Times are tough in the food sales business these days. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that food prices as a whole rose 3.9 percent in February 2011, which was the largest monthly increase in 36 years. Meat prices alone went up 6.2 percent. And if stores have to pay more for food, guess what? So do you.
If you're trying to save money (and who isn't these days?), walking into a grocery store can feel like stepping into a minefield. Between the outrageous markups -- 50 to 75 percent on produce, according to MSNBC.com -- and sneaky marketing tricks, you need to stay informed and on your guard to avoid blowing your budget.
But even if you do make it through the supermarket without breaking the bank, that's only half the battle. To make the most of your money, you have to use everything you buy, which means good menu planning and actually eating those leftovers you throw into the fridge after dinner.
So, you have to be a strategic shopper and a careful cook to get the most bang for your buck. Yes, it all sounds exhausting -- and it is, sometimes. But you can do it! Here are 10 steps you can take, both in the store and in your kitchen, that are guaranteed to whittle down your grocery bills.
Do Your Research
Becoming a strategic shopper might take a lot of effort at first, but the savings will be worth it. You can do most of your research online, figuring out which stores have the best deals (maybe one chain has better produce prices, for example, while another has cheaper generic goods). You can also scope out sales, grab coupons and visit price comparison Web sites. And you'll save more than money this way -- being organized will also make your shopping trips much quicker!
Compare Unit Prices
In the grocery store, you might think that bigger is always better. Larger quantities means less packaging, which means less expensive, right? Well, not always. Bulk can be cheaper, but you need to pay attention to unit prices. As long as you're careful not to compare ounces to pounds or pints to quarts, comparing the food's most basic price will always help you make the most informed decision. The unit price should be displayed on the price label on the store shelf, usually in the upper left or right corner.
Avoid Supermarket Scams
Grocery stores play all sorts of tricks on innocent shoppers -- some of them more devious than others. From confusing store layouts to strategic product placement, everything is designed to make you spend more money. Staples like milk, eggs and bread are usually shelved far apart so you'll have to wander around trying to find them, and the most expensive stuff is generally placed at eye level. So always do your research and shop with a list -- you'll be much less likely to make impulse purchases that way.
Buy Seasonal and Local Produce
It's always cheaper (and healthier) to buy fresh produce than prepackaged or processed fruits and veggies, but you can get burned by buying out-of-season produce at a grocery store -- it's always more expensive because of shipping and fuel costs. But supermarkets stock everything, all year round, so how do you know what's in season in your area? Shop at your local farmers market. The produce is never going to be cheaper than the stock at your local grocery store. But it's usually well-priced, and it always feels good to know that your money is going straight to the farmer.
Use Your Freezer
"Never buy prepackaged frozen meals" is one of the most important rules of frugal cooking. Why pay a huge markup in the freezer aisle when you can make your own frozen meals for a fraction of the cost? You can stock up on cheap meats and vegetables and set aside time to cook and freeze in bulk, or simply make extra whenever you prepare a meal and then freeze the leftovers. Like many of our tips, this one takes a bit of preparation at the outset, but it will save you big bucks (and time) in the long run. And if you can afford to invest in a chest freezer, you can keep a lot of meals on hand and ready to reheat at a moment's notice.
Here's one tip that requires basically no organization or research -- in fact, we'll call it the easiest task on the list. Go meatless one night a week. That's it. We're not suggesting that you go totally vegetarian, but buying even a little less meat will make a big dent in your spending over the course of a year (and those health and environmental benefits aren't too shabby, either).
Grow Your Food
The most inexpensive way to obtain produce, hands down, is to grow your own. Planting a garden isn't for everyone -- for starters, you need enough space -- but it can be an immensely satisfying project. You'll gain a new appreciation for and connection to your food, and you'll be amazed at how much better home-grown produce tastes than the store-bought stuff. And did we mention it's cheap?
If you're not sure where to begin your garden, start with herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme and oregano. All these easily grow in pots that can be transplanted to the ground -- or kept in the pot if you decide a garden isn't for you.
Cook from Scratch
Here's another rule of frugal cooking: Don't pay for convenience. Grocery stores put huge markups on items that are prepared in any way: sliced fruit and vegetables, precut or seasoned meat, bottled water, bakery products. You can cut and season food on your own with minimal time and effort, and you keep the savings in your pocket.
Love Your Leftovers
The next time you're scraping the dregs of your dinner into a Tupperware container, think about it this way: Would you shove wads of cash into the back of your refrigerator, never to be seen again? We think not. So why are you ignoring your leftovers? We know it's not as much fun as going to McDonald's or getting a deli sandwich, but just force yourself to reheat leftovers for lunch once in a while. Your bank account will thank you.
We're not saying you have to go all out like the folks on "Extreme Couponing," but why not take advantage of savings when you can? Efficient couponing takes organization and preparation, but you'll see big benefits. To get started, you can always find coupons on store Web sites, and the Internet is positively teeming with advice from couponing bloggers. But remember: A good coupon can easily tempt you into making an impulse buy, so before clipping away, always ask yourself if it's something you truly need and will use.
Are you looking for some salad recipes that save you money? Check out this article and get 5 salad recipes that save you money.
- American Meat Institute. "Power of Meat Study: Purchasing Behavior Reaching New Balance." Feb, 22, 2011. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://www.meatami.com/ht/display/ArticleDetails/i/66935
- Consumer Reports Shopsmart Magazine. "11 Smart Saving Strategies." October 2009. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/shopping/november-2009/stock-up-and-save/11-smart-saving-strategies/index.htm
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- USA Today. "Food prices surge; housing starts plunge." March 16, 2011. (Nov. 3, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/2011-03-16-wholesale-price-surge-housing-starts-fall.htm
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. "Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet?" Amber Waves. November 2008. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/November08/Features/AffordHealthyDiet.htm