It is hard to believe, but Labor Day arrives next Monday, bringing the summer grocery sales to a close. Stores have been working for weeks to clear shelves of seasonal items like inflatable wading pools and beach balls to make room for the upcoming Fall and Winter holiday items.

It may be less obvious, but the end of August and beginning of September also brings an end to those rock bottom sales prices, loss leaders, and coupons for summer groceries like ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, salad dressing, croutons, hot dogs, drink mixes, ice cream, and other picnic items. During Fall, Winter and Spring, these items will typically be priced much higher and opportunities to save money on them far fewer. An item that might cost less than $1 on sale during the summer may cost you as much as $3 to $5 during the off-season. This occurs year after year because stores employ sales cycle strategies designed to enhance their profit margins while controlling your savings.

Grocery store chains know that the “average” shopper buys what they need when they need it and therefore rarely saves more than 10% on their grocery store purchases over the course of a year. In practical terms, this means that the “average” shopper buys a few items on sale each week and then pays extra for the other items they need. This is great for the stores, but not for you. Thankfully, there is a way to work this system of sales cycles to your advantage and achieve significant savings over the course of a year.

The strategy for achieving bigger savings is a simple one: Stock up on items you use a lot of when they are on sale at rock bottom prices. Using ketchup as an example, here is how it works in 3 easy steps:

1. Plan ahead. When you find a great sales price on an item, think past your needs for the upcoming week or month. Consider the following factors in determining how much of the item you should buy on sale:

  • What is the typical “regular” price of ketchup during Fall, Winter and Spring? For this example, let’s say it is $3.49 for a 36 ounce bottle.
  • What is the “rock bottom” sale price? In this case, it is $0.99 for the same 36 ounce bottle.
  • Do you have any coupons? How about $1 on one bottle or $0.50 on one bottle that can be doubled for a $1 discount? How many of these coupons do you have? For this example, let’s assume you have an ample supply of high value coupons, so that the price you pay on sale with coupons works out to $0 per bottle, i.e. for free!
  • How much ketchup do you currently have on hand? Let‘s say ½ bottle in the frig and one full bottle in your pantry.
  • How much ketchup do you use during one year? (This may not be obvious to you and stores count on that.) During the summer you may use 5 bottles at home, take some to potlucks and leave them behind, lose some at picnics, use an extra 5 at family reunions or company parties. But what about the rest of the year? Do you use it in meat loaf? Do the kids use it to cover their vegetables during the winter? Do you have holiday recipes that call for it as an ingredient? You can look at recipes you used last year to get a better idea of how many bottles you need to buy. Don’t worry about being exact, just think through how much ketchup your family is likely to use before the next “rock bottom” sales cycle begins 9 months from now.
  • Consider the shelf life of the item. You can use our Guide to Shelf Lives or read the “use by” or “best by” date on a bottle in the store. For ketchup, the shelf life is in the range of 2 to 3 years, so it isn’t a problem if you end up slightly over-estimating the amount of ketchup you will use in the coming year. For items with a shorter shelf life, you may want to make a more conservative estimate so you won’t end up throwing out unused food later.
  • Prioritize your storage space. If you have a small pantry or storage area, buying 10 bottles of ketchup for free may not make good sense. You may need that space for higher priority items or those that are normally higher priced and for which higher sales savings are possible right now. For example, maybe you have a higher priority need for a $6 jar of mayo that is currently on sale for $0.99, or $10 laundry detergent that is on sale for $2. Looking ahead a few months, you may also want to set aside room for holiday items that you will purchase on sale in the Fall, such as flour, sugar, chocolate chips and baking mixes. The idea is to maximize your savings in a way that is customized to your specific needs. To that end, you may want to consider storing some items in “unique” spaces. Toilet paper and paper towel rolls can often be stored under beds; bottles and cans may fit into a closet under hanging clothing. Just remember that there are creative, practical ways to store items.

2. Keep organized. When you bring in “new” items, rotate the older items forward in your pantry to ensure they are used before they reach their expiration date. Doing this on a routine basis will help you remember what you already have, and whether or not you are using it at the rate you planned. It may also help to keep “like” items together: for instance, canned vegetables in one area and paper products in a different area. This makes it easier to keep track of what you already have in your pantry before you finalize your shopping lists.

3. Consider alternative uses. From time to time, we all overestimate our needs. If you end up with too much of something, think creatively about how that item could be put to other uses. For example:

If you are overstocked on salad croutons, you can:

  • layer them on top of a casserole
  • use on top of soup
  • crush them for bread crumbs
  • Use them for stuffing

Have too much salad dressing? Consider the following alternatives:

  • Use as a marinade for vegetables in an antipasto
  • Use them to lightly flavor dips
  • Cook or season vegetables, like carrots, with dressing.

There are more possibilities than you might think at first, and with experience you will come to trust your ability to use ingredients in new and unexpectedly pleasant ways. However, if you simply end up with way too much of some item and the shelf life expiration date is on the horizon, you can always donate to food pantries, churches or charity events. These days any donation goes a long way towards helping families in desperate need of food.

The three steps I’ve outlined are general principles that can be used throughout the year. The main thing to keep in mind is that you really do have the power to significantly decrease the amount of money you spend for groceries. It takes a bit of thought and planning, but, in the end, having those extra dollars available to spend on unanticipated expenses can be a real lifesaver.

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1 Comment

  1. One other comment ,,,Always , Always check expiration dates on sale items..I bought 5 (12 pks), of pepsi’s from Krogers the other day, only to find out the 2 (12 pks) of Pesi lime had five days before expiring…. No wonder they tasted funny.. lol…I think stores will put items on sale due to short expiration dates also….

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