Be a Guerrilla Grocery Shopper

This week, you, the readers, have once again chosen the topic for my column and I'll tell you what it is in a second. This happens whenever a cluster of you ask about the same subject. We've been having a dialogue about my new book, SAVE BIG, and the ideas in it for saving big money. Many of the strategies in SAVE BIG are things you only have to do once in a while, to reap the savings for years. When I was writing the book, I saw that as a benefit, because it also helps you save time. Rather than scrambling to save a little bit of money every day, you focus on saving when these big opportunities come up -- like when you buy a car or refinance your house or choose your health plan.

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To me, saving bigger instead of smaller is like working smarter instead of harder. But I heard from many people who were frustrated with this concept because they need solid savings NOW. I hear you. It's tough out there. My book contains plenty of savings ideas that anybody can accomplish at any time, and I'll try to do a better job of including them regularly in this column. Here's a sampling of the calls for help I received followed by my best short-term savings advice. One hint: even if you focus on the immediate, it's still possible to SAVE BIG!
~Elisabeth

Q: PLEASE TELL US HOW TO SAVE MONEY NOW, NOT 30 YEARS FROM NOW.
~Read My Lipstick

Q: Need real savings for now ... tough times. Need advice from someone who knows what it's like to struggle.
~biddy66

Q: I've yet to find competent direction as to what to do about some of the really terrifying things happening right now with homeowners, people about to lose jobs, and managing credit cards so they don't get cancelled because you pay them off monthly and the credit is there if you need it.
~americancalvet

For those, like the folks above, who need an immediate source of savings, I have one word for you: groceries. Here's why. Not everybody owns a home, a huge cost but also a huge source of savings. Not everybody is in the market for a car, another big chance to save. And not everybody has much of a choice of health care coverage, if they have coverage at all. But everybody has to eat. And bathe. And do laundry. That's right, when I talk about saving on groceries, I'm not just talking about food.

The grocery category includes personal care products from shampoo to shaving cream and and household items like dishwasher detergent and paper towels. If you look at it that way, groceries are the fourth biggest expenditure for American families. In fact, the average family of four spends $10,692 a year on groceries, according to the IRS. (I'm not sure why the IRS is sticking its scary nose into our grocery bills, but it is!)

So let me outline the three biggest ways to save on groceries. I call it being a "Guerrilla Grocery Shopper." The nitty-gritty details are in my book. (Check it out at the library if you want, but check it out!) Meanwhile, here are the nuts and bolts to get you well on your way.

Price Matching

Instead of rushing around to all the stores in the area to buy the items they have on sale for the week, go to one store that honors other stores' sale prices and get everything there. Generally, there is at least one grocery store in an area that will honor its competitors' sale prices as a way of drawing business. The trick of price matching is to pick off the most deeply discounted sale items of the week all at one store. That way, you save time, you save gas and you save money. I experimented with price matching when I was writing my book and found you can easily save 40 to 45 percent. Here are the nuts and bolts of price matching.

Finding a store: Just ask. Many stores have a "don't tell unless they ask" policy. In other words, they offer price matching but they don't advertise it. So call around to stores near you.

Walmart price matches: Walmart will match the price of any store in your local market. The megastore doesn't offer deep weekly discounts like traditional grocery stores, but it will honor their weekly discounts.

Target price matches: SuperTarget now carries groceries and is starting to price match. Even regular Targets offer some foods and many personal care and household items.

Go online: Rather than flipping endlessly through paper circulars, check out free Web sites like CouponMom.com, MyGroceryDeals.com and ShopLocal.com. They show your local grocery store sales. Much easier!

Show proof: See if your store will accept an online printout as your proof of other stores' sale prices. Many stores do not even require you to provide proof, so this often works. Tell the clerk you are price matching and they will know just what to do.

Stockpiling

After you've learned to plan your shopping around the most deeply discounted sale items, the next savings step is to stock up on them so you have enough to last you until they go on sale again.

The philosophy is simple yet counterintuitive: Don't buy groceries when you need them, buy groceries when they are at their rock-bottom sale prices.

This works for everything except fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs. You can even stockpile milk and cheese by freezing them!

What are the savings? Aggressive stockpilers can easily save 50 to 60 percent. Here are the basics:

Know the cost: Figure out the 20 things you buy the most often or that cost the most and memorize their top and bottom costs. Grocery prices can fluctuate 60 percent during the year, so you need to be able to recognize a good deal.

Track sale frequency: Once you start focusing on your top 20, you will notice that certain products go on sale at predictable intervals, like every eight weeks. Stockpile enough to get you through to the next sale.

Decide your discount: One way to keep yourself honest when stockpiling is to commit that you will only stock up on products that are at least X percent off their regular price. I like to focus on things that are at least 50 percent off.

Go online again: CouponMom.com and GroceryGame.com both show the biggest sales at your local stores. You can make a customized grocery list of just those items that are discounted enough to meet your goals.

Creative Couponing

The key to creative couponing is never to use a coupon by itself. Always layer it with some other strategy. The other key is to use online tools to make couponing easy -- and lucrative. The old-fashioned way of clipping coupons in advance is too time-consuming. The savings cannot be ignored. Guerilla Grocery Shoppers who take advantage of creative couponing save as much as 80 percent and even get some groceries for free!

Save your circulars:. Save all of your circulars -- whole, without cutting -- for two months. Most coupons expire after 10 weeks, so you can toss the circulars then.

Search Couponmom.com: Rather than cutting coupons in advance, this site has a searchable database. When you need something, search for it by key word. The site tells you any recent circulars that had a coupon for that product.

Hold out for coupon combos: Never use a manufacturer's coupon alone. Always use it in combination with a store sale, a store coupon, a double or triple coupon offer, or a buy-one-get-one-free offer.

Copy Coupon Queens: If you're unsure how to pull off coupon combos, just copy veterans who post their best bargains online. Do what they do. Many are at BeCentsAble.net.

Coupon coaching: For more guidance on how to be a coupon queen, take the inexpensive tutorials at www.BeCentsAble.net.