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Ms. Cheap says “bigger is better” when grocery shopping. If any item is priced by category instead of by weight, choose the biggest one

Does it seem like the cost of groceries is skyrocketing?

Sad but true.

Almost all the national news outlets — and now Ms. Cheap — are reporting unwelcome grocery price increases, largely because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including rising gas prices, supply chain issues and increases in demand from consumers.

A recent Washington Post article said: “Food producers have struggled with shortages, bottlenecks, and transportation, weather and labor woes, all of which have caused food prices to rise. The end is not in sight … meat, poultry, fish and eggs are up 5.9 percent over last year, and up 15.7 percent from prices in August 2019, before the pandemic.”

Ugh. But there are ways for us to shop smart and save on our groceries. Here are my favorite 21 ways to keep down the cost of groceries in Middle Tennessee in 2021.

• Shop with a list. I know this is boring, but almost every consumer expert says we tend to spend more when we hit the store without a list to keep us on track. Stick to the list to avoid impulse purchases.

• Take the time to make your list in a way that creates a full week’s worth of meals. Work toward making a weekly shopping trip instead of popping in “for a few things” every day or two.

• Plan for leftovers by deliberately cooking more than you need at one time and having enough for lunches or another nighttime meal after a busy day. A good idea from one of my readers is to have a specified leftover night (maybe on Thursday), when you pull out the leftovers and have a family smorgasbord, and maybe add a salad. I’m lucky because I love leftovers and hate wasting food.

• Have a regular pantry or freezer cleanout night (or week) during which you challenge yourself to get creative with what you have on hand. I had a friend who would make herself not go to the store for anything for a week or two before vacation to create more disposable income for the trip and to clean out the pantry and fridge at the same time.

• Store brands offer significant savings. I am tied to a few brands like Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Heinz ketchup, but when I am buying other condiments like pickles or olives or staples like canned tomatoes, paper napkins or frozen vegetables, or most dairy products, I go for the store brand, which I find to be just as good and usually a good bit cheaper. Plus some groceries offer a money-back guarantee on their brands. Publix, for example, invites you to try its store brands, and “if you’re not satisfied, your money will be cheerfully refunded.”

• Bigger is better. When I am selecting produce like a head of lettuce or a cantaloupe or other item that is priced by category instead of by weight, I choose the biggest one. Why not? You should see the great big lime I bought the other day. It was almost twice as big as some of the other limes in the bin.

• Check dates on perishable items to minimize food waste. If I am buying a half gallon of milk, I try to choose the one with the latest expiration date since it will take me awhile to use it up and I don’t want it to go bad before it is all gone. (Yes, I am the annoying person standing in front of the dairy case digging to the back for the longest-lasting carton of milk or juice.) Be aware that a “sell by” date is not the last date for an item to be safe to use.

• Consumer expert Clark Howard (clark.com) says smart shoppers go for the sale items, aka loss leaders. So check the flyers before you go to the store to take advantage of those deals.

“Loss leaders are the items advertised on the front of the supermarket sales circular. No matter what grocery store you’re shopping at, the loss leaders change each week. But they all have one thing in common: They’re advertised and sold at a discount to get you in the door — in the hopes you’ll buy other things at full price.”

In other words, if pork is on sale this week, it is a good week to buy pork. If ground beef is on sale, or if you see super cheap eggs, go for those.

• Know your stores and their loyalty programs and other perks. For example, I love that Kroger stores have an area of marked-down produce that I always check for deals. I got a wonderful cantaloupe the other day for 99 cents, and can often get a bag of lemons or limes or zucchini for just 99 cents. They also have a bakery markdown area, but every store’s location of these deals is a little different, so it is worth seeking out.

I also shop at Publix and love their buy one, get one free deals that only require you to buy one of them to get the deal. It is essentially a half-price offer, and the Nashville market is one of the few or maybe the only one that does not require you to buy two to get the deal. (I found this out the hard way on a trip to Florida where you are required to buy two identical items to get the deal.)

• Check out what your fellow shoppers are buying. At stores that I shop at only occasionally, like Aldi, Trader Joe’s or Sprouts and Fresh Market, I am definitely peering into baskets to see what the regulars are buying. How else would I have found out about the miniature ice cream cones at TJ (a must) or the coffee and cheese deals at Aldi? Produce and seafood seem to be the go-to items at Sprouts, and I love the Fresh Market chicken salad and the special day prices on their banana and zucchini bread, and ready-to-bake pizzas.

• Coupon: I know that clipping coupons may be considered old school, but I am still clipping paper coupons, along with downloading coupons from grocery websites, too.

• Piggyback your savings and double your savings pleasure. For example, use a coupon on a buy one, get one free deal and save twice.

• Download the grocery apps for stores where you shop and then “clip” coupons there. You should also join the free digital loyalty programs that most groceries offer.

• Know the store’s staff. My mother always valued knowing “her people,” and I think it is particularly important at the grocery. Think about how much money you spend at the grocery in a year’s time. Let the managers know you are “their shopper” and figure out ahead of time who can help you if you have a problem.

• Stockpile items that you use over and over again. Make a list of the 10 or 12 things you regularly buy and know what the best prices are on those things so you can stock up when they go on sale. I hate paying top dollar for things like paper towels, detergent, cereal, crackers, chips and other items that routinely go on sale.

• Wash your own lettuce, cut up your own fruit, and make your own sandwiches instead of paying premiums to have someone else prepackage it. In some cases, with multiple ingredients, it may be cheaper to buy the store’s prepared version, but not usually.

• Buy in bulk. Lots of items like ground beef and chicken are cheaper per pound when you buy large packages. You can always divide the bulk food up when you get home and freeze meal-size portions.

Another bulk deal is to buy small amounts of bulk items like nuts and grains for recipes that just call for a smidgen. Fresh Market and Sprouts have bins where you can pick up a few ounces of specialty items instead of buying a large container that you would not use up.

• Look at unit prices on the grocery shelf. Sometimes, the bigger package is not any cheaper, especially if you have a coupon. Buyer beware, so check those unit prices.

• Consider joining a wholesale club like Sam’s or Costco. These are not for everybody, but it is a good idea to run the numbers to see if the upfront membership cost of a club will be worth it for the annual savings you could enjoy.

• Check out the grocery rebate apps like Ibotta, Checkout51, Fetch Rewards or Rakuten, which offer rebates on items you buy at the grocery and at other retailers. They can require some extra work on your part, but the savings could easily be worth it.

• Check your grocery receipt to be sure all prices are correct. Some stores have policies where if an item rings up higher than the shelf price, you get it free. (I love it when this happens.) And even if your store doesn’t go that far, it is worth stopping by customer service to get your item at the correct price.

Hope these tips help you “stay cheap”!

Mary Hance, who has four decades of journalism experience in the Nashville area, writes a weekly Ms. Cheap column. She also appears on Thursdays on “Talk of the Town” on NewsChannel 5. Reach her at mscheap@mainstreetmediatn.com and follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/mscheap.

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