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Shopping On A Fixed Income

Getting more chow for your buck

Getting around the grocery store is a bit harder than it used to be.  That's because over the course of the last two years or so, grocery prices have been going up at a rate of about 7-9% - a whole lot more than most people's incomes have been going up, fixed or not.  This means learning how to shop in ways you might not have considered before.  

There are several factors behind the cost of increase in groceries.  Unfortunately, food gets the double-whammy from our ethanol adventures that haven't turned out so well.  Not only does it cost more for the food itself because of the increase in demand on corn and therefore every other food group, it now costs more to deliver that food.  Don't look for the increases in food costs to slow down anytime soon. 

Cutting Grocery Costs

Planning your grocery shopping trip - 
It's a simple fact.  When we impulse shop, we always buy differently than if we plan the trip and stick to the plan.  Running to the store for a half dozen items costs more in time and gas (adding to the cost of the food) significantly more than if we shop once or twice per week and make it a longer but more comprehensive trip.  

Planning doesn't just mean buying more things on fewer trips.  It also means planning your meals so that you can work your meals around fewer ingredients.  This means buying in larger quantities and less food waste.  If for instance you are purchasing chicken to roast, consider whether you could buy the bigger bag and use part of it to make something like chicken soup or chicken salad.

Create a list - 
You are much more likely to stick to what you need when you have a list than if you don't.  No list means you are likely to buy based on what looks good rather than what your budget, diet, and common sense will advise.

Eat a snack or lunch before you go - 
There's a reason why food looks good when you buy it at the store.  It's supposed to.  And if you are hungry, this appeals to your desire to buy it even more.  Even if it no more than a few crackers, this can make a difference on how tempted your are at impulse buying.  However, if you shop after you've had a good lunch, you will be that much more resistant to buying the wrong stuff and the expensive stuff with lots of marketing appeal.  

Study sales cycles - 
Most foods go on sale about every 10-12 weeks.  Around major holidays such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, these cycles are shortened.  Look for sales on turkeys near Thanksgiving, and hams for Easter and Christmas.  Steaks go on sale for summer holidays, and you can get some great deals on corned beef around the 2nd week of March.

These cycles also exist outside of holidays.  Look for sales and stock up.  In a few months, you will note that you are shopping out of your cupboards and saving lots of green.

Use coupons, but look out - 
Every buying guide tells you how much money you can save with coupons.  They are right - so long as you would buy that item and that brand with or without a coupon.  

However, coupons are not always such a good deal for your budget.  If it is still more expensive than you otherwise would spend on a different product or you wouldn't buy it at all, the coupon has hurt your budget, not helped it.  

Shop the perimeters - 
The stuff that makes up most of your budget and that you plan your meals around like bread, veggies, meat, and dairy are on the sides and back of your supermarket.  Shop these areas first, find the savings, and then work out the rest of your budget from there.  Studies show that when people get the stuff they need first, they are less tempted to buy the prepackaged convenience stuff in the center of the store.

Don't shop in front of your face - 
The most expensive and popular items are generally at eye level.  More frugal options are generally above that level and near the ground.  This isn't always the case, but it is often enough to make worth noting.  

Convenience foods - 
We all know these are easier, but we also know that it costs time and money to produce and package convenience foods.  Precut veggies and meat, peeled and mixed fruits, premade salads, and other convenience foods are more expensive than if you do it yourself.  

This goes for the bakery department too.  Unless you have something on your list from there, stay away.  If you do have a list item, get in and out quick.  Sure those cakes look good - but $20?  No cake is worth that kind of money out of your budget, you know it isn't on your diet, and chances are that you will throw half of it away anyway.  Just keep on moving!  

Meat department - 
Make friends with your butcher.  Many times they will run a piece of meat through a tenderizer for you or put it into smaller packages so that you can freeze a portion.  Even if they don't, they are still a good source of information.  Tell them what you are looking to make and ask for advice on cheaper cuts of meat and what time of day they discount their markdowns.  You can get some great deals if you are there right on top of it.  Buy it and freeze it. 

Get your card - 
Many supermarket chains carry their discount card, SmartSaver, VIP, MVP, etc.  Get one and use it to save some serious money, but again, don't buy stuff with it that you otherwise would not.  It will hurt rather than help your budget. 

Buy bulk stores - 
Few of us need a commercial size can of tomato sauce or 25# of rice, so these kinds of purchases don't make sense. Or do they?  So why does it still pay for people without kids at home to shop the Sam's Club, Costco, and BJ's?  

For several reasons actually:

1) If you have friends with the same tastes, agree to buy certain items and divide them up.  With large cans or bags of certain items, a few Ziplock containers and storage bags can cut help you cut your food costs in certain areas by as much as 40%.  

2) Consider cooking around certain items.  So you won't want enough spaghetti sauce to feed 20, but use it for that first, then convert the remainder into chili and freezer part of that for later.  

3) It might pay to buy it, use most of it and throw away the rest.  This is particularly true with spices you use a lot.  You can often get a full pound of a spice for the same price you can get for an ounce of it in the supermarket.  So if you only used up half the container, you've still come out money ahead.  

Watch those scanners - 
It's a rarity that food prices will show up to be less than what you saw on the shelf.  We aren't suggesting that there is anything dishonest going on.  It's just that it's your money and far fewer mistakes are made with lower prices than with higher prices.  If it doesn't look right, question it.  Don't just accept it.  It's YOUR money.  


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