Storing up savings

Consumers turn to online sites for ways to trim their grocery costs

Your Money

September 17, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

Wallet? Check.

Organizer? Check.

Database printout? Check.

With gasoline prices and electric bills shooting through the roof, more folks are turning to one of the oldest tricks in the family budgeting book: trimming the grocery bill.

But many now go beyond stocking up at warehouse clubs and clipping coupons by seeking out Web sites that arm shoppers with detailed comparison information on weekly sales.

Three years ago, Cindy O'Connor, a stay-at-home mother of seven, hated grocery shopping because every trip gave her a bad case of sticker shock.

"Going into the grocery store was always a stomach-knotting experience for me," she said.

To keep their $800 monthly grocery budget in line, O'Connor said, "we just did without, or I bought store brands and cheap stuff."

O'Connor, 46, has six children at home - including two teenage boys - but she now spends far less on food, even though prices have gone up and her growing children eat more.

She said she now spends $80 to $150 a week on food - a monthly savings of at least $200 - thanks to her subscription to the Grocery Game, a weekly online list of the best sales and coupon deals at major grocery stores.

"I definitely need help with my grocery bill," said O'Connor, of Fort Worth, Texas. "I never couponed before because I thought it was too hard and too complicated. I probably still wouldn't do it on my own, but with the list, I know exactly what to get and what coupons to pull out, and it is very easy."

"As my family is growing, you expect to pay more, even with prices going up," she said. "But I buy more name-brand stuff than I used to, and I get it cheaper than the store brands."

Grocery Game members - or "players," as they are called - pay $10 every eight weeks for a weekly list of the best sales at their favorite stores.

The data also list any newspaper coupons available for those sale items, and the date that the coupon appeared in newspapers. Additional store lists are $5 each every eight weeks. A four-week trial costs $1.

There are many other grocery savings Web sites, most of them free.

One of the more popular free sites is www.couponmom.com, which offers a virtual coupon organizer, links to printable coupons, tips on cutting gasoline costs and money-saving grocery-shopping strategies.

The site, headed by Stephanie Nelson, "The Savings Mom" on Good Morning America, stresses helping out those less fortunate with its "Cut Out Hunger" program.

Web site users are urged to contribute to their local food pantries by using coupons to obtain products free or for pennies on the dollar.

The budgeting Web site www.stretcher.com has a "Grocery Store Tricks" article that explains some of the techniques that stores use to encourage shoppers to stray from their lists and offers ways to avoid temptation.

Another Web site, www.grocerysavingtips.com, offers the kind of informal and practical advice you might expect to get from a frugal friend or neighbor. "Not using a grocery coupon on an item that you're going to purchase anyway is just like throwing money away," advises Michelle Jones, the Web site's editor and North Carolina mother of four. "And, yes, it does take a little time each week to clip the coupons and take them to the store. But just like earning money takes time, so does saving money."

Jones, like Nelson, asks those who use her free Web site to use their savings to help those in need.

"Being the savvy grocery shoppers that we are, we can also help our local food banks and other charities by sharing our best bargains throughout the year. The more we save, the more we can give!" she writes.

Grocery Game members also seek ways to get bargains on things needed by food pantries through the site's message boards, on which members also trade recipes and storage tips, and dole out money-saving advice.

A popular topic on the message boards is the issue of stockpiling, a major component of playing the Grocery Game.

By shopping off the list and stockpiling sale items, Grocery Game players build up stores of food at home and reduce the amount of money they have to spend on food every week.

"There are very few things I need to buy," O'Connor said. "Basically, I shop to stockpile, and whatever I have a coupon for, that is what I buy."

She said her average savings is 45 percent to 50 percent a week. Her personal best was a 68 percent savings in a single trip.

Grocery Game creator Teri Gault started the business in 2000 and has more than 100,000 members in all 50 states.

After years of tracking grocery prices using 3-by-5-inch index cards, Gault figured that with the Internet and e-mail, she could use her knowledge to help others. She tested her first electronic lists on her coupon-hating sister, who was immediately hooked. A business was born.

Although most "gamers" are moms, Gault said her lists are catching on with single adults and college students whose budgets are crimped by rising gas prices, especially in her home state of California.

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