Running the Grocery Marathon

In a poor economy, it seems that the only businesses doing well are those promoting survival in a poor economy.

Everywhere I look, I see the same advice on how to lower your grocery bills: clip coupons, clip coupons, clip coupons.

Here’s a twist: I’ve also got tips on how to save a lot on your grocery bills, but I won’t tell you to clip coupons. In fact, I’m going to recommend that you don’t!

Intrigued? Read on.

Get Ready

The real way to save money at the checkout is to know why You’re buying what You’re buying. This means that planning is essential. If you invest a little time every week, it can mean the difference between plenty of savings and none at all.

? Make a menu. The single best way to make sure you don’t overspend your grocery budget is to create a menu for the week, and use it to build your shopping list. Then stick to it. If a week’s worth of planning seems daunting at first, try three days? worth instead.

? Check the weekly grocery ads ahead of time (they’re almost always available online if you don’t get a hard copy in your mailbox), and write down the items that you could potentially use. Use these lists to populate your upcoming menu, and from there make your grocery list.

? Go online to find bargains. Websites like My Grocery Deals allow you to ?subscribe? to several stores at once. You can run searches by store, category, or item to see who has what on sale this week. It’s especially handy when You’re searching for a specific item.

? Make sure your grocery list is detailed. The fewer trips you need to make, the less temptation you’ll have to make impulse buys.

? Commit to sticking to your list; it will make a difference. Try one shopping trip in which you don’t put a single item in your cart That’s not on your list. At the same time, add up the cost of the items you would otherwise have thrown in. It’s quite an eye-opener; those extras that you don’t need can double your grocery bill.

? Consider using multiple stores. If you have to drive all over the city to take advantage of sales, you’ll use up the savings on gas, but if You’re creative you’ll probably be able to combine errands. For example, if you pass by a grocery store on your way home from your daughter’s ballet class, consider its sale flyer. Are there any savings worth the extra stop?

Get Set

As important as planning is to grocery savings, It’s not enough on its own. When running a marathon, you won’t succeed if You’re not physically and mentally prepared, regardless of how good you look on paper. Grocery shopping is no different.

? don’t shop on an empty stomach. When You’re hungry, pre-prepared foods and snacks are especially attractive. Unfortunately, they’re also the most expensive (not to mention bad for your waistline!).

? Again, stick to what’s on your grocery list, and realize that it won’t be easy. I frequently toss an impulse item in the cart, then stop and mentally remind myself why I need to return it to its shelf. If you like checking out new things, limit yourself to one impulse buy per trip.

? Arm yourself with a calculator; it will not make you a nerd. Well, actually, it might. But if the price-per-unit comparisons on the shelves are hard to figure out, a calculator will be helpful. And at least you’ll be the nerd with the fatter wallet!

Go!

The aisles of a grocery store are filled with traps to make you spend more than you need. If you think through some of the following pitfalls, you’ll be well on your way to savings.

? Ask yourself, for each item, whether you really and truly need it.

? Remind yourself over and over that your grocery list is set in stone. It’s easy to forget with that delicious fresh bagel scent wafting through the store. Stay strong!

? Put the cellphone down. Distractions make impulse buying a lot easier; paying attention to what You’re doing will save money!

? Shop the perimeter of the store as much as you can. There’s a reason why you have to pass by the crackers, chips, and salsa on your way to the milk or bread aisle; enticing prepared foods are common impulse buys that raise your bill.

? don’t completely discount prepared foods, though: they might be more cost-effective than fresh foods, particularly when it comes to produce. Although precut cauliflower may cost a dollar more than the equivalent amount of fresh, if the fresh vegetable always rots before you get around to cutting it, It’s not a better deal.

? Beware of clearance. There’s no place more vital to second-guess your impulses than the clearance section. Yes, that bag of Valentine’s candy is 75 per cent off, but That’s still three dollars you don’t need to spend. And while soon-expiring produce and meats are often a steal, they aren’t worth the savings if they’re just going to go bad in the fridge.

? Beware of coupons! Yes, I know. You’ve been told a million times that you simply must clip coupons. It’s what people who save money do, right? Wrong. In principle it can work, but in reality It’s often a money waster.

First, don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it. (That’s the real reason the manufacturers pass out the coupons?there’s no altruistic motive here!) Only use them for items you frequently use and/or were already planning to purchase. If you don’t normally buy pizza rolls, or if you already have three jugs of dishwashing detergent, then your coupon ?savings? will be the opposite.

Toss them, share them with a friend, or join a coupon swap. And use the remaining coupons very, very carefully: at the store, compare per-unit amounts (a calculator helps). Other brands, including store brands, are often cheaper, even when you factor in the coupon.

? Resist the urge to stock up. While sometimes there will be a case lot sale or a fantastic meat reduction, be wary: most of those ?stock-up? sales are ploys to get you to buy more than you need or want. Once you start reading the ads, you’ll begin to recognize what goes on sale, and how often. You’ll frequently find that every few weeks, a given item will be on sale in at least one local grocery store, so stocking up isn’t always as necessary as the store wants you to believe.

Finish Line

Cutting down your grocery budget is a work in progress. It will take time; I still occasionally come home with items that I know I shouldn’t have purchased. That’s okay! There’s no magic finish line to cross. Doing your smartest to save your family money is success enough in itself. However small, the boost to your finances is the best reward.

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