I have a subscription to the local Sunday newspaper because I write a wine column that appears in the Life section. With that subscription comes the Sunday coupon circulars. I clip the ones I think I'll use, but I wouldn't subscribe to the Sunday paper just for the coupons. Clipping them is time-intensive, the expiration dates seem to way too much closer to the publication date than I would like, and I misplace my coupon folder a lot.
That doesn't mean I don't save money when shopping, though. I have certain habits when I grocery shop, starting with heading straight to the end of the cheese case every time I go in my regular store. Why? You'll find out if you keep reading these money-saving grocery store habits.
1. Look for manager's discounts
I am the queen of cheap cheese. When my friends gather at my home on Tuesday nights for wine tastings, out comes my bargain basement brie, and everyone loves it. It's not bad quality. Rather, it's good cheese close to its sell-by date that has been marked down and placed in a wicker basket at the end of the cheese case. I often get wedges of really good blue, brie and cheddar for a quarter the cost of the same cheese outside of that basket.
After I hit the cheap cheese, I head straight for the organic meat department. I look for the stickers that indicate a manager's special — sometimes half off the price. That meat is usually very close to its sell-by date, sometimes even the same day. It keeps perfectly fine in the freezer, and what I buy one week often becomes what I plan meals around the next week. There isn't always discounted meat to buy, but I make it a habit to run past that section each time I go to the store. I may run in for cat litter but come out with cat litter and half-price organic chicken thighs.
Some grocery stores have sections where produce or bakery items are marked down, too. If you know where the manager's specials are in your store, hit those sections first before doing the rest of your shopping. You never know what might be in them that you were planning to buy anyway.
2. Check your grocery store app for digital coupons
Many grocery stores now have their own apps that you can use to check the specials of the week, create shopping lists and more. Your store's app also may have digital coupons that are connected to your store loyalty card. You can look through the digital coupons before you go shopping to help you plan your list.
I prefer to find an out-of-the-way corner of the store to look at my store's app after I've filled my basket. That way, I can click any coupon for food that's already in my basket, but I'm not using the coupons to dictate what I purchase. When I give my loyalty club card to the cashier, the coupons I've chosen on the app are automatically deducted from my bill.
3. Find rebate apps that work for you
In addition to the store app, there are many grocery rebate apps that offer money back in the form of cash, gift cards or gift codes if you'll share your shopping purchases with them. Some of the apps are connected to your store loyalty cards and automatically add up the rebates for you. Others require you to scan your receipt after you've shopped.
I've done away with using apps that require me to scan my grocery receipt. The ones I still use simply need my loyalty card number. SavingStar is the one I use most often, and when I've accumulated $20 in rebates, I can have that money sent to my PayPal or bank account or converted into a gift code for Starbucks, iTunes or AMC Theatres.
The trick to using these apps is finding the ones that work for you. I tried using several different apps to see how much money I could get back in one year. Scanning the receipts was more of a hassle for me than the $40 in rebates was worth.
4. Ask for rain checks
Many stores still offer rain checks on items that are out of stock, unless the circular or the shelf tag says "no rain checks." You can ask for a rain check from the cashier when you check out and get the item at the sale price the following week, even after the sale is over. The cashier may send you to the customer service counter for it.
5. Check the unit price
Usually, the larger box or can is the better deal, but not always. When the smaller size jar of a product like peanut butter is on sale, the unit price — the cost of the product by weight — can be less than the larger size jar. And sometimes the smaller size is less even if it's not on sale. It takes just a few seconds to check the unit price, but the savings you gain by comparing sizes of a product can add up.
6. Stock up on non-food items when they're on sale
I have a stockpile of LED lightbulbs because every once in a while, my grocery store will mark them down to 99 cents each. Every few months, they also will mark down the large bulbs I need for recessed ceiling lighting to $3.99 a four-pack. Every few weeks, my store will offer a big sale on 20-packs of the toilet paper we use, plus they'll usually have an additional digital coupon on their app. That's when I buy toilet paper. Buying these non-perishables when they are deeply discounted leaves me with more of my grocery budget for actual groceries.
7. Go to more than one store
This one takes some planning. Sit down at the beginning of the week with the circulars of two or more stores near you and see what sales they have that match what is on your grocery list. You may find it worth it to plan a trip to hit two or more while you're out shopping.
8. Buy groceries at the pharmacy
I save a lot of money at my local CVS when I use the pharmacy's digital coupons on the CVS app, the coupons offered at in-store kiosks, discounts sent in an email and any Extra Bucks I have. One thing I almost always get cheaper at CVS than the grocery store is nuts. When I plan out my groceries, usually on Sunday, I look through the CVS circular to see what's on sale. I drive past a CVS several times a week so it's easy to pop in. Other pharmacies such as Walgreens and Rite Aid have similar loyalty programs.
9. Use the 'scan it' feature (if available)
Some stores, such as participating Kroger and ShopRite stores, have a scan-as-you-go feature in their app that allows you to scan your groceries with your smartphone before you put them in your cart. You can keep a tally as you go along and make sure you don't go over your budget. If you get to a necessary item like milk or apples, and you've gone beyond your budget, you can choose to put back another item that you grabbed on impulse. By the time you check out, there's no way you can say, "I didn't know I spent that much!"