By Kelli B. Grant,
THE AVERAGE AMERICAN spends more than 30 percent of their monthly budget on food, according to the Economic Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tallied up, that's a national grocery bill of more than $2 trillion annually.
Looking for ways to cut that cost? Clipping coupons will only get you so far. Try these five strategies to save more:
1. Stockpile Sale Items
Think of shopping on a 12-week cycle, rather than a weekly one. "We've been taught to make a meal plan for the week, and buy only that," says Teri Gault, founder of the Grocery Game, a program that maximizes consumer savings by matching local supermarket sales with manufacturers' coupons. It's a fine strategy, but you'll save more by stocking up on a three-month supply of whatever's on sale during a given week. "Sale categories rotate," says Gault, "so most items are on sale just once every 12 weeks."
Sample Savings: You buy three 24-count packages of Charmin bath tissue when they're on sale at Stop & Shop in Long Island City, N.Y., for $5.99 each. That three-month supply negates the need to buy two packs at the regular price of $9.99. You'll save $12, or 40%.
2. Buy Small
Don't assume that the largest size of a given item is always the best deal, says Tawra Kellam, founder of Living on a Dime. Check the per-ounce or per-unit price -- it'll be on the shelf tag -- before you toss an item in your cart.
Coupons often make smaller sizes an even better deal, since you'll be getting a heftier percentage off, says Gault. A 25-cent coupon on Gold Medal all-purpose flour is a 10% discount on a $2.55, five-pound bag at Safeway in San Francisco; on the $4.88, 10-pound bag, it's a 5% discount. (Both are three cents per ounce.)
Sample Savings: A 15-ounce box of Cheerios is $2.89, or 19 cents per ounce, at Hy-Vee in Des Moines. A 20-ounce box is $3.99, or 20 cents per ounce. You'll save a penny per ounce, or 5%.
3. Watch Out for Pricing Errors
It pays to pay attention at the checkout counter. Scanner errors -- i.e., when prices ring up higher or lower than their marked shelf price -- are more common than you think, thanks to store inventories of 40,000-plus items and weekly sale rotations. Price discrepancies in the stores' favor affect 2% of items, costing consumers nearly $2.5 billion annually, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency.
Check your supermarket's policy on scanner errors. At the very least, catching an error saves you the difference between the scanned and correct prices. But depending on where you live and the store you shop at, you may be entitled to more. Michigan law mandates that if a consumer is overcharged, he gets a discount on that item worth 10 times the discrepancy, up to $5 total. Food Lion chain stores will give you the incorrectly priced item for free.
Sample Savings: Say that $8.99 bottle of olive oil rings up as $9.99. Per Michigan law, catching the error would net you a $5 discount, pricing the bottle at $3.99. You'd save $6, or 60%.
4. Read the Fine Print
When scanning store sale circulars and manufacturer's coupons, most consumers glance at the pictures rather than read the words, says Gault. It's a mistake that could cost you. "What's binding is the wording," she says. "And more often than not, it says 'good on any.'" So while you might not be a fan of say, Froot Loops, read the fine print and you'll find that this coupon is good for any other Kellogg brand as well.
A similar thing to watch out for is multiple items for a promotional price -- say, three for $1. Unless the fine print specifies otherwise, you're not required to buy the full amount to get the sale price, she says. Buy one pack of two-for-$5 strawberries, and you'll still get the sale price of $2.50.
Sample Savings: A 50-cent manufacturer's coupon bearing a photo of Arm & Hammer's Fridge Fresh Refrigerator Air Filter is actually good for "any Arm & Hammer product." Used on a $2.99 tube of Arm & Hammer Dental Care toothpaste at Shop Rite, you'll save 50 cents, or 17%.
5. Skip the Supermarket
"Contrary to popular belief, the grocery store is not always the best place to buy food," says Mary Hunt, publisher of Debt-Proof Living, a money-saving newsletter. Prices are often lower at stores where groceries aren't the primary focus -- enabling the store to move a product they might not otherwise sell much of. A few alternatives worth checking out:
· Superstores: Shop Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart for snack foods, breakfast cereal and cleaning supplies. Regular prices tend to be lower than in supermarkets, plus these stores are willing to accept competitors' coupons, says Hunt.
· Pharmacies and drugstores: The next time you need milk, over-the-counter meds or personal-care products, try your local drugstore. At Rite Aid in Morris Plains, N.J., a 14-count of acid-reflux aid Prilosec is $9.99; at Shop Rite, it's $11.25.
· Gas stations: The attached mini-marts can often yield great deals on milk, juice and snacks, says Hunt.
· Warehouse clubs: BJ's, Sam's Club and Costco offer the best bargains on spirits, prepared foods and other items. (But be cautious. Not every deal is as good as it seems.)
· The Web: If you like buying in bulk, consider the grocery section at Amazon.com, says Hunt. There's no sales tax, and most purchases qualify for free shipping.
Sample Savings: At Safeway in San Francisco, a half-gallon of skim milk is $2.59; at Walgreens, it's $2.19. You'll save 40 cents, or 15%.
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