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 the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend $4,363 on food eaten at home every year — which is roughly 6% of the average person’s pretax income.
Fortunately, you don’t have to reconcile yourself to a diet of ramen noodles to protect your budget, just learn how to be a smart shopper by completely avoiding common grocery store mistakes.
Seek Out Manager Markdowns
When buying food, especially meat, always be on the lookout for manager markdowns.
“Manager markdowns offer savings of up to 50% off on meat, poultry and fish nearing its expiration date,” said Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert. “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% markdown, you could easily save money each month.
Always Buy Generic — Seriously
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 Woroch.
And nowadays, every big-box store has its own brand, which is usually half the cost. Woroch said this strategy can save you 30% to 50% on your grocery bill.
Shop on Wednesdays
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.
Figure Out Your Store's 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 — it’s as simple as tracking prices of things you buy often in what she calls 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.
Be Willing To Negotiate
Did you know that you can negotiate prices, especially when food is approaching its “sell by” date? That date doesn’t necessarily mean a product will go bad by then — but it does mean the item’s price isn’t 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.
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 Those Coupons
A strategy is key to saving on groceries. So, put your grocery store coupons to work.
“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,” said Lisa Sims, author of “Digital Coupon Savings 411.”
Feel free to combine coupons, as well. 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.”
Shop on Double Coupon Days
Some grocery stores will give you twice the discount on whatever coupon you use on “double coupon” days — this means a $1 off coupon would be worth $2 off on that specific day. The best way to find out which of your local grocery store chains offers these double coupon days and when is to call them directly and ask about their policies. The extra leg work can end up helping you score major grocery deals.
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, the 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% to 70% off each item by using the app, which can add up to hundreds of dollars over the year.”
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.
Figure Out Which Grocery Stores Have the Best Deals on Which Products
This might take some time to do, but careful comparison shopping at different grocery chains can help you find the best deals on specific products. The cheapest grocery stores for some items will be different than the cheapest grocery stores for other times.
“Every grocery store has its regular and sales price points,” said Jacqueline of Mom Money Map. “Visit different grocery stores until you become familiar with these price points so you can recognize what’s an actual great deal, and not be persuaded by a yellow sales tag. It’s important to note the per unit price so you’re comparing similar products.”
Don't Shop at Eye Level
Grocery stores tend to stock their most expensive items at eye level, knowing that customers are most likely to grab these items. To find the best grocery deals, make sure to scan shelves from top to bottom instead of just grabbing the first item you see.
Set Up Alerts for Price Drops
Use the Favado app to “favorite” the items you buy regularly. You’ll get notified when new sale prices for these items are added to the weekly grocery ads’ sales lists for stores in your area, so you’ll never miss a deal.
If It's Discounted Now and You'll Need It Later, Buy It
Just because you’re trying to cut your grocery bill doesn’t mean you should skip buying items you don’t need at the moment if they’re on sale.
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 now. 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% or more off the things you normally buy shopping this way.”
Check the Unit Price When Buying in Bulk at Warehouse Stores
Some bulk items at warehouse stores might not really be the best value, said Benjamin Glaser, a former 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.
Buy Holiday Items After the Holiday
Holiday-themed candy and baked goods are usually heavily discounted after the holiday is over. Expect to see these holiday and seasonal items marked down up to 90%.
More on Food
- How I Spent $25 for One Week of Groceries
- Why Buying Food Stamps Is a Bad Idea
- How I Feed My Family of 5 Well on $125 a Week
- I Save $100 on Food Every Month by Doing a ‘Freezer Week’ — Here’s How I Plan for It
Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.