I Want to Cut My Grocery Bill
Examine your wasteful and expensive grocery habits.
We each have so-called “spending triggers,” and these apply to buying food, too. Look through your fridge and pantry and take a minute to think about the groceries you bought in the last month, when they went to waste and when you paid more than you should have. Do you buy fresh veggies only to have them spoil before you use them? If so, consider buying frozen vegetables instead of fresh (storing them properly will make a big difference, too). Or are you always running out of staples like milk and eggs, causing you to run to the local corner store, which is twice as expensive? Make sure you put those staples on your weekly grocery list. Whatever your bad habits are, take a few minutes to brainstorm new habits that can prevent you from wasting food or money.
Plan your menu.
Before heading to the store, decide what you’re going to make for dinner each night for a week, and what you (and your family, if you have one) are going to eat for lunch (that means recipes, not prepared or processed meals). Choose recipes that use the same main ingredients, like chicken or rice, so you can do prep work once for the whole week to save time. Planning your meals in advance will also cut down on the trips you make for just one or two ingredients, saving you time and transportation costs. For a game plan with a full month of recipes, check out our Food for a Month series.
Try meatless Mondays (or meatless lunch).
Meat and fish can be one of the most expensive items on your list, and what you might not know is that you can get plenty of protein from a plethora of cheaper meat alternatives like beans, quinoa and more. As you plan your menu, look for healthy vegetarian recipes to replace some meat-centered meals. Meanwhile, when you do buy meat (assuming you aren’t a vegetarian), buy it when it’s discounted and throw it in the freezer for later.
Make a better list.
Now that you have your weekly menu, make a list of the ingredients you need for meals, plus staples and healthy snack options. Even if you’re usually good at remembering everything, putting it in writing will ensure you don’t buy needless things just because they’re on sale. Organize your list by category (produce, dairy, meats, pantry staples, etc.), so you’ll be in and out quickly, instead of doing laps around the store, which has been proven to make us buy more. For some of our favorite apps that help you make the smartest grocery list ever, read this.
Many frugal grocery shoppers swear by coupons, but in order to use them, you’ll need to be organized and prepared to make it work. Look at your shopping list and see if any of your needed items are on sale in the circulars of your chosen grocery store, on websites that collect coupons or in the mailers of your favorite brands. Remember to stick to your list—don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it. (That would increase your grocery bill, defeating the purpose of this checklist!) Then, organize all your coupons by type of food for faster grocery shopping.
If you have the tendency to overbuy at the grocery store, pay in cash instead. After you determine how much you can spend per month on food (a good starting point is $300 per person), divide that by the number of times you plan to shop each month. Bring that amount in cash with you each time. Another plus to paying in cash: studies have shown that not only do we spend less than when using credit, we’re also less likely to buy junk food.
Note: You may want to keep $20 in a different compartment of your wallet as a cushion, so you’re not stuck at the register if your mental math doesn’t quite add up.
Get rewarded with your card.
Sign up for loyalty cards at grocery stores you shop at frequently. Again, if an item’s not on your list, don’t buy it just because it’s discounted. You can get even more rewards on top of store discounts by shopping with a credit card that offers cash back or points. (However, if you’re trying to curb overspending at the grocery, then we still recommend cash for you.) If you spend $500 per month and have a cash-back card that gives you 3% on groceries, you’ll get $180 back in a year—and you don’t have to do anything to get it!
Find the best store.
Examine your shopping list. If you’re mostly getting in-season, locally grown produce, your nearest farmers’ market might be the cheapest option. If you’re mostly buying staples like eggs, milk and pasta, consider going to a store that sells in bulk, like Costco or BJ’s, for more savings. If you’re unsure which grocery store in your neighborhood is cheapest, look at their websites, if they have them, or remember to compare prices for a few of the staple items on your list next time you’re there.
Have a snack before leaving.
It’s conventional wisdom that’s truly wise: Shopping on an empty stomach will make you more prone to impulse buys and purchases of junk and snack food. Rather than hitting the store while ravenous, have a nutritious snack before you go, so you can stick to your list without being distracted by your growling stomach!
Use a cart, not a handheld basket.
Though baskets hold fewer items than carts, shoppers actually buy more junk food when using a handheld basket. Researchers attribute this fact to the arm flexing necessary to hold the basket, the pain of which causes shoppers to seek out instant gratification in the form of easy, sugary snacks.
Shop the perimeter.
Grocery stores are designed so that the fresh foods, including produce, dairy, meat, fish and bakery items, are stocked along the walls. The inner aisles, by contrast, are stocked with processed foods. Sticking to the perimeter will help you avoid the unhealthier and more expensive processed foods.
Don’t buy what’s at eye level.
A lot of thought is put into grocery store design. The most expensive versions of an item are put directly at eye level so it’s the first thing the customer sees—and puts in her cart. If you spot the item you need on a shelf, like tomato sauce, look on the lower and top shelves as well. Odds are you’ll find a less expensive version.
Generic or store-brand items generally taste just as good as brand-name items—because they’re made with the same ingredients. They just cost far less. For example, you can save between 25 and 50% buying generic breakfast cereal versus a name brand. Similarly, staples like flour, sugar, salt and spices are virtually identical to name brands because they’re subject to the same government regulations. If you do notice a taste difference, you can always return to the more expensive version on your next trip. Find out which generic brands are the best.
Read the fine print on multiple deals.
In order to get shoppers to spend more, supermarkets advertise deals like “5 Cans for $5!” or “Buy 10 for $10.” John T. Gourville, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, says it’s about the power of suggestion, and that many people end up buying the amount the store recommends, when in reality you can usually get the same price per item without lugging home ten cans of baked beans.
Ignore store displays.
Be very skeptical of items on end-of-aisle displays. Once again, supermarkets are trying to trick you by suggesting that these items with their neon price stickers are a steal. Often, they’re no cheaper than other versions of the same item located elsewhere in the store.
When you get home, store your food properly to ensure it will last longer.
All your careful planning will be for naught if you don’t store your food properly. Check out our guide to food storage to distinguish your fruit basket from your whole-wheat flour storage, and follow it when you get home. But don’t store all of the produce yet—we’ll address that in the next step.
Cook your produce right after shopping.
If you’re the kind of person who always discovers your veggies rotting in your crisper, we have a trick you’ll love. After you’ve stored your meats, dry goods, dairy and eggs, start in on produce preparation. Wash and tear your leafy greens into a salad-ready bunch. Chop up and roast, steam or sauté your other vegetables, then store them all in meal-sized portions—in the fridge for the week or in the freezer for later. Voila: You’ve just made your own fresher and less-expensive convenience food. Now, your veggies will end up in your meals instead of wilted in the garbage.