January’s Savings Tip
Save at the SupermarketBy Phil Lempert
Supermarket execs have made a science of temptation. They dazzle us with fresh fruit, ply us with samples at the deli counter, and seduce us with buttery scents from the bakery. I should know—I’ve been analyzing grocery-store marketing techniques, and consumer responses to them, for more than 30 years. My advice: When store strategy is to entice you to buy on impulse—to go with your gut—saving money means using your head. Here are my top ten tips for paying less without sacrificing quality or forsaking the foods you want.
Tip 1: Make shopping a job – Food may be fun, the glue that connects us with family and friends, but you need to look at grocery shopping as a job—one best completed on time and under budget.
Tip 2: Take stock – In surveys I’ve conducted, most people report they already had in the pantry, freezer, or fridge at least 15 percent of the foods they bring home from the store. So don’t just “go shopping.” Check your shelves before you shop, plan your needs for a set number of meals, and stick to the list: the less you wander the aisles, the more money you’re likely to save. If you allow for chance discoveries, make them part of your meal plan on the spot.
Tip 3: Bring a calculator – Failing to tote up what you’re spending as you go is like driving a car without an odometer. So keep a running tally—especially at warehouse stores, where those “bargains” by the case can empty your wallet fast.
Tip 4: Start at the center – Working from your list, begin not on the margins of the supermarket, amid mouthwatering sights and smells, but in the middle, with its boring aisles of boxes, cans, and jars, where you’ll find more discounts.
Tip 5: Compare aisles – Each department in the store operates independently—and has a different profit margin—so you can find the same or similar products in different locations at wildly different prices:
Cheese – Recently I found Swiss cheese on the cheese table for $8.99 a pound and in the dairy case for $5.99 a pound—a 33 percent discount.
Fish – Save up to 40 percent by walking past the seafood department to the freezer cases. Because lots of seafood is filleted and flash-frozen right after being caught, its freshness is preserved. The best way to thaw it is overnight in the fridge, soaking in milk, which makes it taste milder.
Ground beef – Buying fresh can cost you around $2.49 a pound for 80 percent lean. Buy frozen ground beef in a three-pound vacuum-packed “chub” (it’s shaped like a salami) and you’ll save at least 25 percent.
Pasta – Refrigerated pastas can cost $3.99 for nine ounces. Go for dried Italian pasta. Any brands using durum-wheat semolina are probably good—even ones you’ve never heard of—and should cost about $1.29 a pound.
Tip 6: Go back to white eggs – Although brown eggs are otherwise identical, they can cost 50 cents more per dozen than white.
Tip 7: Select Select beef – The USDA has three quality categories for cuts of beef: Prime (the highest grade and most expensive), Choice (the middle grade), and Select (the least expensive, and the least fatty). To save, buy Select beef and tenderize it with a marinade.
Tip 8: Try store brands – These are always going to save you 20 to 30 percent. If you’re afraid the ingredients aren’t up to snuff, know that every private-label brand I’ve encountered—including Ann Page at A&P, and the ShopRite, Albertson’s, and Safeway brands—is backed by a money-back guarantee. See the store manager if you aren’t satisfied.
Tip 9: Customize your cereal – To avoid paying $4 or more for a box of brand-name cereal, buy a basic high-fiber store brand for 20 percent less and add your own selection of sweeteners, fruits, and nuts. Also, note that generic cereals packed in plastic bags typically cost around a dollar less than boxed varieties.
Tip 10: Skip fake convenience – Do you really need to purchase your oatmeal in single-serving packets that cost as much as $3.99 a dozen? Buy oatmeal (either regular or quick-cooking) in those familiar cardboard cylinders instead and you’ll trim up to 75 percent from the cost of breakfast.