I spend a lot of time in grocery stores. If not shopping for my growing family I am there for a photo project, recipe testing, client project or getting ready for classes and events. Needless to say I spend a lot of money and know my way around a grocery store for ease of use, time efficiency and shopping on a budget.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics food is the third largest household expense. A family of four average monthly grocery bill runs between $568 if your super thrifty to $1,293 if on a more liberal budget. You can save money without giving up the foods you love here are some of the best ways to grocery shop on a budget. This is an extensive list of some of my best ways to save money on groceries. Know that not all of these tips will fit for you and that’s ok, try out a few and see the savings add up. Best part there are 4 main area of where you can save money on groceries, before you shop, at the store, at the register, at home and even a few little extras. So choose what time allows and the methods that work best for you and your wallet.
Before You Shop
Once a month or so get a sense of what you have and what you really need. This way you can shop smart. Start looking for the items you need to be on sale. This also avoids you from paying full price for something you already had in your cupboard or freezer.
Don’t Meal Plan, Shop the Sale:
I know this may sound counter productive. Yes, meal planning has its benefits but the drawback of strict meal planning is that you have your set of recipes and grocery list and you buy the items needed no matter what. You can help this by stocking up on the non-perishable items, but you could still be paying premium non-sale prices for fresh meat, dairy and produce when it is not on sale. The best way to save money on groceries is to shop the sale for the most expensive items, usually meats and dairy, and plan your meal around these sale items. By developing your palate and knowing how to substitute items, you can make tasty and inexpensive meals with what you have on hand. To learn how to cook without a recipe check out our classes.
Coupon wisely: Couponing is not for everyone and that’s ok. Today’s technology does make using coupons a little easier. Most stores offer loyalty cards that automatically take into account store coupons and often give you additional rewards. Sign up for these programs at your most frequently shopped stores. Use sites like Coupons.com, SmartSource.com or Redplum.com to easily see available coupons that can be printed pre-loaded on to loyalty cards. Then wait for the right time, for the store to have the product at a low price and stack the manufacturer coupon on top of store savings. This way patients buys you double the savings.
Make a List:
Shopping with a list will help you avoid impulse buys. Go to the store knowing what you need. Don’t browse through every aisle. Go directly to what you need and move on. Get in and out as quickly as possible; this will not only save you money but time, as well. Most weekly grocery ads are available online, so you can check out what you need in advance. Make a list of the sale items you want and stick to it.
Only shop once week: Try to plan your meals and week to include just one shopping trip. By going just once you reduce the exposure for impulse buys, save gas and time by getting in, getting what you need, and getting out. Even stopping in for one or two items a few times a week easily adds up in time and money spent.
Don’t Shop When Hungry: Our eyes are always bigger than our stomachs. Scents of rotisserie chickens and fresh baked cookies pray on hungry bellies. When we are hungry everything looks good. It is easy to overbuy and buy items that you normally would not purchase. If you must shop at these times, keep a granola bar or even mints with you as a snack before you shop. A full stomach will keep your mind clear to only purchase what you need.
Go Alone: The larger your shopping crew the more eyes and hands are available for putting unplanned items into the cart. If you can, leave your husband and kids at home.
At the Store
Let go of the brand: Not being tied to a specific brand gives you more options for savings. Look for similar items in other or store brands, theses are often the same product with a different label on it. You are paying for marketing. Pay attention to the price tag to ensure the best deal as it is not always the item that is on sale or name brand that is the best deal.
Read the price tag not the price: As I mentioned above, pay attention to the sticker price tags. In small print on the tag it will say what the price per ounce or pound is this is the easiest way to determine if a product is the least expensive as it compares products equally by weight. You don’t have to worry about the package size or count because the unit of measure is the same on both packages. For packaged meats, look the cost per serving so the bones and fat included in the weight of the item don’t mislead you.
Shop the outside: Keep away from interior aisles of the store. Most packaged and processed items come at a higher price point and calorie count. Some stores slightly shift product placement every few months to keep you looking/wandering around the store in hopes you see other impulse buys. The more aisles you walk through the more unplanned items will usually shop up in your cart. You will notice this if you frequently shop the same store for the same items. Shopping the exterior aisles produce, meats, dairy, bread will typically save you time, money and calories.
Don’t Shop From the Middle of the Shelf: Product placement in grocery stores comes with a premium price tag. The national brands and most popular items are conveniently placed at eye level and are easy to reach. Shop the top and bottom shelves to find the best deals. Look for store brands, generic and private labels. These items are just as good if not better than national brands and they almost always come with a lower price tag. Many of the products are actually made by the same manufacturers as national brands, only ending up at the store with a different picture on the same can.
Stock Up the Savings: When the items you use more often are on sale, stock up on them. Non-perishable items such as pasta, grains, sauces, canned goods will keep for months, some even years. When box brownie mix and pasta sauce are on sale for $1.00 rather than $2.50, I buy a dozen of each and store the extras on a rack in the basement. If you know you use a box a cereal a week when they are the lowest price buy 10 to avoid buying that same item at full price. When the stock gets low, make a note of it and look for the next sale. Get to know the trends in grocery advertising; they usually run in 8-12 week cycles offering low prices without needing coupons. Buy enough of what you need and wait until the next sale to replenish your stock. The key is to stock up on whatever is on sale each week, and then next week you can draw on your reserve items in the freezer and pantry to avoid having to buy those things at full price. Want help setting up a pantry that fits your needs sign up for Pantry Essentials.
Shop the Holiday Specials: The time of year is also a factor in price for some items. You can get usually the best deals on soda pop around graduation time, meat and grilling items around Fathers day. At Thanksgiving, buy two birds – one for the holiday meal and a smaller one for dinner at a later time. Holiday time is also a prime to stock up on baking essentials like flour, sugar, chocolate chips and spices. In the spring around Easter, buy extra eggs and hard-boil some for easy snacks and additions to salads.
Only Buy What You Need: Buying in bulk enables you to only buy what you need saving money and preventing waste. Not to mention items in bulk bins are almost always less expensive because you are not paying for extra packaging costs. Things like nuts, grains, flours, beans, spices, and tea. Some store even offer honey, olive oil and vinegar options that will be at a lower price than pre-packaged.
Be aware of marketing promotions: Just because something is advertised at two for $5.00 or 10 for $10 does not always mean you need to purchase the specific number of items to redeem the price. They are using marketing to make you think you are getting a better deal. Check the actual price to make sure it is a true savings. If a can a beans is usually 89 cents the store is making a profit on their “sale” of 10 for $10. It sounds better to say 2 for $5.00 rather than $2.50 each. It works to stock up on non-perishable items that are actually a good deal, but be careful when it comes to fresh items that can spoil easily. If you know your family will only go through one bag of lettuce or one bunch of grapes do not buy two, as you will end up tossing out the spoiled food later and your money along with it.
Search out truly fresh fish or buy frozen: Be away of labels that say, “previously frozen” This product is usually the same thing you can find in the frozen aisle for as much as 40% less. Buy it frozen and do the thawing yourself. You will have fresher fish to use when you want it rather then buying it 1-2 days thawed and then keeping it for 1-2 more before you actually cook it.
At the Register
Pay attention to the receipt: I know it’s easy to get caught up in looking at other things or begin packing groceries but pay attention as the cashier is ringing or at least double check your receipt before you leave the store. It is amazing how many times I catch something that mis-scans, scans twice, or the coupon or advertised sale price is not properly accounted for. It is always easier to clear up mistakes and questions while they are in process. This alone saves loads of money.
Ask for what you want: Often out of pleasantry the cashier will ask if you found everything ok. Use this opportunity to help you get what you want. If you can’t find something or want something they do not have let them know. Also if a sale item is out of stock ask for a rain check. This is a like a coupon that grants you the sale price on the item once it is back in stock regardless if the promotion is still running. If you don’t want to come back or need the product now ask a store manage if you can substitute a similar item for the one on sale.
Check yourself out: Impulse purchases drop when people use the self-checkout lines. There is typically less merchandise in these lines, there are typically shorter wait times so you are not looking at tempting items as long and you are kept busy ringing out your own items so you don’t have time to stand there and check out the magazines, and candy.
Stop Wasting Food:
Did you know 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten? Shop wisely and only purchase items you know your family will consume. Purchase perishable items sparingly to cut down on items spoiling. If you make larger meals, portion them out as easy meals for lunches or freeze items properly to be eaten at a later date. If you have produce that has been in the fridge for a while, mix up a homemade soup. For more help of reducing waste and using what you have on hand check out the Kitchen Core and Simply Delicious Classes series.
Store Items Properly: This is key for fresh item for retaining the highest nutrient quality, freshness and best flavor of products. There is really far too much to write in the little area so I will dedicate next weeks post to how to properly store some of the most common items for best results. Stay tuned.
Cut Costs With Your Knives: Don’t buy already cut-up produce. These items usually contain preservatives to keep them fresh after they are cut and you are paying a premium for this processed product. Cut and cored pineapple for example is typically $5.99 while un-cut is $3.99 and on sale is $2.99. Although it takes you a little time you will always save money by cutting it yourself. By learning how to use your knives efficiently, keeping them sharp and knowing what knife is best for a particular task, you will enjoy cutting items and cutting your bills. This also goes for meat products, instead of buying a package of boneless chicken breast and a package of thighs, buy a few whole birds when they are on sale and cut and package the pieces into portions that are easy for your family use. To learn what knife is best for you and how to use it well take a look at The Kitchen Core Class Series.
Cook from Scratch: Cooking from scratch will almost always be less expensive and not to mention healthier for you. By cooking at home you are not paying extra for convenience quick foods. You also avoid extra perseverates, gums, salt, fat and sugar needed to keep those foods tasting fresh after it spends weeks on the shelf. Learn how to use your freezer wisely, package food well and you will save significantly while still enjoying the convenience of having real good foods on hand. Items like breads, cookies, muffins, pulled meat products, and a variety of meals can be made and kept very easily at home. For help with using your freezer efficiently and making quality food from scratch schedule a class to fit your needs.
Stretch the Meat: Proteins are usually the most expensive parts of a meal. Instead of giving every person his or her own steak or chicken breast, buy less and slice the meat before you serve it. By slicing the meat, it visually looks like there is more giving the illusion of a bigger portion. Make it a complete meal by serving larger portions of hearty grains and vegetables. Try participating in Meatless Mondays with a great pasta dish like 4-Cheese Italian Stuffed Shells or Sweet Potato Burritos.
Eat in Season:
Just because fresh berries are available all year round does not mean you should be eating them all year. Pay attention to items that are currently in season. For example, only eat fresh berries in summer; load up on squash in the fall, citrus in the winter and greens in the spring. Items that are in season will always taste better because it is their natural growing cycle, and they will be less expensive. In the off-seasons, look to frozen and canned options, as these will usually be better quality, fresher and less expensive. Also try growing your own. Even if it is cold, you can keep a small herb garden inside, and if you are short on space, a small patio garden with items such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and herbs will save you a bundle in the summer.
Reuse bags and containers: Some stores offer discounts for each reused bag or container. It may only be 5-10 cents but this all adds up. 5 bags at 10 cents each is 50 cents saved each shopping trip and you are reducing waste.
Check the Competition: Pick the top 10 items you most commonly buy (e.g. milk, bread, apples, chicken, pasta, soap) and do a one-time shopping hunt for the best prices at your local stores and compare what you find. Look to see if where you are currently doing the bulk of your shopping has the best overall prices on what you are most often shopping for.
Know the rock-bottom price: Again using your list of top 10 most commonly purchased items learn the price range of these so you know when it is the best deal. For example chicken can be range from $1.49-$7.99 a pound even more savings if you are buying whole birds. By stocking up at the lowest price you can save hundreds each year on just one item.
Photograph your Receipt: Grocery apps like SavingsStar and Checkout51 give you weekly cash back on a range of products. All you need to do is send a photo showing what you bought. Saving a receipt this way is also helpful if you ever need or want to return an item to the store.
Grow your own Herbs: Bunches of fresh herbs cost $1-$3 each that you usually only need a little bit of. Herbs are easy to grow in pots outside or keep inside by a window for the one time cost of about $5 you can have plenty of herbs to last you throughout the year.
Ask about Case Discounts: If you know you use a lot of a particular product say chips, cereal or mineral water you can often receive case discounts for ordering in advance.
Buy Meat Direct from the Farm: There are many great family farms that produce high quality meats. You can purchase whole animals for a fraction of the traditional store. From my farmer we get beef, pork and chickens. The grass fed beef is about $4 per pound for everything from ground beef to tenderloin. In the store grass fed beef is about $7.99 and steaks can be as much as $29.99 per pound. You do need significant freezer space for whole animals but you can often buy half, or quarters or split it with a friend. Over time the significant savings can be worth you purchasing an extra deep freeze storage freezer.
I hope this helps you save money on groceries and makes grocery shopping on a budget fun and easy. Do you have a favorite method to shop on a budget? Let me know in the comments.