Friday, June 27, 2008

Saving Money on Groceries

Times are tough these days. The US economy seems to be in the midst of a recession even though many lawmakers do not want to use the R word. Many families are feeling the effects of rising gas and foods prices, among other things, while their salaries are staying the same, and their wallets shrinking. I have heard stories on different news outlets regarding Americans who are having to pick between buying food or filling up their gas tank to get to work. Americans who never thought they would be in need are turning to places like food pantries. Not everyone is in dire straits, but everyone could benefit from a little penny pinching. I have put together a list of tips and strategies on how to save some money on your grocery bill. I hope these tips can help you.

1. Prepare a list and stick to it.
Plan out your meals for the week and prepare a list based on only those items for the meals, along with any other household item you need and stick to it. I would be lost at the supermarket without a list. I know I would end up with a bunch of stuff I dont need and nothing to complete a meal. Sticking to the list is very important so you dont go overboard.

2. Buyer Beware.
Be aware of the way the grocery store is laid out. Remember that the grocery store is not there to do us a favor, it is there to make money and sell you stuff you dont need, just like any other store. You should know that typically your more expensive items are at eye level and the top shelf. Grocery stores know that most people are unwilling to bend over and look at the bottom shelf. The bottom shelf is where your off brand items and better priced items are going to be.

3. What's in a name?
Name brands in food products are like name brands in every thing else. Just because it is the name brand, doesnt always mean that it is the best. I often times buy the grocery store's own brand and cannot tell the difference in most cases. In some cases, I even like the store brand better! In fact, sometimes the store brand is actually made by the name brand at a cheaper cost or whatever. This is the case with some Costco items and Target stores (though Target does this more often with their clothing line).

4. Speaking of Costco...
Another way to cut down that grocery bill is to consider joining a warehouse club like Costco or Sam's Club. Buying in bulk is a great way to get a deal (usually). Just beware that warehouse clubs come with a price. There is an annual fee to shop there, but the savings can out weigh the cost if you shop there regularly. To be safe, go to one of these clubs and do some research. They will often times let you wander in and look around before you join, so look at those items you use often, like toilet paper, and do the math to compare the price to the price at the grocery. Also, be sure to always break out the price by per item or per pound or ounces. Dont just assume it is a better deal because it is in bulk. This isnt always the case. You should always take a calculator to the grocery store with you. Or use the calculator on your cell phone.

5. Dont shop when you are hungry.
Do I really need an explanation here? This should be common sense. If you are hungry while you are shopping for food, your defenses will be down and everything will look tasty. Eat before you go, or take a snack.

6. Clip Coupons.
The Sunday paper often has ads full of manufacturer's coupons. In fact, we subscribe to only the Sunday paper in order to get the coupons. The money you save will probably pay for the paper subscription itself. It has in my case. Also, look for a grocery store that doubles your coupons! That is bonus savings right there! Because I use coupons, I usually have at least $10 taken off the total bill every week!

7. Join the club. Grocery stores also have club cards, but they are free to join. In many grocery stores, you need the club card to get the weekly specials. Yeah, I know it is annoying signing up for another card, but they also mail you special coupons and savings based on the items you typically buy. The grocery store I use also has fuel perks attached to their club card. I have to buy food, and I have to buy gas, even at the price it is at. Why not get a little added bonus and get some money off my gas?

8. Why dont you do it yourself?
Most grocery stores have convenience items, especially in the produce section. This would be produce that is already washed and chopped. The convenience is great, but you are paying more for the convenience. Buying your produce and cleaning and chopping it yourself can really save you some money. Plus, lettuce that is already chopped usually goes south faster than lettuce that is still whole. Besides, have you ever stopped to thing about the pre-bagged stuff before? Yeah, the bag says it is washed, but do you know how well or number of times? How often do they change the water they are washing the produce in? I think with constant food recalls, we can never be too careful!
Produce, however, is not the only place the grocery store does this. Meat is another area where if you cut it up yourself, you will save some money. I have noticed at my grocery store that the first chicken breast you come to in the meat rack is the chicken breast that has the fat already trimmed, but if you walk down the counter, you will find chicken breast that is not trimmed of all it fat. The price difference I have noticed is about 30-40 cents per pound. Another thing you can do yourself is shred or slice your own cheese. This is another thing we buy for convenience, but again you are paying for it. I usually just buy a block of cheddar or mozzarella and just shred it as I need it. It really does not take much more time.
I know you are wondering when you are going to have the time to do all this stuff but you can always wash all your produce on grocery day. Ask your cashier to put all your produce together when he/she bags it. When you get home, fill up the sink with cool water and unpack the produce first and pop it in the water to give it a good wash while you are putting away your other groceries. Then put it in plastic bags or containers to store in the fridge or on the counter to ripen. When you need it, it is ready to go. Besides, the plastic bags that grocery stores use are not the best method to store your produce to keep it fresh.

9. Always keep your eyes on the screen.
You should always watch the cashier's screen as they ring up your items. Make sure that the items are coming up at the right price. The computer may not reflect the price on the shelf or weekly special because of a computer glitch or human error. Sometimes it is really worth it to watch. The grocery store I shop at gives you the item for free if it comes up at a different price than what is marked on the shelf. I once got a bottle of baby formula for free, which can get expensive. Also, cashier's dont always know their produce and so they could ring up your parsley as cilantro or orange as a tangerine. There can be price differences here so it is important to watch.

10. Shop alone...if you can.
Try to shop without your spouse, kids, roommate, or whoever may be a bad influence. I used to go grocery shopping with my husband and I was always amazed by the time we got to the cash register. He would always manage to sneak stuff into the cart when I wasnt looking, but if I asked him at home what he needed from the grocery, he wouldnt be able to come up with anything. The same is true with kids. If you can, go grocery shopping sans the kids. They are always going to spot that new cereal, cookies, or snack that they just have to have. Chances are you will give in to some of that just to get out of the grocery store. When it comes to kids and husbands, out of sight, out of mind seems to be true.

11. Shop locally.
During the summer months, try shopping at your local farmer's market or road side stand. You can often find better priced produce because it is in season and didnt have to be flown in from Brazil or where ever. Always price compare, but you may be able to find it for cheaper and fresher.

12. Grow it.
Not everyone is able or wants to do this. But growing some of your own produce is always a great idea. Pick a vegetable that you eat often in the summer and try growing it, or try growing your own herbs. Even if you live in an apartment or a place that doesnt have a garden, keep in mind that tomatoes and herbs grow well in pots too.

I hope this helps to give you some ideas on cutting your grocery bill. I would love to hear other ideas you have.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Best Ever Chocolate Cake

I found this recipe in the Kraft Foods magazine and it really is the best chocolate cake I think I have ever had. An added bonus to this recipe is that it is super easy! You can find the recipe here at the Kraft Foods website or I have it below.

1 pkg. (8 squares) BAKER'S Semi-Sweet Baking Chocolate, divided
1 pkg. (2-layer size) chocolate cake mix
1 pkg. (4-serving size) JELL-O Chocolate Flavor Instant Pudding & Pie Filling
4 eggs
1 cup BREAKSTONE'S or KNUDSEN Sour Cream
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup water
1 tub (8 oz.) frozen COOL WHIP Whipped Topping
2 Tbsp. PLANTERS Sliced Almonds

PREHEAT oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round baking pans. Chop 2 of the chocolate squares; set aside. Beat cake mix, dry pudding mix, eggs, sour cream, oil and water in large bowl with electric mixer on low speed just until moistened. Beat on medium speed 2 min. Stir in chopped chocolate. Spoon into prepared pans.

BAKE 30 to 35 min. or until wooden toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 min. Loosen cakes from sides of pans. Invert onto racks; gently remove pans. Cool cakes completely.

PLACE frozen whipped topping and remaining 6 chocolate squares in microwaveable bowl. Microwave on HIGH 1-1/2 min. or until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth, stirring after 1 min. Let stand 15 min. to thicken. Place one cake layer on serving plate; top with one-fourth of the chocolate mixture and second cake layer. Spread top and side with remaining chocolate mixture. Garnish with almonds. Store leftovers in refrigerator.