5 Secrets of Frugal Grocery Shoppers

This menu of ideas will help you stick to your food budget.

bargain grocery food shopping
Elaine Thompson/AP
By Geoff Williams

Several weeks ago, Robin Shwedo, a documentary producer in Tampa Bay, Fla., was at the grocery store deli when she came across some turkey that looked delicious. She was given a sample, and since she was particularly hungry and thought the turkey tasted wonderful, she bought a pound.

"Two sandwiches later, I decided I didn't want any more of the stuff," Shwedo says. "Half of it went into the garbage."

Shwedo, 60, a widow who shops for herself and two sons, broke the cardinal rule of budget-savvy grocery shopping: Never go to the store hungry. But our appetite isn't the only obstacle to food budgeting. If you've ever seriously tried to manage your food bill, you know how difficult it is to come up with a hard number for the amount you're going to spend at the store and stick to it.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost of feeding a family of four a healthy diet runs between $146 to $289 a week. But even if you decide to spend, say, $800 a month on groceries, that number will likely become obsolete before you know it: Appetites evolve as we age, food prices fluctuate and, of course, given that families don't always eat the same meals over and over, it's simply a challenge to make the math work out during each shopping trip.

But if you're looking for ways to make your food bill more or less a fixed cost, here is a smorgasbord of ideas.

Shop midweek. "According to studies, on Wednesdays, most supermarkets reduce prices on food that is about to expire. This is also the day that the majority of stores start their new sales," says Laura Harders, a mother of two who blogs at BeltwayBargainMom.com, in the Washington, D.C., area.

Odd hours are good, too. In the evenings, "you may be able to save on bakery items that aren't fresh," Harders says. "These items will not likely be sold by the store and will be thrown away or perhaps donated to a local food shelter.
If I feel an Italian bread loaf and it is pretty hard, I will ask for a steep discount -- 50 to 75 percent off -- and then use it for a soggy bread sandwich like Italian Beef or French toast."

And if you show up in the morning, many stores have newly discounted or marked-down items in the produce and meat departments, particularly food that's expiring that day, Harders says.

Grocery shop online. More grocery stores are beginning to offer online shopping and delivery service. Some of the big names are Netgrocer.com, Peapod.com and USGrocer.com, and Walmart (WMT) and Amazon.com (AMZN) have been testing the grocery delivery waters as well. In 2012, online grocery sales were $6 billion, which sounds like a lot, but that's less than 1 percent of the $850 billion that was spent on food in America, according to a report from the Melbourne, Australia-based research company IBISWorld.

While many people shop online for groceries because it's convenient, it may also be a useful way to shop more carefully. You don't have shoppers with carts behind you, giving you the sense that you should grab your cereal and move on. No one is handing out free samples to entice you to buy something you probably wouldn't have bought otherwise. And it's easier to keep an eye on online shopping cart totals versus adding up prices in your head or on a calculator. Plus, you can easily delete items if you see that you're over budget.

Take technology with you. If shopping online isn't your thing, you can always utilize grocery apps on your smartphone. "There are apps that help save me a ton," says Aimee Brittain, a 35-year-old single mother in Atlanta who runs the blog PrettyFrugalDiva.com.

She has a lot of favorites, but one that stands out is Favado.com, which lets shoppers compare prices of products at local stores to find out exactly where each item is sold the cheapest.

And there are tons of grocery apps designed to help people shop. For example, ZipList helps you with your master list of grocery items, Grocery iQ offers assistance in finding coupons for the food items on your list and Fooducate helps shoppers determine if what they're buying is healthy.

Save By Buying 'Expired' Food

Seek out expired food. Yes, it sounds kind of disgusting, but a recent study by Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that consumers widely misunderstand expiration dates printed on packaged foods. And you don't need to be told that expired foods are cheaper.

"For most foods, the expiration date is the sell-by date rather than the safe-to-eat date," says Shel Horowitz, a New York City-based author and marketing consultant. "If something is past the [expiration] date, look at how long it's been, how much it's been discounted and what the item is."

Of course, everyone has a tolerance for how fresh they want their food to be, and certainly stay away if an item seems rotten or spoiled. But use common sense. "I have Indian pickles that are years out of date and are still fine," Horowitz says. "For cheese, I'll go up to a week or two, and for dry goods like cereal and crackers, maybe three months."

He draws the line at purchasing or consuming expired milk or yogurt (yes, you'll sometimes find those on the shelves of some stores.)

In fact, Horowitz says consumers can get very good deals at deep-discount grocers. "We have a local one here called Deals and Steals," he says.

Quite a few stores specialize in selling safe-to-eat but expired food. In Dorchester, Mass., The Daily Table is opening its doors in early 2014. For decades, Dirty Don's Bargain Center, in Raytown, Mo., has been selling expired groceries. The Dented Can, a longtime presence in Goshen, Ind., has a name that says it all. Scattered throughout the country are hundreds of similar stores, known as salvage grocery stores, that sell food considered unsellable due to damaged packaging or expired dates.

Of course, doing everything you can to save money at the grocery store takes time, and time, of course, is money. In the end, it may come down to what you value more: the minutes on the clock or the numbers in your bank account. Apps and technology, coupons and know-how help, but for now, you still have to invest time to save on thyme.

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The vast majority of people are smart and savy enough to buy food within their own budget, and to determine how fresh they want their purchases to be. They can make their own bread, etc IF that is what they choose to do. Or PAY for it already done. It is a choice.

January 12 2014 at 8:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It really isn't a bargain if expired food make you sick. It isn't worth it to me. Evidently it is to others. I'll pass, thank you very much.

January 12 2014 at 8:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The article didn't mention making a food budget. By doing that, you know how much you can spend on items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and buy accordingly. I only plan $5 for dinner, $3 of which is allocated to meat. Sounds hard, doesn't it, but it isn't, you just have to buy the cheaper cuts or meat that has had its price reduced. This still leaves $1 each for two sides. Potatoes, pasta and rice are all very cheap, so that's not a problem either. As for vegetables, look for the cheapest, whether fresh or canned. You can often get 2 lbs of fresh vegetables on sale for $1, so it helps to read the store ads. Another way of saving is buying in bulk. This saves money on things like salt, rice and flour, but it saves the most on spices. Why spend $3.50 on a jar of basil at the supermarket when I can get the same amount for 50 cents at the natural food store? And lastly, make food from scratch. Boxed foods are loaded with chemicals and don't give you the same value for your money.

January 12 2014 at 2:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If the Tea Partiers would play ball, rhen the minimum wage laws would increase, making EBT cards obsolete. BUT..that would be against the Tea Party political interests.Lean forward !

November 11 2013 at 9:58 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Don\'t ever buy expired food or stale baked goods - your savings evaporate the first time you have your stomach pumped.
You can make inexpensive baked goods, for example, with Gold Medal self-rising flour, around $3 for five pounds of it.
Here is a simple but delicious hot out of the oven Banana Bread recipe for you:
You\'ll need four cups of the SR flour, one egg, one stick of margarine, half cup sugar, and one ripe banana.
In a bowl mix the flour, egg, sugar, banana pieces, and enough water to create a thick batter.
Pour into a buttered loaf pan, place the margarine quarter on top, and bake at 325 F until a nice poofy browned top appears, about 50 minutes.
Cool on the counter for 30 minutes, then slice. Spread with grape jelly if desired.
Result is an incredible, fresh baked, banana bread.
These recipes are available online if you have questions. This takes 5 minutes to do and costs pennies.

November 11 2013 at 7:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

ED, if the bakery goods seem like cardboard in the microwave like donuts you are leaving them in too long or they are too dry to begin with. Donuts work well in the mircrowave just for a few seconds

November 10 2013 at 11:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to merstockgto's comment

And here is a fresh Belgium waffle recipe that costs ten cents each to make.
You\'ll need a Belgium waffle maker but that is a once in a lifetime investment.
Mix 1 tablespoon of sugar with two cups of Gold Medal sefl-rising flour and enough warm tap water to make a thick batter.
Toss a square of margarine onto the waffle grate and pour in just enough batter to make one.
Close. When it beeps, take out your poofy crispy, fresh waffle. To splurge add a tablespoon on top of cherry pie filling and a swirl of Redi-Whip whipped cream.

November 11 2013 at 7:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

burkantstv ;
I understand your point of view ; BUT, with two people working, they need a newer car.
i live alone, and retired- so my way of life is different than many other shoppers. Lets not criticise those who are working ; They do it their way to survive

November 10 2013 at 5:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to burgesswv's comment

How do we know those that are using their EBT card are working... under your line of thought, since I'm working, I also should have a newer car. Not happening here, no government dole for me, no new car either.

November 10 2013 at 6:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh yes, and please don't get me wrong, I do not begrudge your retirement, you earned it, it's yours. Social Security and some pensions are set up like Ponzi schemes, I'm happy that someone that paid in is collecting........many who contributed nothing (not speaking of disabled), are on the plan as well.

November 10 2013 at 6:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Sure is great to buy day old baked goods, store brands, close to expired meats on sale, cheese ends and anything to save a buck, then line up at the checkout and watch the person in front with top of the line products pay with an EBT card, whilst you tender hard earned cash. Even better is to watch them load up their new car with those products, while we deal with our 12 year old 150,000 mile cars. I see it all the time, and somehow it just doesn't seem right. Hope and Change, ya know?

November 10 2013 at 4:45 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to burkeantsv's comment

Then get off your back side and either get a better paying job or IF you truly believe that people with EBT cards are wealthy then quit your job and go apply:) I mean can you be anymore blatantly ignorant in what you wrote there:) Self pity is NOT the road to getting ahead in life.If you lack sufficient income to pay for your lifestyle then do what I did work 3 jobs
( one full time two part time) pay for your own not one but two college degrees obtained while working full time raising two kids as a young widow.....I never took one handout and no one ever offered me any assistance but because of my grit......my brains......my spine of steel I managed to obtain a very good life.You are pathetic.

November 11 2013 at 2:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i never bother with coupons- its simpler to go down the generic isles when shopping. Generics are simply items sold without all the advertising costs added on. The quality is not compromised.

November 10 2013 at 2:34 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to burgesswv's comment

Sometimes the generic item maybe just a few cents less than a brand name and a coupon is handy in these cases. Some generics are very good but others are not as good as the name brand.

November 10 2013 at 10:54 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The things that work for me Make from scratch all seasonings like taco seasoning, and sauces that you could buy. Buying in bulk (Restaurant size) including mustard, catsup, soy sauce, food that will keep for a long time. You would be surprised at the small difference there is in price. Making biscuit mix, pancake mix, and buying flour and rice 25 pounds at a time just makes sense. Food is one thing, but at the grocery store you will be inclined to buy Tide at $14 a gallon when it can be made for less than a dollar. The list goes on for those who are not lazy, and have the time to do some of this stuff. I bake bread once every ten days and get a top of the line product for a fraction of the cheapest bread manufactured. Men- Rock your kitchens!

November 10 2013 at 2:22 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply