But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to overspend every time you walk through the automatic doors — or that you have to cut out everything new, fun or delicious to save money. Here, we’ve gathered the best tips and tricks from the Web and the real world — from coupons to price books — to help you make the most of your monthly food budget.
Before you shop
●Make a meal plan for the coming week, focusing on dishes that incorporate similar ingredients; bonus points if your recipes create leftovers that can be repurposed into new dishes — such as Monday’s roasted chicken that becomes Tuesday’s chicken soup. Then make your list.
●Sign up for savings cards at all your local supermarkets, and provide your e-mail and physical addresses to get updates on deals. Some stores offer additional discounts on their Web sites; for example, visit Safeway’s Just For U page to add electronic coupons to your loyalty card. Swipe the card, get the discounts — no clipping required.
●But clipping coupons reaps significant savings, provided you’re willing to devote the time and effort. First, keep your shopping list handy. Starting with the weekly store circulars in the Sunday paper and in stores, check whether any items on your list are among the discounted offerings. Don’t clip coupons for things that aren’t on your list — after all, saving money on something you don’t really need isn’t actually saving.
●Yes, there is such a thing as “extreme couponing” — there are dozens of Web sites and a TLC TV series dedicated to the craze. While it’s not everyone’s bag, there are tricks to be gleaned from the experts. When you find a store coupon for an item on your list, do an Internet search for manufacturers’ coupons for the same item. Many stores let you combine coupons, and sites such as Coupons.com, CouponMom.com and MoneySavingMom.com offer searchable coupon databases. Find out when stores offer double-coupon savings.
Save in the store
● Stick to your grocery list. Shopping alone can minimize the impulse buys. If you’re just picking up a few items, don’t use a shopping cart — you’ll buy less if you have to carry everything.
●Most stores have produce and perishable foods lining the perimeter. Do as much of your shopping here as you can — and stay away from the pricier prepared foods in the center aisles.
●Remember the store circular mentioned above? Usually, the products on the front page are priced low to encourage you to come into the store. So stock up for later.
● Does the name-brand spaghetti sauce taste that much better than the store brand? Probably not. Experiment with lower-priced store brands to give your budget a break.
●Not sure which product size is the best deal? Comparing unit prices — the price per ounce or per pound usually listed in a smaller font — lets you easily see which items are cheapest.
●When it makes sense, buy in bulk — but that doesn’t mean you should lug home a giant vat of mayo. Bulk-buying can be as simple as choosing only the amount of spices you need from a bin, instead of buying full-size containers that you might not use up entirely.
Budget between trips
●The savviest shoppers swear by a no-waste policy, which means that every leftover gets used. Got veggies and fruits that are nearing the end of the line? Toss them into soups and smoothies to stretch your dollars.
●Keep a running grocery list in the kitchen and add to it as you use up ingredients. This makes it easy to focus on what you really need, plus you’ll have a list ready when store circulars arrive each week.
● Die-hard savers keep “price-books,” running rosters that note what they purchase, where they bought it and how much it cost — and they update it after every shopping trip. It might sound extreme, but it can help you track price trends and determine which stores have the best prices on the items you buy.
●For some consumers, it makes sense to pay the upfront membership costs at Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s, especially if you can split the bulk packages (and the membership costs) with a friend. If you find you’re spending a small fortune on, say, peanut butter — and a neighbor is, too — it might be a smart move.
The Bottom Line If you’re looking for ways to save, put your monthly food budget under the microscope. Cut back on budget-wrecking impulse buying by planning meals and sticking to a shopping list. Make coupon clipping more effective by combining store circular discounts with online offers, manufacturers’ deals and double-coupon savings.