Groceries. They are an expense we can't avoid completely, but an expense we actually have a lot of control over. By shopping smarter, there are ways to stretch your grocery dollars when you're shopping the aisles and even after you get your food home. Here are 12 tips for making the most of every dollar spent.
1. Plan meals and make a list. Walking into a grocery store with an empty stomach and no plan is a scary thing. It leads to impulse shopping, which leads to spending way more that you should. Set aside a few minutes each week to plan meals based on coupons and deals offered in the store circular. Try to incorporate ingredients into multiple meals so you don't waste produce, dairy and other perishables.
2. Stick with seasonal produce. Some of us have more or less forgotten produce has a season. That's because, thanks to modern technology and speedy shipping, grocers can stock just about anything, any time of year. But it's going to cost you to eat asparagus in fall or berries in winter. Know your produce seasons and shop accordingly. We're in the heart of winter right now and that means citrus, root vegetables, members of the cabbage family like Brussels sprouts, and dark leafy greens like kale.
3. Shop sales, but read the fine print. If a sale says 5 for $10, don't feel obligated to buy all 5. Check the store policy. Usually you will get the same discount even if you just buy a single quantity. The same goes for limits. A sale on soda might say limit 6. This is a way to keep the item stocked for more customers, but it also triggers an impulse in shoppers to buy all 6. Only buy what you need.
4. Ask for a rain check. Say everyone does go soda crazy, meets the limit and next thing you know, they're out of stock before you could get your bargain cola. That's OK. Ask for a rain check. This is a voucher that entitles you to the sale price whenever the item is back in stock.
5. Avoid the cost of convenience. Sometimes convenience is worth the extra bucks, not always. Just about every time something is peeled, cut or individually packaged, the price goes up. Turn it into "convenience" food yourself. As soon as you get home from the store, divvy a box of crackers into individual portions you can throw in lunchboxes. Or take a bag of carrots, peel and cut them into carrot sticks for an afternoon snack.
6. Take a chance on chicken. Bone-in chicken is typically less expensive (it's that convenience factor again), but a lot of people are intimidated by bones and opt for the much more expensive boneless chicken breast. The closer the chicken is to its original form, the less you will pay. Learning how to break down a whole chicken will save you big money over time. To put it into perspective, boneless chicken breast cost nearly $2 more per pound according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
7. Befriend your butcher. Ask your butcher what time of day meat is typically marked down. This is meat discounted because it's approaching its sell by date, but it should still be good if you cook it that night or freeze it for later. Typically, a large cut of meat will be cheaper than the same amount cut into smaller pieces. But some butchers will be happy to cut it up into smaller pieces for free, especially if you're buddies!
8. Read expiration dates. Ever see a person stand on the ledge of the grocery store fridge and reach all the way into the back for milk? That's because they know grocery stores do a thing called stock rotation. When stocking shelves, they push the older merchandise to the front and put the new items, with later expiration dates, to the back. Go for the back of shelves and read expiration dates to make sure you're bringing home the freshest, longest-lasting products.
9. Read unit prices. The expiration date isn't the only must-read when grocery shopping. Unit price is equally as important. On the price tag, you will see a price per ounce (or other unit of measurement). This is the best way to compare prices between brands. Product packaging can be misleading, so it's very possible that the 12-oz bag of chips just looks bigger than the 16-oz. Read unit prices to find out which brand has the best deal.
10. Family size is not always the best size. Sometimes family size can really save a bundle. It is common to save $0.50 or more per pound on meat when you buy the bulk size. But you can't assume that's the case. You've got to read unit price (see above!). Sometimes if the regular size is on sale or if you have a coupon it is actually less than the family size. Other times it's the same exact price, and let's face it, most of us would rather store a 2 lb. bag of flour in our pantry than find room for a 10 l.b sack.
11. Create less food waste. One of the best ways to stretch grocery dollars is to waste less. I'm not just talking about eating everything in your fridge before it reaches its expiration date. Find ways to use food scraps before they end up in the compost pile. For example, many people know that after roast a chicken, you should hold onto the bones and trimmings to make chicken stock. Do the same with your vegetables. Veggie "waste" like carrot peels and broccoli stalks are actually a great way to flavor your broth. Keep a bag in the freezer and load it up till you're ready to make soup.
12. Freeze more. Similar to the last tip, this one is all about freezing more so you waste less. Practically anything can be frozen, if stored properly. A vacuum sealer is a great investment piece if you want to get serious about freezing. FoodSaver estimates you can save up to $2,700 a year when you buy items in bulk, on sale and prevent waste by freezing food in airtight packages.