industry trick.
So, what's your best bet? Look high and low, and more often than not you'll find the better deals, equating to a few dollars here and there on every trip.
Music does so much for your well-being, but it can also persuade your spending habits. So, wear headphones and groove your way to the checkout line with some upbeat tunes.
Don’t Shop Hungry
You've likely heard it before, but going grocery shopping with an empty stomach is a bad idea. Those growls could be calling out for food you don't necessarily need. Do yourself a favor and shop on a content stomach. Your wallet will thank you.
Make Only One Weekly Trip
It likely goes without saying, but the more you shop, the more likely you are to overspend. Shopping is very tempting, and it's certainly more fun to spend than to just gaze. Save yourself money and the hassle of another trip by doing it all in one visit, which could very well cut $10 just like that.
Shop for Future Needs
Just because you're trying to cut your grocery bill doesn't mean you should skimp on items you don't need in the moment.
Say you go grocery shopping once a week, and there is something you know you'll need on an upcoming camping trip in two weeks. When you go into the supermarket, you find that item is on sale. Instead of waiting until next week to buy the item, make the exception and buy it now.
"Watch for a great sale, combine it with coupons and store offers and buy in a higher quantity," said Josh Elledge of SavingsAngel. "You can easily cut 50 percent or more off the things you normally buy shopping this way."
Avoid Prepared Food
It might be convenient to grab something that's ready to go, like a jar of spaghetti sauce, but this convenience typically comes at a higher price.
For instance, a jar of sauce could easily cost a few dollars, but a can of tomatoes might cost under $1. Be thrifty with your money on your grocery trips, and you'll easily see your dollar savings turn into $20 or more any given month.
Consider What’s in Season
"When you buy fresh items that are in season, it doesn't typically cost as much money," said Cruze. It's true. To save on food at your farmers market, or just at the store, buy what's in season. Your receipt will reflect a good chunk of savings.
If you want to save big, go generic — there's a big window for savings.
"Canned goods, dried pasta, cereal, baking staples like flour and sugar and even spices are good examples of generic or store brands that are just as good as name brands," said Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert.
And nowadays, every big-box store has its own brand, which is usually half the cost. Woroch said this strategy can save you 30 percent to 50 percent on your grocery bill.
Don’t Forget Frozen Foods
Frozen fruits and vegetables could save you big bucks if you can't buy fresh. Plus, they can make for some great meals.
And, as Woroch points out, March is National Frozen Food Month, "so look for deep discounts on frozen produce and meals, and stock up on your family's favorites, as manufacturers will be providing lots of coupons at this time on frozen foods and meals like pizza and produce."
Look for Manager Markdowns
When buying food, especially meat, always be on the lookout for manager markdowns.
"Manager markdowns offer savings of up to 50 percent off on meat, poultry and fish nearing its expiration date," said Woroch. "Plan your meal around these manager markdowns, then cook what you want to eat right away and freeze the rest for later so it doesn't spoil."
Meat can very well be the priciest part of your grocery purchase. If you buy during a 50 percent markdown, you could easily save money each month.
Know What Not to Buy
Although convenient, it's typically not best to buy everything at the grocery store. Batteries, cooking supplies and greeting cards are just a few of the items that you should avoid purchasing at the market.
"Batteries are cheapest at warehouse club stores or big-box stores like Target, while cooking tools can be found for less at discount stores like HomeGoods or Walmart," said Woroch. "For greeting cards, go no further than the dollar store to find 50 cent options to save anywhere from $2 to $4 a pop."
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Know When to Buy
You can't have one without the other, so you also need to know when to buy certain items. And timing is everything. "Wednesdays are the best day to shop for food, as this is when most supermarkets release new circulars, ensuring you have the first pick of the top deals," said Woroch.
Woroch added that stores typically also honor last week's deals, so you'll likely have bonus sale items to choose from as well.
Cut and Slice Your Food
Pre-sliced watermelon or chopped veggies could very well cost you several dollars more than if you did the cutting and slicing yourself.
The smarter choice to save on food is to buy your produce whole and cut it up when you get home. Plus, pre-cut produce has a shorter shelf life, so if you don't use it up, you're not only paying more — you're also throwing money away. And that's a definite no-no to saving on groceries each month.
Buy Spices From the Bulk Bin
Jarred spices can be a terrible return on your money, according to consumer savings expert Mike Catania. A better bet is to get your spices from the bulk bin.
Learn Sales Cycles
Stores typically run all sales on a cycle. According to Tracie Fobes of Penny Pinchin' Mom, you should create a way to follow these sales, such as by making a price book. "This will allow you to stock up on those staples to carry you from sale to sale," she said. Tracking sales cycles can help when you're trying to get by living paycheck to paycheck.
Annual grocery spending exceeds $4,000 in some states — the average in our nation's capital is $4,272 — but you can save a little cash by being flexible with your weekly menu.
Were you planning to make chicken enchiladas only to find chicken is not so decently priced? Be ready to change plans. On the days you don't have the right coupons, you can still save yourself some cash by changing up your meal plan.
Negotiate ‘Sell by Date’ Items
The "sell by date" doesn't always mean the product will go bad by then. It also doesn't mean the price is final.
So, if you see something approaching its sell by date, why not beat the store to the punch by asking for the discount first? You might be surprised by how much they knock off the price or offer you in coupons.
Use the Envelope System
If you're not already budgeting what you'd like to spend, start doing so now. What you'll save on groceries might surprise you.
"Make a budget every month before the month begins, and decide how much you need for groceries," said Cruze. "Withdraw this amount in cash from your bank account, and put it in an envelope labeled 'groceries.' This will help you keep track of how much money you've spent and how much you have left for the month."
Save Online Coupons
While you're surfing the net, why not see what extra savings you can find for your next grocery trip? You can locate specific brand coupons online through sites like Coupon Sherpa or PromoCodeWatch, said Woroch.
For example, when she performed a search, Woroch found $3 off Tide Pods from Kroger, $1 off any two boxes of Cheerios and $1 off any 1-pound package of Jennie-O turkey breast. And just like that, you have $5 in savings.
Use Your Coupons
Strategy is key to saving on groceries. So, put your grocery store coupons to work.
Lisa Sims, author of "Digital Coupon Savings 411," said, "When Publix has its weekly sales, people should focus on using their coupons on the items that are on sale BOGO (buy one, get one free) to maximize their savings."
People can miss the biggest savings when it comes to grocery coupons. If you can master combining them, you can really make the magic happen, said Elledge.
"If the coupon says it is a store coupon, you can also use a manufacturer's coupon on that same purchase," he said. "That's because the store is paying for the additional discount. This is called coupon stacking."
Many manufacturer coupons for food can also be used with a store incentive or offer. And when you combine these multiple savings, you can potentially save 70 percent to 90 percent, or even run into free items, said Elledge.
Use Apps to Find Savings
Sometimes, technology is your best bet to locate the best deals, which isn't always an easy task.
Jill Cataldo, founder of the nationally syndicated newspaper column "Super-Couponing Tips," recommends Flipp — a free app that gathers all of the store circulars in your area in one easy-to-use space.
"Use it to plan your weekly grocery trips, and you'll enjoy its coupon-matching feature too, which automatically points out additional discounts available on what you're buying at the supermarket," she said. "You can save 20 percent to 70 percent off each item by using the app, which can add up to hundreds of dollars over the year."
Use Apps to Cash in on Savings
There are many apps that offer great cash-back deals, such as Ibotta and MobiSave. These types of apps reward you with cash or even gift cards when you buy specific products. Typically, all you need to do is send in images of your grocery receipt and voila — you just made a few bucks.
Sign Up for Loyalty Programs
Grocery stores want to have returning customers — that's why they offer loyalty programs.
Find out which supermarkets offer these programs before your next shopping trip. Savings might be instant or through future coupons, and the benefits could easily save $20 or more per shopping trip.
Save More With Points
Why not take savings a little further by earning points on your groceries? Many financial institutions offer credit cards that reward you for using them at checkout.
For example, the BankAmericard Cash Rewards credit card earns you 2 percent cash back on grocery store and wholesale club purchases, plus 3 percent on gas and 1 percent on all other purchases.
Use Recipes With the Same Ingredients
Eliminate food waste by carefully planning your meals using recipes with the same ingredients, so there is nothing to waste, said Woroch. If you buy a whole sack of potatoes, find creative ways to use every potato — baked potatoes, homemade fries, etc. — before it goes bad. Also, get in the habit of just eating your leftovers.
"No matter how cheap the food was, it becomes the most expensive ingredient when it gets tossed," she said.
Cook in Bulk
Lasagna anyone? Another sure way to save money on food — and avoid waste — is to cook in bulk. Woroch recommends preparing meals in large quantities and freezing leftovers for later, which can make for easy last-minute meals.
"These large portions can be used as lunch for parents, an afternoon snack for teens or as a ready-made dinner for kids when you're short on time," she said. She also recommends designating one day a week to meal prep.
Implement ‘Meatless Mondays’
Try a black bean burger instead of a hamburger, Tofurky instead of turkey, chick'n strips instead of chicken strips ... you get the drift. There are countless meatless options that cost less and are still full of protein.
If you need help thinking of alternatives, surf the web for creative meatless meal ideas. If you cut a pack of steaks from your list weekly, you could easily see savings of $50 or more.
Don’t Buy Everything in Bulk at Warehouse Stores
Some bulk items at warehouse stores might not really be the best value, said Benjamin Glaser, features editor with DealNews.
"You're already out the cost of membership fees, and then you feel obliged to 'get your money's worth' and 'avoid return trips' by buying a lot," said Glaser. "Plus, buying in bulk always seems like a good deal. But if you check the unit price, you might not always be getting a discount."
Of course, buying in bulk can offer the opposite effect, depending on what you buy. Toilet paper and diapers are typically some of the best deals at Costco.
Don’t Go to the Grocery Store
Sometimes, the best way to save on groceries is to avoid the grocery store. You might be surprised by what you can find at places like the Dollar Store, for example. From dry goods to paper plates, cards and more, you might just find some goods are cheaper than at the regular store.
Of course, it's always best to do your research and look at the per-unit cost first before heading out.
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Shop Drugstores, Too
Need more milk? Sometimes the best place to pick up a jug of milk is at the drugstore, said Teri Gault, author of "Shop Smart, Save More." Milk could cost 30 cents to 50 cents less per gallon, she said. While it might not sound like much, all that nickel-and-diming could turn into big savings.
Actually Look at Your Receipts
A grocery receipt can tell you a lot about your shopping habits. Collect them and see where you spent the most. If there's anything you can change or substitute, do it.
For instance, maybe you bought a 16-ounce container of Greek yogurt but didn't finish it. Maybe next week you'll want to spend less and purchase the smaller size.