Want to cut your grocery bill? Learn to be a savvy shopper by making changes big and small that add up, including where you shop. Some favorites for saving money on basics and high-end items alike: Cash & Carry, Central Market, Grocery Outlet, Viet Wah, 99 Ranch, Big John's PFI and Oroweat bread outlets.
Skyrocketing food prices are prompting more shoppers to scout sales, clip coupons, haunt bread outlets, freeze sale-priced meat for future meals and otherwise watch their pennies, some for the first time in their lives.
Newcomers can learn plenty from those who’ve maximized their dollars all along — savvy shoppers like Clint Liu, of Edmonds, who scores prosciutto at Grocery Outlet, and Sharon Lynch, of Shoreline, who scours the bulk section of Central Market for deals on oatmeal, loose teas and spices.
We also consulted Alicia Rockmore, a professional organizer who offers advice on www.getbuttonedup.com, and professional moneysaver Teri Gault of The Grocery Game for even more ways to cut costs but still eat well.
You already know this, but it’s true: You must plan to succeed, whether that’s stocking casseroles in the freezer for when you’re tempted to order pizza or taking five minutes on the ferry to scan grocery ads. Thankfully, our experts say, even small changes add up at the cash register.
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Think like a chef
Liu saves money by thinking like a chef and creating meals from what’s in season or on sale vs. shopping for specific ingredients.
“I’ve been a bargain hunter since day one,” said Liu, who browsed a Grocery Outlet store one day on a whim. He left with a selection of brand-name and gourmet items close to expiration but plenty fine for a quick dinner or to freeze for later.
“I shop everywhere, but that’s one of my favorite places for finding stuff,” he said. On recent trips, he’s found prosciutto and fancy cheeses for 99 cents a pound, Häagen-Dazs ice-cream bars for 79 cents each, Aidell’s sausage for half price and organic fruits and vegetables. One recent meal from his finds consisted of baked Italian sausage with fire-roasted red peppers and potatoes.
“You can’t go in with an agenda,” Liu says. “It does get busier when the economy gets worse. Everyone’s going bargain hunting.”
If nothing else, do these four things to save, says Rockmore, chief executive of Michigan-based Buttoned Up: Attach grocery-club cards to the key chains of everyone in your family old enough to spend money at the supermarket, so all of you are paying the lowest advertised price; scan grocery ads before you shop; clip coupons only for items you actually use; and buy produce in season for the best deals.
“By taking small steps, you’ll find you get an amazing amount done. If you think about the big picture, you get inertia and never get started,” she said.
She advises the 80/20 rule, which is to shop for staples first, then add extras (like brand-name cereal) to the cart only if you have extra money (likely you don’t after buying milk). Stock up on basics like crackers and cereal whenever they’re on sale. Resist the urge to buy 10 items for $10 if you need only a few — usually you can get the sale price per item.
Much of what we are paying for at checkout is convenience, Rockmore said. If you have 10 minutes to spare, consider buying lettuce by the head or a whole chicken and dismantling them at home. Buy a box of cookies or a bag of baby carrots rather than snack packs, and stuff them into zip-top baggies yourself. Keep a Sharpie pen in your kitchen to date when you open jars or tuck food in the freezer, so you’re not throwing out items in confusion.
When you really want to save money, stick to making one meal for your family.
“Oftentimes you waste a lot of extra food and waste a lot of energy by being the kind of family that makes two or three different meals to make everybody happy,” she said. “Go to the lowest common denominator. Find the meal that makes the most people happiest.”
Saving money as a habit
Saving money is easier, Lynch says, if you turn it into a habit. Each week, the mother of two takes a few minutes to take inventory of her freezer; peruse the ads for Albertsons, Safeway, QFC and other supermarkets for the best deals; sketch out dinner ideas for the next couple of weeks based on family activities; shop for the items she needs.
It might sound like a lot of work, but everyone has the time, she says. Use the minutes you’re waiting to pick up kids from practice, when you’re in line at the bank, during commercials.
“If you wait until 4 o’clock every day to decide ‘What am I going to cook?’, that’s where people spend way too much money,” she said.
She also saves time by cooking two chickens or two casseroles at a time and freezing the leftovers. She’ll roll cookie dough into logs, wrap them in plastic wrap then aluminum foil and pull them out of the freezer to slice and bake for school snacks or dessert. Just the other day, she grilled extra chicken sausage along with another meal, which she now can pull out of her freezer and add to pasta and vegetables for dinner.
“If I cook one chicken, I might as well cook two, and then I’ve got leftovers I can plan into a few more meals,” she said.
She likes to shop the bulk aisle of her local Central Market for oatmeal, dried cranberries, nuts, whole-wheat flour, spices and loose tea, items she stores in zip-top bags and clean jelly jars.
Maximize those coupons
Plenty of folks clip coupons. Few have made it an avocation like Gault of the Texas-based The Grocery Game, a service that for $1.25 per week scans advertised and unadvertised supermarket sales, offers coupons to print in conjunction with those sales and generates custom lists for each member to maximize savings at www.thegrocerygame.com.
Saving money is all about strategy, Gault says. Years of observation have taught her it’s better to stick with one store and learn its discount rhythms than burn fuel driving from store to store chasing the bargain of the week. She typically shuns warehouse stores, save for large parties: Most families aren’t big enough to truly use all the food, and grocery-store sales almost always beat them in price ounce-for-ounce, she said. More importantly, you reduce the chance of leaving with groceries and a book and a new camera and a flatware set that caught your eye along the way.
Gault also says it’s essential to “play” a coupon at the right time rather than blindly using them. You’ll save much more couponing when an item’s already on sale, for instance. But most important, keep your pantry filled with your family’s staples.
“You don’t have to run to the store to buy that can of tomato sauce for your recipe because you have a huge stockpile of things to choose from,” she said. “When I come home … it might be 4 or 5 p.m. But I know what’s in my freezer and pantry. In my mind, I can come up with 10 different dinners.”
Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or firstname.lastname@example.org