Grocery saving tips from couponing stars

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Grocery-shopping savings advice has become ubiquitous in recent years, but all tips aren't created equal.

Some strategies and tactics can save you a lot of money, while others add more hassle to your life than money to your pocket.

Grocery shopping is a popular topic because it's an area of huge spending for many, and an area of huge potential savings.

The average four-person household spends more than $9,000 a year on food, about $5,500 of which is food at home, meaning not dining out, according to the most recent federal Consumer Expenditure Survey. Add to that other supermarket staples, such as housekeeping supplies (about $750 a year), personal care items ($834), and alcoholic beverages ($467), and you start talking about real money. 

Even modest savings could amount $1,000 to $2,000 a year.

To separate superior supermarket savings advice from the bad and mundane, we sought tips from a few rock stars of couponing who, besides being experts at coupon use, know all the best strategies for saving money at the grocery store. Stephanie Nelson is founder of CouponMom.com, Jill Cataldo is founder of SuperCouponing.com and Josh Elledge is founder of SavingsAngel.com.

Powerful basics

Stockpiling. One simple-but-powerful tip reigns supreme if you're serious about saving money at the supermarket — buy multiples when it's cheap; few or none when it's full price. Peanut butter or deodorant, for example, can be far less expensive when it's on sale or you have a coupon — ideally, both.

If you ignore all the other advice and simply adhere to the buy-low, cherry-picking strategy, you'll save significant money, at least 20 percent. Buy the same items you normally would; just buy them at ideal times.

"Need-based shopping — shopping from a list — is the most expensive way to buy groceries for your family," Elledge said. "Until you break this cycle, you will always spend far more than today's savvy shoppers, regardless of whether you use coupons and technology."

Sales cycles. If the word "stockpiling" conjures images of those made-for-TV grocery trips where people buy juice boxes by the pallet, think of it as "inventory." Items typically go on sale in 12-week cycles, so you don't need to buy that many to get you through to the next sale. "Contrary to what you've seen on TV, my house isn't filled to the brim with food," Cataldo said. "For us, a three-month supply of ketchup is three bottles."

Half price. What's a good price? "My goal as a coupon shopper is to cut the non-sale price of an item in half or better," Cataldo said. "That's an easy benchmark to remember." You could keep a price list and scour the weekly sales ad for deals. But websites such as SavingsAngel.com, CouponMom.com and TheGroceryGame.com track sales cycles and find the best deals so you don't have to. The sites also note how you can match coupons to sales for maximum savings.

Loyalty cards. Applying for supermarket loyalty cards is often the only way to cash in on store sales. If the cards get unwieldy, you can put their bar codes into your smartphone with an app like CardStar. Cataldo put the physical cards on their own keychain, alphabetized.

Store brands. Some store brands are quite good in quality and can be relatively inexpensive. But they don't have the same price swings brand-names do and might not be cheaper compared with on-sale brand names, especially if you have a coupon too.

Non-supermarket venues. If you pay attention to sales and use coupons, warehouse clubs are generally not a good deal, but drug stores such as CVS and Walgreens, with their lucrative loyalty programs, can be.

Advanced tactics

Location matters. Grocery stores might have the same type of product in multiple locations in the store, but at different prices, Nelson said. For example, a store display might feature sale-priced tortilla chips accompanied by full-priced salsa. "Don't fall for that," Nelson said. "Find the salsa aisle and buy the sale-priced brand."

Produce savings. When buying a bag of potatoes, carrots or other produce sold at a per-item price, use the store scales to weigh a few bags. You'll probably find a significant weight variance, "which means you'll get free food by finding the bag or bunch of lettuce that weighs 20 percent more than the others," Nelson said.

Shake your bunch. If you're buying fresh produce from refrigerated cases that mist produce with water, shake off the produce before bagging it. "You'd be surprised how much water can be retained in a broccoli or celery bunch," Cataldo said. "If you don't shake it off, you're paying for it."

Front-row nutrients. For green, leafy vegetables, such as bagged salads and spinach, choose bags at the front of the case, which have higher levels of nutrients because the plants' photosynthesis continues in-store under the lights, said Cataldo, citing a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Organic produce. Generally, organic produce with thick skins, think bananas and pineapples, are not worth the extra money. A primary advantage of buying organic is to avoid potentially harmful pesticides in your food. But thick skins protect the edible part of the fruit from pesticides. More information: ewg.org/foodnews.

Ethnic savings. If your grocery store has an ethnic section, check there for lower prices on ethnic brands of spices and condiments, Nelson said.

Low-hassle couponing. Visit your supermarket's website to download digital coupons to your loyalty card. The value of the coupon comes off automatically at the register when you buy the item.

Internet coupons. Even with increased popularity of electronic coupons, print-at-home coupons are still available. See Coupons.com, SmartSource.com, RedPlum.com and CouponNetwork.com. In most cases, you can print two of each coupon you select.

Use apps. Smartphone apps can help you with creating a grocery list or avoiding paper coupon clipping. Check out SavingStar, Ibotta and your favorite store's app.

Get social. On Facebook and Twitter, follow and "like" your favorite brands and retailers. "I find particularly high-value printable coupon offers on Facebook," Cataldo said.

gkarp@tribune.com

Twitter @spendingsmart

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