January 11, 2010

10 Ways To Avoid Overspending at the Grocery Store

Let's face it -- grocery stores want to make a profit just as much as any other business, and while their profit margins are notoriously low, they can and do have lots of subtle ways to get you to spend cash on their products. 

Here's 10 ways to stop yourself from spending more dollars than you should at the supermarket:

1.  Never go to the grocery store hungry.  If you're parking in their lot and your stomach's growling, then take the 5-10 minutes to chow down on a snack at their little cafe or deli (most of them have these now), or get a yogurt smoothie, cold organic juice, or protein drink and guzzle that down (show the empty container to the cashier at check-out, you're not going to get stopped in the store for drinking the stuff while shopping).  Don't roam those aisles on an empty stomach!

2.  Shop once a week for perishables, biweekly or monthly for staples.  Fresh fruit and veggies need to be replenished more often than toilet paper, but not every trip to the grocery has to be a Major Event.  Have a plan for your non-perishables (personal hygiene items, canned goods, etc.) and buy them once or twice a month.  Bigger packaging means less cost per ounce, etc. but make sure to check the unit price on the item, don't just assume bigger means cheaper.  CostCo and Sam's are great places to buy things like this -- toilet paper, pickles, beans, rice, things like that.  Have a weekly run for the stuff that goes bad -- bananas, milk, stuff like you want to eat fresh. 

3. Never enter a grocery store without a list.  Make a list of what you need -- go thru the house, keep a running list on the fridge.  When you're in the store, only buy what is on the list.  If you're new to this, trust me -- it gets easier over time. 

4.  Keep a tally of what your purchases are costing, as you shop.  A little calculator kept in your purse or in the car, is handy for this.  By keeping a total of what you're spending, it's easier to avoid the temptation of impulse purchasing.  And it keeps you within your food budget.

5.  Look up and down, shop the top and bottom shelves.  Stocking grocery shelves is an art that should have its own reality show.  It's fascinating to see how savvy these marketers are in product placement.  Low to the ground, eye level for your little ones, will be all those sugar-laden cereals that are advertised on Saturday mornings.  The bran cereals?  Usually on the top shelves. 

6. Don't have brand loyalty.  Just because your mom always bought Peter Pan Peanut Butter or BumbleBee Tuna does not mean it's the best choice for you today.  Here in San Antonio, the local HEB brands are great ("Hill Country Farms") and they are significantly cheaper than the national labels.  There may be some items that you feel are superior, but make that decision based on actual usage comparison and not just sentiment or blind brand loyalty. 

7. Shop during off-times.  Schedules are tight, but if it's at all possible, try and shop the grocery store when there is not a huge amount of traffic.  Don't go on payday Friday nights, right after work.  Lots of people in the aisles is confining, and you want to be able to read labels, use your calculator, and think about your purchases.  Feeling the pressure to keep moving because there is someone with a restless cart, anxious and hurried, right behind you can push you to just grab something, and throw in in the basket.  Don't let that happen.  Then again, this isn't an excuse to loiter in the store, either.  You go in, buy what's on the list, and get out.  The longer you're in the store, the more likely you are to buy outside the list. 

8. Shop alone.  No kids, no husband (or wife).  The more of your team that enters that store, the more temptation hits your family pocketbook.  It's not easy to say no to yourself, it's harder to say no to the kids with the latest cartoon candy promotion, or the spouse that just tested the new sausage biscuit some Helpful Hanna has been frying up in her portable skillet. 

9. Don't fall prey to the smells and tastes they're offering up.  Grocery store bakeries are known for baking during the day, because those smells of fresh bread and pastry draw customers to their section of the store.  And during peak traffic times, practically every aisle of some stores will have food items being cooked up for tasting - with a big display of their product (usually overpriced) conveniently located right next to the Helpful Hanna cooking areas.  Not being in the store hungry (see no. 1) helps here.  If you're still hungry in the store, remember these are marketing tactics no matter how nice the lady serving up the coffee cafe may be.  Don't fall prey to corporate smell and taste strategies!

10. Buy food at the food store, not appliances or books or tools, etc.  Grocery stores sell lots of food items, true, but their biggest profit margins are in the Other Stuff.  The books and magazines, the coffee makers, the set of pliers, anything and everything that isn't edible.  You will not find the best prices on these non-food items at the food store.  Only buy food at the grocery store. 

Personally, I follow all these rules and I find that they do save me money.  However, I go even further: I try and shop for produce at the local farmer's markets; I compare prices at the local groceries to see who has the best deals for what (HEB is great, but SuperTarget and WalMart do have some items that are cheaper than the local super market chain); and I avoid entering Central Market unless I have a special reason for entering that store. 

No matter HOW dedicated I am to the List, no matter how TOUGH I am against the onslaught of smells, this unique gourmet grocery can get to me.  I find teas I've never heard of and suddenly begin to feel life will not be worth living without buying the $20 box of tea bags; there are cheeses that beg to be brought home and used in thick, tomato dishes; well, you get the idea.   Maybe there's a Central Market Anonymous that I can join ....

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