When you think about it, it’s really weird how many people are willing to teach you how to spend more money on groceries: telling you to buy this brand of cereal because it has a cartoon theme, supermarket tomatoes taste better than those from a farmer’s stall, buying bottled water makes you live longer. Chances are that nobody ever told you much about the opposite: that you can live just as well while also saving money on shopping.
There is a kind of technique to paying less for groceries, but it takes very little effort once you get used to it. Mostly, you’ll be trading a few minutes of your time, plus some momentary gratification you don’t really need, for savings of well over fifty dollars per month for each person in your household. Really, if your boss told you that you could earn the same amount doing half an hour of overtime, you’d jump at the chance. You’ll soon see a major difference in your financial situation if you invest this money instead of letting it slip through your fingers.
Why, then, aren’t more people shopping smart? In most cases, the answer comes down to nothing more than habit and inertia. Getting out of the groove you’ve worn for yourself takes effort, even if the benefits are enormous. Understand, though, that these routines are usually based on little more than following the way of least resistance. We’re all addicted to convenience: convenience food, convenience stores, convenient payment methods and convenient delivery. More often than not, we don’t even notice how much these frills end up costing us, while the amount of time you save by paying extra is actually negligible.
Are you ready to change those shopping habits that aren’t working for you and start saving money? More than likely, you’ll find that this is simpler than you think.
- Forget about what you used to do and start shopping intelligently. Your habits are working against you, not for.
- Plan your purchases ahead of time, and don’t get extra items just because you feel like having a doughnut.
- All groceries are not equal. Prioritize: getting what you need first will get you more of what you really want.
- You don’t have to become a cordon bleu chef, but getting a few basic recipes under your belt is key to saving money on groceries.
- Shopping based on what the TV shows you is for suckers. 90% of the time, the cheaper option is 90% as good, especially once you get creative.
- It’s raining coupons, so get a spoon. Don’t get tricked into buying stuff that isn’t already on your shopping list, but when you can save on staple ingredients, grab as much as you can carry.
- You’re paying about 20% more than you should for many items if you shop only at the supermarket. Taking 20 minutes more, once a week, will get you better ingredients at reduced prices.
- Owning the right equipment will save you a lot in the long term – as long as you actually make use of it.
Table of Contents
- 1 Have a List and Stick to It
- 2 Meal Planning for Dummies
- 3 Don’t Pay for Somebody Else’s Commercial: Find Substitutes
- 4 Look for Better Deals
- 5 Supermarkets Are for Suckers: Better Places to Shop
- 6 Invest in Your Kitchen
- 7 Shopping on a Budget Without Losing Your Mind
Have a List and Stick to It
One of the simplest yet most effective pieces of budget shopping advice is this: don’t go to the store when hungry, and leave the kids at home. How this works is obvious: it’s difficult to resist grabbing an appealing snack or eight when you’re half starved, and buying a microwave lasagna rather than cooking something yourself looks like a great deal when you’re tired. And as every parent knows, it takes nothing less than steel-plated willpower to resist the imploring wails of children who feel they’ll simply die if you don’t get them some Magical Sparkly Creamtastic Coconut Wondercandy right this instant.
Chances are that you don’t currently track what you spend on food, toiletries and cleaning supplies to the last cent. If you do (which is highly recommended if you’re serious about saving money on groceries), you’ll probably find that these kinds of impulse buys make up way more of your grocery budget than you thought.
Meal Planning for Dummies
The antidote to this is planning (yes, plus actually following the plan!). This will mean spending some time in the kitchen: yeah, we know you’d rather hibernate in front of the TV, but learning how to prepare a couple of simple recipes is key to getting your grocery spending under control. If you also spend a few minutes each weekend working out a meal plan for the week, your family will be eating more healthily, less food will end up in the garbage disposal or trash and mealtimes will be more varied and much more fun.
According to the USDA, up to 40% of food in the United States is simply thrown away – often due to more being bought than can be eaten. A full 22% of landfill waste was once nutritious and wholesome ingredients. This isn’t just a shame, it’s the last statistic you want to spend your hard-earned income on inflating.
Besides, which will make you happier: a $3 vending machine snack that may have been living in the machine for a week, or an interesting, nutritious sandwich that takes under 5 minutes and $1 to prepare? Taking control of your grocery spending doesn’t have to mean giving up luxuries, you can even eat better once you figure it out.
Thinking several days ahead may seem complicated, but you’ll find that it’s a breeze with some tools that make it as easy as pointing and clicking. You can select from a menu of mouth-watering, wallet-friendly recipes and even generate a grocery list without breaking a sweat. Once you have that in hand, it’s time to separate it into the following categories:
- Staples: Pasta, canned goods, cooking oil, cereals like rice and oatmeal, lentils, chickpeas and beans, flour: everything you can keep a sizable stock of and buy a ton of whenever you find it for cheap.
- Protein, fruit and vegetables: Absolutely essential, but quite possibly an area in which you can save a bundle (as explained further on).
- Ready to eat: You’ll probably be doing a lot more of your own cooking from now on, especially once you learn how much fun it is. Still, it’s always a good idea to keep a couple of jars of spaghetti sauce and a frozen pizza or two on hand for emergencies.
- Snack foods: Potato chips, crackers, candy – not only do these treats cost much more than replacements you can create yourself, they’re also making you look and feel worse. These should be your last priority and can actually be eliminated completely.
You can save money – and more than you think – on each of these categories, though the strategy you’ll follow in each case is slightly different.
Don’t Pay for Somebody Else’s Commercial: Find Substitutes
Here’s another simple tip to keep your grocery bill down: avoid drawing up your shopping list while watching TV, especially between 6 and 8 p.m. This is the peak time for junk food commercials that exist solely to entice you to spend more money.
Actually, at least two thirds of what we call “taste” or “preference” is really just habit and conditioned behavior. Companies know this and go to great lengths to get you hooked on their brand. Once you start shopping intelligently, though, you’ll find that there’s little real difference between staple goods from different manufacturers. A can of tomatoes is pretty much always going to be a can of tomatoes, no matter whether it costs one dollar or two. You’ll also find that many non-perishable staples cost a lot less if you buy fifty pounds at a time instead of one, especially if you don’t care too much about the label on the bag.
Fruit, Vegetables and Meat
Fresh fruit and veggies are a treat when prepared correctly, but frozen comes pre-cut and cleaned, is more convenient to store, costs less and s actually just as good for you. The same can be said for seafood, and the shrimp and fish that are sold as “fresh” often isn’t really. Meat may be something you’re just not willing to give up, but try the following just for one week: set yourself a maximum price of $2 or $3 per pound for this budget-busting item. This is probably easier than you think: buy a whole chicken instead of boneless breasts and remove the meat once cooked (the bones make a great base for soup). Try stewing beef instead of choice cuts, and make your own hamburger patties for a healthier alternative free of fillers like breadcrumbs.
Don’t Stop Enjoying Yourself
When it comes to cleaning products and toiletries, there’s really very little difference between the cheapest and the most expensive products, so why would you pay top dollar? Rather use the money you save to splurge on a few luxuries, but don’t forget to look for cheaper substitutes here too. Life without chocolate is hardly worth living, but have you ever thought about what really distinguishes good from bad? Buying a better quality product may cost you less, especially when you realize that eating a smaller amount can be just as satisfying. If you enjoy wine with your meals, by all means continue to do so, but also do a little research to find cheaper bottles that will give you just as much joy.
Look for Better Deals
Another golden rule of shopping on a budget is exactly the opposite of what you would expect: avoid sales. This doesn’t mean “don’t look out for the cheapest prices”; instead, the idea is more like “if you pay less for something you don’t need in the first place, you’re still wasting money”. In other words, a sale is only a sale if it’s for something you were going to buy anyway.
Once you’ve drawn up your weekly shopping list, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what should be finding its way into your cart. You can’t haggle over the price at most stores (though pointing out that something is near its sell-by date or that the packaging is damaged may get you a discount). You don’t need to negotiate to create your own sales, though:
Couponing is almost automatic these days; especially online, all you need to do to save money on groceries is sometimes to download an app. Aside from that, keep an eye on ads in your local newspaper, grab a flyer whenever you visit the store and set up alerts on websites dedicated to bringing you the best deals. If you don’t use store loyalty cards yet, find out more about what they can do for you. You may end up paying lower prices, earning rewards points and also be alerted when the items you buy regularly are on sale.
Most importantly, when you get the opportunity to stock up on non-perishable stuff, strike like an eagle, or at least a highly motivated rabbit. Buying two boxes of pasta at $0.50 instead of $0.99 already saves you a buck, so why not get twenty instead? (Assuming there’s no per-customer limit and you’re sure you’ll use them within a reasonable amount of time). When you plan ahead, small savings like these are easy to make and add up very quickly.
Supermarkets Are for Suckers: Better Places to Shop
Ideally, you’ll go shopping only once a week and resist the impulse to make quick runs for things you’ve forgotten, wasting time and gas money in the process. Once you’ve learned to work from a list instead of just wandering around the aisles picking up anything that looks good, you can (and should) also start looking for stores that are more economical for the smart shopper.
Big-box and warehouse stores aren’t the most pleasant places to visit, but going on a monthly expedition to stock up on basics will save you quite a lot. At the other end of the scale, don’t ignore smaller, locally-owned businesses like butchers, greengrocers and bakeries. Buying only what you need, when you need it, means nothing ends up getting spoiled in the refrigerator, while the advice and service you’ll receive often makes paying a fraction more totally worth it.
If you really want to start saving, however, you need to start discovering specialty vendors in and around your neighborhood. Ethnic stores, for instance, are a great place to buy spices for a fraction of what they cost in supermarkets.
Other businesses let you buy stuff like pasta, beans and grains by the pound, sometimes for less than half of what you’d pay for a bag with a label on it. Most importantly, you need to find out if your town has a farmer’s market. These are usually your number-one savings option for fresh produce, often including dairy, meat and eggs. Almost everything you’ll find there is in season and locally grown, and none of it has passed through the hands of several middlemen, which always raises the price without adding any value whatsoever. The value for money there is simply unbeatable, especially when you realize that it may have been anything between weeks and months since the “fresh” fruit and vegetables in the supermarket has seen actual sunlight.
Another alternative to try is joining a Community Supported Agriculture program. The way this works is this: you pay a subscription of a few hundred dollars a year and receive a giant box of fresh produce every week. What exactly is inside depends on what’s available, so you may have to brush up on your cooking skills to make the most of them, but you’ll be glad to serve truly nutritious food while also supporting local, independent farmers.
Invest in Your Kitchen
Just like (supposedly) you have to spend money to make money, sometimes an appliance pays for itself in terms of how much it helps you save on basic necessities every month. These machines needn’t be all that expensive, either: look around garage sales, thrift stores and of course online classifieds.
If you like to have healthy lunches on the go, a simple blender and insulated flask will make store-bought smoothies a thing of the past. If sandwiches are more your thing, a bread maker allows you buy flour wholesale for a few pennies per pound and produce your own bread with hardly any effort or skill. Pressure cookers let you enjoy tougher, cheaper cuts of meat without sacrificing anything as far as taste or texture is concerned. Certainly, unless you’ve inherited your grandma’s cooking gene, a recipe book tailored to people who want to save money on groceries while keeping things simple will be worth its weight in gold.
When it comes to shopping on a budget, though, the humble freezer is the king of the kitchen. Making your favorite recipe double-sized takes only a few minutes extra and freezing the excess in small portions pays serious dividends on those nights you’re just too tired to cook. When a local store is about to throw out a bunch of dinner rolls, pineapples or ground beef because the best-before date is looming, you can often snap up a ton of it at about half price – as long as you have the freezer space to store them for a rainy day.
Depending on how much free time you have on your hands, you can even look into canning, dehydrating and other ways of preserving food you can get cheap now so you can enjoy premium ingredients later. Jams, dried fruit and Italian red sauce also make wonderful, inexpensive gifts.
Shopping on a Budget Without Losing Your Mind
There is a right way and many wrong ways to go about reducing your grocery bills. The wrong ways include buying 5,000 rolls of toilet paper because they were 2¢ cheaper each, spending 3 hours comparing different kinds of washing powder or eating nothing but rice and beans for a year.
You’ll know that you’re doing budget grocery shopping the right way if you don’t even notice the difference in a month’s time. If anything, you’ll find it less stressful and more rewarding than the way you’re doing things now: less stressful because paying off your credit card is no longer constantly on your mind, more rewarding because you’re actually eating better, not less well.
There’s another dimension to this, which may actually be more important. Children learn their financial habits from their parents, which partly explains why people who grow up poor usually stay poor for the rest of their lives, while those who get used to living well without overspending tend to get ahead. Setting the right example, including seeing heavily-advertised brands for what they are and chasing the best deals – though not so hard that you end up out of breath – is one of the best gifts you can give your children in an increasingly uncertain world.
None of this is complicated, nothing about it is even hard. You don’t need to go rummaging through dumpsters to get your next meal. You don’t have to know how to hunt and butcher an elk. You don’t even have to give up lasagna or – heaven forbid! – cupcakes, you just have to learn how easy and cheap these are to make yourself.
If you’ve read this far, you already know enough to reduce your monthly grocery budget by at least a hundred dollars (and probably a heck of a lot more). What other incentive do you need? Go make that shopping list, buy that recipe book, and enjoy using the money you save on stuff that really matters!