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Teri Gault, Author, “Shop Smart, Save More”

“Good economy or bad, we all have to eat. Why should we pay full price for groceries when we don’t have to?” That’s the philosophy of Teri Gault, the CEO and founder of TheGroceryGame.com, a website that provides tips on finding coupons, and both advertised and unadvertised sales. The Grocery Game tells its members where to look for coupons and then provides a weekly plan for how to save the most money, depending on where you live and what you need to buy. Gault estimates that her members save an average of $512 a month for a family of four. Here, Gault provides some basic tips on how to cut coupons and become a better grocery shopper. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 13, 2009.

Stockpile and plan ahead.

If you stockpile – this means buying items when they’re on sale, before you need them– you should be able to cut your grocery bill in half. That’s without cutting coupons. If you want to save about 67 percent on average, add coupons to the mix. If you shop and make a meal plan for the week and buy only what you need in a given week, you will be forced to overspend on about 80 percent of those categories. That’s why I say you have to stockpile and I’m not talking about buying in bulk. If you like peanut butter and peanut butter’s on sale, grab the jar before you need it when next week it won’t be on sale. Same thing with something like tuna or mayonnaise or condiments or rice or pasta sauce or even yogurt, which has a month-long shelf life. You can stockpile anything except produce and milk. If you ever see a limit on something, for example, if they show you apple juice and it says “limit three at this price,” that would be a pretty good indicator that it might be a loss leader and you should buy it. Always buy the limit.

Don’t toss those coupons.

Coupons are like free money. If you know how to use a pair of scissors, you can make nearly $300 an hour cutting coupons. I figure you are going to save $100 a week on your family’s grocery shopping by using coupons and if you use The Grocery Group, you’re only going spend to 15 or 20 minutes cutting the coupons, so that comes to $300 an hour, for using a pair of scissors. More than 4,000 coupons were issued last year and 96 percent of them were thrown away. It’s a shame to throw what I consider cash in the trash.

Patience is a virtue.

A lot of people will cut a coupon for something that they like and they go to the store and expect that to be the deal. That coupon is good for three months, but they get there, and if, for instance, the toothpaste they like is not on sale, but they have a coupon for it, now it’s a better deal to get another brand that they don’t have a coupon for and which is on sale. So they throw the coupon away. Well, it’s not the coupon’s fault. It’s your fault for not knowing when to use the coupon. In three months, your favorite brand is going to go on sale. It’s about timing.

Coupons aren’t just for junk food.

People need to ditch the old idea that coupons are for junk food. That has been wrong for quite some time. The manufacturers of food products know that we are health-conscious. We have coupons for tofu and whole grains and coupons for organics and soy milk and yogurt. Get back into coupons and take a look. If you see a coupon for anything with a main manufacturer’s name brand product, if it says “good on any” in that line, you can use that coupon under organic in that line. Kraft, Orville Redenbacher, Newman’s Own, Hunt’s. The list goes on and on. They have regular products, but they also have organic products in those lines.

Pay attention to the fine print.

Go by what the wording is. They’ll picture an item within their product line, but it might say “good on any.” For instance, on lunchmeat, it might show you the more expensive lunchmeat, but it might be any product within that manufacturer’s deli products. There might be a cheaper lunchmeat that’s not pictured that you can buy with that coupon.

Check the product’s expiration date.

Always look at the “sell by” date on all your food. It is important because most grocery stores rotate stock, but check the “sell by” date and make sure it’s going be fresh. Frozen fish is actually safer that fresh fish. I love fresh fish, but if fresh fish is not on sale and not a good price, go to the frozen fish because they freeze it on the ship and it’s frozen immediately. It’s flash-frozen and it’s very, very safe.

Shop for produce in season.

The best thing you can do is shop for fruits and vegetables that are in season. If a certain fruit that you like is not in season right now, perhaps the frozen food section has it and you could throw that into a blender with your juice or yogurt and make a smoothie. Or better yet, when your favorite fruit is on sale and in season, buy extra and freeze it and use that for smoothies in your blender. What’s in season will be your best price and whatever is on sale will be your best deal.

Where to look on your circular ads.

In the circular ad, usually the biggest pictures on the front are going to be the things that you should definitely stockpile. The best meat deal will usually be featured on the front page and it’ll be the biggest picture of meat. Same with produce.

Pick up a club card.

Most supermarkets have a loyalty card and if you shop there, these are just free savings. You can cut your bill in half just by using that club card.

- This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted March 13, 2009.

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