Extreme Grocery Shopping Without Coupons

discount-brie

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.

Do:

  1. Shop at stores that are generally inexpensive
  2. Buy stuff that’s on sale that you normally buy
  3. If you see a great deal on non-perishable items, buy as many as you will use by their expiration date
  4. Plan your meals around fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that are on sale
  5. Try something new occasionally
  6. Know what things cost and buy things at the store where it’s least expensive
  7. Skip juice, eat fruit instead.

Don’t:

  1. Buy more perishable goods than you can reasonably use before they will expire (unless you can freeze them with minimal reduction in quality)
  2. Drive long distances just to save a few dollars at a store with a good sale
  3. Focus too much time and attention on extreme couponing
  4. Buy a lot of prepackaged convenience foods
  5. 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.

discount-groceries

Discounted items: bowtie pasta, spaghetti, brownie mix, ground pork, mole poblano, papaya pineapple juice. Not discounted but only $0.16 for a small bag (sold by the pound) – chiles de arbol

 

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.

ItemQuantitySizeUnit PriceRegular priceDiscountTotal
spaghetti noodles141 lb0.390.7548%5.46
Dona Maria mole poblano paste616.75 oz2.194.4951%13.14
papaya pineapple juice612 oz0.290.6958%1.74
bow tie pasta27 oz0.290.5042%0.58
brownie mix119 oz0.291.2978%0.29
seasoned ground pork41 lb1.953.9951%7.80
brie cheese28 oz2.343.9941%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?

 

 

28 comments

  • We have a chest freezer and when meat goes on a good sale we typically stock up. Having the chest freezer also helps when other frozen food items go on sale. We shop at Meijer and they have a loyalty program called Mperks. We can click digital coupons on their website and also get rewards based on how much we buy, for example this month if we spend over $425 at the store we get a $15 reward. It’s a really easy to use program too, all we have to do is enter our phone number and a pin at checkout.

    • So far we have resisted the temptation of a chest freezer. Our ~5 cubic foot freezer that’s part of our fridge holds a ton of frozen meat and other foods we cook and store for later consumption. As it is, we have to pay attention to make sure we eat those frozen chicken breasts, pork chops, and beef cuts when they have been in the freezer for 3-4 months. Much longer than 5 months and they can get freezerburn.

      And nothing makes me more sad than watching delicious cuts of meat get freezerburn. Except paying high expense ratios on mutual funds perhaps.

      • Surprisingly, if you package the meat appropriately, you won’t get freezer burn. I’ve had prime sirloin steaks in the freezer for almost a year – and took them out to grill the other day – perfectly fine 🙂 Requires a lot of up front work to package well, but the effort is really worth it!

        • Are you using a chest freezer or deep freezer? Or the freezer compartment in your regular refrigerator? I’ve heard the deep freezers that don’t auto-defrost can avoid freezer burn for 6 months to a year. I use 5 months as the outside limit for my fridge’s freezer and that rule of thumb seems to work well (and I aim to keep it down to 3-4 months if possible). And I try to bag meats in good ziplock freezer bags with all air removed (by hand).

          I know what you mean about it taking time. I probably spent an hour repackaging things compactly in airtight bags when I bought 80 pounds of meat at a 50-99% discount at Aldi a year or two ago. Definitely worth it to have a few months supply of a variety of meats at the ready for insta-cooking.

          I will confess to keeping some chorizo in my freezer for probably 18 months and it tasted fine. Probably the high fat content and tons of spices.

          • Vertical freezers (like those built into your refrigerator) tend to freezer-burn quicker, because when you open the door you are circulating warm moist air throughout the chamber. A chest freezer won’t do that as much because when you open the door, you don’t lose as much cold air (because heat rises, cold air sinks). I’ve put repackaged meat in both my fridge/freezer and my chest freezer, and it does last longer in the chest freezer. I also try to sort food by “use it quick &/ often” vs “long term storage” so the chest freezer gets disturbed less.

            • That’s a good point. I think we are doing well enough with using our freezer that’s part of our fridge to store some dishes we cook in bulk plus store other foods we get on sale (like meat). It would last longer in the deep freeze, but do we really need to keep things beyond 5 months?

  • Lol- you can’t beat a good Brie 🙂 Thanks for the tips- I always try to buy on sale…I find if I plan my meals by looking up the weekly circular online I spend the least and know what to cook throughout the week.

  • I have the same experience with produce. We have a Sprouts (similar to Whole Foods) less than a mile from our house, and each week they have new sales of the most in season fruit is sale for ridiculously low prices. So, basically, we get the best fruits and vegetables the cheapest, as long as we’re willing to try whatever they have. This sounds like a compromise, except that it’s not because it’s actually a great opportunity to try new things.

    I also regularly like to use the clearance sections in the bakery and deli section if I know where going to consume the food soon anyways. Usually there are still several days left on the shelf life of the food, so I’ll gladly take a 50% discount knowing I’m going to eat it for dinner anyways.

    • I was reading an Aldi store manager’s candid interview today, and he said almost exactly what you said and what I put in this article – the cheapest fruits are often seasonal and they sell so many you are virtually guaranteed freshness.

      We definitely hit the perishables in the bakery and deli, too. Walmart has 40% off tons of bakery items routinely, and we’ll often get italian/french/baguette bread from there which usually turns into something that’s toasted anyway so slight staleness if any doesn’t matter.

    • Another reason Sprouts is great is that its ads are for 8 days. If you shop on Wednesday two sets of discounts apply – last weeks and this weeks.

  • I have recently started to really cut my food shopping down as I found I was spending way too much food. I’ve started shopping at Aldi and planning our meals round their super 6 fruit and veg and whatever meat they happen to have on offer that particular week.

    I’ve also started using cheaper cuts of meat. For example, instead of using diced chicken breast I’ve used boneless chicken thighs. A lot cheaper and even more tastier I think.

    I’ve found shopping this way really does reduce your food bill.

    • That’s basically what we do too, except the meat at Aldi here in the US is only occasionally as cheap as other grocery store sales. Good idea on the boneless chicken thighs vs the chicken breasts. Those are normally more expensive (for the boneless variety) here in the US than boneless chicken breasts. The thighs are definitely juicier and tastier though!

      We definitely tend to shop on the lower end for meat. Pork and chicken is dirt cheap here at $0.75-2/lb for most cuts when they are on sale (which is all the time at some store somewhere). Beef tends to be about double that price. As a result, we have a lot of chicken and pork.

  • We try to save money by (a) growing as much of our fruit and vegetables as possible, (b) buying more frozen vegetables than fresh – as there’s just as much goodness but they’re often cheaper and don’t spoil and (c) I work in a supermarket so I know *exactly* what promotions are coming up and when the daily discounts are getting done.

    Just the other day we managed buy burgers for a family BBQ at almost 70% off by knowing when to buy and stacking the discounts 🙂

    • That’s awesome if you can grow a significant amount of your produce! We don’t have much, but might end up with some pumpkins, watermelons, and peppers this year. Plus a few green onions.

      Frozen veggies definitely have their place. We buy a lot of frozen peas and broccoli since it is usually cheaper than fresh, and it’s already cleaned and ready to cook. At aldi, we end up getting carrots, zucchini, peppers, onions, and many other veggies cheaper than frozen veggies (somewhere in the $0.33 to $.67/lb price range vs. about $0.75-$1.50/lb for the frozen veg of the same type).

      Working in a grocery store probably gives you an upper hand compared to most of us. I should be a little more nosy and ask the grocery store workers when they put things on clearance, or if anything has gone on clearance lately that’s a good deal.

      At Aldi, I occasionally ask them to mark things down if they are nearing their expiration date (or slightly past it). A few years ago I picked up a large case (maybe 20 lbs?) of individually packaged chorizo sausages for $0.50 each instead of $2.50 or $3 each at full Aldi price. It had just expired that day, and at first they said they were going to ship it back to the warehouse where they would toss it. Then they realized I had cash in hand to move the product. And a few days ago I asked the meat dept guy to mark some cuts of meat down that were about to expire which they did.

  • Your series is making me consider visiting an Aldi on occasion. There isn’t one really near our house, but we go buy one at least once a month. I’ll have to dive in and compare to our neighborhood Korean grocery.

    • Go for it. They are great for lots of staples, and they are even better for produce that’s on sale. Their regular produce prices are also cheaper than the grocery store’s sale prices, so you can save money any time.

      Aldi has about 95% of what we regularly buy, and then I have to round it out with purchases at Walmart and the grocery store. Plus ethnic stores for things typically only carried in them.

  • My husband and l love fresh buffalo mozzarella. The local Krogers used to sell each 250gm package for $7.99. We would wait as they rarely sold at that price. They would lower it to $2.99 clearance and we would swoop in and buy all their stock. Luckily it was close to his gym, so he would drop in after his workout to check . Loved the Brie story!!!

    • Wow, that’s crazy expensive! We pay $3.69 for 16 oz (454 grams) of the store brand whole milk mozzarella (I think it’s a knock off of Polly-O and/or Sargento). Not quite the same as buffalo mozzarella I take it, but it is very good. That’s about the only thing I consistently buy at the grocery store in our neighborhood (other than cruising for clearance items).

  • Because of the locations of our grocery stores, we buy what we can off the list at Aldi, then drop it off at home (usually involves milk), and then head to WalMart to get the rest of our list. We know which things we buy at Costco the most, so that’s usually a separate trip. We buy almost all of our meat at Costco. Not always the cheapest, but the best quality in our area.

    • I’ll occasionally carried a cooler with me to stash the cold items if I’m going to multiple stores. The Aldi is right across the street from the Walmart, so it doesn’t take long to go between them. And Aldi shopping never takes long because the store is tiny.

  • Dumpster Diving or just Xtreme frugality?? lmao!! That was one of the funniest things I’ve read while reading about financial independence. the reason I find it so funny is there is a movement here in Los Angeles (and probably every major city with struggling artists, or “off the grid” types) to find ways to “micro” eat and “micro” pay. One of the strategies is to find random fruit trees with ripe fruit and use the “free” fruit as a meal. They often will post the location of the tree so other “micro” eaters can bike on over to nature’s buffet. Of course the home owner or business owner might not appreciate the visitors, but that’s another blog.
    I personally don’t engage in the free micro meal concept, but you have to appreciate their level of dedication to finding a low cost alternative to the high cost of eating.

    • Micro eating? Sounds like poaching. Although I’ll admit to “micro-eating” a neighbor’s mulberries. They never pick them, and the tree hangs out over the sidewalk. I haven’t had a chance to formally ask them if it’s okay to eat the berries off the tree, but I don’t think the property owners care.

      What is “micro pay”? Working for a day or two or doing some side hustle like Uber driving?

      • lol, yeah poaching is the old fashioned term and it sounds like you’ve experimented with it via the next door mulberry bush!
        When I was a kid in Florida we would wander around the neighborhood and randomly eat cherries, cumquats, bananas, sugar cane, walnuts, avocados, oranges and even lemons and limes if we were really hungry. Food were literally growing everywhere and anywhere, most of the time the fruit just sat on the trees until it rotted – I don’t remember a neighbor ever asking us to stop eating their fruit. I would feel ridiculous doing that as an adult but some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted came from cherry bush hedges picked on the way to school.

        Recently I read a post by a guy who claims to eat all his meals from “public” fruit trees. He had a few rules about which trees he would eat from, the most important being that if the branches of the tree grew even an inch over a “public” sidewalk or street he considered that fruit public domain and open to public harvesting.
        I don’t completely buy all this, but I’m always interested to see how far people will take the frugality concept.

        The micro pay concept is as simple as it sounds – people finding ways to either barter for goods and services or simply finding ways to accumulate necessary goods at ridiculously low prices by negotiating and/or trading. I think a lot of kids who were brought up on the internet have gotten so much valuable digital stuff (music, apps, movies, etc etc) thru a computer for free, that they believe they can now extend that concept to the rest of their lives. In some cities it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

        • I guess I might agree with the “if it’s in the public right of way, it’s fair game” although I don’t think I would pick someone’s apples, plums, peaches or persimmons (what grows around here) without asking first. Unless it’s clear that they don’t harvest anything and there’s fruit all over the sidewalk and road. At some point, all the fruit is a nuisance and attracts flies and stinging insects, so I’m actually doing the community a service by collecting the unwanted fruit (or so I justify to myself!). I don’t think I would sneak on to someone else’s property to take unwanted fruit though. That’s trespassing!

          The picking public fruit comment made me think of our city parks. There’s a historic house downtown where a past US president was born. While on a tour, the tour guide mentioned all the fruit grown on the historic grounds is free to be taken by the public if the deer, squirrels, and birds don’t get it first. More free public food! On my walk to my car (back when I worked downtown), I used to pass by the Governor’s Mansion where they have a small garden tended by work release inmates. I’ve thought about snagging a nice juicy ripe tomato through the wrought iron fencing, but I figure the State Secret Service would swarm out and arrest me for invading the Governor’s grounds (with my larcenous arm).

          Thanks for explaining “micro pay”. With the internet our concept of fair pricing gets distorted. I’m always on the lookout for a deal, and find it hard to pay full price at a bricks and mortar since I know there’s somewhere online offering the same thing for less. And with craigslist, ebay and freecycle out there, it isn’t that hard to get something free or cheap if you have the time to look. I certainly get rid of enough stuff on craigslist (for free).

  • Some of my recent loss leader scores include: 80/20 ground beef- 1 lb tubes $2, (30 pounds bought) chicken leg quarters – 49 cents pound, eggs — almost always find them somewhere for $1 dozen and buy 10 dozen (they last forever).

    I tend to focus on the meat as the biggest saving tip. If you go to wally world on Mondays at 7 a.m. you can find the good meats marked down substantially.

    I think the biggest saver ever if your into healthy eating is olive oil and grape seed oil. I like the store brand (walmart) olive oil. On a cost per calorie basis it is close to sugar and flour. Which buy the way, if you do eat flour and sugar, now is the time to snatch it. (holidays) Butter also. Butter is $1.89 a pound this week. Freezes well so I’ll probably buy 25 pounds worth. Sugar is a dollar for 4 pounds and flour is in the same. Sugar and flour will last forever. The kids love to help make and eat sugar cookies and homemade pancakes are very cheap. (premix pancakes = $1.80 per pound of mix, homemade with the cheap flour like 40 cents a pound.)

    You can make a fresh pound of healthy noodles (eggs and veggies added) for like 25 cents if you have the time and desire. So a dinner for 3 at our house might be beef and noodles for a price of 2.25. Or it could be chicken and dumplings for 1.25. I’m still shooting for that mythical $1 per day per person!

    • I haven’t seen $2 ground beef in a while, but would probably buy 15-20 lb if I did. Currently using ground turkey at $1.59/lb instead, which works just as well in most things except hamburgers. We’re on to the chicken leg quarters, and they are always $0.68 so I don’t even mind paying full price (but do see them in the $0.49 range occasionally). Other than feeding Mrs. Root of Good’s sushi habit, we’re down with the cheap cuts of meat!

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