If you followed my personal blog before the advent of Church Mouse, this is a re-post from two years ago, just slightly edited.
What I'm about to share is a result of my research on how to save money on groceries that has been over eight years in the making! It seems like I've tried it all, and for the past two years have been using a system that is really working for us. Using this system, I finally came the the point where I was really making a big difference in our grocery bill.
What has NOT worked - menu planning. I tried all kinds of variations and used this method for many years. I planned an entire month of meals at a time, I planned two weeks at a time, one week, 12 meals to last two weeks, etc... This never saved us any money. BUT, it did help me learn how to become a pretty good cook, and to get to the point where I am today. Honestly, I don't think I was skilled enough at cooking to use my current grocery shopping/cooking method when we first got married.
So, how do I do it? I got many of my current ideas from the "Tightwad Gazette" book series. You will probably find it at your local library. No use spending money to save money, right? :) It isn't difficult to find it used, though, and if you are committed, it is a very worthwhile investment. I HIGHLY recommend these books for really creative ways to save money. I made a price list that I keep updating based upon the system recommended by The Frugal Zealot herself. It is amazing what a difference it makes when you really know what things cost! Based on my price list, I only buy things when they are at their lowest prices, and then I really stock up. I usually buy a dozen of something or if there is a limit, up to the limited number. If it is a really good deal, I'll hit the store a second time that week to get more up to the limited number. If something isn't at the lowest price I can find it, then I do without until it goes on sale. (Before, I was buying probably MOST of my groceries full price, because I was basing my shopping list off of menus I made up, so this makes a huge difference for us!)
Now I live in an area where groceries cost a bit more than most places in the U.S., but I would say that the average price per pound for many items is about $2. I can regularly find ground beef and most cuts of pork and beef, butter, various fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, even things like mayo, a loaf of bread, etc... That is my baseline price. (Yours may be different - hopefully LOWER!) Anything above $2 a pound is generally too much, so I don't buy it (though there are a couple of exceptions, such as nuts, which I still buy but use sparingly). This has helped me realize what is NOT a bargain. This is especially true of deli meats and cheeses. We just don't buy those anymore (or only for company).
A good bargain is something around $1 a pound. I look for fresh veggies on sale around $1 a pound. Chicken is regularly around that price. Anything less than $1 a pound and something hovering around $.50 is a REAL bargain item that I try to use heavily in my cooking - potatoes, sweet potatoes, chicken leg quarters, carrots, bananas, pork shoulders, cabbage, onions, dried beans, rice, etc...
So I have not done too well keeping up with my hard copy price book since Little Littles was born, but I try to keep it updated as I hunt for bargains, and I have a good ballpark price for most items memorized.
I also do a modest amount of couponing using Coupon Mom. It took me a little while to get the hang of it, but I do pretty well with coupons, saving enough money on items we would have purchased anyway to cover the newspaper subscription + some. I always look for items that are better than 50% off and almost every week there are a couple of things that are 90% off or free! Using coupons, I regularly get really good bargains on frozen veggies, condiments, toothpaste and toothbrushes, other personal items, canned goods and paper goods.
(I know many are into the CVS deals, but our one CVS is thirty minutes away, and I discovered you only do well if you get out first thing on Sunday. I really can't do that since Sunday is our busiest day of the week and I usually don't even look at the paper until Monday, but I still do amazingly well just using our local grocery store.)
I find many deals are seasonal. For example, during the Super Bowl is a great time to stock up on snack foods and condiments and you can often find these items free. Holidays are also key times for good deals, the prime example being the free Thanksgiving turkey and the Easter ham. I also find free matzo coupons during Jewish holidays, free ketchup and mustard around Memorial Day/4th of July, etc...
So, after I bring home my amazing deals and put away the crazy amounts of the items I'm stocking up in my cabinets and basement shelves, THEN I figure out what we are going to eat. This is why I think I needed to build up years of skill to do this - I look around at what we have and what needs to be eaten and I plan our meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) around that. I try to think a couple of meals in advance because some meals require extra prep (like soaking beans), but often, I'm kind of working "on the fly". I rarely waste any food - all leftovers are either consumed as is or are made over into something else, and we enjoy tasty, simple meals. This requires having some recipes memorized, or at least the framework for constructing dishes like soups, casseroles, and other dishes, as well as being skilled in the art of ingredient substitution, but it sure saves us a lot of money!
So there you go! I know with the economy, many are looking for ways to save money. This is what I've learned so far. I'd be happy to hear other ideas for grocery savings from all of you - I'm always learning after all! I'm just excited that we are finally spending so much less on groceries while still eating well. It's a good thing! :)