When I was in my twenties, I didn’t care how much I would spend at the grocery store. When the shelves of my refrigerator or pantry became bare, I would simply drive to the nearest store and put whatever items looked appetizing into my cart. I rarely prepared home-cooked meals, and would need to run to the store to get an ingredient or two if I did have an inkling to cook something.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I got married and my husband and I began to manage our money as a married couple that I began to see the errors of my ways. As we formed a budget for our household, I realized that our grocery and food spending was out of control. I had no methodology to shop on a budget, nor did I know of any strategies to save money. Therefore, it became my personal mission to decrease our grocery spending.
There are numerous, simple ways that anyone can save money on groceries. Here are 20 tips that I have implemented to shave my grocery bill by 50% or more!
Save by Planning Ahead
Saving money on groceries begins before you step foot in the store. Take time prior to shopping to prepare for your trip – your time invested will really pay off!
1. Create a Menu
Although it may not sound fun, especially if you are the spontaneous type when it comes to dining, creating a menu for what you plan to eat between shopping trips is one of the best ways to save money on groceries. Making a menu ensures that you will have the proper ingredients to prepare a healthy meal at home every night instead of going out to eat or ordering pizza.
Additionally, creating a menu and forming a grocery list of necessary items will enable you to buy everything you need in one trip. This will keep you from forgetting to purchase crucial ingredients, which would cause you to waste time and gas money going back to the store.
2. Design a Standardized List
In addition to items needed to make dinner, you will likely need to purchase items for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and cleaning at the grocery store. Oftentimes, I find that I am so focused on getting what I need to cook meals that these items are forgotten. If I don’t leave them off my list completely, I buy far more than I need!
To avoid this problem, make a standardized list of what you buy on a recurring basis, such as several boxes of cereal, a loaf of bread, diapers, and laundry detergent. This is a great time-saver, as your grocery list will always be partially completed before you even start.
3. Check for Sales
The grocery stores put their weekly sales ad in the Wednesday edition of the local newspaper. They also post them online and leave a stack of ads sitting by the front door. Grab an ad when they come out and use it to put together your grocery list.
Every week I browse through the grocery store circulars before I make my menus, and I make mental notes of what is on sale. If chicken is on sale, I structure my meal plan around chicken dinner recipes. If it’s pork, then we eat pork. If nothing good seems to be on sale, I’ll focus my meals around rice and beans, which are an affordable alternative to meat.
By perusing the circulars, I also learn if there are any items I should stock up on while the price is low. Items generally go on sale in six- to eight-week cycles so if a certain item on sale this week, remember that it is not likely to be on sale again for another two months.
4. Purchase In-Season Produce
One way to stay healthy is by eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, fresh produce can be expensive. To keep the costs down on your produce purchases, try to stick to fruits and vegetables that are in season.
For example, pears are in season during November and December and are less expensive during those months than they are throughout the rest of the year. Therefore, pears make great Thanksgiving and homemade Christmas decorations as well as delicious, affordable staples in your holiday meals.
5. Utilize Coupons
Whether you are an extreme couponer or a causal coupon user, coupons are of immense value to any grocery shopper. Although the savings per coupon can be small, they do add up. For example, I was recently able to save $20 while grocery shopping, even though many of my coupons were for only 25 cents.
It is important, however, to exercise caution while using coupons. While they can save you money, they can also cause you to spend money on impulse purchases. Remember to make your grocery list prior to clipping your coupons. This will ensure that you are not buying items just because you have a coupon. Those extra purchases add up quickly, and can end up costing you more than you save.
6. Memorize Rock-Bottom Prices
If you are utilizing coupons and sales, your goal should be to always purchase every item at its rock-bottom price. To achieve this, you need to memorize the minimum price of an item after sales and coupons, not just the lowered price.
For example, with a store coupon utilized during a sale, you may be able to get toothpaste for 50 cents. However, this is just a lowered price for toothpaste – you may be able to get it for free by combining a sale, store coupon, and manufacturer’s coupon! This means that the rock-bottom price for toothpaste is actually zero.
It may take a while to figure out rock-bottom prices, so it is advisable to jot down what you end up paying for items until you commit it to memory. Once you realize which items you can acquire for free (or close to nothing), you will never want to pay more again.
7. Know Store Policies
I recently went to Kroger to buy some groceries, and brought with me a stack of Publix coupons to use. I usually do not shop at Kroger, but assumed that they would accept their competitor’s coupons. However, while my groceries were being rung up, my Publix coupons were declined and I was unable to save any money. Had I known Kroger’s store policy of not accepting competitor coupons, I could have gone elsewhere to use them.
Verifying whether your store accepts competitor coupons is only one aspect of knowing your store’s policies. It is also important to find out if a supermarket does rain checks, doubles or “stacks” coupons, and accepts expired coupons.
8. Shop Monthly
An alternative to combining sales and coupons is to shop the least number of times possible. The more you shop, the more you will succumb to impulse buys.
To keep yourself out of the grocery store and spend less, try to shop only once per month, and only shop at a maximum of two different stores. While it is more difficult to utilize sales and coupons, you can still take them into account. However, the primary focus of this method is to simply avoid the stores.
9. Choose a Budget-Friendly Store
If you feel pressed for time and can not afford to spend time clipping coupons and matching them up to sales, focus more on shopping at stores that will save you the money with their generally lower prices. Walmart, for example, offers prices that are 20% less than competitors. Aldi and Trader Joe’s are also known to offer everyday low prices. If this is your method for saving money on groceries, avoid costly stores, such as Whole Foods and The Fresh Market.
10. Don’t Forget the Dollar Stores
While many dollar stores do not carry a wide variety of foods, there are a number of items you should buy at the dollar store, and some great savings to be found. One of my favorite things to buy at dollar stores are spices. At supermarkets, spices generally cost several dollars, and I never seem to have coupons, so I simply head to the dollar store to get a stellar price.
However, there are many items at dollar stores that are more expensive by unit price (due to smaller package weight or volume) than a regular grocery store, so shop wisely.
11. Time Your Trip Wisely
First of all, you never want to shop for groceries on an empty stomach. Try to shop around 10 o’clock in the morning to avoid not only a rumbling stomach, but also the afternoon crowds. Additionally, ask your grocery’s deli and bakery if they discount meat and bread on a certain day of the week. One grocery store I frequent sells all its week-old baked goods for one cent on Wednesdays!
Save While at the Store
If you plan well for your grocery shopping trip, your battle is only half over. There are many ways to save at the supermarket, and many pitfalls that need to be avoided.
12. Only Buy What You Need
This may be the most important strategy to save money on groceries, as well as the most difficult to implement. You need self-control to resist the temptation to buy items that are not on your list.
On average, impulse buys increase your bill by 20% to 30%. Avoid browsing the aisles and lingering in the store. Instead, find exactly what you need, make your purchases, and leave the store as soon as possible to avoid being tempted. If this is an area in which you struggle, start off slowly by avoiding one impulse buy this week and trim additional ones from your purchases each subsequent week.
13. Consider Buying Generic Items
When it comes to store brand vs. name brand, I tend to buy generics when there is an item I need, but I do not possess a coupon for the brand name version. In many cases, there are very few differences between most brand name items and generic items, and to be honest, I have found some generic products that I prefer to the brand name, such as cookies, peanut butter, and even cola. Remember, some stores do not offer many generic alternatives to name brands. You may want to stick to stores that stock many store-brand products.
However, you really have to know when it’s worth choosing generic over name brand. Some products from the generic lines go head to head with name brands in terms of quality, while other products are sub par at best. If you buy poor quality products, you may end up tossing them out and wasting the money altogether.Here’s a rundown of what to buy, and what to avoid, when it comes to generic brand products:
What to Buy from Generic Brands:
- Food Staples. Your basics like flour, sugar, cooking oil, and butter will always taste, and work, the same regardless of what the label says.
- Canned Produce. Any basic canned fruit or vegetable will taste the same in a generic brand can. However, you may want to stick to the name brands when buying the fancy mixed fruit cocktails – the generic brands never give you enough cherries.
- Frozen Produce. Name brand frozen produce typically costs twice as much as the generic version, and the store brand often gives you more per bag.
What to Buy from Name Brands:
- Meat. I’ll skip my slimy chicken story and just tell you this: If you’re a stickler for the quality of your meat, you won’t be happy with the generic brand. This goes for everything from t-bone steaks to frozen chicken strips.
- Paper Products. Generic brand paper towels and toilet paper do not hold up as well as the name brands. You end up using twice as much for the same effect, which does not save you any money in the long run.
14. Check the Unit Prices
To ensure that you are getting the best available price on an item, check the unit price, which can be found on the item’s price tag. You need to not only compare different brands, but also different sizes. While buying a bigger package often costs less per unit, that is not always the case.
If you have a calculator – perhaps on your smart phone – use it to do quick calculations when you need to factor in sales and coupons. Just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean the cost per unit is less than another brand or generic.
15. Look High and Low for Savings
Grocery stores use many marketing tactics to coerce consumers into selecting the most expensive items. For example, stores often stock the most expensive items and brands at eye level, and place the cheaper items and brands on the higher and lower shelves. As you are going through the store, remember to check all the shelves for potential savings.
16. Skip Prepared and Pre-cut Items
It can be a great time-saver at home to use prepackaged and prepared foods. Many grocery stores also offer pre-cut or pre-sliced items, such as chopped green peppers or cheese trays. While these types of items are certainly convenient, they are expensive compared to non-prepared items.
Whenever possible, make your food from the most basic ingredients, or even from scratch. I have a friend who makes most of her meals from scratch – she spends only $40 a week on groceries for a family of five without the use of coupons!
17. Buy Aged Meats
Like wine, meat gets better with age. However, many meat departments sell the older meat at a discounted price. Even if a package has an expiration date that is quickly approaching, don’t be afraid to purchase the meat. In fact, you may agree that these clearance meats taste better than the newly stocked meats.
18. Leave the Young Kids at Home
This can be a challenge for me, as I would rather shop during the day and bring my son than go in the evening when I’d rather be relaxing. But the fact is that when I bring my son with me, I spend more money. As stern as I try to be, it’s easy to give in when he sees something he wants. Furthermore, I find myself rushing, and I end up quickly grabbing what I need instead of taking the time to compare unit prices and get the best deals.
19. Pay with Cash
When I go to the grocery store, I give myself a budget of $100 for the week. While having a goal is great, it means nothing if I can’t stick to it. Therefore, I bring cash with me when I go to the grocery store. Even though I always carry cash, I bring cash specifically designated for my groceries as part of my envelope budgeting system. If I only have $100 to spend on groceries, then I can’t possibly spend beyond my budget.
20. Watch Your Purchases Get Scanned
Items get mislabeled, and products don’t always ring up properly in the system. Sometimes coupons get incorrectly scanned, or cashiers type in the wrong codes. Notify the cashier if there are any problems, and if you are unable to watch the cashier scan your items, make sure you check your receipt before you leave the store to see if there are any mistakes.
If you are not in the habit of keeping track of your grocery budget, now is a great time to investigate just how much money you are spending. The number may surprise you.
Like most people, you likely have a desire to save money on groceries. If you’re worried that it may be too time-consuming or too difficult to focus on your budget, just keep these 20 tips in mind – there are many easy ways to save!
What strategies do you use to save money on groceries?