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Buying on a budget; Simple tips can help you save money on groceries without coupons

Yes, there are some extreme couponers who manage to spend next to nothing at the grocery store. But you might not have the time it takes to be that sort of pro or perhaps you wouldn't benefit from the effort because coupons usually aren't available for the items you regularly buy. However, you can keep costs under control without coupons. Just follow these tips:

1. Choose the right store.

One of the best ways to lower grocery costs is to shop at stores that have the lowest prices. For example, a basket of 15 items recently purchased at Kroger cost $10 more than the same items purchased at Wal-Mart ($53.87 versus $43.50). When we priced a basket of 10 items at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, the tab at Trader Joe's was $20 cheaper.

It might seem a little time-consuming to actually run this experiment yourself. But you only have to do it once -- and the savings could be substantial. Think of it this way: If you were buying a big-ticket item, such as a TV, you'd probably invest some time to shop around and research prices. Although your weekly grocery bill may not seem like a major expenditure, you're shelling out $10,400 a year if you're spending $200 a week. That's a lot more than most TVs -- which you could easily afford to buy if you cut your weekly grocery bill in half.

2. Find alternatives to expensive items.

The next time you go to the grocery, hang on to your receipt and circle the most expensive items. Then, consider lower-cost alternatives for those items to rack up real savings on future shopping trips. For instance, red meat -- as you probably know -- isn't cheap. A package of four sirloin steaks costs three times as much as a package of four chicken breasts.

Other budget busters are organic items and pricey cheeses. But you can lower the cost of these items if you comparison shop, opt for generic brands, buy produce only when it's in season and become more selective about the items you buy. For example, consider buying organic only for produce that is most susceptible to pesticide residue (see the Environmental Working Group's list of the dirty dozen). As for the fancy cheese, consider it a treat and buy it sparingly.

3. Plan, plan, plan.

Before you shop, plan your menu for the week. This will limit the trips you make to the grocery, as well as impulse buys. The website ZipList.com makes it easy to create a grocery list, which you can access on any phone (not just a smartphone) while you're shopping. Plus, the site has more than 300,000 recipes, provides recipe recommendations based on ones you've already chosen and will add the ingredients you need to buy for recipes you select to your shopping list. Just be sure to make your grocery list while you're at home so you can scan your refrigerator and pantry to see what you actually need.

4. Use what you have.

This goes hand-in-hand with planning. Use what you have so it doesn't go bad and you don't waste gas money on an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. The cooking site Gojee.com can help you find ways to use food items you already have.

5. Skip prepared and convenience foods.

Don't pay extra for the grocery store to do your kitchen chores for you. Buy vegetables in their natural form -- rather than washed, cut and packaged in sealed bags -- because they're cheaper that way. For example, butternut squash recently was $1.28 per pound, but the diced, 12-ounce packaged version was about $1 more at the same store. And stay away from the prepared food section of the store because you pay a premium for salads and other dishes already made for you. Also avoid prepackaged meals, such as Lunchables ($3 to $4 each), because it's cheaper to buy bread, cheese and deli meat, and assemble sandwiches on your own.

6. Stock up when items you regularly buy go on sale.

Some people advocate planning your weekly menu around what's on sale at the grocery. But this approach can backfire for a few reasons. Although on sale, these items still might be pricier than things you normally would buy. And you might end up with a lot of food you don't know how to prepare or that few people in your family will actually eat. Instead, when items you regularly buy go on sale, stock up. Don't think of that sale as a one-time opportunity to get a single helping of your favorite food for less. If the item has a long shelf life (or if you have room to freeze it), buy several and score big savings.

7. Check unit prices.

Make sure you're really getting the most bang for your buck by checking items' unit prices, which most stores display. This price typically shows how much you're paying per ounce and can point you to the better deal. For example, a 24-pack of frozen waffles at Wal-Mart recently was 5 cents less per ounce than the 10-pack. For some items, though, you'll get a better deal buying several smaller packages rather than one large package. That's why you should always look at unit price.

8. Buy certain items in bulk.

You can pay a lot less buying toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, batteries, rice and pasta in bulk at the warehouse club. And other items such as large packages of chicken breasts tend to be several dollars less than smaller packages at the grocery store. Notice, these are items that are nonperishable or that can be frozen. Don't buy bulk items that will go bad before you can eat the entire amount.

9. Look up or down.

Name-brand items, which tend to be more expensive, usually are placed at eye-level. So when you're shopping, look up (or down) for cheaper items, including generics. Scan the top and bottom shelves to find items that are several cents to several dollars cheaper than their strategically placed name-brand equivalents.

10. Don't buy personal care items at the grocery store.

Unless you do your grocery shopping at a SuperTarget or a Wal-Mart Supercenter, you're better off buying shampoo, toothpaste, cotton balls and other personal-care products at a drugstore or dollar store, where they're cheaper.