Spending too much money at the grocery store? Check out our 30 tips to alleviate some financial worry!
Always Shop with a List
The siren song of the supermarket is hard to resist — sinful bakery treats, luscious take-away fare and intriguing new foods are all placed strategically in your path at eye level to tempt to you to buy, buy, buy. To avoid making imprudent purchases — which are typically bad for both your wallet and your waistline — create a shopping list before heading out to the store and stick to it, suggests consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Your body and bank account will thank you.
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Plan Your Meals
So what goes on the list? Well, the everyday basics, of course. Beyond that, it’s smart to create a food plan, since weekly menus help avoid quickie trips to the market. “Walking into the grocery store with a list and your meals for the week planned out will always save you money. You won’t buy impulsively, and you will arrive home with exactly what you need,” says Kelly Hancock, author of the book Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half and Raise Your Standard of Living... and Giving. As an added bonus, creating menus forces cooks to get creative in the kitchen — and prevents the daily headache of figuring out what’s for dinner.
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Take Stock of Your Situation
There are multiple half-used jars of mayo (not to mention jams, salad dressing, mustards, etc.) in my mom’s fridge. Why? She never takes inventory to see what she has, what’s expired or what she needs, so she keeps buying doubles and triples of things. Smart shoppers keep their fridge, freezer and pantry organized, so that they always know what they have on hand for potential meals, and can fill out their cabinets with recipe-ready spices, condiments and staples purchased on sale.
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Enjoy What You've Got
Your cabinets are probably filled with forgotten food. So for one week, try to eat exclusively from your pantry, fridge and freezer. “This is a great plan for when you need a quick hit of major savings, such as after the holidays or an unexpected expense,” says Food Network star Melissa D’Arabian. Take a tour of your kitchen pantry and write down the major ingredients lurking around, and use this list to create a menu for the week — you can easily uncover hundreds of dollars worth of forgotten food, she says. “It’s a fun challenge to see how long you can go without buying new items.” (Sort of like finding a $20 in last winter’s jacket.) For more sage tips, check out D’Arabian’s New York Times best-selling cookbook, Ten Dollar Dinners.
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Ditch the Cart
For quick supermarket trips, opt for the hand-held basket, says Woroch, since large carts encourage us to fill them to the brim with things we want but don’t really need. Ungainly baskets on the other hand, keep us in line since there’s only so much available space. “The heavier the basket becomes, the faster you will realize you are adding unnecessary items,” she says, making it easier to resist that second box of cookies. Plus, you’ll be less tempted to meander through the aisles, losing willpower as you go. “The longer we stay in a store the more money we spend,” says Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert, a leading food industry analyst, writer and trend-watcher. So anything that gets you in and out is a good thing.
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Shop the Sales... And Stock Up, Up, Up
Before you squeeze even one melon, peruse your store’s circular to see what’s cheap that week. “The number one way to save money on groceries is to buy what you’ll eventually need when it’s on sale, instead of waiting until you’re out of the product and have to pay full price,” says Teri Gault, founder and CEO of The Grocery Game. Stores use sales as loss leaders, taking a hit on certain items to lure you into buying the rest of your groceries at full price. Smart shoppers stick to what’s on sale and stock up instead. “That’s a simple tip, but many people don’t know how to take advantage of it,” says Hancock. It’s not about hoarding and extreme shopping. It’s simply about purchasing enough of what your family regularly uses and eats when it is on sale at it lowest price. “This way, you have it ‘in stock’ until it goes on sale again,” she says. Click here for even more tips on stockpiling.
Supermarkets have lots of wily ways to get you spend — including tempting "multiple buy" offers. “Many grocery stores will offer 10 for $10 specials, for example, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy ALL ten items to get the discount,” says Jackie Warrick, senior savings adviser at CouponCabin.com. “Just buy the one or two items you specifically need, and you'll still get the savings benefits.” That said, sometimes there is a higher single item price or a “must buy x number” provision (usually somewhere small so you miss it) so it pays (literally) to be vigilant. Other forms of supermarket trickery include placing the most expensive items at eye level, and stocking end caps with “sales” that aren’t. Sneaky stuff.
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Loyalty is Rewarded
Taking advantage of store sales typically requires getting a loyalty card. It may take a few extra minutes at the checkout to sign up, but you'll save on hundreds of items that you would have to pay full price for if you weren't enrolled, says Warrick. Other potential perks include members-only access to online coupons that download to your card, savings at the gas pump, seasonal promotions (spend $100, get a free turkey), and parent-friendly Baby Club discounts.
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It's Hip to Clip
There’s gold in them there coupons. “Using them takes discipline, but once you get a system down, you can really save,” says Nisa Burns, is the author of Kitchenability 101: The College Student’s Guide to Easy, Healthy, and Delicious Food. Mostly found in the Sunday paper, it’s often worth it to pick an extra copy or two, just for the coups. (You can also hover near the recycling bin of your favorite coffeehouse.) If you often buy a lot of the same item, check out eBay to see if someone is selling a coupon lot for that item. You can also print out internet coupons from sites like redplum.com and couponsource.com, though not every retailer accepts them (always ask). And check out mobile apps from CouponSherpa.com and CouponCabin.com, which let you save on the go.
A coupon is just a coupon. But a coupon paired with sale? We’re talking boucoup bucks. “You’ll save the most money when you put your coupons together with items that are already on sale,” says Hancock, whose blog Faithful Provisions offers coupon matchups with several major grocery store chains every week. Along those lines, you can often stack a manufacturer coupon on top of store coupon for extra savings. Of course, the Holy Grail of stacking is the BOGO (buy one, get one free) stack. Let’s say you have a $1 coupon for a $2 BOGO item — you essentially get both items for $1. Now, let’s say you have two $1 coupons. You’ll end up getting both items for free (not every store lets you use two coupons on a BOGO deal, however). Giddiness is guaranteed.
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Shop on the Right Day
Not all days are created equal — some get you more coupon stacking bang for your buck than others. Some stores offer "double" or "triple" days where the value of your manufacturer coupon is doubled or tripled (up to a $1 max, typically), while others offer senior discount days, says Woroch. Grocery stores also often hold special “3 Days Only” type sales where certain products are only discounted during that time period. So be sure to read the circulars carefully so you don’t lose out on a good thing.
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Crunch the Numbers
Knowledge is power, and your purchasing power will go up immensely if you know 1) what things cost full-priced 3) what’s a good sale price and 3) how to do math. Most markets list an item’s cost per unit on the price tag sticker stuck to the shelf. Savvy shoppers compare unit prices of similar items to save the most. “You'll also avoid being fooled by overly packaged items with little inside,” says Warrick. Also, be sure to run the numbers on multiple deals — they’re designed to confuse shoppers who aren't quick with the mental calculator, says Woroch. Before falling for one of those confusing offers, make sure you crunch the unit price for competing products and select the one that truly offers the best deal.
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Loyalty’s a wonderful quality, but you do yourself no favors by favoring one brand over another. “If you really want to save money on groceries, then let go of brand loyalties. Break ties by experimenting with store brands and other name brands when they go on sale and when you have a coupon,” says Hancock. You may even discover a new favorite.
Those bagged “Fruity Os” can save you a bundle. According to Woroch, consumers who purchase name-brand cereals spend an average of 40 percent more than those who opt for generic versions. If fact, they’re often made by the same manufacturer as the premium brand, without flashy packaging and priced-in cost of advertising. The same goes for everything from peanut butter to paper towels, though finicky eaters may want to experiment with non-food generics first to experience just how similar they are to the “real” thing. And since you can’t count on sales to be there when you’re out of something, store brands are a great way to save in a pinch. “Even when they’re not on sale, they’re usually cheaper than name brand at regular price,” says Gault.
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Stick to In-Season Produce
Those peaches in January may be tempting, but you’ll end up paying more for a lesser quality fruit with a big fat carbon footprint. “To every vegetable and fruit there is a season...and a better price. Squash are cheaper in the fall, while asparagus can be a bargain in the spring. Wait until prices are at their best and plan your menu around seasonal produce to save big,” say Worach. (Check out our guide to in-season vegetables and fruits.) Even frozen fruits and veggies trump out-of-season offerings. Picked and frozen at the peak of freshness, they’re just as healthy as fresh and come at an always-palatable price (especially when scored on sale). Best of all, frozen produce has a long shelf life so it’s ready to eat whenever you are.
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Save on Organics
There are lots of good reasons to eat organically: health, sustainability, taste. If you have the bank, by all means, buy organic exclusively. If not, shopping strategically is a must, since not all organic produce is a wise buy. Fruits and veggies with tough or inedible peels, like pineapples, mangos and avocados, are actually a waste of money when purchased organic, says Woroch. Since the skin absorbs most of the pesticides anyway, conventional alternatives are absolutely fine and almost always cheaper. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s ranking of 45 popular fruits and veggies from apples (the dirtiest--buy organic) to onions (the cleanest—conventional is fine) so you know what to splurge and save on. And then read even more money-saving tips for buying organic.
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Be Food Bar Smart
Salad or hot food bars rely on the law of averages. Stores count on your chosen mix of low cost items outnumbering the high cost ones. And they usually do, since most people pile their plate without paying attention. The smart food bar foodie, however, piles on the pricey picks — seafood, lean meats, cheeses, etc, while limiting or avoiding weighty items like pasta, rice, chicken on the bone and cut-up fruit (which is typically cheaper in the product department, even if it's sold by weight). So next time you saddle up to the salad bar, scoop up the grilled shrimp but skip the spare ribs.
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Do Your Own Prep Work
Convenience always comes at a price. “Any time produce or meat is already cut, diced, marinaded or prepared on skewers, the shopper is going to pay more for the convenience,” say Woroch. For example, ready-to-cook items like prepared hamburger patties and cubed chicken skewers can cost you up to 60 percent more than buying them un-prepped. So buy the whole fruit or vegetable, and slice and dice it yourself. Or cut and quarter a whole chicken instead of buying breasts only. Those few extra minutes translate into extra cash in your wallet.
Fancy yourself a frugal foodie? Then dust off your cookbook collection tout suite. “It may be a lost art, but if you really want to save money at the grocery store, you’ll want to re-visit the idea of cooking from scratch. You’ll avoid the extra costs of convenient, pre-packaged foods, along with the preservatives and higher sodium content that go with them,” says Hancock, who suggests you start with one processed item you typically buy (like pancake mix) and make your own version. And if there’s one category worth whipping out your mixer for, it’s cookies, cakes and other baked goods, since supermarket bakeries often mark up items as much as 300 percent, says Woroch. Not sweet! Make your own instead.
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Buy Meat on Sale
There’s no doubt about it — meat is getting more and more expensive, says Lempert. According to projections from the USDA, all meats (beef, chicken, pork, etc.) are going up in price. So needless to say, if you see meat on sale, snap it up, even if you don’t think you can use it right then, says Burns. If you don’t want to wait for a sale, buy bulk packages of meat at warehouse clubs, and freeze in its original packaging (surrounded by two freezer zip lock bag), or portion it out first so you can defrost only what you need down the road. Properly stored meat holds well; as a general rule, beef is good for six to 12 months, fish is good for two to six months, and both pork and chicken hold for four to six months. Just be sure to date everything with a Sharpie. Get even more money-saving tips for buying meat.
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But Enjoy Meatless Mondays
Health and eco-lovers are doing it. Food-loving bloggers are doing it. Even Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Sir Richard Branson, Emily Deschanel, James Cameron, Giada De Laurentis, Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow, Russell Simmons, Michael Pollan and Betheny Frankel are doing it. What exactly is it? They're encouraging their fans and followers to forgo meat once a week to reduce their risk of disease, cut their carbon footprint, conserve natural resource and, as an added benefit, save money. High quality, non-meat protein sources like tofu, pasta and lentils are not only super healthy, but also super cheap — and beans possibly cheapest of all. D’Arabian’s take on beans here, and in her cookbook, are magically delicious. Need some more vegetarian inspiration? Check out these dinner recipes.
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Seek Out Specials
There’s no reason to shy away from managers’ specials. Milk, meat, fish, dairy and other fresh foods are often marked down when they near their expiration date to guarantee a speedy sale before going bad. These “quick sale” or “reduce price” items are 100 percent ok to eat as long you use it that day or freeze it ASAP. Offering substantial savings, they’re one of the few good reasons to stray from your shopping list — and are worth revising your dinner plans for. Your favorite bakery may also sell day-old bread at a discount, says Wolroch, so check in the evenings for these savings. “Bread that seems stale is perfect for croutons or stuffing!”
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Get to Know Your Store
Different stores often sell the same item at different prices — and have items that are more likely to go on sale than others. It helps to know which offer your favorites at the best price, and which stores are likely to discount your favorites in the future. You should also understand the concept of “fractured departments,” suggests Ault. This term refers to, departments in separate sections throughout the store, with different price points in each. Take cheese, for example. Pricey gourmet offerings are usually positioned in a display cart near the produce section, while less costly, everyday cheeses are typically relegated to opposite side of the store in the dairy case. If you’re trying to save money, it’s important to know where the good stuff is — and where to find the basics.
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Think Small in the Bulk Aisle
While bulk bins may offer amazing savings on large quantities of loose food and ingredients, no one said you have to buy bulk in bulk. “Buying large quantities in the bulk aisle will save you money, but it’s only half the story — you can also buy small quantities,” says D’Arabian. For example, a handful of hazelnuts from that aisle will set you back only twenty or thirty cents — toast, chop, and sprinkle them over green beans or in a cheap lettuce salad and you have a fancy restaurant-worthy dish, suggests the thrifty chef. Use loose bins to buy both small amounts of pricey items, as well as large amounts of not-so-pricey picks like field greens for topping a sandwich. This way you get what you need without waste — something that’s good for the planet, your taste buds and your bottom line. Click here for our best bulk shopping tips.
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Resist Shopping for a Recipe
Foodies may find this hard to stomach, but whipping up that delish dish from Saveur is a no-no if you’re trying to save. According to Gault, categorical sales trends make it unlikely that all the ingredients necessary to make a specific recipe will be on sale in any given week. Instead, take inventory of what you already have, what’s on sale that week and choose your menu or recipe based on the deals. “Part of learning how to save money at the grocery store is learning how to be patient,” says Hancock. So if you’re really itching to make a special dish, keep a list of ingredients handy and snap them up when they do go on sale. In no time, you’ll have what you need for less.
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Skip the Sundries
While it may be handy to pick up items like toilet paper and hand soap at the supermarket, unless they’re on sale, Warrick suggests saving these items for your local pharmacy or big box store instead. “You'll be paying extra for the price of convenience.” In fact, your favorite drugstore is a stellar resource for certain grocery items too! Cereal, milk, soda and snacks are frequently sold at prices that trump the market — especially on sale. So be sure to scan weekly drugstore circulars as well.
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Hit Specialty Shops
While mega-markets have the benefit of having it all, sometimes it’s worth exploring alternative options. Whole Foods has a rep for being expensive — and it definitely can be if you’re buying prepared foods and fancy gelato. But if you prefer organic or natural products, you'll typically do better there than at your local natural foods store (economies of scale, and all) or even your regular market. Plus, Whole Foods’ generic 365 brand is both high quality and super affordable. (People rave about the peanut butter.) And Trader Joe's, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby, sells everything from frozen seafood to vitamins or organic milk under their own name for the most part, at low prices that make it worth the extra trip.
Membership has its privileges. Natural food co-ops are member-run organizations offering access to food at substantial savings. There’s no single way to run a co-op, and they often have different rules for access. For example, some are open to all, while other expect members to work at the store for set number of hours each month — perfect for those striving to eat locally, conscientiously and don't mind bagging grass-fed beef and quinoa. For those hoping to really get back to the garden, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are the way to go. Here, consumers buy a "share" in a farm's crop up front, in exchange for a weekly produce bounty. Some CSAs even specialize in eggs, meat, dairy and other farm-raised fare instead. Interested? Here’s where you can find a CSA or Food Co-op near you. And here’s a handy guide to help you figure out whether a co-op is right for you.
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Gift Yourself a Gift Card
Snap up a gift card on the (relative) cheap. “Sites like GiftCardGranny.com and Cardpool.com sell gift cards for less than face value — 15% off on average,” says Woroch. Now, you may not find a gift card to your favorite local market, but you’ll very likely find ones to popular discount retailers like Target and Walmart that increasingly sell packaged and fresh foods. It’s like getting free money.
There is a method to the supermarket madness, and sales tend to happen exactly when you’d expect. For example, resolution-rife January is one of the most popular months for people to get healthy, so diet foods and health items are deeply discounted this month, says Warrick. You’ll often find the same on sale in mid-spring as people gear up for bikini season. Hot dogs, buns, chips and dips are generally a steal just before the 4th of July, while the late summer, back-to-school rush is perfect for stocking up on peanut butter, juice boxes and snack packs. The trick is to stick to seasonal deals. “Holiday staples are usually cheapest during the holidays – it’s the rest of the groceries that don’t go on sale,” says Arabian.
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If grocery bills are bumming you out, you're not alone. Food costs may indeed be rising, but our savvy saving tips will help keep your spending in check - and stretch each paycheck further. A girl's gotta eat, right?
Check out the slideshow above to find out how you can save a few bucks at the grocery store!