Cut grocery bills with these 15 tips

Keep money in your pocket, food in your cart

A grocery budget can get out of control fast, so it pays to be frugal. Without proper planning, an extra $100 or more can disappear from a monthly budget very quickly.

Here are some tips to help save some cash, along with some sanity, at the grocery store.

1. Don't shop for groceries when you are hungry.
It's just common sense, right? And yet, it's the most important thing when it comes to saving money and staying under budget at the grocery store. Going to the grocery store hungry will make everything look good, and therefore a necessity, causing you to spend more money than you should. Have a snack before you go, and your budget will be happier.

2. Always make a list.
Creating lists will not only help ensure that you don't find yourself back at the grocery store three days later because you forgot to get some eggs, but they will also lead you to exact points of the grocery store for the items that you need and help you to bypass the impulse items that you really don't need. Focus on the list and try not to diverge from it.

Along the same lines, try to cut the number of visits you make to the grocery store. Instead of shopping twice a week, shop for two weeks' worth of groceries at a time.

Why? One study says the average U.S. consumer spends more than $10 on impulse buys every trip to the supermarket. By cutting trips from twice a week to once every two weeks, you can save more than $500 a year on your bill and still get every item on your list.

3. See what's on sale.
Visit your favorite supermarket online before you head out and see what's on sale. You can often get great deals on items like low-sodium chicken broth. The American Dietetic Association suggests that since these have a long shelf life, you might as well stock up. Every week, check the frozen vegetable section and buy what's on sale so you always have a variety of mixed vegetables in the freezer.

4. Take a calculator.
Having a calculator allows you to keep a running count on how much you have left in your grocery budget. Remember to account for sales tax. Rounding up the prices to the nearest $.50, $.75 or $1 should help with this so you don't have to be too precise.

Also, remember that just because something is less expensive, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a better deal. For example, two boxes of pancake mix sit side by side, one is $2.50 and the other is $3. Don't just thoughtlessly grab the $2.50 one. Check the volume and use your calculator to determine the best value for your dollar.

5. Make a menu for the week.
A menu for the week serves a similar purpose to a list. Pick meals for the week that all incorporate similar ingredients so that you don't have to buy a lot of different items.

6. Stretch your menu.
Plan your meals in a way that will allow for leftovers to be used for various meals throughout the week. There are 21 meals in a week, and by stretching menus with leftovers, you can reduce the number of meals you have to start from scratch.

7. Don't waste food.
If you buy it, eat it. Be creative. Similar to the "stretch your menu" step above, don't waste money on prepared foods. Instead, prepare meals ahead of time and freeze them, or double a recipe when cooking and freeze the second half for a hectic day coming up.

One recent study said the average family throws away 14 percent of the food it buys. On a $150 weekly bill, that is more than $1,000 back into your pocket every year.

When meal planning falls short and the meat in the fridge will go bad before you have time to eat it, freeze it as soon as possible to enjoy later. Make sure the meat or other food product is packaged properly; it's generally safer, and will make the end product better, if the product is placed in an airtight bag or other packaging.

8. Grocery shop backward.
The cheapest items in the grocery store (produce) are the first items that you see. Start from the other end and work your way back. You'll be purchasing the most expensive items first and will know how much you have remaining for the fruits and vegetables.

Also, make sure your veggies and fruit are dry before you put them on the scale. If they have just been sprayed with water, they will weigh more and cost more.

9. Make use of ads and coupons.
Watch for store newspaper ads and coupons. Take advantage of coupons and sale items, but be sure your family will use a "bargain." If they won't, it's no saving.

10. Shop alone.
Shop by yourself, if it's at all possible. It you go without your kids or spouse or friends, you won't be led astray by anything they want to buy. If the children have to come along, provide a book or handheld video game to occupy them.

11. Compare brands.
Look at the cost and the quantity. Usually the store's own brand is cheaper, but not always.

12. Compare stores.
Look at prices in several stores, if you have a choice. If you find one store is generally less expensive, stick with it.

13. Compare forms of food.
Buy a lower-cost form of a product if there's no major difference between them. For example, try the day-old bread, if it is to be eaten soon. Also, take time to compare frozen, fresh and canned products.

14. Look down.
Here's a tip you may not have heard of before: Look down while shopping at the grocery store. In many grocery stores, the best bargains are closer to the floor. The pricier items are often at eye level.

15. Skip specialty items grouped together.
Things like chips and dips together can result in impulse buying, according to Quick and Simple magazine. And seeking out the bargain bins can save money, too.