Updated on 05.09.10

Review: Better Groceries for Less Cash

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

betterBetter Groceries for Less Cash by Randall Putala has a subtitle that pretty clearly describes what you’ll find inside the covers: 101 Tested and Proven Ways to Save on Food. While organized into chapters, this fairly short book’s main purpose is to simply relate a lot of methods for saving money on food purchases.

My wife and I already do a lot of things to reduce our grocery bill, from using grocery lists to making meal plans and clipping (some) coupons. Yet we still look for ways to trim our food costs even more, so this book was a welcome read.

While Better Groceries for Less Cash is organized into chapters, the focus of each chapter is simply to deliver a few specific tips on how to save money on some aspect of grocery shopping. So, rather than giving my usual chapter-by-chapter review, I picked out ten interesting tips to share and discuss.

Start your own cookbook The key to saving money on food preparation while still getting delicious meals is simply knowing how to cook. Randall suggests simply making up your own cookbook where you jot down notes on what works for you for every new thing you try. Just list the steps you take in a way that you can understand later. If it doesn’t quite work, note that and make a change to your steps (changing cooking time from seven minutes to eight, for example). Then try doubling the quantity (six eggs scrambled instead of three) and seeing how that works. It’s all about learning how to do it so you feel confident with raw foods.

Ignore lying signs Just because there’s a big sign advertising a great deal doesn’t mean that it’s really a great deal. Often, it’s the same old bad deal you’d get otherwise – they just put up a sign to make it look good. Stick to your list and ignore the “sales” you find inside the store unless you’re absolutely sure that they’re great buys.

Clip for products, not for brands If you need toothpaste, clip every toothpaste coupon you can find. Then, when you go to the store to buy the toothpaste, you can match the coupon to the toothpaste brand with the best price (possibly one on sale in the store). This often results in items that have an extremely low price, sometimes even free.

Ignore the picture The picture on a coupon is there for advertising purposes, to try to instill knowledge of that brand in your mind. It may or may not even be the item that the coupon is good for. Instead, read the coupon and know what the coupon itself is good for – it might be for a different flavor, a different size, or something else entirely.

Generics are often exactly the same as store brands Yes, sometimes you have to do a little bit of testing, but many store brands are identical to the name brands. The best way to find out is to compare ingredients and try it yourself. If the ingredient list is identical, then the item is probably identical. If it doesn’t have an ingredient list on the store brand (like toilet paper, for example), try the store brand (or at least research it online).

Sign up for frequent shopper programs at every store They’re often effortless (you just swipe a card and coupons are applied to your bill automatically) and send a signal to store management that you’re seeking low prices. If you’re concerned about privacy, then sign up for a post office box or a work address.

Use leftover ingredients If you prepare a meal and find some ingredients are left behind, actively seek out a way to use the items in something else. Throw some leftover chicken into a salad to make it more filling. Put leftover scrambled eggs in a tortilla with some salsa tomorrow morning. Use those vegetables in a stir fry. It simply stretches out the number of meals you can get out of the items on hand, meaning more time between grocery store trips and less spent per month.

Raw foods simply are cheaper Food manufacturers don’t sell food kits because they’re a bargain. They sell them because they make a healthy profit. The only difference is that they’re just sticking their fingers in the pie between you and the actual food producer. Instead of buying prepackaged meals, buy the same raw ingredients and make it yourself. It’s usually not much harder, it’s often cheaper, and it’s usually healthier and tastier (thanks to a lack of preservatives).

Focus on core ingredients If you know how to make a lot of meals with a few core ingredients (like tomatoes, for example, or flour), then you can always buy those and always turn them into something delicious. You can also cross-match them with whatever’s on sale to make unique meals for the week. For us, core ingredients include chicken, broccoli, cheese, rice, tomatoes, apples, and spinach.

Cheapest is often best when it comes to produce Why? Because the cheap items are the ones that lots of people buy. Thus, the stock of that item has to rotate more frequently, which means you’re likely to get the freshest produce by buying the cheapest stuff. Sweet corn in August comes to mind here, as it gets heavily rotated and it’s very cheap around here.

Is Better Groceries for Less Cash Worth Reading?
If you’ve reached a point where you recognize that your food spending is a financial black hole and you actually are willing to invest a little time in cutting that spending drastically (netting as much as $100 in savings an hour for your efforts), Better Groceries for Less Cash is a worthwhile read.

Of course, the more grocery savings you already do, the less effective Better Groceries for Less Cash is. Many of the tactics were things that we already do, though there were a few good ideas sprinkled in there.

This book is perfect for someone new to the art of cutting spending in their lives because if you shop for groceries like the typical American, there is a lot of spending you can cut.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Sign up for frequent shopper cards. We have lived and traveled in our RV for 6 years. I have a fistful of cards from all over the US. They don’t send us any mail. Another tactic is to say you are from out of the area. The checkers often have a generic card they can use to give infrequent shoppers the same deal.

  2. Vtcouponqueen says:

    I currently feed our family of 5 people, 2 dogs and 2 cats on average 70-75 dollars per week. My house is bursting with healthy food including two full size freezers. I have been sticking to spending no more than $35.00 per week to reduce my stock but so far the freezer space isn’t going down much as I keep finding such great deals. They are out there you just have to know where to look and be willing to put forth a little effort.

  3. Meg says:

    What, no price book? (http://organizedhome.com/kitchen-tips/make-price-book-save-money) How are you supposed to know when you’ve got a really good price on something if you don’t know what the average price for that item is?

    Also, cooking for your freezer. Hands down the best way to cut your food budget.

    I’m not impressed with that book if they don’t even include those two no-brainers.

  4. rosa rugosa says:

    Hmmm – we average $100. per week for 2 people and two cats (including non-food items we buy at the grocery store). We also have one monthly Costco run for about $80. Funny too, because my husband is a great scratch cook, and we don’t eat a lot of prepared or convenience foods (don’t even own a microwave). We do eat a lot of seafood, and that is generally pretty expensive. So I think groceries need to be our next frontier in frugal living.

  5. Vtcouponqueen says:

    rosa, I spend about 2 hours per week preparing for my groceries. I find coupons, rebates match them with sales etc…The way I look at it is for 2 hours I am saving at least $75.00 per week and that is a pretty good hourly wage. But everyone has different food tastes and some people are brand insistent for more items than I may be. Good luck getting your bill down!

  6. Debbie M says:

    On ignoring the picture–often the coupon could be used for several things not pictured as well as what’s pictured, possibly including your favorite.

    On buying raw foods–this is my favorite, especially when I find an easy recipe for something expensive made with cheap ingredients (like pumpkin butter). Once you’ve got a recipe you like, you can always have that thing (so long as the raw ingredients are available) and don’t have to rely on certain companies not going out of business.

    And you don’t have to buy them raw, either–you can save money by just buying them less processed. For example, lots of people have a good recipe for taco soup that involves mostly canned goods. And using pre-made pasta, bread, or pie crusts to make pasta dishes, sandwiches and pies/quiches still saves you money over buying those things pre-made.

    Finally, when you make it yourself, you can make little changes to make it better. My favorites are using whole grain pastry flour, adding shredded veggies to things, and reducing the salt, fat, and sugar.

    On “core ingredients,” in my day, we called those staples. I remember being delighted when I got a roommate who considered ice cream to be a staple. These really are different for everyone. Once you know what yours are, you know what’s safe to stock up on. Mine are tomatoes, beans, hamburger, pasta, cheese, milk, spelt pretzels, frozen concentrated juice, bread, flour, sugar, cocoa, and chocolate chips. Other things I can always find a way to use are bananas carrots, and zucchini.

  7. Kristen says:

    this is all very common knowledge if you are the least bit thrifty. I would not buy this book.
    Plus so much of the info on grocery shopping is on the web. Grocery stores cater to lazy,hungry distracted and stressed out shoppers. If you put in a tiny bit of effort you can save. I do not see many people even with a list written out.
    How can that work well?? Stores even make carts bigger so you fill them with “ease”–think about it.

  8. We spend $80/week on groceries. My goal is to not spend my money on processed foods and get as much organic and local food as possible. It can be difficult but well worth it on so many levels.

  9. My first thought would be that there is no way there is 100 ways to save on groceries.

    When you think about it, there probably is.

    I consider myself to be an expert grocery shopper, and there are a lot of things I do to save money that I don’t even realize.

    Gorceries, for the most part, are a household budget’s #2 expense.

    Why not do everything you can to impact it?

    Sounds like a worthwhile read.

  10. James says:

    I always buy raw ingredients and make my meals from scratch. Buying processed food means you are paying someone else to do something you should really be doing for yourself.

    I never use coupons as I believe they are a trick to make you buy things you don’t really need, as in this article I read http://www.ecopunk.org.uk/search/label/coupons

  11. Steve R says:

    Just a suggestion: Would it be possible to mention the book price (Cdn & US) each time you review one? It gives me a better idea if it’s a keeper or not.

  12. GayleRN says:

    Leftover scrambled eggs? Why on earth would you have leftovers of something that comes prepackaged by nature in individual servings?

    My latest project is going through the cupboards and freezer and actually using whatever I find there just to use it up and be able to buy fresher. You will be amazed at what you will find lurking there. Just be sure to check the dates on everything. You can save a significant amount of money by using what you already have.

  13. Skeemer118 says:

    @ #8 GayleRN

    Sometimes my hubby thinks he can eat more scrambled eggs than he can really hold. :) As a Judo student, he’s eating a lot of food & still staying fit. Occassionaly we do have a bit of leftover eggs & I roll it up into a breakfast burrito with a little cheese & stick it in the fridge for his next snack or for breakfast.

  14. I really balked at making meal plans, but when my husband changed jobs it became necessary to slash our grocery bill. And by actually planning meals to have in the house, instead of just buying random ingredients that didn’t really make anything, we slashed our grocery bill a lot! We now spend around $50-$60 per week for our family of three…and we’re not eating rice and beans either!

  15. triLcat says:

    One tip that seems to not be put in – some things are actually cheaper SLIGHTLY processed. Some frozen veggies are cheaper than their fresh counterparts, particularly out of season. Where I live, a pineapple can cost over $5, but a can of cut pineapple in pineapple juice (no sugar added) costs around $1.

    Another thing – some things are worth stocking up on. For example, if you get a great deal on pasta, rice, you’ll have them for a couple of months. If you buy and freeze some ground beef, that’s a bunch of meals. Other things, not so much. If you get a great deal on ice cream and buy 5 gallons, if you’re like most people, it’ll just mean that you’ll eat 5 gallons in the next 2 weeks instead of 1.

  16. ChrissySkins says:

    I was at a strawberry processing plant that processed and packaged frozen sliced strawberries. I noticed that the same strawberries were being put into a variety of packaging, from generic to a Premium Quality well known brand. I only buy generics now.

  17. Bill in Houston says:

    Kroger is famous for “lying signs” throughout the store. Their lying sign is bright yellow and it says LOW PRICE! It isn’t. It usually appears next to an item whose price has risen. I saw it next to one of my guilty pleasures, Spam Lite. As it is a favorite I track the price. It had been $1.99 for a few years, but rose to $2.08 when fuel prices skyrocketed in 2008. The price stayed the same until two weeks ago, when the new price was $2.29. Right underneath? LOW PRICE!

    Another trick they do is repackaging. They can claim that the price of a loaf of bread hasn’t changed. Sure, but a loaf of bread is now 20 ounces instead of 24. Sounds like a 20% increase. Frozen veggies used to be a dollar for 16 ounces (Kroger brand). Now the price has “dropped” to 88 cents, but the bag is now 12 ounces. That’s a 17 percent increase.

    Certain fresh vegetables used to be priced on a per-pound basis. Now it is per item. Kroger’s fresh veggies cost twice as much as (Korean grocer) H-Mart’s. I only buy meat at Kroger if it is on sale cheaper than Costco’s retail price. Our other choices in Houston? Randall’s (boutique groceries), Rice Epicurean (the name says it all), and HEB (high prices on all but a few select items, probably to pay rent on 200,000 square foot stores). All high priced.

    This is why I go to three different stores to shop. It is worth the extra hour it takes me.

  18. Sara says:

    Reading your review of this book reminded me of the best cookbook I ever had – it was a gift from my Grandma when I went off to college. It is “Clueless in the Kitchen” by Evelyn Raab and a lot of the things you mention in this review (raw foods, staples, using leftovers, etc.) she goes over in the book, plus recipes. I still cook out if it from time to time!

  19. Sara says:

    @Bill: Giant Eagle does the same thing with the “low price” signs. Another trick they use is raising the price of an item one week and then putting it “on sale” (at what was previously the regular price) the next week.

  20. Sarah says:

    Hi all,

    I have been making my own recipe lists for the last year or so now and it really does cut down on your time in the grocery store (my other half lags through the grocery store with the same sort of interest some would invest in a museum!)and of course cuts waste while adhering to a budget.

    I want to send out a bit of encouragement by including my favorite cheap recipe! :)

    Veggie Lasagna

    -9 uncooked lasagna noodles
    -2 eggs
    -1 carton (15oz)ricotta cheese
    -1 tsp parsley flakes
    -2 tsp dried oregano (i just use a store bought “Italian seasoning” blend for these spices)
    -1 tsp pepper
    -4 cups spaghetti sauce
    -2 cups mozzarella cheese
    -1 pkg (16oz) frozen veggies (or 8cups fresh)
    -Parmesan Cheese

    –Cook noodles as directed

    –In small bowl mix eggs, ricotta cheese, & spices

    –In 13-in X 9-in coated baking dish spread 1 cup sauce. Place three noodles over sauce

    –Layer with quarter ricotta mixture, 1 cup sauce, 1 cup cheese, 3 noodles, & half veggies REPEAT & cover top layer with remaining noodles sprinkle Parmesan cheese

    Cover with foil and bake at 375 for 45mins

    ENJOY!!! :)

  21. Skeemer118 says:

    @ Bill

    You’re right about the quantity changing. The frozen pizza’s my hubby likes has shrank in size but not in price.

  22. itsme says:

    Though i understand a selection of tips had to be made, one most likely in the book but imho really missing here is the buy-in-bulk tip. Take fi rice, we tend to buy a 10kg bag every 8 months or so. Could do 25kg, but then it’s getting close to the expire date.

    As for the ‘Raw foods simply are cheaper’ tip: this is not always true. Another thing we eat quite a lot is tomatoes with and without herbs. The local noname brand offers quite a selection of chopped tomatoes plain and with a variety of herbs premixed. A tin is chepaer than the same ammount of fresh tomatoes, not to mention the quite pricey fresh herbs needed.

  23. james covert says:

    It’s the same with chocolate bars, i believe that the wrappers have stayed the same size yet the content has decreased, and get this, the price has increased. Something is deeply wrong here.

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