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By: Richard C. Ross

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Dining Out for Less: 5 Tips


Back when gas was cheap (remember that?) and I wasn't so worried that a trip to the store would cost a fortune -- just for the fuel -- I got into the very bad habit of making daily trips to the store to shop for dinner.  Keep in mind that this was almost solely a function of my inability to plan ahead.  Even before 2008 turned into a disaster and prices started to escalate, my wife helped me to change all of that...  OK, so there's another story there, and I'll return to that on another day.  The key however, is in the "plan ahead" phrase above.  That and a few tips to follow before and during your next trip to the grocery store could just save you a bundle.  The reason?  We spend, on average, close to one third of our monthly budget... on food!

photo of groceries in bagIf you are fifty years of age or older, you likely remember a time when shopping at any grocery store was easy -- especially if you had a favorite: after a few trips, you knew where everything was.  So you got a cart and went right to that aisle, got what you needed and returned home.  Once "marketing specialists" entered the picture, things changed.  It was discovered that if the store constantly changed the location of things, shoppers would have to look around for what they needed, perhaps even going up and down every aisle to find them.  In the process, they would be forced to pass by things that they might not otherwise be enticed to buy and suddenly -- bingo -- the items fly into the cart; you end up buying things that you not only didn't plan to get, but things you really didn't need.  Add to that the discovery that "end-caps" loaded with items designed to spur impulse buying were highly successful and, well, suddenly you're scratching your head wondering, surprised that you ended up leaving the store with much more than you had planned!

So here are a few tips that can help save you money next time you visit the grocery store:

Tip #1:

Have a plan for your trip and stick to it.  It sounds simple, but you'd be surprised how difficult it can become -- especially if your children accompany you.  They've seen plenty advertised on TV and if they see it in the store, they'll want it.  Be prepared to say no to their impulses too!  And make certain that you know exactly what you plan to buy and follow your plan.  If you allow yourself to wander from isle to isle, you are bound to be attracted to an impulse buy at some point.  If you don't really need it, don't put it in your cart.




Tip #2:

Avoid "kits".  Most people have a tendency to want to save time when preparing dinner, and there is really nothing wrong with that (we don't always have the time we would like to have).  One example of a real time saver is a "salad kit" that comes with pre-chopped lettuce, a small bag of salad dressing and perhaps even croutons.  Open the bag, fill the bowls and voila -- instant salad!  Problem is, that kit is way more expensive than a head of lettuce... and it only lasts for one meal!  There are many other "kits" that may save you time, but they'll empty your pocketbook in a hurry.  Take the extra prep time and save some money.

Tip #3:

Stay away from boxed entree and side-dish items.  This is especially true of rice dishes.  Yep -- they're extremely easy and quick, but... if you take a moment to read the ingredients on the box, the main ingredients are rice, salt (way too much sodium) and spices.  Rice is easy to make and there are numerous types of rice that can be purchased separately: brown, red, wild.  Measure out what you need, add your own spices -- and save money too.  Your blood pressure will thank you too; do you really that extra salt in your diet?  Besides, your own recipe probably tastes far better!

Tip #4:

Use Coupons.  This may in fact sound quite easy, and I suspect that many of you will say: "I already do that!"  More and more people are using their mouse rather than their fingers to do the proverbial walking.  However, the Sunday newspaper often does contain a number of coupons that we need at the store.  So wherever they may be found, clip 'em, file 'em and use 'em on your shopping trips.  You will be amazed at how much they can save you.  This especially true of bathroom, kitchen and laundry products which have skyrocketed in price over the past few years. 

The real money saver is what they call "super-couponing" where you use a store coupon with a manufacturer's coupon.  It's even better if you can wait for the item to be on sale!  By using this method, you can save at least 50% and sometimes even get the item for free!  Target.com and Coupons.com always have a lot of printable coupons.  Just pair them up with your Sunday coupons and you'll be supercouponing in no time!

Tip #5:

Avoid bottled waterNot because it's not healthful, we all know that water is very healthful.  But it's bottled in plastic containers, and most of our plastic is made from petroleum.  More importantly, far too many of these bottles never make it to the recycle bin to get recycled.  They end up in landfills, or fields or other environmentally unacceptable places.  So save some money here too.  And while you're at it, help save the environment.  That's a double savings... and is it really better than what comes out of your kitchen faucet?

Tip #6:

Take a pass on energy bars.  They are usually found conveniently located at the checkout counter and provide yet another opportunity for an impulse buy and a higher total bill.  This is another "read the label" no-brainer.  Although there are some exceptions, most are generally high in sugar and fat and, and provide little more than a short-term carbohydrate buzz.  Want a healthful snack?  Grab a banana or an apple -- far better for you, and cheaper too.

Tip #7:

Skip the pasta sauce in jars.  I know, I know... they are so easy and so quick.  But unless you have a coupon that will allow a purchase for under $1.50, I'd take a pass and make my own sauce.  Jars of pre-made pasta sauce range from $3 to as much as $6.  Store brands of canned tomatoes can usually be found for less than $1.  Add your favorite spices (oregano and basil work really well), some chopped garlic, onion, celery and peppers, simmer and enjoy.  The pasta to put your sauce over is never expensive.  Suddenly you've got another inexpensive, home-cooked meal.  You've saved more on you grocery bill as well.   Better yet, grow your own tomatoes and can or freeze them.

Tip #8:

Try store brands rather than name brands.  There are still products that I buy that I simply refuse to replace with generics.  Call it brand loyalty...  However, there are many generic products -- for instance the tomatoes mentioned in tip #7 above -- that are just as good as the brand names and are far less expensive.  Sometimes it takes some shopping and sampling, but I have found that good candidates for generic brands are milk, butter, eggs, tomatoes, pasta, mayonnaise and rice -- just to mention a few.  The savings can really add up, and after all, that's the goal isn't it?

Tip #9:

Buy in bulk if it's at all feasible.  This was one that was difficult for me at first, since I had never done it.  Now, I'm not a fan of spending money to join a grocery club; I have been told that it works, especially if your family is large and there are certain items that fly out of your pantry on a regular basis.  But even in our house, quantity buying sometimes is economical.

Tip #10:

Be patient.  Buy your normal grocery items when they're on sale rather than when you need them.  Chances are if you wait until you run out, the item you want is full price.  Buy it on sale, use your coupons and buy "backup" stock... you'll save that much more!


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