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Originally published Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 5:59 PM

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Money tip: How to save on groceries — the lazy way

Chicago Tribune

Coupons are in the newspaper, in the store, online, on your cellphone and on your previous checkout receipt. There are shopping lists and loyalty cards and sales fliers and price books and generics and warehouse-club memberships. Saving big money at the supermarket can take significant time and effort.

What if you could still reap great grocery-store discounts without all the work? Turns out you can.

Call it the lazy guide to supermarket savings. You won't save as much as the supershoppers who are willing to spend time planning, matching coupons to sale items and even visiting multiple stores. But with a few simple techniques, the savings can be huge.

The American family of four spends nearly $9,000 a year on food, according to the federal government's Consumer Expenditure Survey. Add paper goods, personal-care products and other supermarket items, and that household is spending $10,000 annually. An easy 20 percent savings totals two grand a year.

The key for some people is to keep it simple. "Life is too short to be completely overwhelmed with something," said Annette Economides, co-author with her husband, Steve, of the new book "Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half With America's Cheapest Family: Includes So Many Innovative Strategies You Won't Have to Cut Coupons." "It is a matter of baby steps."

Here's how to save the lazy way.

• Get a loyalty card. Sign up for a store loyalty card, which gives you access to most of the store sales. It's a one-time effort. You'll luck into savings over and over without even trying because you happened to buy something that was discounted for loyalty-card members. Just scan the card at checkout.

• Grab a flier. On the way into the supermarket, pick up a sales flier and pay special attention to what's on the front cover, said Stephanie Nelson, author of "The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half." Many are loss leaders, meaning the supermarket is selling them so cheap it actually loses money on the items. If anything strikes your fancy, buy it. "Plan meals around the half-price meat or chicken or the featured produce item," Nelson said.

• Be brand-flexible. If there's only one brand of pasta sauce you like, buy it and move on. But if you're not picky about peanut butter, for example, buy the one that's on sale or buy the cheaper one. If packages are different sizes, check the shelf for unit prices or whip out your cellphone and use its calculator function to convert prices to unit prices, such as cents per ounce (price divided by units).

• Buy store brands. Private-label brands are so much better than they used to be. A recent Consumer Reports study found no pattern of quality difference between store brands and name brands. Of 21 store-brand food items it tested, 11 were judged as equal to name brands, and three were judged as superior. For example, Food Lion chicken-noodle soup beat Campbell's, and America's Choice (A&P) hot dogs beat Oscar Mayer. Name brands won the other seven matchups. Consumer Reports found that buying store brands saved 30 percent. Better yet, buying store brands requires no coupons or extra effort.

• Stock up. If you happen upon a sale for an item you use regularly, buy multiples and freeze or store the rest. You might as well stock your pantry and freezer with sale items rather than full-priced ones. Again, no extra effort.

• Shop less. Economides suggests the busy shopper hit the store just once a week, no matter what. That alone saves money by avoiding impulse purchases. They're easier to resist if you just stay out of the store and make do with what you have at home. This exercise also trains you to think ahead, so your next weekly trip is more efficient and complete.

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