Today, Mellody Hobson provides tips on how to save at the grocery store.
The USDA says grocery prices may rise as much as 4% this year. Last year’s drought led to a grass- and corn-feed shortage, resulting in higher prices for beef, poultry and grain-related products. So unless you plan to stick to that New Year’s resolution to eat just salad and carrots, your grocery bill is going to be more.
What are some basic ways to save?
First, if you don’t have a list, you’re shopping blind and will end up having to throw away things you don’t need and can’t use. Make a list of two weeks’ worth of groceries and shop from it.
Next, don’t be impulsive. Just because it’s on sale, that doesn’t mean you have to buy it. That said, don’t overlook the items in the bargain bin. Generally those items can be great deals, but you need to be careful with canned goods. Any canned product that’s compromised in any way can make you sick. That ten cent can of peaches isn’t a bargain if it means a case of botulism!
How about those big club stores? Are they worth the fee of joining?
It really depends how big your family is and how much room you have in your home to store things. The deals mean buying in bulk. But either way, don’t go crazy in big club stores. Club shopping is very good for certain kinds of items, including toilet paper, paper towels and detergent, but you can actually waste your hard-earned money if you buy bulk sizes of items that you won’t use. If you live alone, a five-pound bag of apples for $7 isn’t that great of a deal unless you plan to bake a pie, because odds are you’ll be sick of eating them before they go bad. No one likes a mealy apple.
Now what about coupons? Have you seen those “extreme couponing” shows where people somehow end up getting paid to shop?
That’s pretty rare. They call it “extreme” for a reason. The first coupon was issued in 1888 by the Coca-Cola Company, and today coupons remain a popular way to save at the grocery store. The Internet has absolutely revolutionized couponing. Forget inky fingers clutching a pair of scissors while huddled over the Sunday newspaper. It’s all online now.
In 2011, we redeemed 3.5 billion coupons—saving consumers $4.6 billion—up over 6 percent from 2010. What’s even more stunning is the savings that were left unclipped, so to speak. That same year, 305 billion coupons—valued at $470 billion—were distributed via all mediums.
My favorite website for groceries is coupons.com. It usually has the biggest selection, is easy to navigate and has a section just for grocery coupons. When you find the coupon you like, simply print it and take it with you to the store. Another great site is retailmenot.com. It’s the largest online coupon site in the United States and also has a section just for grocery shopping. Both sites have free apps for iPhones and Androids. Once you find the coupon you want, it will be displayed either as a numeric code or a scannable image that can be entered at the store’s register.
Another surprising coupon source is Facebook. Facebook exclusives and coupons are awarded in exchange for “liking” a particular brand. Keep in mind that brands you “like” may be able to access some of your basic personal information when you opt to download a coupon via an app, but you can remove them from your account as soon as you nab the coupon, preventing retailers from accessing that information in the future.
How about all the jargon that goes along with couponing?
If you want to get in the game, the first order of business is to learn the lingo.
There should be a course! Here’s a quick cheat sheet to the acronyms: OYNO is On Your Next Order, MIR is Mail-in Rebate and BOGO is Buy One Get One (free). Another thing to know is if your coupons are stackable, meaning you can use a manufacturer’s coupon in tandem with a store coupon. Also, find out if stores in your area offer double coupon deals, meaning at certain times you can use a coupon and it will be worth twice its face value.
And don’t forget that some national chains will honor another chain’s coupons. It doesn’t hurt to bring along a competitor’s coupon and ask.
How about generic versus name brands. Is there any difference between the two?
Yes and no. On price, brand name items cost an average of 30% more than their generic equivalents. Sometimes the decision to buy generic is easy, on something like bleach, but the savings may not be worth it if you’re buying, say, soda. We haven’t settled the ongoing Coke/Pepsi debate, but everyone can agree that a product called “Fresh Soda” isn’t going to win any taste tests. . In general, the less ingredients, the better it is to buy generic. Think pantry staples like flour and sugar.
The reason brand names cost more is they have much higher marketing and packaging costs. Interestingly, many of the private label brands on the shelf are actually made by the brand name manufacturers—in the very same factories—so they’re the exact same products marketed under different names. One example of that is spices. A good way to tell whether the generic item is from the same company as your favorite name brand is to check the label to see where it was manufactured. If they’re both from the same town, it’s a good bet.
At the same time, be smart about price-comparing. When a name brand item goes on sale, it may be cheaper than the store brand. And when you add in coupons and your store loyalty card, you might save 40 to 60 percent with the name brand.
Finally, don’t forget that sometimes cheap can be expensive. If you need three times as many paper towels to do the job, then you’re not saving money.
What about saving on meat?
Bad news. According to Labor Department data, the price of ground beef hit a record high in the U.S. last July. And wholesale ground beef is up more than ten percent in the past year.
The best way to save on meat is to go directly to the butcher, who will know which cheaper cuts don’t sacrifice flavor for cost. Keep in mind these cuts typically take longer to cook.
You’ll also save as much as 75 percent f you buy meat that’s closer to its expiration date. Just buy in bulk and load up your freezer.
Another option: skip the red meat and go with chicken. For the year-to-date period ended October 2012, the average U.S. retail price of chicken was $1.88 per pound versus $6.23 per pound for beef steaks. One funny thing I learned: Those savings don’t necessarily stay true if you’re eating out—The price of Buffalo wings has spiked 52 percent in the past year, and analysts expect that to continue. You know that saying, “’Ain’t no thang but a chicken wing?” Who’d have thunk they’d break your budget!
Mellody is President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. In addition to being the featured consumer finance expert for Money Mondays, she is also a regular columnist for Black Enterprise magazine.