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Secrets to supermarket savings

Precut veggies, triple-washed lettuce and prepared side dishes at the deli counter come at a high cost. © iStockphoto.com/Sean Locke Precut veggies, triple-washed lettuce and prepared side dishes at the deli counter come at a high cost. © iStockphoto.com/Sean Locke

Does this sound like you? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average family of four is spending about $100 a month more at the grocery store than it did a year ago. Do the math: That's an additional $1,200 a year for the same amount of peanut butter and toilet paper. Fortunately, "the grocery budget is a place where most families can find some extra dollars that can be used somewhere else, like a savings fund," says financial writer Ann Logue, author of Socially Investing for Dummies.

Here are some strategies for stretching your supermarket dollar:

Have a list in hand

"The key to saving money is having a list," says Phil Lempert, editor of Supermarket Guru. A list is important for two reasons: so you don't buy stuff you already have and so you'll be less susceptible to impulse buys. According to Lempert, people who just walk up and down the aisles without a list spend 40 percent more on groceries. When Chris Beard, a mother of two in Portland, Ore., goes shopping, she's got dinner mapped out and a detailed list in hand. "I don't put broccoli in the cart unless I know exactly what I'm using it for. Otherwise it turns into green slime."

Make fewer trips -- and make do

One reason having a list is so important is so you don't have to go back to the store. Just entering the supermarket puts us at risk for impulse buying. Beard only goes shopping every 10 to 14 days. (Her kids drink almond milk; otherwise this wouldn't be possible, she says.) What about produce? "When the bananas are gone, they're gone," she says. "I buy lots of apples and carrots, which don't go bad. I buy a mixture of fresh and frozen vegetables. And we're not too proud to eat canned fruit if that's all there is."

Calculate the cost of convenience

Precut veggies, triple-washed lettuce and prepared side dishes at the deli counter come at a high cost. Single-serving bags of chips and cookies may save your waistline, but they're much more expensive than just buying a big bag. If time is tight, consider washing and chopping your vegetables for the week on a Sunday afternoon, or make your own snack-size portions of chips and cookies as soon as you get home from the store.

Follow your own path

Store design professionals want to put you in a good mood when you walk in the door. Why? "The better your mood, the more time you'll spend at the store," says Lempert. "And the more time you spend in the store, the more you'll buy." So how do they woo you? By putting the produce and bakery departments near the entrance. The colors of the fruits and vegetables and the smell of bread and cookies create a positive, emotional experience, putting you in the mood to buy. Lempert recommends that you start shopping in the "unemotional" center aisles, with canned and packaged goods.

Stock up on sale items

Just make sure they're items your family really likes to eat. "I bought 15 boxes of Spiderman cereal for a dollar each. The clerk laughed, but my son loves that cereal, and it keeps," says Logue. But don't get carried away, cautions Lempert. If there's a steaming deal on your favorite spaghetti sauce, make sure you have the space to store it before you buy 10 jars.

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