Learn the first steps on journey to savings

Jill Cataldo

Q: I buy only for myself, and don't know how to budget for food. I'm trying to figure out how much I could or should spend each week. How often do I stock up? How do you decide which stores to shop?

A: Knowing where to start can be overwhelming for a new coupon shopper! First, think about your grocery bills today. Make a mental list of what you buy most frequently. This list may include cereal, pasta, bottled juices and other packaged items, fresh meat and produce and personal care items, such as toothpaste.

Aim to cut your current budget in half. While some weeks your outlay may be higher or lower, each week's bill should average out to half of what you spend today.

How do you do this? By saving coupons to use during a good sale and by stocking up when prices are lowest! It's crucial to shop according to the pricing cycles at a store.

Prices fluctuate high to low on any product, typically in a 12-week pattern. Perhaps you usually purchase only what you'll use in a week. But now focus on a longer time frame.

Stock up on an item you frequently use when it hits its lowest price; buy enough to last 12 weeks, which is when you can expect its price to again hit a low. If you eat one box of cereal every two weeks, buy six when your favorite brand goes on sale. If you eat a bag of frozen vegetables every week, buy 12 when they go on sale if you have freezer space!

Any time you see an item on sale, especially if it is a half or a third off its regular price, buy multiples that equal the item's original price. So if a jar of pasta sauce priced at $2.99 is on sale for 99 cents, buy three jars. Even if you don't use coupons, you'll pay $2.99 for three jars instead of one. This is how you start building your stockpile.

At about the 12-week mark, you will have shopped through one entire sales cycle at your store. You'll see the prices on your grocery staples fluctuate and you'll develop a sense for a good deal.

This is true for meats and produce, too. While those items are a little more difficult to find coupons for, watching your price-per-pound helps cut these prices down.

If you have the freezer space to stock up on meats, do so.

As far as stores, I look at the ads, see what stores have the best sales for the week and shop there. Other shoppers chase deals store to store.

When you're able to shop ahead of your needs, you will pay what you want to pay. You won't get trapped, thinking, "I need laundry detergent this week, so I'll pay whatever price it happens to be today."

Jill Cataldo, is a coupon workshop instructor. Visit www.jillcataldo.com.