Shopping smarter

Simple tips
can make trips to
the grocery store more
Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Terry Gatewood doesn’t see grocery shopping as a chore. For her, it’s a hobby.

“To me, it’s great fun,” Gatewood said. “I consider it a challenge. They’re trying to take my money away from me, and I’m trying to keep it.”

Gatewood, an administrative assistant for MU’s human environmental sciences extension, is a master at clipping coupons. Every week, she sits down with the coupon sections of newspapers from Columbia, St. Louis and Kansas City and clips out any coupon she thinks she might use. She then stashes them in a shoe box she takes everywhere she goes.

Using coupons on sale items and taking advantage of double- or triple-coupon programs at local grocery stores has saved Gatewood a lot of money. She once bought $72 worth of groceries for only $16.

“It was a personal best,” Gatewood said with pride. However, not everyone approaches grocery shopping with as much zeal as Gatewood. For those who don’t have the natural talent for food shopping, a trip to the local grocery store can be a daunting task.

“Shopping is a very time consuming task. It’s a challenge not only to make the best use of your money but to purchase things that are going to be healthy for you,” said Vera Massey Nichols, a nutrition specialist for the Boone County university outreach and extension office. Nichols and her co-workers teach classes and write articles about how to grocery shop on a budget. Whether you are looking to save a few dollars, minimize shopping time or buy healthier food, just knowing a few key things can make that weekly trip to the grocery store a little easier.

Make a list

“One of the most obvious tips that everyone knows but not everyone uses is making a list,” Nichols said. “If you have limited dollars, carrying a shopping list and sticking to it is really important. You will really cut down on impulse buying.”

Christine Jennings, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Hickman High School, recommended making a weekly meal plan to help decide what items need to be purchased. Planning out a week’s worth of meals can keep you on track for what needs to be purchased and prevent eating out, Jennings said.

Brenda Proctor, MU consumer and family economics extension specialist, said that planning is key to making a good shopping list.

“Think about what you are going to eat in advance,” Proctor said. “Look through your cupboards to see what you are out of and be realistic. If you don’t have time to cook during the week, make sure you get some frozen things you can pop into the microwave when you are busy.”

Proctor said that keeping a running list of staple foods on the refrigerator is also a good idea so you write down what you need as you run out. This can save time and help make sure nothing is forgotten.

To save extra time, Jennings suggested ordering the list based on how items are placed in the store.

Pick a good time

Scheduling when to grocery shop may not be practical all of the time, but making sure you go only once a week can help save time and money.

“The more often you shop, the more money you are going to spend,” Nichols said. “If you try to limit yourself to once a week, you can limit what you are buying.”

Additionally, Proctor recommended shopping alone. She said leaving the kids at home can cut down on impulse buying.

“A lot of the products out there are aimed at kids — candies are at kids’ eye level and sugared cereals have action figures or cartoon characters on the box to target children,” Proctor said. “They know that a tired mom or dad probably can’t resist everything their child will demand.”

Proctor also warned against shopping on an empty stomach.

“Don’t go to the store when you’re hungry,” she said. “The store will be filled with smells to capitalize on your hunger and having a full stomach will make it easier to resist that smell of fresh bread.”

Become a label-reader

Initially, reading food labels can be time consuming and perhaps slightly confusing. But learning how to navigate the ingredients and nutrition information can help make you a smarter shopper.

“The first time you do it, it takes some time to read through all of the labels,” Jennings said. “But once you know what brand works for you, it doesn’t take very long at all. You can just pick it up off the shelf and go on your way.”

Phil Edwards, owner of Meta-Health Weight Management, said that reading labels is the key to buying healthier foods.

“People need to become more cognizant of the ingredients in what they are eating,” Edwards said. “Become a label reader. Look at fat content, check carbohydrates, sugars and sodium content.”

Nichols warned that even though some ingredients may seem obvious, consumers should still read labels to be certain they are getting what they want.

“Just because the bread is brown doesn’t mean it is whole wheat,” she said.

Be cautious of the can

While canned fruits and vegetables are usually harvested at their peak and contain many essential nutrients, they also often contain high amounts of sodium and sugar.

“Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned because canned vegetables have a high sodium content and canned fruits are high in sugar,” Edwards said. Nichols suggested freezing produce yourself if you have the space to store it.

Look for fresh foods

While the majority of the aisles at the grocery store are filled with processed foods, they are likely the things you should be avoiding the most.

“Processed foods are things that somebody has taken the basic food and cooked it or added to it and made it into something where the nutritional value is not as high as if you had taken fresh foods and made them yourself,” Proctor said. “You get more nutritional bang for your buck from fresh foods.”

Nichols said that processed foods are often higher in fat, sodium and sugar and are not a good source of fiber.

“Processed foods are typically more expensive and may not be giving you any nutritional value for what you are paying for them,” Nichols said. “Typically, the more processing that is done, the more expensive it is going to be.”

Additionally, Edwards said that having processed foods around the house may lead to unhealthy eating habits because they are easily consumed in large quantities.

“Don’t stock up on snack crackers or snack foods that have no nutritional value,” Edwards said. “If it’s not in the house, you aren’t going to eat it.”

Processed foods aren’t limited to crackers and cookies, however. Edwards said even foods like deli meats should be avoided in favor of fresh meats because they are heavily processed and don’t contain the same nutrients.

“Watch deli meats. They are high in preservatives and you don’t know what’s really going into them,” Edwards said.

Buy in bulk

Purchasing larger containers of certain items can save money in the long run, as long as you have space to properly store the extra items.

“If you don’t have a large freezer, don’t buy something you are going to have for six to eight months,” Jennings said. “Refrigerator freezers simply don’t have enough space for that.”

Jennings suggested buying items in bulk and splitting them into smaller portions to store. For example, buying a 2-pound package of ground beef might be cheaper per ounce than a smaller package. Splitting the beef into half-pound portions and freezing them individually will make them easier to freeze and defrost when you are ready to use them.

“Stock up on canned foods because they will keep for a long time,” Jennings said.

However, Proctor warns that buying in bulk doesn’t always mean you are saving money.

“A lot of people think that if you buy more, you’ll pay less per ounce, but that isn’t always true,” Proctor said. “You have to be careful — buying in bulk doesn’t mean you are getting the best deal.”

Proctor recommended checking shelf tags to see how much something costs per ounce and comparing the two sizes. Many items, such as Cheerios, are more expensive in a larger box than a smaller box, Proctor said.

Go generic

Buying generic or store brands can save a lot of money and you might not sacrifice quality to do so.

“The quality is very similar to name brands and sometimes you can save quite a bit,” Nichols said.

While the generic brands are often of the same quality, they can be a bit trickier to find in the store.

“You may have to bend lower or reach higher for them; expensive brands tend to be at eye level,” Proctor said.

Shop the sales

When items go on sale is prime time for Gatewood to use her coupons, as it often results in a free item. But without those coupons, sales might not always be worth the savings.

Nichols said that sales on fresh produce may seem like good bargains but can often result in wasted food.

“A lot of times the reason they are on sale is because the use-by date is for the next day, and you can’t use it all up before it goes bad,” Nichols said. “It’s not a bargain if you can’t use it. Be aware if you can use it within a reasonable amount of time and be aware of that use- by date.”

Many stores will double coupons, Proctor said, which makes them a good way to save money on items you would normally buy anyway.

“You can save a lot of money by clipping coupons,” she said. “But make sure you are buying something you want, don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it.”

Additionally, Proctor said driving from store to store every week to get the lowest price on any one item might save you a little money on your grocery bill, but will probably cost you more in gas money and time.

“Sometimes it is worth the time to go to another store for a deal,” Jennings said. “But shopping two, three, four stores to get the sales may not be the best use of your time. Stick to the store you always go to because you know the layout, and it will save you time.”

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