9 Tips for Surviving the Supermarket

Last Updated Jul 11, 2011 3:23 PM EDT

Food prices are spiking. Gas prices are spiking. But the weekly trip to the supermarket is inevitable. I'm trying to make it as painless as possible. Here's my latest strategy:

Tuesday morning, drop first child at school at 8:10 a.m. I'm at Wegmans with child 2 (who climbs into one of those car carts the size of an armored personnel carrier) by 8:25. At that hour, workers are stocking fresh produce, and there's no need to take a number at the deli. We zoom through in less than 45 minutes. Just in time to drop child 2 at the babysitter's by 9:30, get home, unload the groceries and start work by 9:45. Phew.

I spend $120. Now, I know readers will start commenting on how they can feed their families of six for half that amount. And I applaud that. I make some conscious splurges (organic milk for the kids, for instance, and a few other things) and I'm not saying $120 is cheap by any means. But looking at our schedule this week, the four of us will eat 70 meals out of that, which will average $1.71 per meal. Best part is, if I've done it right, I won't have to be back there -- or any other grocery store -- until next Tuesday.
I checked in with Richard George, Ph.D., a professor in the department of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, about how I can save more money and time. If I could trim $15 per week, I'd save $780 in a year. He outlines the usual tips: shop from a list, and think about meals and menus, not just individual ingredients. Go when the store isn't crowded. Never shop hungry.

Here's his advice that I still need to work on:
  • Check inventory before you go. This is my weakness. I came home with a bag of grapefruit, and we already had one going. I also overbought on the yogurt. Oops. Could have saved there. In my defense, at 7:55 a.m., I have other things on my mind, like combing Child 1's hair and finding Child 2's sneakers. But I should check the shelves and fridge the night before.
  • Look out for loss leaders. "Every supermarket has items that are deeply discounted," George says. "They're designed to bring people in to the store and show a point of difference versus another retail chain." The shopper has to have enough knowledge to be able to recognize a good price when she sees one. That comes from years of experience and doing your homework -- reading circulars and checking the store's website before you go. As you research, pull your coupons together. I haven't had much luck with coupons over the years, but maybe as I solidify my Tuesday morning shop, I'll get into a better groove.
  • Read the fine print. Look at the price per ounce. The best deals aren't necessarily on the endcap where products like cookies or soft drinks are prominently displayed. Companies pay for their goods to be there.
  • Be flexible about brands. "Every week, either the Cheerios or the Cornflakes are on sale," George says. "Either Coke or Pepsi is on sale." Never at the same time. (Flexibility is not my family's strong suit, but we're working on it.) Embrace the store labels, which are a lot better than they used to be.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. Many readers say they tally the bill as they shop, which cuts down on impulse purchases. Stop & Shop apparently gives customers a scanning wand, which allows them to add up the bill (and bag their groceries) as they go through the store.
  • Eat "plannedovers." Make a double recipe of something on the weekend that you can freeze and pull out during a busy weekday. You'll save yourself the $10 on the large pizza you would have ordered instead, George says, plus all that the cooking time.
  • Plan to splurge. Americans have been suffering from "frugality fatigue," George says. "How many times can pass up the rib-eye and have meatloaf?" At some point, treat yourself to the rib-eye. But anticipate the treat, and budget for it by cutting back elsewhere.
  • Avoid the paper towels and the lightbulbs at the grocery store. You'll find lower prices for these items at Wal-Mart or Target, or Amazon Subscribe & Save. I make this mistake all the time. We're running low on laundry detergent, say, and I'll pay a few dollars more for it at Wegmans rather than make another stop someplace cheaper. Toothpaste, toilet paper, batteries? They need their own inventory list. That's my next project.
My personal supermarket time-saving advice:
  • Always get in a line with a female cashier, preferably in her 30s or older. Women cashiers memorize produce codes; men don't. It is so annoying when a guy is hopelessly scrolling through his computer screen looking for the code for snap peas.
What are your best money- and time-saving tips at the supermarket? Please sign in and share them below.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Matthew Rutledge, CC 2.0
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