Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tips for Saving on Groceries

I’m a daughter of immigrants growing up in the ‘70s. Suddenly, all the habits that we grew up with are called “being green”, “extreme budgeting” and “cost-savings”.

It’s a surprise to me that other people don’t shop or save money. The fall into the practice of "convenience" shopping, and are surprised at how high their grocery bills are.  I opened the eyes of a former colleague who was trying to manage a household with 3 boys on 1 1/2 incomes. She was used to buying on a whim and full price. I explained her the fine art of couponing and comparison shopping. She kept a notebook and did calculations on unit costs instead of whole package. She took it to the next level and became an avid garage sale diva (doing her homework online, planning her route, having her list of items she needed). She bought me a pair of tennis rackets for $3, which are still quite good.

So, I’m still surprised by people who don’t know how to shop wisely.

What’s the deal with coupons?
Coupons are free money. There’s such a thrill when the cashier says “$55.42” and you say, “oh, I forgot to give you coupons.” And the bill comes down to $45.42.

 I haven’t collected actual data, but my goal is to get $5-10 off in paper coupons per shopping trip. That’s $30-50 a month for pieces of paper that gets thrown out by other people.  My mom was into coupons since as far back as I could remember. She did the mail-in rebates, too. When we went shopping for her, we had to bring the coupon book.

Ok, so how do I begin?
I’m old school and don’t do all the online sites. I can’t keep track of it and I’m not dedicating my life to this.
  1. We order the local Sunday paper only for the coupons.
  2. Get a plastic organizer from the Dollar Store.
  3. Put labels into product categories (Beauty/Hygiene, Beverage, Breakfast, etc) and ordered by the aisles (e.g., Cereals come before Frozen)
  4. Clip coupons and put them in little piles by category
  5. File them into the organizer
  6. Don’t forget our coupon book when you go shopping

Dude, this takes too long! I don't have time!
  • Get kids to help organize the coupons (that’s what my mom did!). It’s a great way for them to match up like objects and categorize them. For older ones, get them to remove the expired ones.
  • I cut coupons while watching TV. What else are you doing? Just looking at Jennifer Lopez’s hair and Randy Jackson's make up?
By the way, the 15-20 min I spend going through them is billable time – I get paid for this at the check out line!

Coupon Math
Wow, If I buy 3 boxes, I get 50 cents off!
Ok, let’s pause here. If you buy 3 boxes of cereal at $3 each, you’re spending $9 and saving 50 cents. So you’re spending $8.50. Do you really want or need 3 boxes of cereal? If yes, go ahead and buy it with a coupon. If not,  check to see if there’s another cereal that’s on sale. Even if it’s slightly more than the $3.00, you’re still spending less than $8.50.

It’s only 25 cents. It’s not worth it.
Of course, it’s a quarter, not even a whole dollar. Keep in mind stores do double coupons so your 25 cents becomes 50 cents off. Now it’s respectable.

Let ‘s say the coupon can’t be doubled. If you have 4 of them, that’s $1 off. So, keep going because every little bit contributes to the total.

Know your products
Anyone who has had generic cereal knows “Whole Grain O’s” are not the same as Cheerios. So, don’t skimp out on the good stuff to save money.
These are my “Must Have” good ones:
-         -  Paper towels
-          - Garbage bags
-         -  Plastic storage bags
-          - Cleaning products
-          - Lotions and soaps

You can figure out what brands you want. But if you buy a cheap paper towel, you’re going to end up using 3 more of them as one good quality towel.These are the coupons I target when I get my paper.

Best Way to shop:
-          Make a list of items you need. I keep a magnetic pad on the fridge and during the week, make notes on what we need.

-          Before you leave the house, take a quick look at the pantry and see what you need. Imagine you are making dinner for Monday. What would you need to make that fabulous dish? This also prevents you from buying another box of pasta because you think you ran out. 

-          Leave kids at home. One child adds about $7-10 to your total bill. Tell them to wait at home and help you carry in the grocery bags. (Again, mom would honk outside and we’d have to fetch the bags)

Look for alternate stores
When you bought your house, were you checking the quality of the stores next to your house? 

Yes, that’s what I thought. So, why do we assume the shop next door to us is the BEST shop to buy everything? We’re falling for the convenience. And, I’m not saying I’m not guilty. In the interest of time, I’ll overpay for cilantro at the American store than go to the Asian store where it’s 2/3 cheaper. If you have luxury of time, then pause and plan.
  • Find a Produce Junction or other types of farmer’s market stores. You tend to have to buy in bulk for fruits and veggies (e.g., you have to buy 3 heads of lettuce) and it’s still a steal. So, you can go in on it with a friend and agree to share. Donate the extra lettuce head to community center. 
  •  Find Indian and Asian markets. The produce there is ripe and ready for immediate consumption. So don’t overstock on some of these items because it’ll just go bad before you can finish. So, get what you need immediately.
  • While you’re at the Indian and Asian markets, look for those native ingredients. The prices for spices and dried ingredients (lentils, beans, nuts, coconut for example) are so much better than what is sold in American stores.  They also have ready-made paste and sauces that would blow your mind. You get more than 3 feet of space as you do in the American stores. 
  •  There are some discount bread stores like Pepperidge Farm, Hostess and Entemann’s. You could get bread and baked products at discounted prices because it’s passed the Sell By day. GASP!  They’re actually quite fine (much like the produce in the Asian markets). Breads can be frozen and used as needed. I’ve only had issues with quality on these if I happen to hold it too long after purchasing without freezing any of them. 
  •  Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s. Well, here’s a tough one. I think they’re good for SOME items and you need to do some comparison shopping. Yes, Stacey’s Pita Chips are in a huge bag at Costco’s and other stores don’t even carry that size. So, it’s definitely a huge plus (and Costco has coupons for it!). However, other items (e.g., paper towels) might have a higher cost for bulk than buying with coupons.

Leave your credit card at home.
So, I mentioned I was shopping with my mom in 1970s. Back then, she bought groceries with cash. No one used credit cards for groceries and we didn’t have debit cards. She had cash from her paycheck and certain amount allotted for groceries. I’ve been at a number of lines where we had to put items back because we were running over.

While living at home, my sister and I would pause in the middle of a shopping trip to do a quick budget check. We would round up costs and figure out if we were running over or not. That made a difference because you could only buy what could be covered by the cash in hand.  Because credit and debit cards are ‘invisible’ transactions, you have a tendency to be overcome by “magic” and you can buy whatever you want. 

These are some tips and I'm sure there are more that I can add. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions about this.


Anonymous said...

Paper towels – use cloth towels instead. You can find a set of dozen for the price of two paper rolls. They will last you a decade. Always have three towels on the counter top – one to wipe fruits, veggies etc. One to clean dishes (if you are into it) or handling hot pans and one for cleaning countertops. Once a towel used around food goes dirty, don’t discard it, instead use it to clean countertop. Before throwing it in the laundry basket, give a quick hand wash to get rid of any cleaning agents. Always wash these towels with your whites.

Garbage bags – reuse grocery bags. Even for a wasteful and environmentally irresponsible family, a small grocery bag should take a fair amount of junk of a given day. They hang quite well around a kitchen drawer.

Remember - if your kitchen junk is larger than the food you have consumed, among other things, you have wasted money.

J.Doe said...

A very useful post. I only save 2-5 dollars on each shopping trip (average $3) and I wish I could save more.
It always surprises me when I here people complain about the price of food and then say that they don't have time to cut coupons. You don't have to be an extreme couponer and devote 2 hours a day to clipping coupons to save a buck or 2. It all adds up. Even my measly $2 a week.
I have also found the produce in the Indian/Asian stores to be cheaper in price but closer to turning rotten. I too only buy produce there if I need it that day or the next, but the yogurt, eggs and milk don't have earlier expiration date so I also buy them there.
Also, this surprised me, but Whole Foods - better known as whole paycheck has some deals...for example cheaper flavored yogurt and soy products. On many products it does live up to it's high price reputation. I guess you really got to know your prices.

Ashini said...

For paper towels, I always cut the towel in half. Then if we use a towel to wipe a cup or hands and it's still fairly dry, we'll use it to wipe the floor or counter space. So it's not just used 1x.
Garbage bags - ok, this goes back to my growing up desi in 70's. We only had brown paper bags for groceries and you folded them carefully and reused them all the time. It was a culture change to move towards Hefty bags.

For consumables, I think irresponsible packaging is the biggest culprit. I just got frozen waffles (ugh, I know - but she likes them), and the box wouldn't fit in the freezer. I took out the box and the plastic bags inside fit nicely.

JDoe: You're so right about Whole Foods having deals. Yes, soy products, alternative nut butters (mainstream stores carry 1 or 2 brands while WF has a number so it's more competitive).

Anonymous said...

Stay away from soy - the biggest con job pulled on humanity since god.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, I am also a HUGE coupon shopper. When my local stores don't have Sunday coupons-I ask friends for their Sunday papers. (most of my friends don't clip, so I gladly take their papers)

I have taken the time to go online to my grocery stores site-they allow you to "clip" certain coupons. Such that if I don't have a coupon in hand, they checker scans my loyalty card and voila-I still get the savings.

I have gone a few steps ahead and I do strategize by breaking up purchases (especially at CVS where you can get "Extra Care Bucks") I make the qualifying purchase first, then use the ECB's that I receive immediately towards the next purchase. I once saved $52 by doing this and combining it with coupons and such that I had.

All of this does take strategizing. You have to look at circulars, know your prices and think ahead.

PS, I called mom the day I saved $52 and I thanked her. ;)