Get rid of your Grocery Shopping Headache!
These days we have so many options for grocery shopping: big box stores, organic grocers, farmers markets, dollar stores, convenience stores, regular old grocery stores, and good old Walmart. There is a place for all of them, but not necessarily if you are shopping on a tight budget. In some cases, you might be shopping at the wrong store for the best deal on what you need or using the wrong strategy for the store you are visiting. I've done some personal research and have come up with a few simple strategies for stretching your budget, some of them sound really simple, but they all make sense in the end.
A Few Rules
Forget about brand loyalty, you no longer have it, you can't afford it. The generic, store brand is going to have to be good enough. In many cases, with a little bit of help from your pantry, you can make the store brand just as good as your favorite brand. Make sure you look at the packaging for generic items, many of them are made by name brand companies for stores private labels. If you look closely at the shape of jars and bottles, you may just discover that your regular brand name also makes your grocery store generic brand. I learned that trick from my mother, who many years ago figured out that the generic brand of ketchup she was so fearful of was actually made by Hunts.
Forget about convenience stores, they have their name for a reason, and they take you to the cleaners for everything you buy there. The same is true for gas stations, drug stores, and specialty stores.
Figure distance and time into your shopping needs. If the nearest Walmart is 20 miles away, you may end up spending more on gas than you end up saving, unless you only go shopping once a month. I am fortunate to live close to Walmart, Publix, Winn Dixie, and Whole Foods. However, the closest Save-A-Lot is too far to make saving $.05 on toilet paper worth it, but if you have one nearby, by all means use it!
Walmart vs The Dollar Store
It sounds like grocery shopping at the dollar store would be a great idea, right? I mean everything is only a dollar. Well only a dollar can be the absolute wrong answer in many cases. My favorite example is buying a a can of black beans. If you bought it at the dollar store, you over paid by at least $.32 because that can of black beans only costs $.68 at Walmart. If you have a Save-A-Lot in a reasonable distance from home you can save even more on canned goods.
Don't get me wrong, sometimes the dollar store is the better option, but their selection varies and they may not always have the items on your list. There are some things that are almost always less expensive at the dollar store: hot dog buns, spices and pasta sauce come to mind immediately. Walmart almost always has better deals on canned goods, dried goods, and cleaning products. The other big pitfall at dollar stores is that the size of products may be different from what you find at Walmart. The other day I noticed that the dollar store had Sargento shredded cheese. When I looked closer I realized it was only a 3oz package. A 12oz package of shredded cheese at Walmart costs less than $3. If you don't have the $3 to spend on the larger package, by all means, buy the smaller one at the dollar store, but realize that you are not getting a bargain.
The Grocery StoreIn order to save money at the grocery store, you really have to use the weekly ads and only buy what is on sale. Grocery stores generally don't have big sales on their own brands. Publix and Winn Dixie both have apps for your smart phone that have the weekly ads on them, including the big sale items. Winn Dixie has two categories you should look for: Buy 1 Get 1 Free and 10 for $10. Publix has tons of Buy 1 Get 1 Free items every week.
You should only bother with those deals if they actually save you money over buying the store brand or the Walmart brand. How do you know? 10 for $10 is easy, just see if the generic version costs more than $1. Buy 1 sales are pretty easy to figure out as well. Just take the cost of the item and divide by two. If the per item cost is less than the cost of the generic version you have a deal! Last week Publix had Ronzoni pasta buy 1 for $1.49 and get one free. The per item cost is $.745. Pasta at Walmart costs $1 a box, making Publix a better deal, but ONLY if you have that extra $.49 in your grocery budget for the week!
I do occasionally set foot in Whole Foods. The Whole Foods in my neighborhood has a "happy hour" on Friday night. Each department puts out a food and or beverage offering and it's basically a free meal if you sample all of them. They also have samples out in some departments every day. They make a great free snack. Do I ever buy anything at Whole Foods? Yes.
Whole Foods has a bulk food area that can help you save money on things like dried beans. I personally prefer canned beans for the speed in cooking issue, even though dried beans are less expensive. Here's one thing I go to Whole Foods for specifically: bulk popcorn. I use an air popper at home and the only type of whole kernel popcorn that I have found that pops in it properly comes from the bulk foods section at Whole Foods. I have no idea if it costs more or less than dear old Orville, but it doesn't matter because only half the Orville kernels pop, making it essentially a useless, waste of money.
The other time Whole Foods can be useful, or the meat department at the regular grocery store is when I want a limited number of a specific protein. I do not need a family pack of pork chops. I only need one. I don't need a pound of frozen scallops. I need three. The butcher and fish guy at Whole Foods or the grocery store should be able to help you there, they won't split packages at my Walmart.
Remember my rule about brand names? There is a caveat. If you find a coupon that makes the brand name less expensive than the generic brand, by all means use it. Don't fall into the trap of having to buy three or four of an item in order to save, you will either blow your grocery budget this way or run out of storage room. When you are living week to week, you should only buy what you are going to use in the next week or at most two. You don't want to be stuck eating the same thing every day, just because you think you got a great deal because of a coupon.
I know Walmart may seem like The Evil Empire, but if you are on a minimum wage budget, it's your best choice for most items. You may have to make more than one stop to really stretch your budget every week, but only do that if the travel distance doesn't eat up your savings. Look at packages and quantities to make sure you are getting the best deal for your budget.