The average American family spends $537 per month on food -- $312 directly on groceries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey. Although it may not seem like it, food costs are still one of the most flexible areas in most families' budgets. While you may have little control over your mortgage or day care costs, you can probably save money on groceries.
Wondering where to start? Try these turbocharged tips.
The average manufacturer's coupon is now worth $1.20, according to food marketing analyst Phil Lempert of SupermarketGuru.com. That's a nice amount, but serious savers combine these coupons with in-store coupons and good sales. Sites like CouponMom.com (free) and TheGroceryGame.com ($10 for eight weeks) offer weekly sales-tracking services for most states and major grocery stores. They'll tell you which items are on rock-bottom sale and alert you to manufacturers' coupons you can use.
Manufacturers' coupons abound in most Sunday newspapers and at sites like Coupons.com, SmartSource.com and Redplum.com. According to Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com, serious couponers buy several Sunday newspapers or exchange coupons with frugal friends so they can buy multiples of favorite items.
Many avid couponers stockpile large amounts of nonperishable groceries and toiletries purchased on sale. Carrie Kirby, who blogs for Chicagonow.com/frugalista, once filled the entire cargo hold of her Subaru with cans of her favorite soda. "My basement shelves hold enough of things like toothpaste and cereal -- often purchased for 25 cents or less -- to last our family six months to a year," she says.
And if a family member gets ill or loses a job, you'll have a nicely stocked food pantry during a rocky time.
Savvy shoppers can score huge deals on groceries and household supplies by shopping at drugstores like Walgreens, CVS or RiteAid Pharmacies. As an incentive to get you in their doors and back again, these stores offer rock-bottom sales on everything from canned soup to cleaning supplies. Combine the sales with store and manufacturers' coupons and many of your purchases may be free, says blogger Kirby. "I haven't paid a dime for shampoo or toothpaste in more than two years," she says.
How it works: At Walgreens.com, click the "weekly ad" tab; certain advertised items offer register rewards you can use like cash on your next Walgreens purchase. At CVS.com, click on the "extra care" link to sign up for a free store card. When you use it, you'll earn 2 percent in "extra bucks" (CVS store credit) on every store or online purchase. Certain purchases, noted in the "weekly store ad" link, also generate extra bucks you can redeem on your next visit. At RiteAid.com, click the "single check rebates" icon. That site requires you to submit receipts to earn monthly rebates.
Extreme couponer Crystal Paine of Moneysavingmom.com offers helpful tutorials for the Walgreens and CVS programs and countless others on her site.
Families -- not just businesses -- can band together and form buying clubs to purchase groceries at wholesale prices.
There are some logistics required, but a buying club could make sense if you don't have a warehouse-club type store nearby. Club representatives fax or e-mail a group order to the wholesaler, arrange for delivery and divvy up the goods. Generally, items are purchased by the case, then shared. Many wholesalers offer produce, organic items, baby supplies and paper goods in addition to nonperishable food items.
To find a club in your area, search online for "grocery buying club" and your city's name, or check sites like unitedbuyingclubs.com or CoopDirectory.org.
Frugal families don't eat from a box or heat a frozen package. However, for supercharged savings, you can go a step further and even make things like cheese, baby food, jam and drink mixes.
"You can save significant money -- and really improve the quality and nutritional value of your food -- by cooking more at home," says nutritionist Leanne Ely of Charlotte, N.C.
Ely's suggestions for home cooks who want to reap even bigger savings:
- Make your own yogurt (an electric yogurt maker helps; look for used ones at thrift stores).
- Cook dried, bagged beans rather than buying canned.
- Make your own chicken stock rather than buying it in cans or boxes.
Jot down a week's worth of dinner ideas before you head to the grocery store, suggests Ely. This tried-and-true practice discourages impulse-buying, helps you plan cheaper meals around what's on sale or in season, and keeps you out of the fast-food drive-through lane.
A modern twist on menu planning: Subscribe to a service like SavingDinner.com or e-Mealz.com. For a small fee you'll get a weekly meal plan online or by e-mail, along with a shopping list. Some services offer kosher, gluten-free and low-fat meal options.
Challenge yourself to get through one week every quarter (or more often, if you can) without setting foot in the grocery store, says Mary Hunt, author of "Debt-Proof Living." Use leftovers, unbury freezer items and clean out your pantry. Chances are, you have more food on hand than you think. Use the money you've saved on groceries to pay down debt, bolster your savings or even make a contribution to charity.
How much money do you spend per month on groceries? Let us know!
More From Bankrate.com