Not everyone was born a coupon clipper. But there are numerous ways to net supermarket savings without going the coupon route. With these 20 tips, shoppers can save on grocery staples, either by capitalizing on store pricing policies or by bypassing the supermarket altogether for certain items.
20 Tips for Saving on Grocery Staples
Remember to put dollar stores into the rotation for pantry staples. A recent Cheapism.com investigation found a basket of items, including aluminum foil, cereal, dish soap, sugar, and spices, priced lower at the dollar store than at Walmart. While the dollar store doesn't naturally come to mind for groceries, shoppers will find deals on packaged goods such as oatmeal and pancake mix.
Taste-offs staged by food-centric media outlets as well as Cheapism.com have put supermarket olive oils to the test. Trader Joe's Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($5.99/33.8 ounces) emerged victorious in a couple of these competitions. Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($3.99/250 ml) also earned its stripes as the best cheap olive oil in Cheapism's taste test and a top thrifty pick elsewhere.
The freezer can be a thrifty consumer's best friend. Keep an eye out for buy-one-get-one-free deals and other discounts and stock up at the supermarket bakery, in the dairy aisle, in the refrigerator case, and even in the produce department. Freeze the extra and thaw when needed. Bread and blueberries stay fresh in a deep-freeze state for up to one year, milk for three months, butter for six, and fresh orange juice for four.
Buying generic or store-brand flour, sugar, and baking soda, as chefs often do, is a sure way to save money. Many supermarkets charge upward of $10 for vanilla extract but sell vanilla flavoring for a dollar or two, and experts at Cook's Illustrated detected no difference in taste in sampled baked goods.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the average American tosses out 20 pounds of food a month, including large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce is nutritionally satisfying and certainly looks good, and in season it can be a bargain. But opting for frozen fruits and vegetables saves consumers year-round. Frozen produce lasts far longer and often costs less up front (e.g., an ear of fresh corn costs at least 25 cents while a 10.8-ounce bag of frozen kernels costs $1 or so).
Shop around for the best bargain when it comes to milk. Convenience stores and drugstores may charge 30 to 50 cents less than grocery stores for a gallon of milk, according to a tip from Reader's Digest. These stores lure shoppers with low prices on staples in hopes they'll stick around and buy more items with higher margins.
That same seafood labeled "previously frozen" at the seafood counter is often available for far less in the freezer aisle. Allowing a little extra time to thaw the fish at home before cooking could net big savings.
AllYou magazine points out that cereal companies offer coupons and promotions in the fall (primarily September and October) to accompany the start of the school year. Take advantage of the offerings and buy multiple boxes. Check the expiration dates when purchasing, although unopened packages should stay fresh for many months.
Buying meat, seafood, and poultry during a sale and freezing it for later use could yield hundreds of dollars in savings over the course of a year. Another tip for saving on animal protein staples: Ask the store butcher when perishables nearing their expiration date are "reduced for quick sale."
A study by ShopSmart magazine found that meat sliced straight from the deli counter was 31 percent cheaper than commercially packaged versions of the same product. This applies to cheese, as well; prepackaged Alpine Lace Swiss cheese cost $15.99 a pound compared with the same brand for $10.99 a pound at the deli counter.
Sometimes packaging makes it hard to spot a bargain. For many pantry staples, the best deal comes in larger sizes; a 15-ounce jar of Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise might cost $3 or so while the 30-ounce size might cost less than $1 more. That's not always the case, though. Be sure to check unit prices before deciding which size to buy.
Look for promotional prices on items associated with a particular holiday or season. Ground beef, hot dogs, chicken, soda, chips, beer, and paper goods go on sale around Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day. Thanksgiving brings discounts on stuffing, turkey, frozen pies, and baking items. Steaks are discounted for Father's Day and Valentine's Day. Nonperishables, such as canned goods and oatmeal, are at their lowest prices during the winter.
Some grocery store butchers will trim and cut a large piece of meat at no charge. If this service is available, avoid the custom shrink-wrapped cuts. A chuck roast can be transformed into cubes for stew, for example, and a flank steak can become the star of a stir-fry.
Don't pay extra for the grocery store to perform simple food prep chores. Opt for vegetables in their natural state rather than washed and cut. A head of romaine lettuce, for example, might cost less than half the price per pound of separated leaves packaged in plastic. A single lemon or pepper might be cheaper than the unit cost of a multipack. Whip out a calculator to make sure buying in bulk is really a bargain when it comes to produce.
Don't be shy about asking supermarket employees for free perks that might be available -- tenderizing meat at the butcher counter, for example, or adding extra greenery at no cost in the floral department.
Every whole T-bone steak contains a small filet mignon on one side of the bone and a New York strip on the opposite side. Grab a T-bone at the grocery store and butcher it at home. This little trick can yield savings of $3 to $5 a pound for filet mignon.
Oftentimes it's more cost effective to stick with homemade, especially for products such as salad dressing, cold-brewed coffee, hummus, salsa, and granola. For example, a 15.5-ounce can of chickpeas -- the primary ingredient in hummus -- costs about 72 cents. Add a small amount of lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil, and compare the total outlay against a 17-ounce container of hummus that sells for about $4.