Food remains one of our biggest expenses, so finding ways to save money at the grocery store can mean the difference between saving and living paycheck-to-paycheck.
When prices on everyday food and household goods rise, we all look for ways to cut expenses as we wander up and down the aisles. A recent survey showed a variety of price increases in product categories (produce, meats, etc.) have increased on average about 8% from February 2021. Some products have seen double-digit increases. Consumers are still shopping, but the bottom line has certainly gone up.
Food remains one of the biggest expenses after housing, so finding ways to save money at the grocery store can mean the difference between saving and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Here are some of our favorite strategies for saving money at the grocery store.
Find the best coupons
It used to be that you could only get coupons through your newspaper or in the mail, and you had to hope that there would be a coupon for something you actually wanted. Thankfully, we don't live in that world anymore. If you need it, odds are good there is a coupon somewhere online for it. Here are some of our favorite websites to find coupons.
One note about looking for coupons. You might find one and think "What a great deal!" but remember, it's not a great deal if you didn't need it in the first place.
Shop items by unit price
Looking at item prices isn't a trick, we all comparison shop, but manufacturers know this and will make packaging that deceives the eye. Heck, we've all opened a bag of chips to realize we purchased packaged air.
To find the best deals, look at the unit pricing for items. Typically this will be below the price and will show cost-per-ounce. The best deal might be purchasing an item in bulk, so make sure that you know how to freeze produce properly or other goods to make them last.
Get grocery store loyalty cards
Almost every grocery store will offer a loyalty card. These cards will grant you discounts or savings on certain items in order to reward you for being loyal to their brand. The thing is, you aren't limited to only having one loyalty card. If it is a store that you shop at, get the loyalty card. We suggest keeping them in your car though, so they don't clutter your wallet, and so you don't forget them at home.
Search for grocery store specials
Grocery stores need to move inventory. If something goes bad or can't be sold, that hurts the bottom line. In order to help keep merchandise moving, stores run specials. When you are doing weekly meal planning, check out what specials the store is running and build your menu around them. If you feel like you really can't use the special this week, ask the cashier for a rain check. This will usually only work when they are out of a given item, but it is always worth a try. You can compound these efforts by finding manufacturer coupons for the item and stack the savings.
Don't buy everything at one grocery store
Imagine this week you feel like experimenting. You want to make an authentic Indian curry. You might be able to find the ingredient and spices you need at your usual store, but the prices are likely to be pretty high. These items aren't as popular, so they occupy shelf space for longer and thus need to be sold for more. You're better off trying to find a specialty store.
Buy produce that is in season
When do you think we have more apples: when they are in season or when they are offseason? Easy, right? Obviously, there is a bigger supply of certain products when they are in season. Economics 101 tells us that when there is an excess supply, prices drop, and when there is a limited supply, prices increase. Buying produce that is in season also guarantees better quality and freshness. It's an all-around better way to shop and eat.
Use cash-back apps
Several mobile apps will give you money back just for shopping. Wild, right? These apps make their money by earning a small affiliate commission off of the items you buy, showing you ads, or providing your data (like purchasing habits) to companies. Assuming you're okay with that, then these apps can be a great way to save money at the grocery store.
Many of these may extend beyond groceries, too.
Avoid these grocery store tricks
Look high, look low. Grocery stores have refined store layouts in order to make it easier to buy the most expensive items and items you don't need. For example, the most expensive items will always be at eye level, making them the first thing you see. Look at the bottom shelves for better prices. Stores also put common essential items, like milk and produce, on opposite ends of the store so that you will wander down the aisles. Focus on going directly to what you came for, and have a list ready to shop.
Shop on a full stomach. Going hungry or indulging in samples is a surefire way to end up purchasing things you don't need. Always eat before you shop, or, if you can't grab a meal, then carry around a pack of mints. Sucking on a mint while you shop will help kick some of those cravings.
Carry the basket. Carts have two tricks that will help you shop. First, they are huge, giving you plenty of room to chuck non-essential items into them. Secondly, they are on wheels, so you don't have the weight to remind you that you're getting a lot of items. Using a basket will limit both of those and help you to stay focused on your shopping list.
Bring your own music. This one sounds like a conspiracy theory, but grocery stores play music with slower tempos to encourage you to stroll leisurely around. Listening to music with a faster tempo will help you speed through.
Never shop when you are tired or stressed. We have limited willpower and are more prone to caving into temptations when we are tired, stressed, sad, or angry. Spending money you don't have will only make those emotions worse. Your financial self-care is as important as your emotional self-care so keep an eye on both.
Leave the kids at home if you can. Stores position tempting items at child height specifically to trigger the "Mommy, can we get this?" Aside from this being a horrible experience for everyone involved, it also causes you to run the risk of saying, "Yes," to something you didn't plan on buying.
Know thyself. If you're an impulse shopper, then don't go to the store. Seriously. If you have a roommate or partner who can go, then send them. Or, if you must, make a shopping list and order the groceries online and arrange for pickup. Searching for the items online will minimize the opportunities to add things you don't need.
Double-check the cashier. Sometimes items are advertised on the shelf but the price may not be updated in the computer system. Always look at your receipt and make sure it reflects what you purchased. Also, keep an eye on the check-out process to make sure when you buy ten items, you aren't being charged for eleven.
Never buy these items at a grocery store
There are some items you should just never buy at a grocery store. Consider what is more important: your convenience or your budget.
Toiletries. Drug stores will usually have better deals.
Canned beans. Dried beans are cheaper and better tasting. Just soak them in water the night before you want to cook with them.
Prepared foods or pre-cut anything. Yes, these things are convenient, but you are paying extra to save money. Consider what your time is worth, too.
Herbs. Nothing goes bad more quickly than fresh herbs. Make yourself a garden, it's incredibly easy, your food will taste better, and it will save you money.
Milk. Convenience and drug stores, on average, are 30 to 50 cents cheaper.
Meal plan like a Michelin Star chef
Chefs have to be master meal planners. If an ingredient doesn't get used or goes bad, then that is some of their profits wasted. Here are some tips to meal plan like a pro:
Go meatless one night a week. Vegetarians save, on average, $750 a year on their grocery bill.
Cook double batches. Buying ingredients in bulk is typically cheaper and then you can freeze a meal for later.
Plan meals with similar ingredients. A couple of pounds of turkey can be made into burgers, meatballs, tacos, spaghetti... you get the idea.
Double-check your pantry. Sometimes we buy things we already have but have forgotten are hiding back there. Americans throw away roughly 25% of their groceries every year. That is literally throwing money away.
Look for the deal, then make the meal. Not the other way around.
Review store ads before getting to the store and plan ahead.
Revise your strategies accordingly
Now that you have some of the basics down, it is time to tweak these strategies to fit your lifestyle. Just like you might adjust a recipe to lower the calorie count, review your purchases to see if you can lower the grocery expense. At the end of the month, look through your grocery store receipts and do the following:
Find the most expensive item on your grocery list and research for a cheaper substitute. This might be another brand, another store, or another ingredient altogether. For example, instead of using pine nuts in pesto, try using almonds.
Look at the items you most commonly buy. Things like coffee, bread, and eggs. Compare prices at different grocery stores to see who offers the lowest price on your most common items. Saving here will really add up.
Write down the cost of ingredients at the top of the recipes. Add them to a binder of recipes and organize them by cheap, moderate, and expensive. Now when you need to find a cheap meal, you will know exactly where to look. Or, if you want to impress, you can go to your fancier recipes.
Do you have a favorite trick to saving money at the grocery store? We'd love to hear it. Leave us a comment or feel free to tweet to us @Kasasa. Happy shopping and saving!