How I shop, Part 1.
Since I don't really use coupons, I thought I'd better explain how I do save money on groceries.
First, I (happily!) receive the local grocery store flyers in the mail. If you don't, you can try a few things. Visit the website of your local stores. For instance, if you go to WINN-DIXIE'S PAGE, you'll see they have the flyer posted right on the main page. If that doesn't work, you might give PENNY PINCHER GAZETTE a try. Once upon a time there was a great site, cairo.com, that uploaded all the grocery store flyers in one place, but they, sadly, folded last August. You might also simply ask next time you're in the store if there's a mailing list you can sign-up for. I live by the philosophy that it never hurts to ask!
Another option is to visit the store directly to pick one up each week, but only do this if you're already passing it by on another necessary errand or trip! Don't waste your gas driving around collecting flyers!
There are generally 3 stores I shop at for food groceries. Winn Dixie, Save-Rite, and the Neighborhood Wal-Mart. There is a "real" Wal-Mart not too far from here, and I will sometimes stop in there, as well. And for non-food items, I go to the Dollar Tree for a few things and Dollar General for the rest. (Dollar General is the only place I've found toilet tissue 6 for $1.00 and that usually lasts us for 2 weeks.) I will occasionally go to Publix or Albertson's, if they have a really great deal, but not often because generally they are more expensive and they are out of the way for me.
Save-Rite and Dollar General are next to one another. We pass Winn-Dixie to get there, and the Wal-Mart is right outside my neighborhood so we pass it every time we leave the house. This is important because I don't want to blow the savings I get from hitting several stores in the cost of driving to them!
If you're already shaking your head and thinking, "Well, that's out. I'm not close enough to that many stores.", or if you perhaps don't have a vehicle and must rely on a bus, please keep reading anyway. This is a lot of info, and I think it will take several posts to cover everything, but I will eventually explain what I do at each store, and hopefully that can help you, and I'll also address shopping in only one location when limitations force you to.
When I get my flyers in the mail, I sit down and start listing out all the loss-leader items. These are the things that are substantially discounted in order to get you in the door. They are called loss-leaders because the store is actually taking a hit on the sale. You have to be careful here, though. Not only do the flyers list loss-leaders, and then items that have a small discount, but they also sometimes list items that are just regular price.
Sidebar: If up until now you haven't paid very close attention to the price of individual items, or you're just new to shopping, you should probably give serious consideration to making a Price Book, as recommended by Amy Dacyczyn in her TIGHTWAD GAZETTE. (Not an affiliate link - just put it there for you to see the book. If you haven't read it, get your library to get you a copy. There's this one - a compilation, or you might find books 1, 2, and 3 individually.) To make a Price Book, you simply take a notebook with you to your local store and start writing down the prices of the things you buy - making a note of the date, too. Keep this book up for 1/2 a year or more, and you will not only get an idea of which things are cheapest where, but also what things tend to go on sale when. Once you start getting a real handle on prices, you'll be able to instantly recognize a loss-leader when you see it. For instance, the 10 lbs. of apples I bought - they were a loss-leader. I knew this as soon as I saw them because I know apples are regularly over $1 a pound and sometimes marked down on sale as low as .88 cents a pound. Being able to by them at .55 cents a pound was a good deal for me. I kept a price book for several years. I haven't for awhile, but only because I've been shopping on a budget for 18 years now and I actually keep all my receipts, so I can check on prices if I need.
Once I've listed out all the loss-leaders for my local stores, I then start thinking in terms of recipes. How many of these ingredients can I use to make how many meals? What other ingredients would I need? I happen to have a bookshelf FULL of cookbooks. I've never actually counted, but I must have over two hundred of them. I inherited them from a grandmother, great-aunt, and stepmother. If I can't think of any recipes to make with the loss-leader items, I head to the shelf first. I like these cookbooks because many of them are so old, they don't rely on convenience foods to make.
Thanks to the internet, though, you don't need a floor-to-ceiling shelf of cookbooks like mine. There are free recipes to be found all over the place. If you go here to ALL RECIPES' INGREDIENT SEARCH PAGE, you can type in the ingredients, and see what comes up. You can also simply google it, like "free ham recipes".
I don't plan my entire week this way, though. Usually, my loss-leader recipes only account for 5 or 6 of the 14 meals I'm planning, depending on what's available. Sometimes, it's not even that much; sometimes, it's even more. (This is not counting breakfasts, which I mentioned in my Making Mixes post.)
I don't buy all the loss-leaders at every store, only the ones I can really use. Ten cans of black olives are not going to help my family because we don't like them, even if they are marked down to 10 cents a can. On the other hand, if it's 10 cents a can for tomato sauce, I will buy 10 cans to keep for use beyond just the week I'm shopping for.
Using loss-leaders is a great way to keep your pantry & freezer stocked with ingredients. Part of keeping my grocery bills so low involves having a steady supply of staples, bought or replenished when on loss-leader sale, whenever possible. Yes, I really will buy 10 cans of tomato sauce at once. Or I might buy three bags of rice, or 5 pounds of cheddar cheese. (I grate it and freeze it.)
If you are just starting at trying to seriously lower your grocery bills, this is where I recommend you begin. This week, determine one or two loss-leader items and purchase more than you need for the week. Purchase enough for several weeks or months. I think sometimes we avoid doing this, because of the fear of either having to eat the same thing several nights in a row, or worries that it will go bad. As long as it is something that can either sit on a shelf or be frozen, go ahead and buy it. Eventually, you will reach a point where you are dedicating maybe as much as a 1/4 of your expenses each week just to loss-leader items you won't be using up right away, but because of things bought in previous weeks, you won't have as many individual items to purchase for that week's meals. This is essentially the concept behind bulk-buying, but a way to build up to it, for those of us who can't simply drop $200 in one trip to get everything in the huge, economy packages.
Are you still with me? LOL! I think I've droned on enough here. In my next shopping post, I'll cover the big ticket item - meat purchases.
If you have any questions, or I'm not going into enough detail/explaining things well enough here or in any of my posts, please don't hesitate to post a comment or e-mail me directly. Having been married for 18 years, a mom for almost 13 years, a homeschooler for 6 years, and been on a budget my entire life, sometimes I think things are "common knowledge" when in fact, they may not be at all and I don't want to gloss over something that's brand new for someone else.
Also - please feel free to share any tips and tricks you have! I'm still learning every day and I'm always looking for new ways to save.