How to Save Money on Groceries: The A to Z Guide

Trying to cut costs at the grocery store? Outsmart your supermarket with this alphabetized roster of simple strategies to trim the final bill. Call it savings—with a capital S.

How to avoid supermarket crowds

A: Ask For It. Your grocer might be more accommodating than you think. Spot meat or seafood that's nearing its sell-by date? Ask the person behind the counter if it's going to be marked down soon—he might give you a discount right on the spot. Or, if the bakery is running a sale but your party's not for another month, ask if you can pay the lower price now and pick up your goodies later.

B: Bulk. Buying a 5-pound bag of oranges instead of loose fruit can save you up to 40 percent. But that deal won't mean much if your family eats the food at lightning speeds. (Researchers at the University of Illinois found that when pantries were stockpiled with treats, people tended to gobble them twice as quickly.) For real savings, skip the grab-and-go bulk items and buy according to how much your family really needs to eat.

C: Cash. Studies show that handing over hard-earned dollars is psychologically harder than plunking down plastic, so you'll spend less if you pay in greenbacks.

D: Do It Yourself. Expect to dish out 40 percent more for presliced, packaged produce, be it squash, pineapple or watermelon. A smarter idea: Buy the whole fruit or vegetable and grab a knife for a fast five minutes of slicing, dicing and storing.

E: Every Other Week. Most people shop once a week, then run to the store almost daily to pick up additional items such as a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Not good. Studies show that impulse buys jump 23 percent on unplanned trips. For maximum savings, aim for two major shopping trips each month, nabbing extras on the week between.

F: Freezer. You can put more than meat and seafood on ice—great news if you're looking to stock up on discounted perishables. Don't hold back on bargain butter, berries, nuts, hummus, cheese and even raw eggs (beat them and freeze in ice cube trays). Tip: Bread freezes best if you put a paper towel inside the package first.

G: Generic. You could save as much as 60 percent by buying store brands (not a lot of money is spent on packaging and advertising, so there are fewer costs to pass on to customers). Your best bets: canned vegetables and cereal. And remember, most stores offer a money-back guarantee on their own brands, so hang on to your receipt for extra assurance, in case the generic is not up to par.

H: Hold Off. An offer that boasts "Buy two, get one half off!" might seem like a steal, but know this: Almost every item in the store will be knocked down to 50 percent off at some point, and it's worth waiting for the deeper discount before stocking up.

I: IOU. Sale item out of stock? Ask the store for a rain check, which lets you buy the item—at the sale price—once it's back in stock, even if your coupon is no longer valid. Also worth a shot: See if you can use the coupon you have on a similar item.

J: Jumbo. Single-serve products such as oatmeal and yogurt are convenient but can cost up to 30 percent more than jumbo-size versions. Opt for big containers—then divvy up portions at home.

K: Keeping Tabs. Americans toss out 28 percent of the fruits and veggies and 27 percent of the grains they buy, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). To prevent food from going to waste, take a periodic inventory of your pantry and fridge: Anything nearing its expiration date should be moved front and center. The website supercook.com can help you use what you have by generating recipes based on the ingredients you enter.

L: Lanes. There's a reason impulse buys—candy bars, magazines—are placed near cash registers: Store managers know you're more likely to check them out while standing in line. One way to resist the "last grasp" is to scan your own groceries. Studies show that spur-of-the-moment purchases drop significantly when shoppers do the scanning themselves, because there's less last-minute merchandise to grab at the self-checkout stands. What's more, because self-checkout lines are usually shorter, you'll have less time to be tempted.

M: Meat. The markup on precut meat can be as much as 300 percent! Keep costs lower by buying a large cut and having the butcher trim it into pieces (strips for a stir-fry, say, or cubes for a stew).

N: Numbers. Signs with numbers in them (LIMIT: 5 PER PERSON, for example) coax shoppers into spending twice as much as they planned, according to a study in the Journal of Marketing Research. Write the amount you want to buy on your shopping list—and stick to it. And remember: When multiples are advertised for a single price (10 for $10), you usually don't have to buy them all to nab the lower price.

O: Organic. Better for you (and the planet) but sometimes tough on your wallet. What's more worth the extra moola: Produce that's likelier to absorb pesticdes (bell peppers, berries, peaches). What's less worth it: Food with a tough exterior (avocados, corn, mangos, onions). 

P: Plan Ahead. A lot of people figure out their weekly meals before they do their grocery shopping. To maximize savings, try switching things around to buying main-dish ingredients when they're on sale, then creating meals around those items.

Q: Quality. Don't assume food on the clearance rack with a sell-by or best-by date that's fast approaching is off-limits. A Harvard/NRDC survey found that 90 percent of Americans throw out food too early because they don't understand date labels. Terms such as those indicate when an item is at its peak quality, not when it expires. 

R: Receipt. Most of us are too busy unloading our carts to also watch the register, so review your slip carefully before you leave the store to ensure that the sales rang up properly. (Those scanners aren't foolproof!) Some chain stores will give you an item for free if it scans at the wrong price.

S: Social Media. On Facebook, "like" your favorite grocery stores and food brands to get access to special offers and sales they share with their social media fans. On Twitter, follow the stores and brands along with @CouponCraving, @MoneySavingMom and similar accounts.

T: Two For One. Cook once, eat twice: Stock up on sale items so you can make at least two nights' worth of meals at once. Flank steak at a good price? Make enough for two dinners (a straight-up steak once night, say, and a stir-fry the next).

U: Unit Price. For the smartest deal, don't just eyeball a product's price—consider the unit price. Check the shelf tag under each item to find the cost per ounce, quart or pound. When you're buying meat, check out the cost per serving instead, because fat and bones figure into the weight.

V: Vino. The best time to buy wine is late summer to early autumn. That's when last year's bottles go on sale to make room for new vintages. Consider wines from the well-established yet often overlooked Old World regions of Spain—in particular, Albariño (a reasonably priced white wine from Rias Baixas) and Tempranillo (a red variety from Rioja).

W: Wheels. Pushing a huge grocery cart can influence you to buy up to 40 percent more, industry experts have found. Carrying a heavy basket can trigger impulse buys, too. To optimize savings, grab a mini cart. If your store doesn't offer small carts, put your coat in the bottom of a large cart so there's less available space.

X: 'X-Treme' Couponing. Don't bother with scissors: Websites such as redplum.com, smartsource.com (and allyou.com, of course!), compile the coupons available in your area. Just print them out or load them onto a store loyalty card. Tip: Many chains double the face value of most coupons on certain days of the month; ask your grocer about the store's policy.

Y: Yay! If you're crazy about a certain product, send the company a quick note to say so. Some manufacturers will mail you coupons as a thank-you for your fan letter. Also, sign up for free samples from Procter and Gamble (pgeveryday.com) and new products from Kraft (kraftfirsttaste.com).

Z: Zest It Up. When it comes to spices, drugstores tend to offer better deals than grocery stores, where name-brand bottles can be marked up as much as 90 percent. But for the best deal, go to a natural-food store with bulk-bins: You can get exactly the amount you need and not waste money by buying spices you'd need to toss later because they got stale.