Tips to cutting your grocery bill

When I used to work at the campus bookstore back in college, I always wondered why the little blue books that every student had to buy for finals were at the back of the store. Since everyone needed at least a few, why not put them up near the front of the store so they could quickly grab them and buy them?

Boy, was I naive. The answer, my manager told me, was the same reason why grocery stores put milk and other staples at the back of the store: To get customers to walk through the length of the store to get the basics, and hopefully pick up an impulse buy on their way back up to the cash register.

So instead of just returning from the Spartan Bookstore with just a blue book that cost a quarter and maybe a 10-cent pencil, the students walked out with a book, shirt or soda that they hadn't planned on buying when they arrived, I learned.

The same goes for grocery stores, and knowing where to shop while once inside can help you save a lot of money. For example, as Jennifer Openshaw reports in her MarketWatch column, the outside aisles are where the unprocessed staples are -- meat, eggs, milk and produce -- while the expensive packaged foods are on the inside aisles. I like to shop fast and get in and out of a store with what I want, so wandering the aisles doesn't help accomplish that.

The average American spends 30% of their monthly budget on food, so a small savings each week can add up. Karen Schuppert offers a list of expensive grocery store items to avoid on her blog about cooking healthy. Cooking from scratch can save money too.

Here are some high-priced grocery items to avoid the next time you run out for a gallon of milk:

1. Salad kits: Washed lettuce can cost three times as much as buying the same amount as a head of lettuce. They save time but not cash.

2. Individual servings of anything: The cost per unit of 100-calorie packs or other small servings is much more than buying one bag of something and parceling it out yourself into single servings. Again, more work but big savings.

3. Trail mix: Cost about $10 a pound. I often buy bags of all the tasty things I want, such as granola and raisins, and mix my own.

4. Powdered ice tea mixes or prepared flavored ice teas: Again, more work than buying these, but big savings by making iced tea from actual tea bags and keeping a jar in the refrigerator.

5. Bottled water: This has been reported again and again, and tap water is just as good and doesn't require the cost of a plastic bottle, not to mention the problem of breaking down that bottle in a landfill.

6. Boxed rice "entree" or side dish mixes: Instead, buy a bag of brown rice and add your own herbs and seasonings.

7. Tomato-based pasta sauces. A $2 to $6 jar of spaghetti sauce can be made for less with $1 of canned tomatoes.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at

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