Americans spent an average of $6,129 on food in 2010, with about $3,600 spent on groceries. It’s no wonder that budget-minded shoppers go to great lengths to save money on the cost of food, doing whatever they can to cut that grocery bill. There are now apps to help you keep track of coupons, in-store savings for frequent shoppers, and discounts available for shoppers who carry a store card.
Extreme couponers will tell you that they save hundreds of dollars on groceries each month by collecting online coupons, tracking expiration dates, and doubling up on deals at their favorite grocery stores. But how much do these strategies actually end up saving you in the long-run? In many cases, the effort it takes to snag these deals can outweigh the benefits.
Here are five common grocery shopping tips that don’t actually save you money:
1. Clipping coupons
While you might be able to save a few dollars clipping coupons for brand-name goods, you’ll never find coupons for anything without a barcode—the vegetables, fresh fruits, and other staples that are actually good for you. For many people, clipping coupons is more of a hassle and can prompt unnecessary purchases. Many manufacturers release coupons for overly-processed foods that few households actually need. Save your time and energy for seeking out deals on fresh and healthy foods at your local natural foods store, or for making an extra trip to the supermarket.
2. Shunning store brands because a brand is on sale
Too good for generic? While some generic items can be of a lower quality than their brand-name equivalents, others are actually exactly the same—sans the fancy packaging. When you’re stocking up on staples like rice, flour, sugar, oatmeal, beans, and canned vegetables, you’ll end up saving money with the store brand. Even when the brand-name items are on sale, you could still be paying a higher price just for the logo and packaging.
3. Stocking up when it’s on sale
An unbeatable deal on your household’s favorite cereal, snacks, or frozen entrees might trigger a stock-up spree, but don’t forget to look at expiration dates and consider how much your household will actually go through. Even freezing items for long periods of time can make the food taste anything but fresh. If you can’t see yourself going through the product within three or four weeks, you’ll probably end up throwing it—and your hard-earned dollars—away.
4. Comparing sticker prices
It’s rarely a bad idea to compare the advertised price of similar items on a shelf as you make your purchasing decisions. However, not all prices are listed as accurately as you might think. If you’re not comparing the unit price—the small price per ounce or price per unit that most stores list under the selling price—you could end up paying much more than you bargained for. You need to be especially careful about this pricing strategy when you find a brand-name product on sale. Check the unit price first to compare it with non-sale items to see if you really are getting a great deal. If the unit price is still higher, you will most likely be paying for the packaging and the brand name.
5. Buying multi-pack meals and snacks
When the bulk of your groceries are ready-to-eat meals or convenient snack packs, it’s unlikely that anyone in your household is actually getting some quality nutrition. Multi-pack meals and snacks may seem like a great deal, especially when you factor in the cost per meal and the time saved on cooking. But think about how this can impact your health—another “cost” you pay outside of the grocery store—and how much cheaper it would be to prepare fresh meals yourself. Setting aside just a few hours per week to round up fresh ingredients and prepare some healthy recipes for an entire week’s worth of meals can be a much better grocery-savings strategy than stocking up on processed foods. Take inventory of your household’s eating habits and current grocery list to see what types of processed foods you can completely eliminate from the diet. Your wallet—and your body—will thank you.
Sabah Karimi is a regular contributor to Yahoo News and a groceries deals expert for top financial blog Wise Bread.