10 grocery savings secrets from supermarket insiders

Know your store’s coupon policies

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Know your store's coupon policies | Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

Successful couponers know to look on a store’s website for the printable coupon policy to help them get the best deals. Kroger, Giant, Safeway and Acme Markets double or triple coupon face values in some states, usually on specific days and to specific limits. For example, on a double coupon day, a $1 off coupon would be worth $2 off (though most stores generally allow doubling only of coupons worth less than $1).

Publix and Target allow coupon stacking (using a store coupon plus a manufacturer’s coupon); Wal-Mart does not. But Wal-Mart will apply any coupon overage (when savings are more than the final product cost) to your total grocery bill, while most other stores won’t. Costco accepts no manufacturer coupons whatsoever.

Publix will honor certain competitors’ coupons, depending on your store location. Target honors no competing stores’ coupons.

Coupon policies change often, so make it a habit to check your store’s policy.

Ask your store manager:

  • Is there a grace period on coupon expiration dates?
  • Do you double or triple coupon face values?
  • Can I stack coupons at your store?
  • Do you have mobile coupons I can get on my cellphone?
  • How do you apply coupon overages?
  • Do you match or accept other stores’ coupons?

Use the store’s loyalty programs

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Use the store's loyalty programs | Steve Debenport/Getty Images

Now more than ever, stores are trying to attract you with special rewards for shopping at their stores, but not all stores have these loyalty programs.At CVS, you can earn Extra Bucks (cash built up on your Extra Care rewards card) for qualifying purchases that you can use as cash off your next purchase. There’s even a coupon machine in front of every store where Extra Care cardholders can scan their cards and get special unadvertised coupons (up to 4 at a time) and an app for your mobile device.At Costco, an executive membership earns 2% cash-back rewards (up to $750 per year) on Costco purchases. At Winn-Dixie, if you don’t scan your rewards card, all prices ring up at full price. It pays to know the ins and outs of each system, so you can take maximum advantage, says Economides.Ask your store manager:

  • Do you have a loyalty program?
  • Do you give cash-back rewards?
  • Does it provide additional savings on future purchases?
  • How do I use it?
  • Can these savings be combined with other manufacturer or store coupons?

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Stock up at outlets and closeouts

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Stock up at outlets and closeouts | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Outlet and closeout stores have a lot to offer, Economides says, especially when they sell a brand-name item you eat or use regularly. For example, Big Lots closeout stores tend to stock Pepperidge Farm items, so if you love that brand, it pays to find out what day the truck arrives to take advantage of its products.

If these stores offer a deal on items you regularly use, you should snatch up as many as you can afford and stockpile them, says Economides. “Watch out, though, because some manufacturers will provide these outlets with a smaller size to sell for cheaper, so know your regular sizes and prices before buying.”

She also says these stores typically do not accept coupons of any type — another reason to know your prices.

Ask your store manager:

  • When does the (brand) truck come each week?
  • Do you always carry (name brand)?
  • Do you accept any coupons?
  • Do you have a loyalty program?

Find the final markdowns and clearance

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Find the final markdowns and clearance | mediaphotos/Getty Images

You can score some really great bargains if you know where to look for final markdown items in your favorite stores, says Economides.

Publix provides a free-standing rack with red-stickered reduced-price grocery items (never meat, produce or dairy) in a specific location in each store, while CVS usually provides final clearance merchandise either at the end of an aisle in the back of the store or sometimes on the bottom shelf where the product is usually displayed.

In contrast, Wal-Mart denotes clearance merchandise with orange or blue stickers and marks down produce, bakery and grocery products in different locations of each store. Kroger repackages broken egg cartons to include eggs of all sizes, clearly marked.

Ask your store manager:

  • How often do you mark down items at final clearance prices?
  • How can I identify these clearance items?
  • Where can I find these clearance items in the store?
  • When during the day do you mark down or repackage perishable items, such as bakery, produce, eggs and dairy?

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Understand multiples and BOGOs

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Understand multiples and BOGOs | Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

At some stores, a sign will say “Two for $5,” but if you buy one, it costs $3. Other times, says Economides, 10 for $10 really means that no matter how many you buy, you still get the deal price at $1 each.

“Watch out for multiples,” says Kay, the self-proclaimed family financial expert, because this is how they get you to spend more than you planned and they are not always the best deal, especially if you have to buy the quantity to get the deal price.”

Buy-one-get-one deals, or BOGOs, also can get tricky. For example, at one store you might get 2 bags of BOGO chips for $3.99, but individually they cost $3.99. In such cases, of course, it doesn’t pay to just get one. But at another store, the same chips might be $3.29 regularly or $2 each when on sale.

Ask your store manager:

  • Do I have to buy as many as the deal says to get the deal price per item?
  • How often do you switch or run BOGO or multiple promotions?

Do the math

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Do the math | Maskot/Getty Images

“Don’t shy away from doing the math to determine the best deal. That’s what cellphone calculators are for,” says Kay.

Economides, the author whose family bills itself as “America’s cheapest,” adds that many stores have shelf tags that show you the per-unit price so you can compare deals without doing any math.

But let’s do the math and work out 3 competing at one store:

  • 10 for $10 — 32-ounce Powerade bottles (10 x 32 ounces = 320 ounces, $10 / 320 = $.031 per ounce.)
  • 3 for $5 — 64-ounce Gatorade bottles (3 x 64 ounces = 192 ounces, $5 / 192 = $.026 per ounce)
  • 2 for $5 — 128-ounce Gatorade jugs (2 x 128 ounces = 256 ounces, $5 / 256 = $.019 per ounce.)

With the largest 2-jug deal you are clearly getting more fluids for less money, but you lose the convenience of smaller bottles.

“Being able to quickly compare the deal, product size and unit price makes selecting the right one for you easier,” says Economides.

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‘Where’s the beef’ savings?

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'Where's the beef' savings? | heshphoto/Getty Images

“Meat can be a large portion of any family’s grocery bill, but there are many ways to save depending on the store,” says Economides.

Her best deli tip: Look for “chubs.” That’s the word for a whole-cooked ham, turkey breast or roast beef in the meat section. Then take it over to the deli section and ask them to slice it. You will save more than 50% over the brand-name and even store-name deli meats.

Also note that many stores have different meat expiration and promotion policies. For example, a Publix ground beef insider secret is that the “market ground” meat label means the beef could be ground from high-quality meat left over from an advertised special (never expired meat), which is a great way to get better-tasting, higher-quality ground beef.

Just check the meat specials and ask the butcher.

Ask your manager:

  • What is your policy on marking down meat?
  • What are the choices in ground beef, turkey and chicken?
  • Do you sell whole-cooked meats in the meat department?
  • Can I bring a whole-cooked meat from the meat department to the deli for slicing?

Produce savings in the bag

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Produce savings in the bag | Hero Images/Getty Images

Many stores mark down and repackage produce that might be below the standards for full-price display, but that is not the biggest secret in the produce department. It’s this: Bulk-packaged produce is usually less expensive — up to 50% less expensive than loose produce — because packaged produce is priced by the unit and not by the pound, as with loose produce.

Economides says that by law, each bag must contain at least the advertised weight. But she says to avoid underweight-error problems, grocers will throw in extra food item so you get a few more ounces in the bag. “Just weigh your bag and see how many extra ounces are provided and pick the heaviest one for the best deal — especially if you eat a lot of apples, potatoes, grapefruits, etc.”

Ask your manager:

  • What is the store’s policy for marking down produce?
  • Where and when can I find marked-down produce?

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Credit card rewards add up to real cash

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Credit card rewards add up to real cash | Dan Dalton/Getty Images

Any time a store or credit card gives cash back, you should try to take advantage of it, Kay and Economides agree.

Some retailers, such as Target and Kroger, offer discounts or points for using their store-brand debit or credit cards.

Ask your store manager:

  • Does your store offer a credit or debit card that earns rewards?
  • How do the rewards work and how can I use them?
  • When are the rewards applied?

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Other ways to save

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Other ways to save | Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

“There are so many different types of promotions and ways for you to take advantage of them, and the best thing is to be as informed as possible to find the ones that work for you,” says Kay.

Here are some more specific perks at some stores:

  • A CVS email program notifies you of unadvertised specials.
  • If a Publix clearance price rings up wrong on certain items, you get it for free.
  • Whole Foods, CVS and Target offer reusable bag rebates that take cash off your final receipt.
  • Register rewards from Winn-Dixie give you coupons for your next purchase.
  • You can activate a Upromise account at a grocery store in your area to earn college money on items you’re buying and saving on already.
  • Many grocery stores offer special deals on their websites.

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