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Smart grocery shopping pays off

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Grocery-shopping savings advice has become ubiquitous in recent years, but all tips aren't created equal.

Some strategies can save you a lot of money, while others add more hassle to your life than money to your pocket. Grocery shopping is a popular topic because it's an area of huge spending for many, and an area of huge potential savings.

The average four-person household spends more than $9,000 a year on food — about $5,500 of which is food at home, meaning not dining out — according to the most recent federal Consumer Expenditure Survey. Add to that other supermarket staples, such as housekeeping supplies (about $750 a year), personal care items ($834), and alcoholic beverages ($467), and you start talking about real money.

Even modest savings could amount to $1,000 to $2,000 a year.

Here are some tips we've rounded up:

• Stockpiling. One simple-but-powerful tip reigns supreme if you're serious about saving money at the supermarket: Buy multiples when it's cheap; few or none when it's full price. Peanut butter or deodorant, for example, can be far less expensive when it's on sale or you have a coupon — ideally, both.

• Sales cycles. Items typically go on sale in 12-week cycles, so you don't need to buy that many to get you through to the next sale. “Contrary to what you've seen on TV, my house isn't filled to the brim with food,” said Jill Cataldo, founder of SuperCouponing.com. “For us, a three-month supply of ketchup is three bottles.”

• Half price. What's a good price? “My goal as a coupon shopper is to cut the non-sale price of an item in half or better,” Cataldo said. “That's an easy benchmark to remember.” You could keep a price list and scour the weekly sales ad for deals. But websites such as SavingsAngel.com, CouponMom.com and TheGroceryGame.com track sales cycles and find the best deals so you don't have to.

• Loyalty cards. Applying for supermarket loyalty cards is often the only way to cash in on store sales. If the cards get unwieldy, you can put their bar codes into your smartphone with a mobile application like CardStar. Cataldo put the physical cards on their own key chain, alphabetized.

• Store brands. Some store brands are quite good in quality and can be relatively inexpensive. But they don't have the same price swings brand names do and might not be cheaper compared with on-sale brand names, especially if you have a coupon, too.

• Non-supermarket venues. If you pay attention to sales and use coupons, warehouse clubs are generally not a good deal, but drug stores such as CVS and Walgreens, with their lucrative loyalty programs, can be.

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