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20 ways to save on groceries

When it comes to the grocery store, the rules are the same as those for the stock market: Do your homework, don't fall for the hype and buy low.

This is especially pertinent in a year of soaring food prices. Many wonder how to save on groceries without eating less or stripping their shopping carts to the basics.

Here are 20 ways you can rein in your food bill without sacrificing time, your family's health or your own sanity:

  1. Eat your fruits and vegetables
  2. Give those shelves the once-over
  3. Stick to the edges
  4. Shop early and alone
  5. Set your shopping mood
  6. Operate by the book
  7. If you want to win the savings game, learn the rules
  8. Know when to use a list
  9. Know when not to use a list
10. Grocery stores are for groceries
11. Take a rain check
12. Know the system
13. Realize that more isn't always cheaper
14. Request price matching
15. Look for double coupons
16. Weigh before you pay
17. Beware of "discount store syndrome
18. Realize that sometimes the best bargain isn't the lowest price
19. Check your receipts
20. Put your savings to work

1. Eat your fruits and vegetables. "When you think about it, fruits and things like that are really fairly inexpensive compared to the packaged things," says Gary Foreman, publisher of The Dollar Stretcher, a Web site devoted to living better for less. And almost any time of year, stores have "a good selection no matter what you like," he says. "You're bound to find something year-round that's in season and, therefore, affordable."

Want to find the freshest and the cheapest? Investigate a local farmers market. With less middlemen involved, the produce tends to be "fresher, treated with less chemicals and cheaper," Foreman says.

2. Give those shelves the once-over. "The marketers aren't foolish," says Foreman. "They know that we're generally lazy." So they position the items they most want to sell on the shelves between knee- and shoulder-height. "The highest markup items are the ones at about chest level -- to make it really easy for you to grab it and toss it in the cart," says Foreman.

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And that's where the most expensive name brands will be, says Jyl Steinback, author of Supermarket Gourmet. "You can save up to 40 percent by selecting house or generic brands."

3. Stick to the edges. For the most part, the healthy, less processed foods are at the edges of the grocery store: dairy, fruits and vegetables, meats, etc. Those are the most nutritious options, and they also go further in the kitchen. In addition, "the main areas where you're walking, the paths to milk and bread, are usually strewn with high-priced land mines," says Ellie Kay, author of Shop, Save, and Share. "Avoiding those pricey areas will really help."

4. Shop early and alone. "Try to shop when you're alone," says Steinback. "Those little helpers can quickly boost your bill." And if you shop early in the day, you get through the store faster with your list and spend less, she says.

5. Set your shopping mood. Nearly everyone knows that if you shop for food when you're hungry, you'll buy more. But did you know that you're also more likely to reach for those expensive snack food goodies if you're tired or angry?

"When you're tired, you try to get more energy through food," says Steinback, who has many of her personal training clients keep food diaries. "And people will grab the wrong choices: more sweets, more high-carbohydrates. When you're angry you go for crunch food, the junk food. So if you just had a fight, that's not the time to go shopping."

6. Operate by the book. You really want to beat the stores at the pricing game? Start keeping a book, says Foreman, who has a background in purchasing. His theory: most families prepare the same 10 to 20 recipes, using the same ingredients, again and again.

His advice: Start a notebook, with one page for each item your family buys regularly. Note what you usually pay. If you see an especially good price, make a note of where and what it is. Without a book, "I can't remember what I paid [for something] six weeks ago," says Foreman.

But if you have a crib sheet, you know if a store sale or special is hype or a good buy. When you find a real bargain, stock up.

The trick is "to buy on the markdowns," he says. "It's not at all uncommon for people to save 15 to 20 percent on groceries. You don't have to change your habits. Just buy when [items] are at low cost."

7. If you want to win the savings game, learn the rules. Read that weekly food section and check the Sunday paper to see what's on sale.

And don't forget the fine print in those offers. For example, at some stores "buy one, get one free" items ring up at half price, which means you can use a coupon on each one and double your savings, says Kay.

But other stores mark one item full-price and give you the other for free, allowing you to use only one coupon.

In addition, some retailers guarantee that if the item doesn't ring up at the correct price, you get it for free or at a discount. "Be sure you pay attention to the details," Kay says.

8. Know when to use a list. For staples, stick to what you'd already planned to buy before you walked into the store. "The only time to go off list is if you can combine savings factors [store sales, double coupons, etc.] and get a good buy," says Kay.

9. Know when not to use a list. When it comes to produce, take the farmer's market approach: Buy what's fresh, inexpensive and in season. Then adapt your menus accordingly. That way, you get good buys and your family gets the freshest food.

10. Grocery stores are for groceries. "Avoid purchasing nongrocery items at a grocery store," says Steinback, who advises consumers to weigh convenience vs. cost when they pick up supplies like painkillers, contact lens solution, mouthwash or toothpaste at the grocery store. "I know it's convenient," she says. "But, you double your cost."

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-- Updated: Aug 11, 2008
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