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10 Tips for Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Grocery shopping doesn't have to break the bank if you know what you're doing. Follow our tips and you can save every time you hit the aisles.
Grocery shopping doesn't have to break the bank if you know what you're doing. Follow our tips and you can save every time you hit the aisles.
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If you're trying to save money, it can be tough to decide whether to eat out, hit the drive-thru or shop at the grocery store to cook at home. The healthiest choice is obviously to buy groceries and cook for yourself. And it seems like buying groceries should be the most economical choice as well, but as you listen to the beeps of the register and watch your bill slowly add up, it doesn't always feel like cooking really saves you all that much money.

Certainly, if you don't know what you're doing, grocery shopping can be very expensive. But, armed with the right tips and tricks, you can beat the register, stick to your budget and save some cash. We'll show you how.

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In 2010, coupon-clipping customers saved $3.7 billion. How much did you save?
In 2010, coupon-clipping customers saved $3.7 billion. How much did you save?
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If you haven't jumped on the couponing wagon yet, it's time to hop aboard. In 2010, coupon-clipping customers saved $3.7 billion, with each coupon averaging $1.46 worth of savings. If you subscribe to the paper, the Sunday edition is a treasure trove of savings. And, if you dedicate the time to plan out your meals based on the sales that week, you can save even more money.

Make sure you check out the Internet for coupons as well, and research what stores have the best prices; it may not be the same every week. You can really save money -- and time -- if you find a store that matches prices. That way, you only need to make one stop to get the best price on all of your items. The store may even offer a percent of the difference if it meets and beats competitors' prices.

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Also, stock up on items when you can. If your favorite cereal bars are buy one, get one free, don't just buy two boxes. If they will keep for a while, buy as many as you can to get the greatest cost savings. You can also freeze items like beef or chicken when they're on sale. If buying in bulk adds to your savings and you can't preserve the item, find a friend to split it with. And don't forget to use the store's savings card, as well, for bonus savings and rewards.

How delicious are the first foods of the season? Corn and peaches in the summer, pumpkin and squash in the fall -- each season has its own unique flavors. While produce is usually available out of season, it's cheapest when it's in season.

Take advantage of the cost savings of seasonal produce by shopping and planning meals with this in mind. For even further savings, go straight to the source and shop at a farmer's market where the produce comes straight from the farmers and eliminates shipping and processing costs. Plus, you'll be supporting local, small businesses.

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You can also consider joining a farmer's co-op. Through an affordable membership fee, seasonal produce arrives at your door or designated pick-up site on specific dates. But, you usually don't know what you'll be getting with each delivery, so you have to be willing to try new foods or you'll end up wasting your money.

It seems like such obvious advice, but a great way to save money at the grocery store is to make sure you don't shop while hungry. If you do, suddenly everything you see becomes something you need or want.

Items that are not on your list will end up in your cart, and you may not even use them once you're home and no longer hungry. If you go to the grocery store with a satisfied, full stomach, you won't be as tempted by items you wouldn't normally buy, and you'll ultimately save money.

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Pay attention at the register as your items scan. Often you'll catch sale foods and other products that ring up incorrectly.
Pay attention at the register as your items scan. Often you'll catch sale foods and other products that ring up incorrectly.
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It's easy to zone out at the grocery store register when you're checking out. Whether your weakness is reading the covers of the tabloids in the aisle or scanning the candy shelf for the latest crazy flavor of gum, resist the urge and instead pay attention to the cash register.

Oftentimes, prices ring up incorrectly or sales that were advertised in the paper or marked on the shelf aren't reflected at the register. Keep a close eye as each of your items is scanned, and make sure the low prices you think you're paying are actually what you're being charged. You're certain to catch a few mispriced items every now and then.

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If you're craving a recipe with a particularly expensive ingredient, you may still be able to afford it on your budget. You just need to make a few substitutions. Recipes for soups, tarts or soufflés may call for crème fraîche, which is very expensive. Instead of splurging, simply substitute with an inexpensive alternative like sour cream. If you're making an Italian dish that requires mascarpone cheese, use cream cheese instead. You probably won't even notice the difference.

Fresh herbs can also be expensive. If the real thing is out of your budget, use dried herbs instead. If you buy them bagged from your local ethnic store, you'll probably get an even better deal. Just make sure you research to find out the proper measurement substitution -- dried herbs are usually much more potent than fresh. If you're not sure what other expensive ingredients can be easily substituted, you can probably find out with a simple Internet search.

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Don't shop without a grocery list -- and avoid straying from it.
Don't shop without a grocery list -- and avoid straying from it.
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That jolly man in the red suit was onto something -- keeping a list and checking it twice. Next time you're going to the grocery, you should do the same before you leave home. And have a budget in mind. Even if you don't know exact prices, you should have an idea of how much each item on your list will cost. Make sure everything you need doesn't add up to more than you've budgeted.

Once you get to the store, resist the temptation to buy things not on your list, unless they're items you're substituting that are on sale or cheaper than those on your list. Also consider taking a calculator to the store -- your phone probably even has one. It can help ensure everything you're buying is within your budget. If you start to go over, you can take a few things out of your cart.

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Chicken, steak or pork? It seems we're always contemplating what meat to center our meals around. But if you're on a budget, you should try to forgo the meat; it doesn't have to be the main protein source at every meal. If you cook vegetarian meals, not only will you see the added health benefits of eating more vegetables, you'll see significant cost savings. Other sources of protein like beans, nuts, lentils and cheese are much more affordable than meat, and sometimes have more protein.

Beans are a great source of protein, and they're very inexpensive whether they're dried or canned. Whole grains are also a great way to add substance to your meals in a cost-effective way. A side of brown rice or whole wheat pasta can help fill you up and take your focus off meat as the central dish at dinner.

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If think you just can't live without meat, try cutting back on your serving sizes or buying the less expensive cuts. These are usually tougher, but you can always stew, braise or marinate them to help make them more enjoyable.

Stay away from pre-prepped foods and opt to do it yourself. Cutting up a meats and marinating them yourself, for instance, may take a bit longer, but it costs a lot less in the long run.
Stay away from pre-prepped foods and opt to do it yourself. Cutting up a meats and marinating them yourself, for instance, may take a bit longer, but it costs a lot less in the long run.
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Time is something we all wish we had more of, and brands are taking advantage of that by producing pre-seasoned and pre-packaged foods. While these items might save you time, they're certainly not saving you any money. Pre-prepped products come with the added cost of providing you that convenience. And the time they save is usually not worth the extra cost.

If you want pretzels for your kids' lunches, don't buy the fun size bags; buy the family size bag and make your own snack packs. The same goes for pre-seasoned meats. The time it saves you to buy pre-seasoned and even pre-cooked meats is not worth the added cost. Use your coupons, pay attention to sales and buy the ingredients to do it yourself.

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A good tip for saving time when meats are on sale is to freeze the meats in a marinade. As they thaw in the fridge, they'll be perfectly prepped for cooking. Finally, even pre-cut meats come at an added cost. Pound per pound, a whole chicken is significantly cheaper than buying pre-cut and pre-trimmed chicken breasts, legs and thighs (and you can freeze the carcass to make chicken soup later).

Just because something is on sale or has a coupon doesn't mean it's the best option for your budget. Oftentimes, the products on sale are the ones that are generally more expensive. The sale or coupon price makes them more affordable, but it still doesn't make them the best value. Do your research if you really want to save the most money. The generic brand might still be less expensive than the brand name even with the coupon. And the coupon for 50 cents off one brand still might be a better buy than another brand with a coupon for 75 cents off. Just don't take things at face value: Make sure you compare and understand the details of every sale.

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Another tip that seems like a no-brainer is to shop with cash. Obviously, you can't go over your budget if you have only enough cash to keep you within your budget. Even if you put just one or two items in your cart that aren't on your list every time you shop, those can add up and put you significantly over your budget in the long run. So sticking to cash will ensure you stay within your budget, no matter what is there to tempt you.

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Sources

  • Bauerlein, David. "Couponing: Clip a little, save a lot." Jacksonville.com. March 16, 2011. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://jacksonville.com/entertainment/food-and-dining/2011-03-17/story/couponing-clip-little-save-lot
  • Camas, Joanne. "35 ways to eat and shop on a budget." Today Money. June 30, 2008. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/25413449/ns/today-money/t/ways-eat-shop-budget/#.TrV2mM1O0oM
  • Fontinelle, Amy. "How grocery price matching can save you money." Fox 12 Oregon. Oct. 29, 2011. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.kptv.com/story/15869679/how-grocery-price-matching-can-save-you-money
  • Taylor Pittman, Ann. "How to stretch your food budget." CNN Health. Aug. 3, 2009. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2009-08-03/health/food.budget_1_meal-plan-fresh-peas-food-budget?_s=PM:HEALTH
  • U.S. News & World Report. "5 ways to trim your grocery bills." MSN Money. Oct. 5, 2011. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://money.msn.com/shopping-deals/5-ways-to-trim-your-grocery-bills.aspx
  • Webber, Roxanne. "10 Ways to Save at the Grocery Store." Chow.com. Jan. 28, 2009. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.chow.com/food-news/54902/10-ways-to-save-at-the-grocery-store/
  • Weston, Liz. "How to eat when you're really broke." MSN Money. June 8, 2011. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://money.msn.com/saving-money/how-to-eat-when-you-are-really-broke-weston.aspx

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