Eat More on Less
True or false? Coupons always save you money.
When you shop for groceries, money-saving “wisdom” you’ve heard in the past shops with you. And while some of those beliefs may help you make smart grocery purchasing decisions — making a list, buying fruits and vegetables in season — others can end up costing you more at the checkout counter.
Here are six of the most widely held beliefs and the truth behind each (including that pesky coupon myth). Avoid them and save money on your next trip to the supermarket.
Myth: Everything in the Weekly Circular Is On Sale
It can be smart to develop your shopping list based on weekly grocery store ads to see what’s on sale, but it’s a mistake to believe that every item included is marked down.
“Ads are often a mix of sale items and regular-priced products promoted by the store or manufacturer to drive sales,” says Kendal Perez, blogger at Hassle-Free Savings and marketing manager for Kinoli Inc., a group of money-saving tools and websites. “The distinction isn’t always clear, so read the fine print within the circular and look for original prices before buying.”
While the weekly circular is a good starting point to find lower prices, the discounts can be misleading, says Teri Gault, CEO and founder of The Grocery Game, a grocery savings website. According to the site’s databases, 62 percent of the deals posted are not advertised. Look for discounted prices in the aisles or refer to websites (such as The Grocery Game and My Grocery Deals) that feature sales not found in the circular.
Myth: Buying the Largest Version Saves You Money
From the cereal aisle to the dairy case, there are usually multiple sizes available for various items. “Most people reach for the biggest box or container, thinking that it’s got to be like a club store price,” Gault says. “Unfortunately, quite often, that’s a big mistake, as the medium-size package may actually cost less per unit than that biggest package.”
Some stores have shelf tags that show the cost per unit or cost per ounce. If your store doesn’t, you can use your phone’s calculator app to quickly figure out the cost per unit or ounce. For instance, if a 30-ounce bottle of popcorn kernels is $3, divide 3 by 30 to get 0.1, or 10 cents per ounce. Then choose the size that gives you the most product for your money.
Myth: Coupons Always Save Money
Manufacturers’ coupons help reduce the cost of grocery items, but they result in a lower grocery bill only if they’re for products you already planned to buy. If not, “you’re spending money on something you wouldn’t otherwise purchase,” Perez says. Rather than mindlessly clipping coupons for every item that seems like a good price — even when it’s not on your list — Perez recommends searching for coupons by brand using sites like Coupon Sherpa and The Krazy Coupon Lady.
Also, a coupon by itself doesn’t save the most money; instead, wait to use it when the corresponding item is on sale. Coupons have an average life of seven and a half weeks before they expire, according to a study of coupon trends and social behavior. “Don’t play your coupon the week you get it in the paper or the day you print it online. Wait for a sale and redeem for maximum savings. The sale is the biggest part, and the coupon is the frosting on the cake,” says Gault.
Myth: Buy Only What You Need for the Week
Some people create a meal plan for each week and then stock up on everything they need to fulfill that menu. “If you do that, you will be sentenced to paying full price for 80 percent of what goes in your cart, week after week,” Gault says.
Instead of shopping for one week at a time, save more money by stocking up on often-used items when they’re on sale. “Sales cycle through about once every eight to 12 weeks in each category, and only about 20 percent of the categories are on sale in any given week. The way around it is to invest in sales in each category, then make meals from this week’s sales, and previous weeks’ sales, based on the half-priced groceries you already have invested in your pantry, fridge, and freezer,” Gault explains.
For instance, say canned tomatoes were on sale two weeks ago and you stocked up, and ground beef was on sale last month and you put some in your freezer. This week, pasta is on sale, so when you buy it, you also have everything else you need to make homemade spaghetti at a discount price.
Myth: Don’t Stock Up on Perishables
Just because an item is stamped with a use-by date, that doesn’t mean you can buy only the amount you’ll use before that date passes. In reality, you can stock up on just about everything except fresh produce and milk, Gault says.
Check the dates on the packages, and when those items are on sale, purchase extras with advanced dates. For instance, orange juice, yogurt, sour cream, eggs, and chips will usually have a use-by date of up to two months away. Cheese and butter have dates of about six months out, and because organic milk is ultra-pasteurized, you can find dates two to three months out. These dates are for unopened products; once opened, they must be used sooner.
For instance, sour cream is perishable, but if the container is unopened, it will last for a couple of months. Gault buys four 16-ounce containers of sour cream when they’re on sale, which last until the next sales cycle two months later.
Myth: Warehouse Clubs Always Have Better Prices
While club stores like Costco and Sam’s Club can offer good deals on many items, they are not always a guarantee for saving money on groceries. The exceptions? Eggs, butter, and cheese, Gault says. When items are on sale at the supermarket, the prices are usually less than at club stores. On “center store” items (those found in the middle of the store, like cereal and canned goods), grocery sale prices offer 15 to 35 percent savings over club stores; in-season produce can be 35 to 55 percent cheaper than club stores; and sales on fresh meat are 15 to 55 percent less than club prices, Gault says.
And since warehouse clubs don’t feature sales on seasonal produce like supermarkets do, “you can pay sometimes two to three times as much at club stores,” Gault adds.
“Know your grocery store prices [including sale prices] before buying products in bulk,” Perez says. For instance, most of the time, weekly sales on soda from popular grocery store chains beat out the bulk price of soda from Sam’s Club.