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Writing a shopping list that cuts your grocery bill

There’s no need to spend hundreds at the grocery store every month to make sure your family has great meals. You just need a few smart tips to cut costs without hours of coupon clipping.

Woman shopping with list

There’s a practical reason not to waste your time clipping coupons. These days, most store brands are far cheaper than even the coupon price of the brand names (unless, perhaps, your grocery store has a double or triple coupon day). It’s just a giant waste of time unless you’re a serious couponer. Besides, if you just spend a little extra time and thought putting your shopping list together, you’ll lower your bill without lowering your quality of living.

Find out what’s on sale

Toliet paper

Before you go shopping or even start to write your list, check the sales at your grocery store of choice. Almost all grocery stores have circulars that they mail out (many are available online) in which they advertise the sale items for the week (you can even check multiple stores to see if the sales at one are more appealing than your regular place). Make a mental note of the sale prices on foods you may use.

For nonfood items, keep an eye out for products you use frequently. Even if you’re not out of toilet paper, you could save a few bucks by picking it up early. If the sale price of a particular brand of toilet paper gives you $2 off a package of 12 rolls, and we accept the assertion on that the average family uses 119 rolls of toilet paper per year, you’ll save about $20 a year on toilet paper alone if you only buy when it’s on sale. Apply that to toilet paper, toothpaste and other household items, and you could see some serious savings.

Write a menu

The mistake most people make is winging it. You may be out of salad mix, but if you don’t eat a salad (or enough salad) that week to justify it, you’ll just end up throwing it out. The Natural Resources Defense Council released the results of research they compiled in 2012 that shows Americans throw out 40 percent of their food. NBC News business writer Bill Briggs figures that’s about $2,275 per year for a family of four. To put that in perspective, that’s enough to buy two high-end (quality) laptops for the kids to do their homework.

You’ll throw away less food if you carefully plan your weeklye menu. On a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet program, write out your menu items for the week in a horizontal row (you can list the ingredients you need for each dish under that, making it easy to compare the ingredients later). Consider what you’ll have for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks each day.

As you’re writing your menu, think carefully about the ingredients in each meal. Remember the sale items in that circular? Is there a way to use sale items more efficiently in your menu? For example, if you plan to have a brisket, but notice chuck roast is on sale, perhaps you could substitute that instead.

Try to have meals with several ingredients in common. This will help you reduce food waste by using all of the foods you buy and lets you take real advantage of sales. Remember that roast you bought? You’re not really likely to eat 5 pounds of roast in one sitting, even as a family. If you use the right preparation for the roast or ask the butcher to cut it into two pieces, that one meal with leftovers the family won’t finish suddenly becomes a candidate for a meal of pot roast and a second meal of beef enchiladas. If you’re having olives on those enchiladas, perhaps you can buy the larger can that’s a little cheaper per ounce and also have a pasta dish that uses the rest of those olives.

If the average cost per meal is $4 (some will be more, some will be less), and you’re able to cut out buying the ingredients for just one extra meal each week by using foods you’re already buying, you could save about $100 a year.

Make substitutions and sacrifices

Now that you’ve written a menu using as many lower-cost sale items as possible, ingredients you’ll already have on hand from making another dish and decided to buy nonfood items that are on sale which you may need later, it’s time to clean up the list even more.

Look through the list and decide what you could substitute for something cheaper (or something you already have or will already have). If you’re buying Monterey Jack cheese for your enchiladas and cheddar for some homemade mac and cheese later in the week, instead of buying two separate 8-ounce packages of cheese (which you won’t use up on either dish), decide on one that will work for both. That cut could save you $100 or more a year.

Also, carefully reconsider any high-ticket items like steaks and other high-end red meats. Three pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast costs around $7 and will feed a family of four (sometimes with leftover chicken). A single steak could cost just as much (or more depending on the cut) and may only feed one adult (or two younger kids). If you really love steak, buy it only when it’s on sale.

tomato sauceBuy generic

If you’re a brand-name queen, it’s probably because you remember how gross those generic versions were when you were a kid. But they’ve stepped up their game, so it’s time to give them another shot. If you’re nervous, start slowly by buying the midrange generic or store brand. If you’re comfortable with those, try going lower. A generic can of tomato sauce in one store we found cost 33 cents each, whereas the name brands cost almost $1. But write it down! If you plan to try generic peanut butter, write down which one you plan to try and stick to it.

Consider buying staples online

These days, online stores like Amazon offer great deals on the products we use most. Sometimes it may mean buying in bulk, but if it’s something you’re going to use anyway, consider the yearly savings versus the inconvenience of storage. Go through your list and look up the price of the staples online and write them down (with the quantity that amount purchases) next to the item on your list so you can double check it in the store.

But don’t go overboard. Having three years of toilet paper in your closet doesn’t help you pay the water bill.

Try our tips and let us know how much you save in the comments below!

More tips on grocery shopping

Top 10 tips for smarter grocery shopping
Grocery shopping made simple
4 Money-saving grocery shopping apps

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