Sunday, September 5, 2010

Shopping Smart

I've had several conversations recently about the merits of buying from Costco and various other shopping strategies. From these discussions I have produced several grocery shopping truisms and other ways to make your grocery dollar go farther.

1. Big-box stores: Costco, Sam's Club, and the like are not evil, but you have to go in with a plan. It's too easy to get distracted by the free samples and buy ten pounds of potato salad that you are never going to finish before it turns. Some things do save money in bulk. Paper products are a biggie. Meats can be a great deal. My dad has a FoodSaver vacuum thingy. When he buys meat or fish at Costco, he portions it out into one or two servings per pouch and freezes it that way. He can just pull it out in the morning and it's defrosted in time to cook for dinner. But you must label and date anything you freeze. Small items tend to make their way to the back of the freezer and hide there until you forget what they were. The key is to buy things you actually use frequently enough to justify buying a whole case. If you use one can of mushrooms or olives a month, a case may be too much for your household! However, if you have four kids who all eat the same kind of cereal for breakfast, Big-box stores can be a lifesaver.

2. Coupons: I clip coupons only for things I intend to buy before the expiration date. I also clip coupons for restaurants and fast-food places. There is always at least one Souplantation coupon in my purse. Rarely will a coupon entice me to buy something new or something I don't usually buy. Even the ones I do clip often expire before I get to them. Plus, you must comparison shop. Often, the store brand is cheaper than the name brand would be after the discount. Also, many require you to buy two, or even more, of the product to get the discount. You have to decide if it's something you will use.

3. Buy in season: This does not only apply to produce, but that's a good place to start. Pay attention to what grows when. Usually, when fruit or veggies are at their peak, they get really cheap. Once, cherries were so cheap that it was actually a better deal to make a pie from fresh than canned. Of course, then I had to pit them, but I digress. Meat can be in season, too. Everyone knows that turkeys get incredibly cheap at Thanksgiving. Hot dogs and ground beef are on sale at every American holiday. There are terrific deals on lamb at Passover and Easter. Passover is also your best chance to get ground lamb, since butchers are taking the meat off the shank bones. Don't be afraid to ask the meat counter if they have something. Sometimes, they have cuts in the back simply because they haven't wrapped them yet or don't have anywhere to put them.

4. The clearance aisle: A day or so before meat's "sell by" date, the butchers slap discount stickers on them. I got a 5 lb leg of lamb for $14 because it was the day before it "expired". I just froze it until the time was right. Today, I bought about 9 4-oz portions of skinless boneless chicken breast for $8. I bagged and labeled what I didn't cook and put it in the freezer. Recently, Vons started discounting dairy items on their expiration date. If you're going to eat that cup of yogurt today, or use a pint of whipping cream, go for it. Unfortunately, they don't freeze well. Also discounted are discontinued items, boxed or canned foods slightly past their expiration, and torn or damaged packages. Use your best judgment.

5. Consider alternatives: We all get into the habit of shopping at our favorite store, where we know where everything is. Try a new store once in a while. Farmer's markets often have hard-to-find items, but they won't be bargains. I love the bins at Henry's (Sprouts). Oatmeal is often only 70¢ per pound. Quaker runs about $1.30. A couple of produce markets near me carry produce at much better prices, but they aren't as pretty as what you get in the supermarket chains. This only matters if you're not going to chop it up or otherwise disguise its original form. And they usually let you bag your own, so you can get half a pound of grapes, instead of two pounds that will spoil before you can finish them.

6. Make a list: Planning ahead is the best way to save money. Decide what you're going to cook before you leave home, so you can see what ingredients you already have. That way, you don't end up with six jars of pimientos because, while you were buying one for that night, you bought one more "for the next time". There will always be impulse buys, but a list will minimize them because you will walk down fewer aisles.

If anyone has any other ideas, please share!

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