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No coupons: Secrets to beat rising food costs

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WEST VALLEY CITY — It was exciting.

Aimie Buxton was saving money big time using coupons. Boxes and boxes of name-brand food filled up her long-term food storage.

"I used to be big into coupons," Buxton said. "But the food I was eating was not healthy. It was processed and not as good as homemade. On the back of packages the ingredients were not what I wanted to eat."

So one day she suddenly stopped doing the coupon thing.

And she is saving more money.

This would not surprise Jonni McCoy, the author of "Miserly Moms." When McCoy downsized from a two-income family to one income she found food was the area in the budget where she could save the most money. Her tips ended up in her book — which changed its subtitle in the latest edition from being about living on one income to "Living Well on Less in a Tough Economy."

Those tips cut her food bill in half.

Couponless and loving it

"I hate coupons," McCoy said. "I don't use coupons. And I don't encourage people to use coupons because coupons are for name brand items — which are more expensive than off-brands. They are for convenience foods, which you can make for half from scratch. You fare better without a coupon."

McCoy even had a showdown on Gayle King's television show once where she was pitted against a couponing expert. The coupon expert and McCoy were each assigned a family and asked to buy a week's worth of groceries. The coupon method cost $75. McCoy's method cost $50. "Coupons look flashy, but in the long run you do better shopping sales, making food from scratch, avoiding convenience food and buying off-brands."

McCoy thinks extreme couponing sends the wrong message of getting something for nothing. "It is very frustrating to watch that," she said.

By avoiding convenience foods, people will avoid preservatives and eat more healthily. McCoy follows the food pyramid more closely than the average family. "The average family's plate is lopsided," she said. "They have way too much protein — way too much refined carbs and very little vegetables. I flip that."

Stylishly frugal and healthy

Living more healthily is also part of what Sara Tetreault (pronounced Taytroh) of Portland, Oregon writes about on her blog, GoGingham.com. Tetreault said she and her husband decided to live frugally when they were married 22 years ago. "We decided to live this way as a way to save money and have choices when we were older — meaning now," she said.

She calls it "stylishly frugal living" — a way to live better for less money. And living better is about having together time, such as eating and cooking together with her two teenagers.

Tetreault is a fan of the bulk bin section of grocery stores. She likes how there is no packaging — so it is not only cheaper, it is more environmentally friendly. "We try to be aware of the amount of packaging," she said. "So we avoid things like the carryout roasted chicken you get at Costco with its huge plastic container."

When Tetreault's kids were younger, they would help her with scooping food out of the bulk bins at the store or using calculators to help figure out the price per unit of other items. "That was back when they thought it was fun," she said.

Now her children take turns cooking one meal a week. "To cook at home, you have to be at home," Tetreault said. "It's nice for families to eat dinner together."

But it takes planning. And planning is where much of the savings come.

Meal planning

Tetreault plans her meals on Sunday because she shops on Mondays. She will use, for example, her crockpot to make beans on Monday, which will give something for dinner on Monday and Tuesday. That way she is only cooking one night. Wednesday night, could be a restaurant night and Thursday could be a simple meal at home.

Tetreault plans meals one week at a time — paying attention to how other events might affect when everybody could eat together. Some nights need a quick dinner. Other nights have more time for cooking. "I do a lot of preparation the night before," she said. "Last night I put everything together for a fruit smoothie that I served for breakfast."

The biggest advantage of meal planning, Tetreault said, is she is only buying food she knows her family is going to eat for that week. "I'm not buying food that sits around and possibly goes bad," she said. "Meal planning cuts down on food waste."

It isn't just about saving money. It is also about not wasting food. Money is saved at the purchase — but also by not throwing food out because it has gone bad or nobody will eat it. Meal planning includes planning to have and eat leftovers.

Start with sales

Andrea Woroch in California knows about frugal planning. Her family were immigrants from conflict-torn Ukraine. "We were raised to 'Finish everything on your plate — including that glob of ketchup you put on your plate — because who knows when you will eat again,'" she said. "We always had a frugal mentality growing up."

Woroch, who is a consumer savings expert who handles media relations for online coupon sites and discount shopping sites, thinks people don't realize how much money they are wasting.

She thinks the best way to plan meals is to begin with the items that a store has on sale for that week. Those sale items are in the newspapers and are also available online. "You can find free recipes online if the sale features a fruit, vegetable or meat you are not familiar with," she said.

McCoy also writes about this in “Miserly Moms.” Before planning a week's worth of meals, McCoy recommends looking at the sale flyers from several local grocery stores. Use the items on the front and back of the flyers as the base items for the meals. McCoy says this could save up to 35 percent on groceries. If there isn't a lot of variety to choose from, that doesn't mean a variety of meals can't be made from one item. McCoy says chuck roast, for example, could become pot roast, beef stew, fajitas, chili, tacos, beef stroganoff and so forth.

Be careful though. Stores make up the losses they have on sale items by charging more on other items. Buy the things on sale at several stores and buy things that are not on sale at whatever store has the lowest overall prices. Also, be careful with warehouse club stores. Some things are cheaper — but not everything. McCoy says to know your prices.

Impulse power

There is nothing new about having a shopping list, but Woroch said countless surveys show people who shop with a list are more efficient, save time and make less impulse purchases. How much less?

Woroch said people spend an average of $20 on impulse every time they go to a store. If a person shops three times in one week, that is an extra $60. Cut that back to just one shopping trip, and that is $40 saved. "The less you shop, the more you prepare, the less you are going to buy on impulse," she said. "I do it too, so I try to stay out of the stores on an everyday basis."

And when in the store, Woroch says to pay close attention to the price per unit — even if something is on sale. The sale is not always the least expensive alternative. "Cheerios on sale isn't necessarily less expensive than a generic brand," she said.

In the last six months, stores have begun heavily promoting ten for ten deals — bulk discounts, Woroch said. Consumers see ten items for ten dollars as being a better value than one item for one dollar. But often the fine print says you could get the same discount for only a few items and don't need to buy in bulk.

Multiple deals also tend to hide the price per unit. "There could be products right next to it that are actually cheaper," Woroch said, "but you don't realize it because you are convinced the sale sign is the best deal."

So many tips

There are many tips and tricks to saving money while shopping. Woroch said if someone is going to buy name brands, coupons can be a good idea. In addition to the newspaper (obviously the best choice!) Woroch said websites like www.CouponSherpa.com (which she promotes) can aggregate offers that can be put on a customer's loyalty card.

Woroch said milk and eggs might be cheaper at drug stores.

Convenience foods are budget killers. McCoy laid out the costs in her book: Restaurants cost six to ten times more and frozen meals cost four times more than home meals. Prepackaged mixes are three times more than scratch. Precut foods cost twice as much as doing your own slicing.

You're going to make it after all

So making more things at home is one of the most profitable of McCoys tips to save money on food. Baking from scratch takes about the same amount of time as using baking mixes, she says. People can even make their own mixes in larger batches.

Snacks are a great area to reduce costs and are easy to substitute with homemade items like cookies or popcorn. Popsicles can be made out of pureed fruits or flat soda pop.

McCoy was surprised to learn 30 percent of her grocery bill was for beverages. Water is, of course, the cheapest substitute. She says parents can allow one cup of juice or milk at a meal and if family members are still thirsty, they can have water after that. She also points out instant drink mixes are up to ten times cheaper than soda pop.

When Aimie Buxton was expecting a child about two years ago, she said, "Meat really grossed me out." So she began using textured vegetable protein or TVP. She said she still uses it in place of ground meat — especially in recipes where meat is not the star like lasagna, chili and baked beans. She uses beef base or bouillon to add the meaty taste. The TVP costs about $1.88 a pound.

Buxton also likes to make her own yoghurt-like dairy product called kefir. Kefir grains are a mixture of bacteria and yeasts that ferment milk into the creamy tangy kefir. The starter kefir grains are then strained out to use again indefinitely. She then puts the kefir in a blender along with apricots canned from her mother's tree and serves it as a breakfast smoothie for her, her husband Seth and their three children Iris (1 1/2 years old), Wyatt (3) and Olivia (6). "It takes zero effort," she said.

And to save money doesn't take a lot of effort. Each of the experts interviewed for this article used the word "easy" to describe the small changes people can make that will save big on food. People eat, after all, about 90 meals a month. One dollar in savings per meal is $90. No coupons required.

Jonni McCoy's "Eleven Miserly Guidelines."

1. Don't confuse frugality with depriving yourself

2. Remove little wasters of money

3. Keep track of food prices

4. Don't buy everything at the same store

5. Buy in bulk whenever possible

6. Make your own whenever possible

7. Eliminate convenience foods

8. Cut back on meats

9. Waste nothing

10. Institute a soup and bread night (or baked potato night)

11. Cook several meals at once and freeze them

Source: "Miserly Moms" by Jonni McCoy

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