How much are you spending on groceries each month? In the U.S., the average family of two adults under the age of 50 spends between $405.30 (“thrifty plan”) and $805.70 (“liberal plan”) per month on food at home, according to May 2020 data from the United States Department of Agriculture. The average family of four (two adults and two school-aged children) spends between $679.10 and $1350.20 per month on groceries.
Whether you fall on the thrifty or liberal end of the food-spending spectrum, there are ways to trim your household’s food costs.
Best Ways to Save Money on Groceries
Cutting your grocery bill can seem challenging at first, but with a plan and a few changes to how, when, and where you shop, it is doable.
1. Start in Your Pantry
One thing that makes your grocery bill skyrocket is food waste. At home, food waste can take several forms, such as leftovers that turn slimy and moldy in the back of the refrigerator or fresh produce that slowly rots, forgotten in the crisper drawer. You can waste food by forgetting to properly seal bags in the freezer or leaving cereal or cracker boxes open.
To cut down on food waste, begin every shopping trip with a visit to your kitchen. Take note of what you already have on hand and what needs to be eaten ASAP. You can create a pantry and refrigerator inventory using a spreadsheet or by writing out a list you hang in the kitchen.
2. Make a Plan
Meal planning helps you use up what you already have in your kitchen and allows you to limit what you purchase on your next grocery run. But there’s a right and a wrong way to plan meals. The right way to plan meals is to keep things realistic. Instead of digging into cookbooks or searching online for elaborate recipes that require both a lot of ingredients and a lot of time and effort, keep things simple.
Look for meal ideas that use what you have and that don’t require esoteric ingredients. If possible, plan your meals for the week to feature the same ingredient in different iterations. You could do a mushroom frittata for dinner one night, mushroom and black bean enchiladas another night, and black bean soup on the third night, for example.
Along with planning the big three meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), plan for snacks throughout the week. If you know you’re likely to get take-out or go out to eat at least once during the week, leave room for that in your meal plan. Since leftovers are often unavoidable, plan for them as well. You can plan to have a meal for dinner one night and any leftovers for lunch the next day.
Pro tip: If you’d like some help with meal planning, consider a service like eMeals. You choose the meals you want and they will put together your shopping list. You can even have everything automatically sent to grocery delivery apps like Instacart or Shipt.
3. Make a List
When you go to the grocery store with a list in hand (or on your phone), you’re less likely to forget to buy everything you need. And if you make a rule only to buy what’s on the list, you don’t spend more than you planned on impulse purchases.
It can take some trial and error to get into the habit of making a list before you go to the store. Finding the style that works for you is essential. I used to use an app called Out of Milk but found that I didn’t enjoy typing my grocery list into my phone. Pen and paper is more my style, so I bought a magnetic notepad that lets me check off items as I run out of them.
Another option is to create a custom master list of groceries you use frequently and keep that list on your phone or stored as a Google Doc so you can access it anywhere. When you need something, go into the master list and highlight it. You can also add “special occasion” or rarely purchased items to the bottom of the list. Keep the list open on your phone as you shop. As you retrieve purchases from the shelves, unhighlight them or delete them from the list.
4. Get a CSA Share
If you eat a lot of vegetables, cook from home frequently, and are willing to try new-to-you foods, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share can help you save on groceries. When you purchase a CSA share, you pay upfront or in installments to receive a certain amount of produce from a farmer or collective of farms each week. Many CSA programs run during the growing season, usually from late spring through late fall, but some also offer winter options.
Although you have to pay what could be a considerable sum of money upfront to invest in a CSA program, getting one can mean lower grocery bills down the line. You’re likely to get more for your money with a CSA share, as you’ve cut out the middleman.
5. Shop Your Local Farmers Market
Although some farmers markets have reputations for attracting top chefs and for catering to the 1%, there are often some good deals at your local farmers market. When you shop local and in season, the prices you pay are frequently slightly lower compared to a grocery store.
Even if the product’s price at a farmers market seems higher than the price of produce at your supermarket, there’s a chance you’re still getting a better deal. You’re likely to get more of a particular vegetable at a farmers market. For example, instead of a bunch of kale that weighs 1 pound for $2, you get 1.5 pounds for the same price.
The produce sold at farmers markets is typically freshly picked and hasn’t been sitting around in warehouses or trucks, which is often the case of supermarket produce. Fresher produce is more likely to last longer (as long as you store it properly at home), meaning you’re less likely to find that bunch of kale from the farmers market rotting at the bottom of your crisper drawer.
6. Pick Your Own Produce
Visiting an orchard or farm that lets you pick your own produce can help you cut your grocery costs provided you pick enough to make it worthwhile and have a plan for preserving all the produce you harvest.
Pick-your-own farms and orchards vary considerably in terms of pricing. There’s a very popular orchard just outside Philadelphia that charges considerably more per quart, pint, or peck than you would pay for the same fruits at a local farmers market. Meanwhile, orchards in nearby Lancaster county charge considerably less than you would pay for the same amount of fruit at a farmers market. Check prices before you head out, especially if your goal is to save money.
7. Preserve In-Season Produce
Fruit and vegetables purchased in-season tend to cost a lot less than out-of-season produce, whether you get them from a farmers market or conventional grocery store. One way to make the harvest last and extend your food dollar is to preserve as much in-season produce as you can.
Preserving produce doesn’t have to be complicated, nor does it always require you to buy specialized equipment. If you get a great deal on in-season peppers at your local market, buy them, then toss the ones you’re not going to use right away into the freezer. You can also chop up fresh herbs and freeze them or dry hardy herbs like sage and oregano.
Just remember to buy and preserve only what you think you can use. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of preserving foods or buying in-season vegetables, fruits, and herbs. If you’re not in the habit of using herbs in your cooking or if you’re not a fan of peppers, there’s no point in spending the money on them.
8. Shop Less Often
There was a time in my life when I was going to the grocery store more than a couple of times a week. It was either due to poor planning or just a feeling of boredom and wanting to get something fun to snack on. Even when I went to the store to get “just one thing,” I’d usually leave with several, spending more than I’d planned.
Back then, it was tough for me to get my grocery spending under control. Then COVID-19 came along, and suddenly, going to the store several times a week wasn’t an option. I didn’t even want to go out once a week. I made it a point to try to limit my shopping trips to just one or two per month.
Doing that has significantly helped me cut my grocery spending. The less time you spend in the store, the fewer opportunities to make impulse purchases. Shopping less has also helped me use up what I have before I go to a store again, which has helped me cut down on food waste while reducing food costs.
9. Shop Online
Although you often have to pay a delivery fee and tip when using an online grocery delivery service like Instacart, ordering your groceries online can help you save. When you order online, you can eliminate the risk of making impulse buys. There’s no “candy aisle” right by the register, so you’re less likely to throw a Reese’s into your cart at the last second. You can also combine your pantry inventory check and meal planning with online shopping, meaning you’re likely to order precisely what you need and less likely to have to make multiple purchases.
You’re also not limited to using online grocery delivery services when you shop online for groceries. You can order most pantry staples, such as condiments, beans, peanut butter, and flour, from the online version of stores like Target or Amazon. Provided you meet the free shipping minimum, you can get what you need without paying a delivery fee or tip.
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10. Use a Rebate App
A rebate app, such as Ibotta or Fetch Rewards, lets you earn cash back on groceries and other everyday essentials, such as soap or household cleaners. To use the app, you make an account, then choose the stores you shop at frequently. When you tap on a store name, it takes you to a list of the rebates available. Some are for brand-name products, and others are “any item” rebates, meaning you get a small amount of cash for buying a particular product, like yogurt, no matter what the brand is.
The rebates you get from Ibotta are small, often ranging from 25 cents to $1, but they add up, especially if you’re able to claim several rebates with each trip to the supermarket.
11. Start Couponing
If the word “couponing” brings to mind images of people buying cartsful of frozen pizza and breath mints for a grand total of $1.52, it’s time to reset your expectations. While some people go over the top with extreme couponing, it’s possible to use coupons moderately to help you save money.
Getting into couponing doesn’t mean you need to spend hours digging through your neighbor’s recycling bins looking for discarded flyers, nor does it mean you need to keep a three-ring binder full of coupons. It just means you know where to look for coupons and how to use them.
As you get into couponing, bear these tips in mind:
- Find a coupon database, such as SouthernSavers or TrueMoneySaver.
- Sign up for a loyalty card from your preferred grocery store and use their digital coupons.
- Get coupons only for things you use.
- Know the coupon policy at your store.
12. Get Acquainted With Cheap Pantry Staples
While coupons can help you save money on brand-name products and going to the farmers market or a pick-your-own orchard can cut your produce costs, another way to save on food is to buy naturally affordable foods.
There’s a reason beans and rice is a staple meal in so many cultures around the world. It’s healthy and budget-friendly. There are also pretty much limitless variations on it, so you’ll never get bored.
Other affordable pantry staples include:
- Dried pasta
- Rolled oats
- Canned fish or meat
- Canned or frozen vegetables
- Powdered milk
As a bonus, not only are pantry staples inexpensive, they also usually have a long shelf life, so you don’t need to worry about them spoiling quickly.
13. Change Your Preferred Grocery Store
Even though they sell the same or very similar products, not all grocery stores charge the same prices. Some grocery chains are notorious for having higher prices than others. Some chains make offering budget-friendly prices a point of pride.
If you think a budget grocery store offers lower-quality products than its competitors, think again. Often, budget stores can sell their products at lower prices because they cut costs in other ways. For example, if you shop at Aldi, you’ll have to deposit a quarter to use a shopping cart and pay for any bags you use. Most of the products for sale there are private-label, so you’re not paying for brand names or brand-name advertising.
14. Sign Up for Your Preferred Store’s Loyalty Program
If you shop at a particular store frequently and it offers a loyalty program or frequent shopper’s card, it can be worth signing up for. Along with giving you the sale price on flyer items for the week, you might also get coupon offers or discounts tailored to your shopping preferences.
Some loyalty programs also give you cash back or let you rack up points as you shop. For example, Target Circle lets you earn 1% on every purchase (or 5% if you have the store’s credit card). The Circle program also features exclusive deals and offers only available to members.
15. Stick to Store Brands
When you buy name-brand products, such as canned tomatoes, ice cream, or peanut butter, are you getting something that’s higher quality or that tastes better than the less pricey store brand? Not really, according to a 2012 taste test conducted by Consumer Reports.
Although it’s not universally the case, in many instances, the same companies that make branded products produce the store brands. If you stick to store-brand or private-label purchases, you can save around 25%, according to Consumer Reports.
16. Eat Before You Shop
If grocery shopping sin No. 1 is shopping without a list, a close second is shopping while hungry. When you go to the store before you have lunch or dinner, you’re likely to add items you don’t need or even particularly want to your cart, making your bill higher.
Similarly, it’s best to avoid going to the store after a meal that involved alcohol consumption. You’re likely to spend more and make impulse buys if you head to the supermarket when you’re a bit tipsy.
17. Shop Solo
Shopping solo offers multiple benefits. You’re likely to spend less time in the store when it’s just you than if you bring the kids along or if you’re shopping with a partner. When you’re the only one doing the shopping, no one’s there to beg you to buy them a pint of ice cream or the cookies from the bakery. It’s also easier to stick to your list when you don’t have kids or a partner throwing items into the cart when your back is turned.
If finding the time to shop alone is challenging, see if you can work something out with a friend who also has kids. Offer to watch their kids while they shop. Then they can watch yours while you do the same, giving you both the time to get your shopping done without kids in tow.
18. Keep a Price Book
The key to saving money at the supermarket is never paying full price for anything. Many stores follow a sales cycle during which they mark down items incrementally. A jar of pasta sauce might cost $3 at full price, but get marked down to $2.50 one week, then $1.50 the next. Its rock-bottom price might be 99 cents.
Deciphering the sales cycle and stocking up when products you use are at their lowest price is one way to save the most possible on groceries. To keep track of prices, you can create a price book. You can use the book to track the prices of groceries you buy frequently. If you shop at different stores, record the various products’ prices from each store. The goal is to keep yourself from overspending on the essentials you use the most by only buying them when they are at a lower price.
19. Shop in the Morning
At the end of an eight-hour (or longer) workday, going to the grocery store is usually the last thing you want to do. You’re tired, you’re hungry, and you just don’t feel like moving your way through a crowded supermarket. If you’re like a lot of people, you’re out of willpower and not interested in making decisions by the end of the day.
If your schedule allows, try getting your grocery shopping out of the way by doing it first thing in the morning. You’ll be refreshed and ready to go, and if you shop on a weekday, you’re less likely to have to deal with crowds of people. When you’re not tired or worn out, you’re less likely to impulse-buy or to veer away from your list.
20. Pay Attention at the Register
No one is perfect, and that includes your local grocery store. Whether you go to the self-checkout lane or a lane with a cashier, pay attention as each bar code gets scanned. Sometimes, cashiers make mistakes, such as keying in the code for organic produce when you’re buying conventional or by mistakenly hitting the wrong number and charging you for something that costs more than what you’re buying.
In some cases, the store itself is to blame for the mistake. A product might scan for a price that’s higher than what’s on the shelf. If that happens, some stores will give it to you for free. So it’s worth keeping a sharp eye on the register and reviewing your receipt to make sure there aren’t any errors before you leave the store.
21. Buy the Day-Old Bread & Past-Prime Products
There are deals to be had in the bakery section of your local grocery store. And in the produce section, dairy aisle, and center aisles too. Many stores sell day-old fresh bakery goods for a steeply discounted price. Some stores also discount yogurt, milk, and cheese that’s near its use-by or best-by date, and a few also sell bruised or nearly expired produce for cheap.
If you don’t mind toasting your bread or are looking for a cup of yogurt to eat within a day or so, you can save a pretty decent amount by buying up the food that’s nearing the end of its saleable life.
22. Learn to Do Prep Work Yourself
Bagged salad, precut melon cubes, cheese cubes, and spiralized zucchini all help you get dinner on the table in a flash. But they do so at a pretty high cost. A report from Vice revealed that precut or bagged produce typically costs anywhere from two to more than three times the price of whole vegetables and fruit.
Another drawback of precut or otherwise prepared food is that it typically has a shorter shelf life than whole foods. You can let a whole butternut squash sit on your counter for months, and it won’t go bad. If you buy cut squash, you’d better eat within a few days to prevent it from turning to mush.
Prepping food yourself does take time, and you might have to invest in a good-quality chef’s knife, but the money you save will be worth it. Plus, chopping vegetables, fruit, and cheese tends to be somewhat meditative and relaxing.
23. Do a Pantry Challenge
Just because it seems like the cupboards are bare doesn’t mean you don’t have plenty of food in your kitchen, at least enough to tide you over until your next paycheck or until your budget resets next month.
One way to make do with what you have is to do a pantry challenge. How long the challenge lasts depends on the size of your pantry and how much you have to cook with. The goal of the challenge is to use up what you have before you buy more. It can help you get your grocery spending in check and reduce food waste.
24. Simplify Your Cooking
I love reading cookbooks and trying out new recipes, but let’s face it. It can become an expensive hobby, especially if you like to try out new cuisines or experiment with different flavors.
Embracing minimalism in the kitchen is one way to save on groceries. Instead of racing out to buy an expensive, esoteric spice for a recipe you might only make once, stick with what you know you love. You can save experimenting with foods for special occasions, such as when you’re traveling or are on a date.
Changing your habits and your approach to shopping can help you cut your grocery bills and save money on food. Becoming a more frugal grocery shopper doesn’t just help you save money. You’ll also cut down on waste, and if you shop at farmers markets or join a CSA program, you can support your local economy.
What have you done to help reduce your grocery spending?