USE THE UNIT PRICE, NOT THE SALE PRICE, TO FIND THE BEST DEAL
Do not assume that just because something is on sale, it's the cheapest product available. I am frequently surprised to see smart, normally savvy people make the mistake of thinking that SALE always means a bargain.
Often that's not the case at all.
It is actually fairly typical for a store or generic brand to be cheaper at its regular price than many name brands are at their sale prices. Don't be misled by "sale" signs or marketing when trying to judge the best purchase price.
And the same goes for coupons, by the way. Most name brand items are still more expensive, even with a coupon, than regularly priced generic or store brands.
So, be sure to check the unit price labels to see which product is actually the best deal.
And if your store does not offer unit price labels, calculate it yourself. Just take the price of the product and divide it by the number of units of measure it contains (ounces, pounds, pints, quarts, etc.).
Do that with each item you're considering, and you'll see which one is actually the best value for the money.
BUY GENERIC OR STORE BRANDS
Let me stress the importance of avoiding brand loyalty or developing expensive tastes.
If you're serious about staying on a budget, you must turn a deaf ear to marketing campaigns or peer pressure. Companies have big budgets dedicated to trying to separate you from your money.
Maintain your savvy budget consciousness and don't be taken in or led astray by slick advertising. Stay focused on your bottom line and value shopping, using the unit pricing strategy I mentioned above, and you'll find that there are often some serious bargains presented by store and/or generic brand products.
I have found that most of these products are excellent and can represent major savings over brand names.
The unit price for spices is typically by the pound.
In our local stores, we typically have the McCormick brand, a store brand, and another brand, Badia.
Using chili powder as an example, the McCormick brand runs almost $27 per pound, the store brand runs around $12 per pound, and the Badia brand runs around $7 per pound.
That means that the McCormick brand is almost 4X the cost of the Badia brand!
Be on the look-out for other, similar examples of savings on lesser known, store or generic brands. The savings can be huge.
KNOW YOUR STORE LAY-OUT AND PRODUCT PLACEMENT
Stores like to entice you to spend money. One way they do this is by placing more expensive products in such a way that you do not realize you are paying more than you should.
For example, stores will often place a small sampling of salsa next to the tortilla chips, knowing that customers are probably looking to purchase both items.
Typically, though, the salsa they display here is not the cheapest one available in the store. That would be located a few aisles over in a whole section of salsa that offers much more variety.
But if you don't know any better and are not familiar with the store lay-out, you would not realize that and would end up spending more than necessary.
Another example is dairy products. Usually, the more expensive cheeses are placed near or in the deli section, while the less expensive ones are located in the dairy section near the butter and yogurt.
People will often spend more than they need to without realizing that they have less expensive alternatives.
There are likely similar examples all over your grocery store.
You can see that it pays to familiarize yourself with the way things are laid out at your store so that you can be sure you are getting the most value for the money spent.
I do not just mean the obvious example of processed, pre-cooked meals that deliver only a fraction of the servings of food at many times the cost of preparing your own -- and often with high sodium and high fat content to boot.
I am also referring to such things as the pre-cut and/or pre-washed vegetables and fruit in the produce department, or seasoned, frozen vegetables in the freezer aisle, or pre-cooked rice in the grocery area.
There is really no reason to pay the huge mark-up in price for someone else to do preparation work that you can easily do on your own.
Even if you are new to the whole concept of cooking, with practice you will soon become competent and quick at food prep. Paying a whole lot extra for convenience is simply not worth the price.
Some other places you might not be aware that you are often paying extra for labor are such things as pre-packaged "hearts" of celery, or broccoli crowns that have had their stems removed (which, by the way, is often the sweetest part of the broccoli), or romaine lettuce that comes 3 to a package and has had the outer leaves removed.
Or perhaps most common and expensive of all -- the pre-washed, pre-cut bags of salad greens that are priced at many times the sale price of the unprepared head lettuce.
Be aware of the potential extra cost for these types of items and choose the whole celery bunch, or the entire head of romaine lettuce, or the whole broccoli, and do your own washing and cutting at home.
The savings can be substantial.
Meat is a very expensive form of protein and can really decimate the budget if you are not very careful.
I recommend becoming a "flexitarian" - someone who takes their protein from many different sources and only sometimes from meat - but when you do buy meat, never ever pay full price for it.
This also ties in with the planning I so strongly recommend doing before any trip to the grocery store.
You will not likely be able to stick to a budget unless you plan your meals around sale items and make your purchases and stock up when things go on sale.
But even if you can't bring yourself to plan ahead, try to scoot past the meats that are not on sale and focus your attention on the cuts and types that are available for a reduced price.
BUY APPROPRIATE PORTION SIZES WHEN PURCHASING THINGS LIKE MEAT, FRUIT, ETC.
Most Americans consume portions much larger than they need to sustain a healthy weight, and they do not even realize it.
For example, a portion of meat is 4 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards -- not a slab of steak that takes up half the plate. Keep that in mind when shopping, and avoid overbuying.
Fruit is another area that can be quite expensive, so knowing about portion sizes can help your bottom line.
Be aware that much of the fruit you see in the produce section is far larger than you need. This tends to be particularly the case with loose fruit that can be bigger than a softball in size.
And it's very often the situation with the fruit sold at big box stores, such as Costco.
Bigger is not better and often leads to waste, particularly with small or young children. They will eat half of a large piece of fruit, and then throw the rest away. It happens all the time in my classroom.
Bagged fruit is often closer to the appropriate baseball size you should be looking for.
That waste is the reason that fruit and produce are two of the few areas where the unit price rule does not necessarily hold true, and the price per pound is not as informative as is the price per serving.
So calculate the price per serving by dividing the total cost by the number of pieces you get for that price.
Three to four servings per pound is a good goal when buying apples, oranges, peaches, nectarines, etc.
As a reference, the smaller fruits in the pictures below are portion size and yield more servings per pound than the larger pieces do. Baseball size is what you are looking for, generally speaking.
For example, when you buy strawberries or watermelon in the Northeast in January, you are not only typically paying a premium for an out-of-season luxury, but also for long-distance trucking and the accompanying pollution.
The season for strawberries here is June, and the season for watermelon is July through August.
Buying locally grown varieties can also be a big savings.
It's not always possible, of course, but it's a good general rule of thumb for budget conscious shoppers.
For example, apples are typically a late-summer to late winter crop. Peaches are usually mid to late summer.
Do a little research to find out when fruits are in season in your area. Eating fruit in season may also mean that you have a heightened appreciation for your favorites that you no longer expect to eat year round. That used to be the norm in markets and households and was not a bad thing at all.
AVOID ORGANIC PRODUCE UNLESS IT'S THE LOWEST PRICED ITEM IN THAT CATEGORY
That may seem sacrilegious, but honestly, organic fits nowhere in a budget lifestyle unless you grow your own.
I actually recommend trying to do that if you are so inclined. There are many resources out there to help you on your way, but one I have used for many years now is the Square Foot Gardening method.
We grow a substantial amount of vegetables for ourselves in our tiny backyard using this method, and definitely enjoy the flavor and satisfaction of doing so.
But we still also buy a large amount of non-organic produce from the local grocery store or farmers' market.
The fact is that our food supply is generally quite safe, and organic produce will not save you from an infection of E coli or salmonella any more than regular produce will.
Most people don't realize that.
Instead of spending unnecessarily on organic products, focus instead on trying to eat more servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
Getting that daily nutritional boost will help your health considerably more than eating organic will.
And then you might consider moving on to the the next step -- planning your meals and shopping trips for truly big league savings.