The best of strategic shopping

Over the past several months, I've gotten more questions about grocery savings from the media than ever. To make sure I am giving the most accurate, timely answers, last spring I decided to see how low I could keep our family's grocery spending while still feeding them a healthy diet. For the past few months, we've successfully stayed within our budget without sacrificing the quality of our diet.

After referring to my grocery-budget experiment in this column, I received this question from K. Jackson of Hillsdale, Mich.: "I was very interested in reading your article on how you shop for a family of four on about $70 a week. I have a family of seven and would love to hear any and all suggestions you may have in cutting a grocery bill. I have been working very hard at setting and sticking to a budget, and I find that it is extremely difficult with gas prices reaching $4 per gallon, and the cost of everything at the store going up. I have allowed myself $100 per week for groceries, and I am finding it very difficult to stay within that budget."

First, I should clarify that after a few months of using every savings trick I know, our family of four spent an average of $82 per week on groceries. Therefore, it could be challenging for a family of seven to spend $100 or less a week on groceries. Although some shoppers feed their family on $40 or less per week, remember that grocery spending varies widely based on individual food preferences. Fortunately, good advice is all over the media right now, so, if you do an online search, you'll find many helpful tips in addition to the ones that I share here.

Here are my top tips, in order of their importance in my grocery spending.

1. Review your common food items and track their prices over a few weeks. Compare prices of items at different stores, as well as the prices of other brand alternatives. Reconsider items that are more expensive, and try to identify less-expensive, suitable substitutions.

2. Plan your meals and snacks for the week around what you already have and what is on sale at your stores each week. Clean out and organize your refrigerator so leftovers are in the same place, in clear dishes rather than old margarine tubs, so you can easily see what you have available. Create meals out of leftover ingredients or have lunches from last night's dinner. Cut your food waste to zero.

3. Become a budget cook. Calculate what meals cost overall, and factor in at least a few bargain meals each week. Use simple recipes without complicated, expensive ingredients. Have healthy, inexpensive snacks available for family members so they do not feel deprived or eat the dinner ingredients as a snack!

4. Become an expert on your stores' savings programs. Sign up for the loyalty card with complete mailing information so you will be sent extra coupons. Take advantage of special promotions by reviewing the store ad carefully before you shop. Ask the manager if and when they mark down meats, produce, refrigerated items and baked goods. Time your shopping to get the best selection of bargains. Visit the store's Web site to educate yourself on special clubs and savings programs.

5. Develop an eagle eye for grocery coupons. Use coupons for items you need, and consider changing brands if you can get an item free or practically free with a coupon. Wait until items go on sale before using the coupon. Collect as many coupons as possible, and remember that at least 75 percent of grocery coupons come from the Sunday newspaper circulars. Buy extra copies of the newspaper or get extra circulars from friends or relatives who do not use their circulars. For a family of seven, you would save dramatically with at least five sets of circulars each week. Get more coupons from printable coupon sites, manufacturers' sites, store displays, on product packages and in magazines and mailers.

6. Stock up on items when they hit rock-bottom prices, even if you don't need the item that week. Having multiple coupons for your favorite items will make it possible to stock up for several weeks to avoid paying full price in future weeks. With a large family, having an extra freezer will make it easier to stock up on bargains.

7. And the sage advice always holds true - stick to your list, don't shop while you are hungry, and shop alone, if possible.

Over the past few years of writing this column, I've enjoyed getting to know you and learning from your ideas and experience. I've been touched by your generosity in sharing coupons with military bases and grocery bargains with local charities. However, between the hectic schedule of being a mother to two teenage sons and running my Web site, I am retiring from writing this column. So it is with mixed feelings that I write this last Supermarket Shopper column. I wish you well in your supermarket shopping. See you in the produce section!

• Stephanie Nelson shares her savings tips as a contributor on ABC News' "Good Morning America." Find more of her savings tips in her book "The Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom" and on her Web site at

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