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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Shopping to save money!

So a friend asked me today to make this my blog post – you asked for it, here it is!

My shopping rules to save money!

This mostly relates to groceries and how I shop the sales and my own personal rules I’ve set for myself. Of course nothing is in stone, but I have to say most of these things I don’t sway from for the majority of my shopping.

Rule 1. Watch the sales!
I do what’s known as cherry picking. The stores sell items at a deep discount, or even a loss in order to get you in the door, knowing that if you come in to buy a special you'll usually buy the rest of your groceries there. Those super low priced items are called loss leaders. Generally speaking, the store with the best sales that week is the one that will have the highest prices on other items. I buy what’s on sale, stock up, and leave the rest. Grocery managers hate me ! But not everyone has to like me and I’m ok with that. I buy what’s on sale, only what’s on sale, and then I check the clearance bins and shelves and leave. Most stores have grocery flyers that come out every week, those specials are what helps me to plan my meals weekly. Ours start on Wed and end on Tuesday evening. The exception are Sprouts and Sunflower Market which have double ad day on Wednesday—so you get both week’s ads specials if you shop on Wed! Our ads come out on Tuesday or Wed, so that’s when I make my meal plan. In our area there are 3 major grocery chains, three local health food store chains and the usual Walmart and Target and a couple other places I regularly check. Oh and when I say stock up—I mean I buy enough to last us till the next sale cycles again -it's just something I've learned over time about how much to buy when the deep sales hit.
The other caveat I have here is—impulse buy items and snacks like cookies, ice cream, chips, etc.. keep in mind if you stock up on them, you will have more of them in your house and therefore eat more of them as a if that’s not what you want, don’t buy in bulk on those items when they go on sale—better to use a coupon, buy it on sale and get one, rather than Buy one get one free (BOGO).

Rule 2. Know the game!
They have spent millions of dollars and hours figuring out how to get your money, so in order to beat them you need to spend a bit of time too. I know their game—endcaps contain impulse items that are generally more expensive than what is on the aisle—if it’s on an endcap and “on sale”, I’m almost always headed to the aisle to get the store brand that has a lower regular price. I know some things about marketing for example: Bakery items and impulse buy things, toys etc.. are where they zing you! Resist! Resist! Resist! The obvious and old adage about, have a list, don’t go hungry, get what’s on the list, etc.. those things are good to do. For me it’s a game—I want to beat them, be the rebel, ha ha you yummy looking cinnamon rolls you won’t get me- I’m here for the cheap grapes and that killer special on chicken! The music they play in the store is designed to make you slow down and shop for longer—there is a whole science of studying your shopping habits and the goal is to get more of your money. Ever wonder why they change the juice to aisle 3 instead of where it used to be—they know that if you have to look for it, you are in their store longer, and the longer you stay in the store, the more likely you are to pick up something you don’t need. Don’t be the rat in the maze, resist and stay true to the list!
Really good sales and loss leaders will cycle and the better sales will be the week after most people get paid—for example: look for the worst sales the first week of the month—grocers know you shop as soon as you get paid-if you wait a week to do the bulk of your shopping your dollars will go farther- especially on food you need (milk, bread, meat) vs. comfort items like chips, cookies and other splurges. Likewise – the really deep discounts are at the end of the month when most folks can’t afford to really stock up—be smarter, save as much as you can for the end of the month so you have more money when the sales are bigger. Before holidays get all your things for the big meal the week before the holiday. Thanksgiving sale ads end Tuesday night—Wednesday morning everything will be much more expensive. Most of the big sales are the week before. This is a great time to stock your freezer with celery, onions and potatoes as those will almost always be on sale before the holiday. Pick up an extra turkey, ham or other large meat to put in the freezer for later.

Rule 2. Watch the prices!
Bring a calculator, so you can check prices easily! This goes beyond knowing how to recognize a good price. Look at the unit price of things instead of the item cost. For example eggs on sale for 1.29 a dozen, or 1.99 for 18 eggs—do the math, per egg price what is cheaper. Sometimes it’s not cheaper to buy the big economy size bag of frozen corn, and instead cheaper to buy the smaller bags—frozen veggies are one to really watch. Use common sense though-if you are looking for sesame oil and the big bottle is 10 cents an ounce and the little jar is 20 cents an ounce it might not be best to buy the big bottle if you cook Chinese Food once a month it’ll likely go bad before you can use it all up. Oils and whole grain things can go bad unless you have storage space so don't overbuy on those unless you have ways of storing them. However, if you have a buddy who wants to share the bottle and the cost—why not? Watch at the register when they ring you out to make sure you played the game correctly and got the deals you were promised. We buy ketchup at Sam's club in the huge container -it's something like $3.68 for a five pound can. I open it, put it into saved containers and refridgerate them and we use that much ketchup easily before it goes bad. We have 6 kids though and two of them think ketchup is another food group.
Watch your receipt, check it over and go back if it’s wrong. At Albertsons recently I bought butter on sale, didn’t realize there was a limit on them so only the first two were on sale, I took it back to customer service to return the ones that weren’t on sale and they gave them all to me at the sale price. I’ve seen people ask at the register for them to extend the limit—they almost always do. Especially if you say --"I got three instead of two do you need me to run through you're lines again to get the sale price ? " Can't hurt to ask...

Also- know what a good price is..educate yourself! This only takes a week or two of watching, and checking prices. If you need to you can keep a tiny (5x7 is what I use for my meal planning and list making) regular price notebook in your purse with prices organized by store. Later in the week if you can’t remember who usually has the lowest regular price on bread and milk, and that’s what you need, then you can check your list after the sale ads.- I keep my list mentally, but some people find it helpful to keep it in writing. In general—soda, milk, bread, and chips are higher priced at Target and Walmart almost always. I’m sure there are other things too, but those are the ones I know about. Frozen juice is pretty cheap at Walmart, Target has the best price on coconut milk. Once you start paying attention to prices you’ll know who has what you use cheapest.

Say you don’t have cash to stock up on chicken but it’s on a steal of a deal – if you need something else anyway like milk, go to the store with the cheap chicken—Monday morning, Tuesday evening or Friday mornings often they are out of the sale chicken or other item, get a rain check and come back within 60 days when you do have money for that item. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that!

Rule 3. Use coupons

If you feel that saves you money and doesn’t eat at your time. For me since we don’t buy a lot of store brand items – the bulk of what we buy is around the outside of the store.. milk, juice, produce, meat, eggs and bread coupons rarely apply to me, but I do use some of them. Primarily I shop the ads and know my prices.

Rule 4. Whenever possible leave the kids at home.

I can get in and out of three stores in the time that it takes to do one store with the kids. So whenever possible I leave them with Grandma, a playdate, swap care with a neighbor, hire a sitter, go in the evening when my hubby or older kids are home. No arguing, no car seats, no surlyness, and I can move fast (spend less time in the store, spend less money). Don’t get me wrong- I adore my kids, but I simply find I’m more efficient and faster and save money when I don’t have them along.

Rule 5. Don't waste what you buy.

Use it up, freeze it, have a leftovers night, make soup, send it to work the next day, morph it into something else, but don't throw it away! Learn to make do and cook with what you have on hand, learn to cook without a recipe! I'll do more postings on that later.. Most people throw away 25% of the food they buy-- that's ALOT! Spend 500-1,000 dollars a month on food- you are likely tossing as much as $250 in the trash.

My system for going through the ads:

I try to keep a running list of what we are out of on the fridge or in my notebook. If there is something on my list I am out of and need the next week and it’s not on sale I buy one to get me through but know that it likely will be on sale soon if isn’t that week, so if it can wait I wait on buying it. I first clean out my fridge seeing what I might have already that needs to be used up, those will be the first meals on my plan for the next week. I make a short list from this of things that need to be used up-- Keeping in mind my rules and knowing my prices- Then I sit down with the ads and write a list organized by store – what are the loss leaders for each store, their price and any special notes, like a limit of two or a special weekend only sale, or I note if it’s a coupon. If something is super great sale and I know I want it I mark it with a star on my list. This takes me very little time—I only list what we regularly use that is a really good sale or any special sale items I think I might like to buy. This isn’t my shopping list, only a reference list. Then I make a menu, keeping in mind any activities that might impact meal time- ie, quick meal nights I do soup that can be prepped ahead or crockpot dishes or something from my freezer stock of premade meals. I start with the items that need to be used up first so for example – if I have a head of cabbage, three bell peppers and some lettuce that needs used up I might have salad the first night with a main dish(lettuce is most fragile), stuffed peppers or fajitas the next night, then sandwiches, brats or hamburgers and coleslaw the next night, say fresh broccoli and pork roast are on sale – so one night we’ll have a broccoli chicken casserole and the next night pulled pork sandwiches or pork roast with potatoes depending on what is on sale, or I have on hand. That’s five nights- you get the idea, then I go back to my menu and add side dishes. ** If you wanted to plan breakfast or dinner this could be done the same way. I go back through the menu and my list of needed items and make my shopping list. Most weeks I will stop at two stores- rarely more than that. Later in the week if we need milk, or bread, or something I can check my reference list see where it’s cheapest and if there is some other great sale I can take advantage of that too without having to make a special trip out to get the sale items. Dh will often pick up items we need and I can tell him we need milk, and it’s cheapest at King Soopers could you also pick up a cantaloupe they should be $1.

** For our evening meal I almost always serve a main dish or meat, two veggies or salads, one fresh or home canned fruit, and a starch like potatoes, rice, bread..This gives picky eaters more choices, and extends out my meals considerably and encourages eating more veggies and fruits. This doesn’t have to be fancy, it can be as simple as celery sticks, bagged fresh carrots, some applesauce, or baked potatoes.

Below is a list of my hard and steadfast guidelines for shopping:

1. Buy sale items that you know you will use whenever possible – when they are a really good price buy enough to last you at least 1-3 months, maybe more if you can reasonably afford it. (IF they are able to be frozen, or shelf stable and IF they aren’t something like cookies, or other snack type of items where you eat more if you have them laying around.) Try to buy 90% of your groceries when they are sale.


3. Boneless meats- pork chops, boneless skinless chicken breasts, etc.. if they are under $2 a pound, salmon if it is under $4 a pound as it is more of a luxury item for us, tilapia under $3 a pound, shrimp under $4 a pound.

4. Bone in meats – under $1 a pound. Pork and Beef Roasts, or bone in chicken breasts. Whole chickens I buy when they are about 57-89 cents a pound. I will buy 4-5 of them and cook them all at once and pick the meat off and freeze the meat in 2 cup packages for easy meals later. It's one more pan and no more oven heat to cook four than it is to cook one.

5. Cereal—cold cereal I only buy when it’s $2 or less a box.

6. Crackers- $2 a box

7. Potato Chips- Under $2 a bag, but only when it’s in the plans, since I don’t let my kids snack on these items or use them on a daily basis, I rarely if ever buy them.

8. Tortilla Chips- Under $2 a bag

9. Flour and sugar- during the holiday it goes on sale, buy as much as you can reasonably store.

10. Milk- $2 a gallon (organic milk isn’t in our budget right now, this is one item I will break the rule on but I can almost always find it on sale somewhere)

11. Lettuce- Same with fresh veggies like salad, etc..Buy what is planned for the week unless you plan to do batch cooking or canning. I don’t buy bagged salad or spinach unless it’s $1. Instead I’ve found that heads of Romaine lettuce last much longer and are a lot more durable yielding more food and having much less waste. For some reason that variety of lettuce is much more durable than any other variety, as an added bonus it’s also one of the more nutritious lettuces!

12. Fresh fruit- anything under $1 a pound—this varies depending on what time of year it is according to what is in season, providing you with good variety in your diet. If something is especially cheap like 2-3 weeks ago grapes were 57 cents a pound, we planned to use the extra I bought for snacks and to put out as our fresh fruit with dinner, took snack to K’s school, froze some (frozen grapes make yummy frozen treats instead of popsicles). Cut it up, use it up and what you don’t use, freeze for smoothies or other uses. Try not to overbuy and waste the food—think of how busy your week is, what you reasonably can do in a week. Most of what you get that is fresh you can’t reasonably expect it to last more than a week or so—of course there are exceptions but it’s a good general rule that most fresh produce won’t last more than a week. Exceptions are apples, oranges, hard squashes, just to name a few. If something is a really good sale – I might even go back at the end of the sale cycle to get more to last me the next week in addition to what I bought at the first part of the week.

13. Onions- buy them when the bags are on sale—3 #’s or so for $1 is a good price, I don’t buy when they are $1 a pound or more. When they go on sale, I buy a bag or two and go home and chop them all up and freeze them in freezer zip bags for easy use. Once frozen they are great for anything where you will be cooking the onion anyway. Fresh uses like in salad you would need to pick up a fresh one for. But then you can buy one, and store it.

14. Celery- Look for $1 or less a pound. Keep it wrapped in foil in the fridge. Buy it only as needed according to your menu plan. When you do buy it, after you use it fresh and before it turns bad chop up the remaining pieces and freeze them or make celery sticks and put them out at snack time. Ends and leaves can be used when you make chicken stock so you can put them into a ziplock bag and freeze them for later.

15. Potatoes- I try to buy them when they are on sale in bags- under $2-3 for a 10 + pound bag is a good price. If you buy too many, you can freeze what you don’t use by cooking them first.
(look in my archives for my freezer potato recipes)

16. Cheese-
Lately I'm lucky to get cheese for under 2-3$ a pound. It freezes fine if you grate it first and package in small bags.

17. Butter-
Lately prices have gone up and I can only get it for around $2-2.50 a pound on sale. Real butter can be mixed down with good quality olive oil or other oil to extend it out and make it softer and easier to spread. I've done as much as 50% oil/butter ratio without any trouble. This cuts the saturated fat and adds MFCA's which are so good for you.

18. Nuts -
I try to buy them in bulk, store them in the freezer -almond, walnuts and pecans for under $3 a pound is good.

19. Eggs-
Under 1$ a dozen and I buy lots! We use alot of them and when they are this low I buy and make breakfast burritos, etc..

20. Canned tomatoes, beans, and vegetables -- watch these items carefully for HFCS, added MSG, Sugar, etc.. I buy them when they are 2 for $1 or 3 for $1.

21. Because I do alot of cooking from scratch I buy almost all of my spices in bulk from a local health food store, the only exception is black pepper, garlic salt and cinnamon which I can find cheaper at Sam's club.
** A note about cheap vs. healthy food. I buy organic produce whenever I can-yes it goes on sale too and when it does- I'm on it! I don't buy organic meats (DH hunts and fishes so we get alot of our meat that way), dairy or other things for the most part. I do try to avoid GMO soy and GMO corn whenever humanly within my budget. I garden too -- organically so that saves us big bucks. I pay attention to the dirty dozen list of most sprayed foods. I glean fruit from others trees, vines and bushes and preserve it in order to get closer to our goal of mostly organic . I don't include much else in this list because this is primarily what I buy. Most condiments and premade snacks are junk. They are loaded with HFCS, bad oils, artificail colors, preservatives or MSG, I can my own soup, salsa, sauces, spaghetti sauces, etc.. with a pressure canner to avoid alot of nasties- our one vice is ketchup - I keep hoping they will make the big size without HFCS, but haven't seen it yet. Next year I hope to have enough tomatoes from our garden to make our own. For the most part I don't buy alot of other things- I've found by not buying it, we snack on other stuff. Popcorn, hummus and veggies, fruit, nuts, eggs, etc....You can change the prices to accommodate an all organic diet too. I just don't know what the good prices are for those products because I generally don't buy them. Keep in mind milk freezes so it could be made alot more affordable if and when you find it on sale.

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