This is a lengthy article, and no one wants to sit through a sermon without something coming their way, so let me make you a promise. If you read through this article, hear what I have to say, and try what I suggest, I promise to save you at least 10% on your grocery bill. I've compared bills, and using this method I spend maybe one penny for every quarter my peers spend, but I'm not asking you to scrape the bottom of the barrel like I do, so let's keep the promise light, shall we?
The Lies We've Been Told
We've been learning to save on groceries ever since we were kids. We'd watch mom or pop carefully clip coupons from the local newspaper, we'd see characters in cartoons celebrate their amazing savings, and we'd even see commercials boasting huge savings on food. I even remember getting excited - at least once - when my own mom invited me to clip coupons with her. Such fond memories so deeply ingrained in our minds just makes the truth harder: we were learning to save... some giant corporation a fortune on inventories. We weren't learning how to save much of anything for our families.
The Awful Truth
I know what you're thinking, "what? I save a fortune on groceries by clipping coupons!" and you're not totally wrong, but you're not totally right either. The awful truth is that companies don't ever put something on sale that isn't 1) already overpriced and 2) something they think you need to buy. If you really needed to buy something, you'd buy it no matter what the price. Sales entice you to buy things you don't really need.
Now, you might think you need to buy that can of Campbell's soup while it's cheap - after all, you have mouths to feed - but they know that if you looked two feet to the left and opted for an off-label can of exactly the same stuff you'd shave quite a few cents off of your bill. Those mouthes would never know the difference, but your pocket-book sure would. Even after the coupons for the big brands, these off brands are often cheaper. Those big companies and name brands also know that for about 5 minutes of extra cooking time and a tenth of the price, you could look twenty feet over in the produce department and buy exactly the same stuff except without all the salt and miscellaneous preservatives they add.
They also know that the difference between one name brand and another name brand exists mostly in our heads. There's even studies about this: we almost always buy the brand our mothers used to buy, and she buys exactly what brands her mother used to buy, with very little variation. We as consumers rarely even try the other brands, but we somehow know that our brand is better and that we need to buy that brand or else! The truth is, we don't. There are plenty of alternatives, and sometimes the cheap stuff tastes a heck of a lot better. They have to in order to compete with the power of a brand's name and our tendency to buy because of it! If you haven't tried some of the cheaper brands, consider this a clarion call. How do you know the cheap stuff is bad if you haven't tried it?
The brand names know you don't need to buy their goods because there's plenty of alternatives, so they try their hardest to make you feel like you do. They're really clever about this, and it's not just soup cans that work this way. Almost every product in your local supermarket is obscenely overpriced. That 20% off coupon doesn't make up for the fact that they double the price before it ever hits the shelves. And that's at the very least! But 20% off feels like an amazing deal, so amazing that you need to get it and since you've already decided Your Favorite Brand is the best brand... you can see where this is going. We never even think about how obscenely overpriced the food is.
Yes, I Said Obscenely Overpriced
Supermarket food looks cheap, especially when we're used to seeing that price and saying "that's reasonable, I wont go too far over the price I'm used to." Coupons help to make it look cheaper. So cheap, in fact, that it's almost inconceivable that they're completely ripping us off... but they are. Let me show you: A can of pre-made soup costs about $1.50 at the local supermarket here (and prices are pretty-much the same across the country). One can of soup that probably tastes like liquefied chalk. For 45 minutes of my time, I can make 10 cans of some gut-bustlingly delicious soup for about $4 dollars total, or $0.40 cents a can. And funnily enough, it doesn't take 90 minutes to make 20 cans, it takes about 50, so I can make huge batches and freeze them for when I want them again. I'm not a gourmet chef. I'm not a whiz cook. Cooking tasty food is easy if you hop online and bring up a recipe, then follow the instructions. How chefs make any money doing it amazes me... but I digress.
The fact is, you pay a lot of money for every step your food goes through. Tomatoes are cheapest, pre-diced tomatoes add quite a bit to the cost, and a pre-canned tomato bisque is going to run up a ridiculous cost for the simple reason that no one works for free. Someone (or some machine) had to dice that tomato and cook that bisque, and you're paying for it. Why should they make so much money on something you can do for less than one hour every few days?
But that's not even all the price gouging supermarkets do. If you're lucky enough to live in an urban area, just take a trip to your local ethnic market. They might have some awfully strange music, and quite a few brands you can't recognize (or read), but one look at their produce will show you why coupons can never make up for the savings. In my neighborhood, carrots sell for 99 cents per pound at Safeway. The store that faces Safeway directly across the street sells exactly the same quality carrots for 99 cents per 2 pounds. The only difference between stores when it comes to produce is the funky music in the background... and half the total price. All of the produce is like that.
The One Stop Shop Is Anything But
Supermarkets like the advertise themselves as a one stop shop for everything you'd want, and they're not totally wrong in that they have just about everything a family needs... but you pay big bucks for that convenience. You're much better off buying your produce from the Asian or Mexican markets that thrive in urban environments. If you're not so fortunate, be sure to check whatever stores are around before you commit to buying from just one store. Sure, they have all the sales and coupons there, but who cares about 10% off your next purchase when the store down the street is selling it for 70% less?
Wrapping This Up
I could go on about this for days. I find this really exciting, because every penny I save on food can go to things for my family or even personal enjoyment, and there's a lot of tips and tricks that can make your savings skyrocket when it comes to grocery shopping. I think this wall of text is long enough, however, so I'll conclude by boiling down this article to a few key points:
- Coupons only exist for products you don't have to buy
- Coupons exist to clear out inventory of things companies are afraid they wont sell
- Your Favorite Brand is probably costing you a fortune despite being exactly the same stuff
- Your Favorite Supermaket is ripping you off
- Produce varies widely in price, but not so much in quality so shop around especially at ethnic stores
- You pay for every step of the way, from produce to meals to your mouth, so cut out the middle man and cook!
Think of this next time you go shopping, really put it into practice for just one grocery trip, and I promise you'll save more than a measly 10%.
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