20 Ways to Save Big on Your Holiday Grocery Bill

20 Ways to Save Big on Your Holiday Grocery Bill
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20 Ways to Save Big on Your Holiday Grocery Bill

Find out some of the best tips to save money on your groceries this holiday season! Click through our slideshow to view them.

Food Prices Are Up

You’re not eating more, your fridge isn’t any fuller, and yet you’re doling out more cash at the supermarket than ever before. Is it your imagination or have food prices gone up? “Absolutely,” says Phil Lempert, A.K.A. the Supermarket Guru, a leading food industry analyst, writer and trend-watcher. Lempert says over the past three or four years prices “have increased and will continue to increase” thanks to climate change and the US’s recent drought. Forget conspiracy theories. “It’s not the industry just raising prices. The actual costs have gone up,” he says. “And over the next 20 years it’s only going to get worse.” With the food-focused holidays just around the corner, what’s a budget-conscious host to do?

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Have a Shopping List

Never enter a supermarket planning to wing it. “Going to the grocery store without a list in hand can be deadly to your budget. Make a list and stick to it,” suggests CouponCabin.com president Jackie Warrick.

Aimless browsing will cost you at checkout -- time really does equal money at the market. “The longer we stay in a store, the more we spend,” says Lempert . So get in, get what you need, and get out. Most of us are also guilty of accidently buying things we already have. So take inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer before you head out with your well-thought out list tucked into your bag. “Otherwise you’re going to spend more,” Lempert says.

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Snap Up Staples Early

Getting a great deal on cranberry sauce is easy during the holidays. But a great deal on the everyday stuff? Not so much, says Melissa d'Arabian, star of Food Network’s Ten Dollar Dinners. “Holiday staples are usually cheapest during the holidays -- it’s the rest of the groceries that don’t go on sale. The idea is that you’ll buy inexpensive pumpkin puree but then load up the rest of your cart with regular more expensive groceries.” So stock up on your usual staples ahead of time, and pick up your holiday must-haves in the weeks leading up to the big feast.

Speaking of staples, barring any sales, you’ll do better financially buying generic versions of flour, sugar, spices, pasta, napkins, paper towels, vegetable oil, cereal, bread and other essentials, says Warrick. And be sure to snap up your favorite spices and baking items in November -- they typically go on sale right before Thanksgiving, and many can keep for a year, she says.

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Buy in Season

These days, there’s almost no fruit or vegetable that’s beyond reach in any given month. But just because you can buy blueberries in December, should you? If money, taste, health and the environment matter to you, the answer is a resounding no. According to Lempert, out-of-season produce costs more and has less flavor and nutrients than seasonal favorites like cranberries, canned pumpkin, sweet potatoes and fall fruits, which can be had for a song. Kelly Hancock, founder of the daily savings blog Faithful Provisions and author of the book Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half, and Raise Your Standard of Living... and Giving! takes advantage of the season’s bounty by serving either a Sweet Potato or Hashbrown Casserole made with in-season ingredients that are always on sale this time of year. Not sure what’s in season when? Here’s a list.

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Cozy Up To Coupons

Crazy extreme couponing has giving the art of clipping a bad name. Savvy shoppers absolutely, positively cannot do without them. “They are a necessity of life,” says Lempert, only half joking. “With just a little bit of effort you can save 15 to 20 percent off your grocery bill.” Your best bet is to scour the Sunday papers for coupons on brands you already know and like. If there’s anything particularly good that week, snap up extra papers, or check the recycling bin at your local cafe on Sunday a.m. for tossed inserts. Websites like Smartsource.com and Redplum.com let you click and print coupons at home. It’s also smart to check out your favorite brands online for potential promotions and savings.

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Stock Up on Favorites on Sale

Scan supermarket and drugstore weekly sales circular and never pass on a great deal, especially for items you always have on hand. “Eighty percent of what we buy, we buy week after week,” says Lempert, so if your child’s favorite peanut butter is deeply discounted, buy four -- or more. Even better, pair multiple coupons with multiple items to maximize your savings. The only downside of all this couponing is the time and organization required to make it all work. But if you’re after savings, it’s worth the effort.

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Get Social

Every brand hopes you’ll really, really “Like” them, and passionately follow their Facebook updates and tweets. Savvy shoppers who use tech to their advantage can reap incredible money saving rewards by simply following them on Facebook, Twitter and other types of social media. Unlike circulars, which are printed up ahead of time, social media lets supermarkets offer real-time promotions, events, coupons, deals and other special money-saving offers. In this brave new world, getting connected can equal cash.

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Buy Gift Cards... for Yourself!

Many retailers rely on holiday sales to make their yearly numbers, and will go to great lengths to encourage you spend your money -- even if they have to give a little back to get you through their door instead of the competition’s. Which is why some major grocery stores promote their gift cards around the holidays with a bonus offer, says D'Arabian. “For instance, you buy a $100 grocery store gift card, and you get a $10 bonus card. Usually, the more you buy, the higher the bonus. Nothing is stopping you from using those gift cards to buy your groceries, and using those bonus dollars yourself.”

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KISS (Keep it Simple, Silly)

Food magazines taunt us with such luscious, artfully presented meals that our own ho-hum offerings seem a little pedestrian by comparison. Don’t fall for the hype! Most people don’t really want fancy pants, mashed potatoes with truffle butter -- they want plain old ’taters just like Mom made. “Make simple dishes that everyone likes,” says Warrick, and don’t waste time and money “serving a huge selection of creative sides that most people won't eat anyway.” Not sure what should stay or go? D'Arabian likes to co-opt the famous Coco Chanel accessory trick about always taking off one item. “Make your list of everything you want to make for a holiday dinner and remove (at least) one item,” she says. “You’ll save money and enjoy the less stress too!”

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Be Flexible

It’s easy to get stuck on an ideal vision of what a perfect holiday dinner looks like. But you can effortlessly slash your food budget -- with no loss in festivity or fabulousness -- by adapting menus to include lower cost items, less expensive versions of favorites and dishes planned around store sales, says Hancock. Is the cheese department Brie too pricey? Serve cheddar from the dairy case. If yams are cheaper than Yukons, opt for a sweet au gratin. Skip the artisan-baked rolls in favor of break and bake biscuits. Or mix expensive signature dishes with cheaper but good-enough sides (sort of like wearing Marc Jacobs shoes with a Target dress). Your take away: being flexible in what you serve will serve you well.

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Think Drinks

You could spend a fortune getting friends and family sauced during the holidays. But unless you have bottles of booze already on hand, you shouldn’t feel compelled to stock up on everyone’s favorite poison. After all, you’re not a bar. The key to saving money on drinks while not seeming like a Grinch is to offer generous amounts of limited libations. Keep it simple by offering only wine, beer, sparkling water and coffee. Or, if you’re feeling frisky, whip up a signature pitcher of a single potent holiday cocktail and give it a festive name like Reindeer Rum Punch, Christmas Cosmos or Santa’s Sangria. Let people know what you’re serving but that you welcome BYOB. This way, everyone gets buzzed without blowing your budget.

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Meat Makes the Meal

So, what should you serve? Unless you’re absolutely set on presenting a beautifully bronzed turkey or perfectly glazed spiral ham, choose the one that’s on sale -- after all, meat is the most expensive part of the meal, and according to Lempert, it’s only getting worse. “Beef, chicken and pork are all going up in price based on projections form the USDA,” he says, so if you see it on sale, buy and freeze it in the original packaging surrounded by two zip-top bags, and date it with a Sharpie marker (properly frozen meat is good for about six months). This is especially important if you know you’re going to be entertaining throughout the holidays, he says, so be smart and stock up when you can.

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Make it Yourself (Sort Of)

Somewhere between homemade (delicious) and store-bought (practical) lies the sweet spot for easy and affordable cooking: doctored convenience foods. This means taking frozen items or mixes and adding your own unique touches, toppings and flourishes. “It’s easy to dress up a box mix by adding a topping of crunched up peppermint sticks or other traditional Christmas candy, sliding some leftover candy bars between the layers, or drizzling with chocolate or caramel sauce,” says Hancock. You can do the same for mini pizza appetizers (add creative toppings before baking), salad mixes (just add blue cheese, pears and candies walnuts), boxed stuffing (add dried fruit, nuts and herbs), etc. “More than ever before, people are using prepared foods to do the hard stuff and save money,” says Lempert. So if you’re feeling a bit guilty, don’t.

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Serve Enough -- But Not Too Much

Preparing the right amount of food for a holiday feast is tricky business. Too little and your guests go hungry. Too much, and you've wasted money. According to dummies.com, for each guest you should count on serving: 6 to 8 appetizers, 8 ounces of boneless meat or 1 pound of a whole turkey (ie: a 10 pound turkey for 10 guests), 4 ounces of vegetables, and 1 medium potato or yam (or around 1/2 cup mashed). Beyond that, think 1/2 cup per guest for additional sides, 1 to 2 rolls each and at least one 8 oucne drink per guest per hour. When in doubt, err on the side of a little extra (you don’t want to appear stingy). As for dessert, too much is never too much.

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Potluck and Save a Buck

There’s no need to stand on ceremony. The holidays are about celebrating with loved ones -- not creating the most elaborate and expensive meal. Whereas once upon a time it would have seemed indecorous to even suggest a potluck, people are more open these days about asking guests to bring something. “Holiday dinners have become a much more collective experience than ever before. It doesn’t have to be this rigid formal dinner where every napkin is perfect. People don’t want that any more. They want to have fun,” says Lempert. So this year, so when your guests ask what they can bring, instead of saying “Oh, nothing,” ask them to bring their signature holiday dish, suggests d’Arabian. “It’s a fun and social way to lighten the host’s load, and the bill.”

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Delegate Dishes

Okay, so you’re a bit of a control freak, and potlucks are a bit too rag tag for you. That’s fine. You can still delegate some of the cooking to guests (saving you time, energy and money) while maintaining Martha-like authority over the menu. “Don't feel bad by assigning dishes to certain people, says Warrick. “If Aunt Edna makes a delicious sweet potato casserole, ask her to bring it. If you know your mom's beloved sugar-free chocolate chip cookies will end up being tossed in the trash, ask her to bring something else.” Chat with your guests in advance about what you need and what they could literally bring to the table. This way you’re still in charge of the meal -- but not charged with making all the food yourself.

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Shop Strategically

Tempted by all that luscious produce when you first enter the supermarket? That’s by design, says Lempert. Smart shoppers should hit the supermarket’s center aisles first -- that’s where the boxed, canned, packaged and generally non-perishable food lives -- followed by produce, meats and then finally dairy and frozen. “It’s smart from a psychological standpoint as well as a health standpoint,” he says, since products most likely to spoil (which wastesmoney) should be purchased last. If this is contrary to what you’ve typically read -- shop the perimeter first -- it’s because these days “fresh” departments contain as many health and economic traps as the center. For example, fresh but out of season blueberries aren’t nearly as healthy as their cheaper frozen cousins, which were picked at their peak. Likewise “frozen” fish costs about 40 percent less than “fresh” fish, which has usually defrosted. So always read labels carefully, get to know your market well and follow your own path.

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Offer to Bring Dessert

If you’re invited to a potluck, unless you have a signature dish (or a spectacular new recipe you’re dying to try out) bring dessert -- it offers the most savings. “Whenever I’m asked to contribute a dish to a holiday gathering of friends or family, I’ll go with a dessert,” says Hancock. “I have all the ingredients I need in my stockpile, so it’s easy to bake something wonderful very inexpensively this time of year. And if I don’t want to make it from scratch, all the cake and brownie mixes will be on sale.” Supermarkets also offer such incredible bakery deals this time of year on classics like apple pie, that it actually costs less to buy in store than make at home. All you need is some homemade whipped cream or a splurge-worthy pint of premium ice cream and you’re good to go.

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Factor in the Cost of Your Time

When it comes to dollars and cents, you need to use common sense when deciding if your cost-saving efforts are worth, well, the effort. “Decide if you want to save on time or money,” says Warrick. Sometimes, forgoing a sugar-filled jarred tomato sauce is worth it since whipping up your own version is relatively simple and infinitely cheaper and healthier. On the other hand, if springing for a pre-cut veggie platter lets you spend time with your guests instead of arranging crudités, it’s worth the money you’d save chopping your own. It’s all about balance. You know the saying, penny-wise but pound-foolish? Keep your eyes on both the pennies and the pounds.

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Buy Goods That Give

Use your amazing powers of thrift to help others. Throughout the holidays, you’ll find stores offering special promotions on products that also benefit charities -- a simple way to both save and serve the greater good. For example, Walmart has partnered with Feeding America to help end hunger through purchases of products from Kraft, Unilever, General Mills, Kraft, Kellogg’s and ConAgra. “You’ll save money and feed a lot of food insecure people,” says Lempert, who’s helping the charity spread the word. Another idea is to pass the benefits of two-for-one sales and crazy coupon deals on to local food drives and food banks. ‘Tis the season for giving, after all.

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By Jennifer Kantor

Don't let entertaining bust your budget. Our expert grocery shopping tips and tricks will save you beaucoup bucks throughout the holiday season -- and the year to come.

Find 20 ways to save big on groceries in the slideshow above!

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