I’ll admit it. I’m stingy. I fear that as I age, I’ll be one of those geezers that reminisces of the “good ol’ days”, when gas was $1.50/gallon and cars were actually made well. Everywhere I turn, I’m shocked by rising prices on everyday common items. Not only on fuel or rent, but groceries as well.
If you’re like me, you have a written monthly budget, listing your expenses from highest to lowest. Most people find that rent/mortgage/living is their highest expense. From there, car/gas/insurance is a close second, and then generally, food comes next.
Growing up, my Mother would always comment that myself and two teenage brothers were eating her “out of house and home”. It’s not uncommon to spend $500/month or more on a family of 5. And that’s strictly eating meals at home. Start eating out a couple times a week, and that number will easily double.
That being said, there are a lot of ways to cut back on grocery costs. Here are 12 tips to keep food from eating up your budget (pun intended).
1. Shop on a Full Stomach
Raise your hand if you’ve ever walked into a grocery store with an empty stomach. *Guiltily raises hand* Oh yeah? And how did that turn out for you?
I’ve done this more times than I can count. Unfortunately, we’re controlled by our emotions more often than we’d like. If you’re anything like me, your stomach probably has a substantial pull on your decision-making. I openly admit that I turn into a bear whenever I’m hangry (hunger-angry).
Rather than meandering through the isles of the store, mindlessly grabbing at whatever “looks good”, be sure to eat a meal before you go. You’ll be surprised by what you don’t pick off the shelves, ultimately you’re affecting your total bill at the end.
2. Create a Shopping List
This one requires some discipline, as well as some prior planning. Before you walk through the doors of the store, sit down at home and think to yourself, “What do I want to eat this week?” Have specific meals set for every days. Then, go through your pantry cupboards and take inventory of what you already own, and what else you need to buy.
As you’re writing down the list, group like-items together, so you don’t have to backtrack through the store. If you’re going to have tacos one night, and french-dip sandwiches another, write down “tortilla shells” and “sandwich buns” together on the list. Later down the list, you can write down “ground beef” and “roast beef” together.
Resist the urge to deviate from your list. Only purchase food you wrote down previously.
Creating a shopping list not only cuts down on excess spending, it also prevents you from forgetting various ingredients.
3. Use Coupons to Save Money (and know when they’ll hurt you)
Almost every department or grocery store produces a weekly ad promoting their current sales that week. Stores do this because it’s proven to attract customers. Lower prices get customers in the store to spend money, and while they’re there, they often buy other groceries or items they wouldn’t have purchased normally.
In order to really grab a customer’s attention, stores will steeply discount a specific item, sometimes below what they get it at cost. These items are called “loss leaders”.
For example, a store may discount a gallon of milk to $0.99. Other stores can’t compete with this pricing, so it will entice you to come in. Milk, however, is on the very back of the store. As you weave through the isles of the store, you buy more groceries since it’s convenient, more than making up for the loss the store took on that gallon of milk.
Simply be aware of this, knowing that stores are intentionally trying to get you to spend more.
4. Look high and low
Most people are generally 5-feet tall, give or take a couple inches here or there. Stores are very strategic when it comes to placing items on the shelves. They most certainly don’t throw items up there without giving it some thought.
Statistics show that we tend to buy and grab what we see first. Therefore, grocery stores place the name-brand, higher-priced items right at eye level. If you take a second to step back and look both high and low, you’ll often find items of similar quality, or even better, for cheaper.
5. Buy Off-brand
Winco has “Flavorite”, Walmart has “Western Family”. Albertsons, Sams, you name it. They all have a generic brand that they primarily stock. Rarely will you not be able to find an off-brand equivalent of the name-brand. Whether you’re buying pasta or potato chips, you can save a couple bucks (or more) by sticking with off-brand products.
In my experience, I’ve either been pleasantly surprised by how good the generic brands are, or how I actually prefer them to the name brand. When stocking up on food for an entire week or two, sticking to the cheaper brands can save you a lot of money.
6. Buy in bulk when on sale
As a student in college, I remember trying to purposely not buy items in bulk. They were more expensive, and food would generally go bad before I could finish it all. That was for a single person, though.
For a couple or family, however, buying in bulk is key to saving money. While stores such as Sam’s Club or Costco have a yearly membership fee, if you shop there regularly enough, you’ll more than make back the $50 you spent on your membership, in savings returned.
Again, the key here, however is to limit your impulse buys. In addition to groceries, these stores also have electronics, furniture, and jewelry. It’s easy to get distracted by something that you don’t truly need. A large impulse purchase can very quickly wipe out any potential savings you might have earned.
Even as a student, there are a few items that I would purchase in bulk. Toiletries, soda, canned food, and other non-perishable items are things I would purchase, because they would never expire, and I knew I would need them sooner or later.
7. Avoid pre-prepped meals/tv dinners
Not only are they un-healthy for you, they’re also more expensive. The convenience factor may be more appealing, but TV/frozen dinners often come in much more expensive than making something from scratch. Rather than buying a frozen pasta dinner, why not boil up a bunch of noodles and then throw in a jar of sauce? Instead of spending $20/meal for your family, you can make the equivalent for $6-7.
I hear people explain that they don’t have time to cook dinner. Especially after a long day of work, the last thing you want to do is cook a meal. That’s why I resort to meal-prepping. Every Sunday night, from 7:00-10:00pm at night, I block out that chunk of time to prepare all of my meals for the week. 3 hours may seem like a large time investment, but spread out over 7 meals throughout the next week, it’s more than worth it. I often check Pinterest for my meals that week.
8. Frozen vegetables/fresh vegetables
While fresh vegetables might taste better, you can save money by purchasing large bags of frozen meals to cut back.
The other day, I walked into the store to buy some asparagus, and was dumbfounded to see the price of $5. I’m cheap, alright? But seriously — $5!? Buying fresh veggies this way could add up quickly. I opted for a bag of frozen peas and carrots instead. Not only was it cheaper, that large bag of frozen vegetables can last me more than a single meal.
9. Buy fruits and veggies in season
Watermelon and strawberries in the middle of January is going to cost you a pretty penny. They may look delicious, but they probably won’t taste anywhere near as good as what you remember from the summer. Importing fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world are expensive, which of course they push onto the consumer.
Do the best you can to curve your cravings, and stick to basic fruits that are readily available during the winter months, like apples, bananas, and oranges. As the weather starts to warm up, you can start mixing other fruits into your diet. You may even be able to buy them and freeze them for the winter months as well.
10. Be mindful of food portions
Taking a look at the graphic below, it’s easy to see how our portion sizes and calorie intakes have increased exponentially the last 20 years. Simply put, we don’t need that much food. Rather than buying more than you need, buy less than you think you need. This will ensure that you won’t have any leftovers or wasted food, and I bet you’ll be surprised by how perfectly satisfied you are the end of a meal.
11. Don’t take kids shopping
Not only do kids not behave well in stores, they often grab at things, cry, or ask for everything they see. The worst is the checkout stand, which is stocked full of toys, gum, and other snacks.
Kids begin to cry, complain, and throw a fit. To keep them happy, we often give in, so as to not cause a scene around others. In addition to not being healthy, it also adds items to our list which we hadn’t planned on before. Remember, we’re only buying items on our list, right?
A friend of mine, a mother of three, once told me, “I wouldn’t dream of taking kids my kids to the store. That’s one of the few times I have completely to myself.” If nothing else, use grocery shopping as a way to make the other spouse stay home with the kids, giving you an hour of child-free chaos.
12. Rice and potatoes
Rice and potatoes are cheap. Not only that, but they go far. You can get a 10-pound bag of potatoes for around $3, generally. Look at this guide for 39 Easy Potato Recipes. There’s a lot of variety that can be created using potatos.
Rice and beans are a staple in countries, such as Brazil. They’re high in protein, keep you full, and are very inexpensive.
What are some of your tips for savings in the grocery store?