According the USDA, the average American family of four spent an average of $250 per week on food in February 2017, if they had a moderate to liberal budget. That can mean upwards of $1,000 a month on food or $12,000 annually. That is a huge chunk of most budgets and can be scary to see in writing.
While this is the average, it does not need to be your reality.
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There are simple things you can do to save money on your groceries. I’ve got my five best tips here. I’ve been following these ideas for years and they really can work.
1. Switch stores
There are times when your larger grocery store might offer a better discount on some items — like these things grocery stores will do for you for free. However, have you ever stopped to ask yourself if you’re shopping at the store that offers you the best prices? It may not be worth driving too far, as you may lose more in gas expenses than you’d recoup in savings, but take stock of your local stores and see if there’s one that really may have better bargains.
For example, if you have an Aldi nearby and are not shopping there, you may be missing out on the simplest way to save. It is true they do not accept coupons, however, the prices there are often lower than the prices you pay at your regular store, even if you clipped a coupon. There are lots of options out there, so make sure you’re considering what others might be right for you.
2. Shop ahead
Most people create a shopping list based on the items they need now. That is important, but you may also want to add items you will need later when you find them on sale.
To help, if you look at your store’s weekly ad, often times the items you see on the front page are loss leaders, which means the store may actually lose money on the prices they are offering. So this may be the time to get the best deal. These sale items can be discounted as much as 50%. This may mean that you purchase three, four or more of the item on sale. Doing so allows you to feed your family and get the lowest price possible.
Keep in mind, stores tend to do this with the idea that these extremely low prices will draw you in and you’ll do all your shopping there, ultimately making up their losses on their sales. If you do decide to shop there, and see other items that are “on sale,” make sure you flip up the sales tag to see if you’re really getting a discount.
3. Plan ahead
The reason most grocery budgets fail is because people fail to plan. Each week, sit down and plan your meals including breakfasts, lunches (don’t forget meals for work and school), snacks and dinner. And make sure you do your planning the right way. (If you’re looking for frugal meal ideas, check out this 16-cent breakfast.)
The problem most people face with meal planning and budgeting is they do it backward. Most people plan their meals and then create a shopping list but you may want to consider working it from another direction.
First, check your pantry and your freezer. If you happened to get a deal on chicken breasts last week and three weeks earlier rice was on sale and you bought several bags, you can use these items to create chicken and rice. You now have a meal planned that will cost you no extra money.
Once you’ve planned your meals based on what you have on hand, look at the weekly ad. Check to see what is on sale that you might want to use for this week’s menu. Add in those extra items your family needs this week.
Finally, plan out additional meals you need and add those items to your list. Hopefully, most of what you need for your food for the week is already in your pantry or freezer or is going to be on sale.
With a bit of planning and changing your way of thinking, you can knock down that weekly grocery budget.
4. Create & use a price book
As mentioned above, stores can offer amazing deals on items you need. You should stock up, but how much should you buy? That is a challenge, but if you track the sales cycles you can learn how much to buy as you follow when items go on sale.
The way a price book works is simple. You write down the product that is on sale including the size, date and what you paid (not taking coupons into account). Then, watch the weekly ads. The next time you see that same item go on sale, make a note in your book.
As you do this, you will start to understand the sale cycles and can buy just enough to get you through each period of time, so you don’t have too much on hand, but just enough to help ensure you always get the best price.
Of course, not all items follow a cycle, but you might be surprised to learn which items do. However, you have to put in a little bit of work to break the code for yourself.
5. Use coupons the right way
I’m not against using coupons. In fact, I feel they are a great way to save money. However, you need to use them in the right way.
The problem many couponers face is they use coupons as soon as they get them. That is not always the best way to make them work for you. Instead, consider saving them to use when items are on sale.
When you find those items on the cover of the weekly ad (like we mentioned in point two) and you have a coupon to pair with the sale, you’ve really increased your savings and turned a hot deal into a smokin’ hot deal.
So when you get the coupons in your Sunday newspaper, file them away. Watch the weekly deals, and get out the coupons when you can pair them. In fact, if you really watch, you will learn that many items that have coupons go on sale after the coupons are released. That is not a coincidence.
Now you’ve got the tools and tips you need to really make a difference with your budget. It might take a little effort to implement some changes, but it can be worth it.
Want to save more? Here are five tricks to get discounts on everything you buy. And no matter how much you save, try to stay on budget. Going into debt to buy groceries could affect your credit. You can see where your credit stands by checking two of your scores free on Credit.com.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.