With the economy still not back on the fast track to recovery from the recent recession, many people are looking for ways to squeeze a few more dollars out of their monthly budgets. Groceries are often a target for savings and, with a little practice, you can save money at the grocery store like a pro.

Be forewarned, however, that the retailers and the manufacturers are out to pick your wallet. Unwary shoppers can easily fall for fake specials and colorful ad copy. The trick is to know whether what you're buying is a true bargain and to stick to your playbook. Here are four ways to make sure you're getting the best deals the grocery store has to offer:

Keep a Price Book
Just because a shiny flyer says something is on sale, it doesn't mean that it truly is. You need to know how much the item is normally to know if it's a deal or not. The best way to assemble this information is to keep your local store's regular prices on the groceries you buy the most often in a notebook. For example, if you know that your favorite cola is normally $1.49 and it's on sale for 99 cents, it's time to stock up. After working with a price book for a period of time, you will start remembering prices and knowing what your "trigger" sale price is.

Learn the Sales Cycles
Once you have determined that a sale item is a good deal (and that it is something you would buy anyway), you need to decide how much of it to buy. On one hand, you want to buy enough so that you don't have to buy it at full price for a while. On the other, you don't want to tie up more money and storage space than needed. The two components to "right-sizing" your sale buys are assessing how much of the product you go through and how often it goes on sale. The first is easy to calculate by tracking how much you use. For example, write down how often you open a new package of dishwasher detergent. You may go through a package a month. This tells you that buying 200 packages on sale is pointless because you won't use it all. Learning the sales cycle takes a bit more time and each store chain does it differently. Some stores put certain items on sale at fixed intervals like clockwork. On average, for example, you may find that milk is on sale one week per month. The goal is to be able to buy enough of a good sale to get you through to the next one.

Be Prepared to Invest in Sales
When faced with a significant sale of an item that stores well and doesn't often go on sale, apply a substantial amount of your grocery budget to it. If you do this for all such sales, you will end up spending far less on average than those who buy their week's worth of groceries every week. It may mean that one week you buy two cases of canned corn and 50 rolls of toilet paper, and the next you pick up 25 pounds of ground beef for the freezer and 10 tubes of toothpaste. You'll get used to the odd looks from cashiers after a while and, in the meantime, you will be saving a ton on your overall grocery bill.

Know Coupon Policies
While paying attention to sales will save you more money on average than clipping coupons, using them can add to your overall savings. Find out your local store's coupon policy which is likely outlined on its website. Some stores don't accept online coupons, some take competitors' coupons, and some double or even triple the face value of some coupons. For those who want to become serious couponers, there are several websites that outline the best coupons in weekend newspapers and offer strategies as to how best to use them.

The Bottom Line
You can save a significant amount of money in the checkout aisle of your grocery store if you focus on the math and forget the hype. Smart grocery shoppers learn when to buy and, more importantly, when to leave something on the shelf.

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