With grocery prices rising rapidly with no end in sight, it is more important than ever to know how to shop strategically.
As I've said before, strategic shopping is not about changing the way you eat, it is about changing the way you buy the food that you like.
Fight back with these proven strategies:
1. Be flexible regarding store and brand choices.
2. Study the store's sales circular and use online resources to find the best sales.
3. Plan your meals and shopping list around what is on sale at stores.
4. Know multiple sources of coupons. Maximize your savings by knowing when to use them and where to find more of them. Match coupons with sale items.
5. Check your receipts for accuracy. Accidental overcharges are common and can add up to a hundreds of dollars over the course of a year.
I was recently challenged to demonstrate my Strategic Shopping system in another city as part of a contest with another expert shopper. Although I live in Atlanta, by using grocery store Web sites and my site's lists of best deals for that city's stores at www.couponmom.com. I knew I could plan the shopping trip easily. I use the same strategies to plan my shopping at the grocery store two miles from my home every week.
The challenge was to see who could buy the most food to feed a family of five a balanced, healthy diet for a week with $100. The point was not to see how many items I could buy with coupons, but to see if my Strategic Shopping system was practical to feed the average family. I knew it was, but I had to prove it. In the process, I learned which strategies made the most impact in stretching my $100. I was only allowed to use newspaper coupons from the past two weeks, and could only use two sets of coupons. In reality, coupon users who save the most money save their coupons from at least the previous three months and buy up to five copies of the newspaper to maximize coupon savings.
In spite of the stringent coupon restrictions, I was able to buy $300 of high-quality, well-balanced groceries with $98.80, which was not only enough to feed a family of five for one week but allowed me to stock up on many items for future weeks. Here are the tricks that saved the most money for me, and can help you save on your own family's groceries every week:
1. Be willing to shop at more than one store per week to really save by getting each store's best deals. This is called "cherry-picking." Most shoppers do not like this idea because they only want to shop at one store per week. However, most shoppers end up making unplanned trips during the week to get forgotten items. Overall, you would probably spend less time shopping at two or three stores with well-planned lists than you would if you weren't organized and ended up shopping three times per week anyway. The extra planning would also save far more money.
I began my planning by reviewing the best grocery deals lists at CouponMom.com for six area stores and narrowed my shopping choices down to the three stores with the best deals that week. I then planned the week's meals around the best sale items for meat, chicken, fish and produce. In addition, I visited the stores' Web Sites to learn about special promotions.
2. Be resourceful about finding coupons from multiple sources. Even though I was only allowed to use newspaper coupons from the past two weeks, I know coupons and where to find them, so I was able to double my coupon savings by printing free grocery coupons from www.couponmom.com.
I also reviewed the weekly ad at the store entrance. The stores' website ads have all of the sales information, but they do not always show the store coupons. I was thrilled that each of the stores had generous coupons for items in their paper ads, and the items were already on my list. I saved an extra $33 by using store coupons from the ads.
3. Be flexible. Store-flexibility is a key to high savings. As I said earlier, I stretched my dollars the furthest by "cherry-picking," or buying only the best deals at each store. Had I purchased all of the items at one store, I would have spent far more. Even if you can only go to one store per week, be willing to consider all of the available stores and select the one with the best deals for your household each week.
Brand-flexibility is another key to success. I am willing to use comparable brands of almost every item. Therefore, I can usually get items free with coupons by being flexible. For example, I purchased name brand deodorants, toothpaste and pain relievers at no cost with sales and coupons.
4. Be generous on a budget. At one point during the trip I was asked why I was buying four packages of boxed potatoes when I had just bought a five-pound bag of potatoes in the produce section. I explained that the potatoes were only five cents each with my coupons, and that they were good non-perishable items to donate to charity. I call that "Cut Out Hunger." You can save money on your own groceries and help feed the hungry in your community at the same time when you shop with coupons.
5. Be diligent. Finally, be sure to check your store receipts after you have shopped. It is not unusual for the prices to be wrong in the computer. I found $6.19 of overcharges on one receipt. That amount would certainly add up over a year if you didn't catch them. Because the $6.19 put me over my $100 budget I would have had to take items out of my cart had I not caught the errors. It pays to take an extra minute to check your receipt before you leave the store so you don't lose that much money every week.
How to Master Strategic Shopping:
Know prices: When you know the price ranges of your common grocery items, you will be able to recognize when your favorite items hit their lowest price. At that time, stock up with a few weeks' supply so that you never have to pay full price. By the time you run out of the item, it will most likely be at its lowest price again. Take note of prices for your most common items over a few weeks to get familiar with their price ranges.
Know Store Savings Programs: Ask your store questions to learn all their savings strategies:
1. Do you double coupons? Up to what amount?
2. Do you have "buy one, get one free" offers?
3. Do I need to buy multiple items for promotions such as "10 for $10" or can I buy any quantity for $1 each?
4. Do you have a store loyalty card with special promotions?
5. Do you have store coupons in your weekly ad or on your website?
6. Can shoppers combine your store coupons with manufacturers' coupons on one item?
7. Do you accept coupons printed from the Internet?
8. Do you accept competitors' coupons?
Know Coupons: Combine your items' lowest prices with coupons to save the most. In many cases, when you combine coupons with sales and promotions, you will get items free. If the free item isn't an item your family uses, buy it anyway and donate it to a local food pantry. Identify many sources of coupons so you can buy multiple items when they hit their lowest price.
1. Buy more than one copy of the newspaper when it is a high-coupon week. Over 75 percent of grocery coupons come from the Sunday newspaper coupon circular.
2. Look in the store's weekly ad for coupons.
3. Print coupons from coupon sites and your grocery stores' Web sites.
4. Subscribe to manufacturers' magazines and email newsletters found on their Web sites.
5. Sign up for the store loyalty card with complete address information to receive customized coupon mailings for items you purchase.
6. Watch for coupons in the store and on product packages.
7. Request coupons from manufacturers by email or phone.
Stephanie Nelson shares her savings tips as a regular contributor on ABCNews.com. You can find more of her savings tips from her Web site at www.couponmom.com.