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Heading Out on Your Own — Day 27: How to Shop for Groceries
Posted By Brett & Kate McKay On August 27, 2012 @ 11:51 pm In Heading Out On Your Own | 72 Comments
This is the one post we didn’t originally have on the schedule for this series, but when we saw it listed several times when we asked for recommendations at the start, we decided to include it.
I can definitely see why it was requested. There are many chores that parents have their children participate in while they’re growing up, but usually mom and dad retain exclusive control over grocery shopping. Thus, when a young man leaves home, he finds himself blinking under the fluorescent lights of the local supermarket, thousands of products stretched out before him. That first outing he may feel a little giddy as he wheels his very own shopping cart around the store, but that thrill quickly turns to dismay when he finds mid-week that even though he dropped some major coin at the register, he now has nothing to eat.
Below we share some basic tips so that you can cruise the aisles of the supermarket with confidence and get the most bang for your buck.
Back in the old days you either made your own food or bought what you needed from the single general store in town. Now, we have almost an embarrassment of options when it comes to where to procure our food. It can be hard to sort through all those options, so below we provide their pros/cons along with a little description of each:
A traditional grocery store offers one-stop convenience – you can pick up bacon, toilet paper, and shampoo in one trip. But you pay for this convenience with higher prices on things that aren’t on sale or you don’t have a coupon for. But if you shop the advertised in-store specials at straight supermarkets, you can save a fair amount.
Warehouse stores offer discounts to shoppers by selling products in bulk – big pallets of toilet paper or huge jugs of soy sauce. Whether the hassle of this system and the annual membership fee required are worth it is much debated. That you can save a good deal of money on things is not in dispute; bloggers have documented it . But to expand on the “cons” listed above, it’s important to mention a few caveats:
In general, for a young man just heading out on his own, I don’t think a warehouse store membership is beneficial. If you do get one, split it with a friend (you can share a card if you go together), and stick with buying non-perishables.
It can be fun to check out your local Indian, Asian, or Mexican supermarket to see the things they carry that no other store in town does. When I make carne asada, I like to go to the supermercado to get freshly made tortillas and a selection of Mexican pastries.
You may have heard the urban legend that ethnic grocery stores have lower prices on items like meat and produce because they don’t have to follow the same safety standards as other establishments. But this is a misconception. The lower prices are due to the store sourcing the products more directly and cutting out the middleman.
In my experience, ethnic grocery stores aren’t generally as clean as traditional ones, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing! 
An outlet grocery store stocks what might be turned “supermarket hand-me-downs”: dented cans, products that are about to hit or have surpassed their “use by” dates, Christmas-themed cereals in July, stuff a traditional store decided not to carry anymore, and so on. You can get some great deals on these “second-rate” items, but you have to shop carefully. Dented cans and expired meat and dairy can make you sick (see below for more information about expiration dates).
For those on the Eastern half of the country, Aldi is a different kind of discount grocery store to check out. While groceries at outlet stores are discounted because they’re “second-rate,” Aldi cuts prices by mainly offering only a small selection of their own decent quality house brand, only accepting cash, debt, or EBT cards (no credit cards or checks), stocking the few aisles with products still in boxes and pallets, and making you bring your own grocery bags and “rent” a shopping cart for 25 cents (you get your quarter back when you return the cart).
While many traditional supermarkets have begun to carry a selection of natural and organic groceries, natural grocery stores have a much wider array of these items and are reliable sources of things like grass-fed beef and free range chicken. At the same time, if you’re looking for Cheetos or cream of mushroom soup, you’re out of luck.
Prices at health grocery stores are higher than traditional grocery stores, but the higher prices do (generally) net you a more natural product. And bulk items, like spices and grains, can be cheaper here.
Many cities and towns hold weekly farmer’s markets where farmers in the area come and sell their produce, meat, and baked goods. It’s a fun thing to attend (take a date! ), the goods are fresh and delicious, and it’s nice to stick it to agribusiness by supporting local farmers. The pitfall is that the prices can be pretty steep.
So there you have a rundown of your main grocery shopping options. And with these choices come more choices: many people decide to do their shopping at more than one store. For example, you might budget money to buy your meats and produce at a natural food store, while buying your staples at a discount store. Or you might shop at different traditional supermarkets each week according to which store has the best deals on what you need that week. These advertised specials can be found online and as inserts in the Sunday newspaper. Some stores like Wal-mart will match the prices of other stores’ advertised specials, and that can save you from running from store to store.
Of course many folks find the convenience of getting everything they need at a one-stop-shop like Wal-Mart outweighs any other factor.
There are other things to consider as well:
Always go with a list. To save time and money, always, always create a shopping list before you head to the store, and stick to it religiously. Studies done by the grocery industry have shown that 60 to 70 percent of purchases at the grocery store are unplanned. That pretty much fits my experience. I remember when I first started shopping for myself, I’d just grab things from displays that looked tasty and interesting. This wasn’t good for either my waistline or my wallet.
Here’s how to create your shopping list:
Check the unit price to get the best deal. Instead of simply looking at the overall price when deciding which product to buy, look at the unit price. The unit price tells you the price per pound, ounce, liter, etc. of a product.
Many stores have the unit price right on the shelf label, but it’s usually smaller and more discrete than the total price. Here’s a picture of Wal-Mart’s price labels with the unit price pointed out:
If your store doesn’t display the unit price, you can figure it out yourself by simply dividing the price by the number of pounds/ounces/etc. in the package. For example, the unit price for a 10-pound package of flour costing $5.00 is $.50 a pound ($5/10 lbs = $.50).
Breaking a product’s price down like this allows you to better compare prices of different items. This is especially important when different brands package the same product in different quantities. In an effort to maximize profits, companies will package and price items in such a way that you’ll actually buy the more expensive item on a unit price basis. For example, consumers often intuitively think that if they buy the biggest box on the shelf, they’ll get the lowest unit price. For the most part that’s true, but not always, so it’s worth it to double check.
Some items have what’s called a quantity surcharge. Grocery stores will often jack up the price on products in large-sized packages, driving the unit price up. Buying the single serving or smaller sized package can actually be the better deal if a larger product has a quantity surcharge. This happens a lot with cereals, so make sure to compare before you decide to buy the big-ol’ three-pound box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Go with generic brands when you can. As we discussed in our post on being a savvy consumer , generic products can be hit or miss. Many are manufactured in the same factory as the brand name product and simply given a different label. They’re discounted because they don’t have to spend money on advertising to maintain “brand awareness.” Other times, a generic is cheaper because it’s not made as well. So just do some experimenting. I always buy the generic first, and only switch if I’m dissatisfied with it.
Skip coupons. Now this is just my opinion. Plenty of people are super into couponing and think it’s the bees knees and extremely worthwhile. Personally, I’ve tried couponing, but the payoff was never worth the time and effort. Most of the coupons you’ll find in the Sunday paper are for crap food like Dunk-a-roos and Juicy Juice boxes; it was rarely for stuff I’d buy anyway. We have to remember that coupons aren’t printed because food manufacturers want to help out our budget. Coupons are a marketing strategy to get consumers to purchase something they wouldn’t buy in the first place. I’ve also noticed that coupons get issued for stuff that’s already overpriced to begin with. I can save 15 minutes of my time and save the same amount of money buying the generic brand versus clipping a coupon for the name brand. Or I simply choose the brand that the store is running a special on.
Shop on a full stomach. To save money, never shop on an empty stomach. Studies show that when shoppers visit the grocery store hungry, they usually end up spending more money on food . So go shopping after you’ve eaten a meal, when possible. If your schedule doesn’t permit that, at least have a small snack before hitting the supermarket.
Understand the difference between “sell by,” “use by,” and “best by.” It’s easy to notice that most food products come with dates stamped on them. But what’s the difference between “sell by” and “use by”? I honestly didn’t know myself until writing this article! But it’s a good bit of knowledge to file away as it can help you make purchasing decisions, figure out whether a bargain at a grocery outlet store is a good deal or might make you sick, and prevent you from throwing away perfectly good food (and money).
When it comes to perishables like milk, always reach to the back of a shelf to grab a carton; the store will put products which are closer to reaching their “sell by” date up at the front of a shelf or on the top of a stack while the fresher ones will be in the back or on the bottom.
Once you bring a product home, cook a “use by” product on or before the date given, and store “sell-by” perishables at 40 degrees or below and “best by” items in a cool, dry cabinet.
To figure out how long you can store a “sell by” or “best by” item (or an item without a date), before you have to cook, consume, or freeze it, consult a “keep it or toss it” database . The answers may surprise you — for example, did you know you can keep eggs for 3-5 weeks after the date on the package? Checking dates can prevent you from throwing away a ton of food! (But always look at the appearance of an item and give it a sniff for spoilage, too, before consuming!)
Picking produce is tricky. You don’t want to buy fruits and vegetables that are too ripe (if you buy them and don’t eat them right away, they’ll go to waste), nor do you want them to be so under-ripe that you’ll have to wait a few days before you can eat them.
For the first few years of my adult life, I had no idea how to pick fresh produce. I’d go to the produce section and sort of “ape” what I saw my mom do when I went to the grocery store with her as a boy. I’d pick fruits and vegetables up to squeeze and smell them. The entire time, however, I would be thinking, “I have no clue what I’m doing.”
After several trips of me mindlessly fondling the produce, I finally did some research on what I should actually be looking for when selecting it.
Picking Ripe Fruit
Picking Ripe Vegetables
For more info on selecting vegetables, check out this handy guide .
Where do you like to shop for groceries? What grocery shopping tips do you have for a young man heading out on his own? Share with us in the comments!
Article printed from The Art of Manliness: http://www.artofmanliness.com
URL to article: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/08/27/how-to-grocery-shop/
URLs in this post:
 bloggers have documented it: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2011/09/30/is-a-costco-membership-worth-the-cost/
 but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing!: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/opinion/lets-add-a-little-dirt-to-our-diet.html
 take a date!: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/07/06/10-cheap-date-ideas-shell-actually-love/
 being a savvy consumer: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/08/24/heading-out-on-your-own-day-24-how-to-be-a-savvy-consumer/
 Studies show that when shoppers visit the grocery store hungry, they usually end up spending more money on food: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-willpower/201107/the-neurobiology-dont-shop-when-youre-hungry
 “keep it or toss it” database: http://www.stilltasty.com/searchitems/search_page
 handy guide: http://whatscookingamerica.net/Vegetables/VegetableBuyingGuide.htm
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