When I write about spending $80 a week to feed my family of four in the Chicago area, I get two stock reactions: Members of the general public can’t believe how low that is and ask “What do you EAT?” Members of the frugal blog community shrug and say, “That’s not so low.”
Now that we have been on the $80 weekly budget for about a year, I agree with the second group. The better I get at bargain shopping, and the more my stockpile grows, the easier it is to stay below that threshold each week without even sacrificing treats like the occasional case of beer for my husband or ice cream for the kids (ok, for all of us). Instead of lowering my weekly target, lately I’ve been adding more and more organic produce and hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats.
Here are the techniques I use to keep our grocery expenses low. If you are interested in cutting your food bills, too, I suggest you try out one or more and see if they work for you.
1) Set a firm budget. For years, I shopped for the lowest-priced items I saw at the store, but I didn’t have a set budget. I never realized how much having a specific target number would help me. The benefits? With limited spending money each week, I rarely overbuy and have produce go bad; instead I am pressed to use every last leftover in the fridge. My budget encourages me to seek out and buy consistently cheap and healthy items; while I splurged on three pounds of asparagus this week because it was on sale for $2.50 a pound, when nothing is on sale I can rely on carrots and potatoes which are always cheap.
2) Watch price cycles and stockpile when non-perishables are cheap. Some folks write down target prices in a “price book” they take to the store with the lowest prices they’ve seen for the items they buy; others, like me, just read the weekly flyers and keep a “target price” in mind for staples. I used to buy cereal if I saw it on sale for $2.50 a box; now, my target price is under a buck and when I can get that, I’ll buy TONS. Most cereals and granola bars have a sell-by date of six months to a year hence. If you don’t have time for the research, The Grocery Game is a Web site that tracks stock-up opportunities and ordinary good deals at stores for a small monthly fee.
3) Don’t just use coupons – coupon match. Many people feel they are too busy to clip coupons, and if that’s you, you can do fine with the above two techniques. But if you really want to scoop up items for cheap of free, couponing is the next step.
Note that most coupons don’t expire for at least a couple months after publication. I rarely use a coupon as soon as I get it; I wait for the stock-up price and then use multiple coupons if I have them. The best coupon deals come on clearance items and when you use two coupons for “buy one, get one free” items – I’ve gotten lots of stuff free or for just pennies using those methods.
4) Combine coupons with store promotions for maximum savings. In the past couple of years, both groceries and drugstores have started offering promotional deals that can result in free or very cheap goods for the savvy, coupon-wielding shopper. Known as “Catalina deals” at the groceries and customer-reward programs at the drugstores, both types of promo involve rewarding certain purchases with coupons for money off your next transaction.
Grocery Catalina deals: In your store’s weekly flyer, you’ll see an offer for $10 in coupons off your next order if you spend $25 in certain goods. Those goods are often on sale for the duration of the promotion, so this is already a decent deal. However, if you add manufacturers’ coupons, you might end up spending $20 or less out-of-pocket and still getting those $10 in coupons. For an even better deal, here’s a secret: Some stores calculate the amount you are supposed to spend using the PRE-SALE price. So you might check out with $25 worth of items at full price, spend $11 after sales and coupons, and still get the $10 in coupons!
Drugstore customer reward programs: In the weekly CVS or Walgreen’s flyer, you’ll notice that certain items are listed as “free after ExtraBucks (CVS)” or “free after Register Rewards (Walgreen’s). These ExtraBucks and Register Rewards can be used like cash at these stores. If you need that item, buy it with cash to get a starter fund of store bucks. If you can, use a coupon so you spend less than you get back. Then, each week, watch the flyers for items you can buy free or close to free with the store bucks you have. I can usually get most of the toiletries and supplies my household needs at CVS while paying just $1 or so per week out of pocket, by rolling over the same $10 or so in ExtraBucks. Occasionally, a coupon will combine so well with a money-back offer that I’ll end up with far more ExtraBucks than I started with, while paying only tax in cash!
Carrie Kirby is a stay-at-home mom, writer and fervent bargain-hunter. She is a co-author of the money-saving book “10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget,” and blogs at Shoplifting With Permission and Wise Bread.