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A key to frugal food shopping

Sticking with one supermarket for every shopping trip could be costing you plenty. Here's how to find the best prices before you head out.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 28, 2011 5:46PM

This guest post comes from Kris at Cheap Healthy Good.

 

Note up top: In almost four years of blogging, I can't believe I haven't dedicated a column to the following food shopping strategy, because it's one of the most effective around. Experienced frugalists, you're probably familiar with this already, but it shouldn't stop you from seeing the, er … surprise note from … uh … Bob, um, Barker? … at the end of this article. So let's get to it.

My old apartment was within a mile of three major supermarket chains.

"Whee?" you might say. "Let's throw a fiesta?"

And while the prospect of ending this column here and grabbing a margarita is highly tempting, I endeavor to persevere, meaning this: It may sound like it ain't no thang, but having access to multiple supermarkets allowed me to save huge, big, hulking bucks on my grocery bill every month. In fact, hitting up two or more food stores is one of the most effective food shopping strategies around.

 

It works because of two simple reasons:

  • To attract shoppers, grocers within the same region price certain foods competitively. In order for Pathmark to compete with a Waldbaum's two miles away, it offers lower prices on select goods, called loss leaders, to lure potential customers in the door. These are the deals you see on the front of the circular, and can include everything from in-season produce to new products pushed by major corporations. For example, my local supermarket is offering pasta for 89 cents and asparagus for $1.99 a pound, prices that aren't too shabby these days.
  • Some grocers price their products differently. A can of olives may be $1.29 in one supermarket, and $1.79 in the bigger one up the block. Reasons for this are unbeknownst to society at large, but learning what's cheaper where will make a difference when you visit more than one destination.

How to get things rolling
The very first thing you should do is take stock of the markets in your area. Look beyond where you normally shop, at similar stores in the same general vicinity. (Google Maps and Yelp are very helpful for this.)

Then see if they have circulars online, which most chain grocers do nowadays. Browse through, and record A) what seems like a really good deal and B) what you need soon.

 

Here's an example, using recent circulars of two Brooklyn supermarkets within a half-mile of one another:

 

Store No. 1:

  • Grapes -- 99 cents a pound.
  • Oranges -- 4 pounds for $2.
  • Pasta -- five for $5.
  • Honey Nut Cheerios -- BOGO (Buy one, get one free).
  • Canned tomatoes -- five 28-ounce cans for $5.

Store No. 2:

  • Green beans -- 99 cents a pound.
  • Chicken breast -- $1.79 a pound.
  • Canned tuna -- three for $2.
  • Mozzarella -- $2.99 for 1 pound.
  • Cracker Barrel sharp cheddar block -- $2.99 for 10 ounces.

Finally, choose a time and map out a route. But know, this shouldn't be a strenuous task. If your new itinerary is taking much longer than usual -- which, if you have a list, hopefully it shouldn't -- try doing it another way.

Where else you can go

Don't limit yourself to supermarkets, since there are many deals to be found outside those curiously sanitary walls. If they're on the way, or if you don't mind an additional trip at some point over the month, never forget:

And more.

The caveats

Of course, there are a few qualifiers, should you try shopping at multiple destinations:

  • I, like thousands of vaguely dazed Americans, use public transportation. As a result, I know next to nothing about gas prices, though I understand filling a Volkswagen Beetle can cost thousands of ducats nowadays. So, use your head: If your two closest markets are 50 miles apart, it's silly to blow $20 to save 50 cents on a box of macaroni.
  • Cheaper isn't always better. If your butcher gives you good cuts of meat for a slightly higher price, stick with him (or her), because you can't buy that kind of personal attention at a chain. Same goes for farmers market food.
  • If you have many shops on your list, don't visit every one, every week. You'll drive yourself crazy, and it kind of misses the point of the previous streamlining tips.

And finally, take all the previous advice with a grain of salt. Do what works best for you. Shopping at multiple stores can be wonderful, but only if you're comfortable with the process.

Readers, what'd I miss? The comment section is open.

P.S. Bob Barker says hi.

P.P.S. I made that up.

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