I am a mother and teacher who has learned how to save money on groceries without resorting to extreme couponing.
Coupon Queens Taking Over
A few years ago, serious couponing was something I associated with old people, stay-at-home moms, really organized people, and, I admit it, unhealthy eaters. Though I was known to browse through the Sunday paper inserts at the end of the weekend with a pair of scissors, I felt lucky to find one or two worth clipping.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere (even before that dreadful show on TLC), couponing went viral. Now, the practice tends to lie somewhere on a spectrum from new profession to psychological disorder. I'd be willing to bet that even someone who has never seen the show on TV has observed at least one of the following: people creeping up and down every grocery aisle, meticulously scanning a four-inch, three-ring binder full of coupons; customers whose carts are overflowing with nothing but toothpaste, Snackwells cookies, and bathroom cleaner; the woman in front of you at a register, demanding a manager come manually re-scan her coupon or she'll leave without purchasing anything.
For those of us who were happy about our 1-2 coupon savings every once in a while, this is just an embarrassment, and sadly, these people are reflecting poorly on all of us, extreme couponers or not.
How to Save Money Without Becoming One of Them
I am positively astounded by the number of couponing addicts who are trying to convince the world that everyone should be doing what they are doing. As if this is the only way to take command of, and lower, the family grocery budget. I honestly wonder if any of these professional cheapskates have considered the time-money saving ratio they operate under. Odds are, most are making little more than minimum wage in terms of savings-per-hour, yet that 'high' that comes from seeing a register go from 50 dollars down to 15 keeps them ever in their SmartSource sweatshops.
In my quest to fight this global embarrassment, yet still reduce my budget, I've learned that saving money has more to do with becoming an informed shopper than it does with becoming a professional coupon clipper. I've also learned that because a family grocery budget relies on so many factors (meat vs. no meat, organic vs. non-organic, fresh vs. canned, size of city, availability of supermarkets, etc.) the first thing I had to cease was the comparison of myself to others. Instead, I started competing with myself.
Seven Steps Made Simple
- Study Your Shopping Habits
- Know Your Price Points
- Shop Sales
- Use Store Emails
- Start Slow
- Shop Multiple Stores
- Use E-Coupons
Seven Easy Steps to Grocery Savings, No Coupons Required
The fact is, with a little time and attention to detail, it is true that any average shopper can lower his or her grocery budget. How much, of course, is up to the individual. My thought is, in today's economy, every little bit helps. However, I never want to become one of those coupon queens that grocery store managers fear and loathe. I started out slowly and in three years, have managed to plateau my grocery budget at an acceptable low. Want to know how to do what I have done? (Warning: it isn't rocket science.)
- Figure out exactly how much you are spending, and on what. Start paying attention to your grocery bills. Save your receipts for a month, if you have to, and really take a look at what you are spending, where, and how.
- Learn your price points. Either make a list or start committing price per unit(s) to memory.
- Watch for staple items to go on sale, then stock up. When you know your staple items and you know your price points, you'll start to notice when something you normally buy is abnormally cheap.
- Subscribe to weekly circulars via email. This is the easiest way to track sales and plan your shopping trips around them. You can create a shopping list online, email it yourself, and open it on your phone in the store. Extra bonus, almost all my grocery stores have online specials—available only to those who are subscribed to weekly emails.
- Start slow, and build up to a system of savings. I started with just a few items, like diapers, milk, and cereal, paying attention to sales at various stores. As I mastered small milestones, I expanded. It took me a solid year to really noticeably reduce my grocery budget and within three years it became a mental habit.
- Shop at multiple stores. And don't discredit drug stores! Walgreens puts milk and eggs on sale on a three-week cycle. CVS has become my new favorite place for savings. I never bought groceries in a drug store before, but find that the deals here are often the best.
- Utilize electronic (or "clipless") coupons if possible. All of my local grocery stores have clipless coupons you can upload online and link to your rewards card.
Money Saving Myths
Ironically, many things we have grown to believe about saving money on food, paper products, and over-the-counter medications are simply untrue. Humans, on the whole, tend to be mostly uninformed shoppers. The following might surprise you, but don't take them lightly. I've spent the last five years maximizing my savings and minimizing my grocery budget, and I can attest that the following list is truly full of myths.
- I don't have time to do any of this. The fact is, the initial change from your current shopping habits will seem like a big waste of time. But once you make the change, you will find that you don't spend any more time in a grocery store than you ever did. In fact, you just might spend less time and less money.
- Club Stores (like Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's) are a better deal than local grocery stores. When you start paying attention to price per unit, you will see this is just not true. Club stores are convenient and you can get a lot of stuff all at once. But the same product brands regularly go on sale, even at your most "over-priced" grocery store, and you can almost always beat club store prices.
- Meal planning for a week at a time is a great way to save money. Maybe. But not necessarily. Instead of planning your shopping around the meals you want to make for the week, plan your meals around what is on sale that week. I'll be honest, I plan my meals based on what is in the discount meat and produce bins most of the time.
- Store brand items are cheaper than name brand items. Not always. The fact is, brand name items go on sale far more regularly than store brand items because store brand items are featured as the "lowest price" all the time. They are already discounted and are not typically subject to further sales.
- "Buy one get one free" is just a scam to make me buy more than I need. Actually, at most grocery stores, buy one get one free means the item will ring up at half price, so go ahead and buy only one if you only need one. You will not miss the savings.
- Drugstore "rewards" are just a scam to make me come back in later and buy something I probably don't need. Again, if you make a habit of watching weekly sales and change your shopping routine, you will find that you can almost consistently use and even "roll over" drug store reward money in a way that makes the savings completely worth it.
Seven Must-Have Apps for Money Saving
- JoAnn Fabrics
- Walmart Savings Catcher
- Bed Bath and Beyond
Smartphone Money Saving Bonuses
If you have a smartphone, there are tons of apps out there that are designed to save you money or even make you money while shopping. Most of these work without "clipping" coupons, though, to be fair, they probably take just as much time in the store as cutting coupons out of the store does.
A few must-have apps for specific stores include: Joann's Fabric, Target, Staples, Michael's, and Kohl's. (Okay, I know these stray from the "grocery" budget, just stay with me.) These stores always have an available smartphone coupon.
Beyond that, search for any of your favorite stores in the App Store and see if they have an app to provide store discounts on your phone. Every little bit helps.
In addition, I use a few other apps while shopping that are not affiliated with any specific stores, but with products themselves. Some are a spin-off of clip-less coupons, some are rebate apps (meaning they pay you later), and one is a silly app that pays in points which can be redeemed for gift cards.
- Ibotta (rebate app)
- Checkout 51 (rebate app)
- Shopmium (use code GFEYCKVE for a free sign up bonus, rebate app)
- Checkpoints (earn points, redeem for gift cards)
- Saving Star (rebate app)
Add Coupons for Even Greater Savings
Though it might take time, if you can master the above steps, your grocery budget will reduce, slowly but surely. Once you have changed your shopping mindset, adding coupons to the mix is relatively simple, and only serves to increase your savings.
You can reduce your grocery budget without becoming a coupon fanatic!
Should you continue to track your spending throughout this process (as per step 1 above), and I recommend that you do, you will be able to see your progress throughout the year.
I use a simple Excel spreadsheet to track my grocery spending, and as I compare my spending today to what it used to be, the feeling, I assume, is similar to the couponer's high experienced at the register. As a bit of a control freak, this is an easy way for me to psychotically gloat over my savings in the privacy of my own home. But more than that, like any good budget should do, it allows me to know exactly when I can splurge, and do so without guilt.
If you would like to download a free spreadsheet with my formulas already loaded, see the picture and link below.
Some weeks are, by the power of the grocery gods alone, drastically lower than others, despite the consistency in my shopping habits. And when this happens, I might indulge in a ten dollar steak and a bottle of wine that never goes on sale, because I know I can afford it.
My Grocery Budget Tracker
*NOTE: When using the above spreadsheet, the first thing you will need to update is the date. Just input the first Saturday in January and the correct year and the formula should adjust the column accordingly. The only other two columns you need to put any figures in are the "spent" column and the "coupons" column. I sit down on Sunday afternoon and put in all my receipts from the previous week, which only takes about five minutes. The spreadsheet then calculates and cumulates my savings for me.*
Rich Fatcat from Texas on June 03, 2015:
I found eating more vegetables than processed/pre-packaged meals really reduced my grocery bill.... I'm a full-blooded carnivore so it's a tough choice to eat LESS meat, but it's the price I'll pay for now to save money.
Steak and more steak once I reach my savings goal!!!
Wendy Burleson on March 18, 2014:
Claire...love this post. You affirmed the direction I am taking with my household management. I like the concept of savings-per-hour. That makes a lot of sense!
Jan on March 24, 2012:
I have such a hard time keeping up with sale prices. I've never tried the email thing. Good idea. Thanks.