With a little effort you can reduce your annual grocery bills by thousands of dollars. An organized system, a little research and repackaging can bring you more for your money, consumer experts say.
Strategies include knowing pricing trends at local supermarkets, careful use of coupons, bulk purchases and delayed gratification. You can even call food manufacturers for pricing insights. One pasta maker, for example, told a friend of mine which local retailers sold the company's pasta products at the lowest prices.
Even within the same supermarket chain, prices for individual products often vary greatly. My mother, who lives in Brevard County, has spotted a range of prices for the same item at different Publix locations. Friends and readers in North Miami Beach have also noted sharp price differences between two branches of the same chain.
That's because many chains zone prices according to zip codes based on the cost of real estate, labor and other operations at each store. You can find the lowest prices by either shopping around or checking the company's website, where weekly specials are available for different stores based on zip code or neighborhood.
CREATE YOUR OWN SNACK PACKS
But if you don't have time to shop for deals, there are other cost-cutting strategies. A family of four can save $2,000 to $3,000 a year by skipping individually packaged food items in favor of jumbo-sized boxes and by using reusable items, according to Earth 911, a nonprofit group based in Arizona. Earth 911 says paper towels and napkins cost more than $260 a year for a family of four. Other budget busters include disposable cups, razors and many one-time use products.
Raisins are a perfect example of potential savings, says Meryl Klein, the Gainesville based director of outreach for Earth 911 (www.earth911.org). Shoppers can save ''tremendously'' by purchasing large containers of raisins and then making individual servings. Many re-usable/re-sealable containers are perfect for lunchboxes or day-trips.
Individual servings of cereal, juice, bottled water and dried fruit are expensive. Prepackaged individual servings of snacks and lunchbox goodies cost up to 300 percent more per ounce than larger packages of the same item, according to the editors of Shameless Shortcuts: 1,027 Tips and Techniques that Help You Save Time, Save Money, and Save Work (Rodale, $16.95). Of course, prepackaged items do speed up lunch chores. But with planning, you can ''single serving yourself,'' and also save time and money, according to Shameless Shortcuts.
Here's the drill: As soon as you get home from the grocery store, divide large packages of raisins, chips and other snacks into individual-size portions in airtight containers. This organizational step provides the convenience and cost-savings of bulk purchases. A friend of mine has used this method with great success with her children in a snack assembly line.
But all bets are off during family vacations, admits Earth 911's Klein. When faced with the daunting combination of children, hotels and travel arrangements, Klein finds that nothing beats the convenience of individually packaged servings for her children.
''But for the majority of your life, [bulk purchases] work out really well,'' she said.