Extreme Grocery Shopping Without Coupons
In a previous article, I shared one month of grocery purchases in great detail. On food items alone, we spent $448 for our family of five. For those that spend two or three times this amount, read on. I’m about to share how we keep grocery costs down without dumpster diving* or coupon clipping. We keep costs down yet eat a relatively varied diet filled with fresh produce, meats, and dairy.
General Grocery Do’s and Don’ts:
We tend to follow these guidelines for our routine grocery shopping.
- Shop at stores that are generally inexpensive
- Buy stuff that’s on sale that you normally buy
- If you see a great deal on non-perishable items, buy as many as you will use by their expiration date
- Plan your meals around fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that are on sale
- Try something new occasionally
- Know what things cost and buy things at the store where it’s least expensive
- Skip juice, eat fruit instead.
- Buy more perishable goods than you can reasonably use before they will expire (unless you can freeze them with minimal reduction in quality)
- Drive long distances just to save a few dollars at a store with a good sale
- Focus too much time and attention on extreme couponing
- Buy a lot of prepackaged convenience foods
- Be afraid to spend money on expensive foods if it can help you avoid dining at an expensive restaurant
Stick to produce on sale
Our trick to getting the best value in the produce section is simply buying what is on sale each week. Aldi is where we spend most of our grocery dollars. Every week they offer six different produce items at a steep discount to their already low regular prices. Some might think sticking to six different fruits or vegetables each week is a very restrictive way to shop for produce.
Not in our experience. Within any eight day period, we can buy twelve different fruits or vegetables that Aldi has on sale, plus the produce sale items at other grocery stores we occasionally visit. We also pay regular price for some produce items because we want them or need them for a particular recipe. When most of the produce we buy is on sale, the average cost of our produce stays low.
Another benefit to going cheap and buying produce that is on sale is the freshness. When grocers sell a large quantity of produce and the inventory moves quickly, the consumer wins. When you pick up a sale-priced fruit or vegetable, odds are good that it’s fresh.
Produce that is on sale can indicate peak ripeness. When it’s harvest time for a particular crop, there is a glut of supply that floods the market. Economics 101 reminds us that increased supply pushes the price of a good down.
Sale pricing can also mean locally grown produce. It costs a lot less to ship produce from fields 50 miles away than it does from the other side of the country 2,000 miles away or even further if imported from South America or further abroad.
Right now (in May), strawberries are in season in North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, I see a lot of strawberries for sale in grocery store circulars. You can notice the same trend with other produce like apples, oranges, and zucchini. When it’s harvest time nearby, you save money at the store and you get fresh, locally grown produce. I always look forward to later in the summer when peaches mature here in the southeast. Cheap and perfectly ripe? Yes, please!
To those that still claim shopping mostly sale-priced produce is overly restrictive for their food demands, consider what markets offered a hundred years ago or more. Produce shipped from the other side of the country or world was expensive (if available at all). In the temperate areas of the U.S., stores offered very limited assortments of fresh produce outside of the spring, summer, and fall harvest periods for specific crops. Buying a mango or avocado in the middle of January wasn’t an option (at almost any price).
Today, the variety is always available, it’s just a matter of paying more for out of season produce. Shopping the produce sales is no different than shopping the seasonal offerings from the “good” old days.
Load up on deeply discounted or clearance items
We are opportunistic shoppers. If a store wants to clear out shelf space for new products, we will certainly assist them with their efforts. As long as they offer us a steep discount to the normal price.
To illustrate what kinds of deals I’m talking about, here’s what we bought on our latest trip to the grocery store.
Everything was 40-80% off of regular prices. Most of the items were staples that we use regularly. The non-perishable items all had more than a year before their expiration dates. The store most likely wanted to change their offerings on the shelf and needed to clear out these specific items. We grabbed every pack of spaghetti noodles on the shelf (fourteen of them) because we eat a lot of pasta throughout the year.
The ground pork was close to its expiration date, but it’s easy to store it in the freezer for use later. Although two pounds of it never saw the freezer due to quickly meeting my frying pan and disappearing within 24 hours.
|Item||Quantity||Size||Unit Price||Regular price||Discount||Total|
|spaghetti noodles||14||1 lb||0.39||0.75||48%||5.46|
|Dona Maria mole poblano paste||6||16.75 oz||2.19||4.49||51%||13.14|
|papaya pineapple juice||6||12 oz||0.29||0.69||58%||1.74|
|bow tie pasta||2||7 oz||0.29||0.50||42%||0.58|
|brownie mix||1||19 oz||0.29||1.29||78%||0.29|
|seasoned ground pork||4||1 lb||1.95||3.99||51%||7.80|
|brie cheese||2||8 oz||2.34||3.99||41%||4.68|
The grocery store had a ton of other stuff on clearance, but it was mostly junk we don’t normally buy, or other items where the price wasn’t as good as what we usually pay. We also walked to the store, so we were limited in what we could buy. We could have bought more of the canned juice if we drove the car. That was the least valuable clearance item so we only bought six cans of the juice.
* A Clarification on Dumpster Diving
Technically I did dumpster dive for the first time ever. I forgot the brie cheese at the grocery store. After walking back up to the supermarket and pleading for the return of my forgotten brie, I encountered a sympathetic soul who helped me. He pointed me in the direction of the deli where I encountered a deli clerk that suggested I grab replacement cheese from the shelf. I had grabbed the last two blocks already and there were no more on the shelf.
At that point, the clerk offered to refund my money for the two blocks of cheese. The cashier with whom I abandoned my cache of cheese had tried to restock the cheese after I left the store but it was too warm so she tossed it in the trash! I really had my heart set on the brie and not the $5 I paid for it. I offered to take it back out of the trash since I knew it had at least one but probably two layers of packaging. For a split second she gave me the “this guy is seriously dumpster diving inside my store” look, then she went over to the trash behind the counter and removed my two blocks of forgotten brie. It turns out the trash can was lined with a fresh, unused trash bag so my brie was completely unsoiled. Unless you consider the rind of the cheese to soil the rest of the cheese. The rind is made out of mold after all.
So to recap, I technically took home food that was once in the trashcan but was protected from germs by two layers of packaging and a thick layer of (good) mold. That’s how I inadvertently went dumpster diving. The cheese tastes awesome by the way.
Do you try to buy produce on sale and check out clearance items? What’s your secret money saving tip for the grocery store?