Growing up, I went to the grocery store with my parents and asked for everything – from 3 different types of cereal to sausage, bacon, and buffalo wings. Maybe it was because I had an incredibly fast metabolism and was always hungry or I just loved food to the point that everything looked so delicious and tasty. Unfortunately, my follow-through wasn’t ideal – tons of food would get partially eaten, and then I’d get bored of leftovers and throw the rest away. Suffice to say, I think I wasted too much food and money as a child. Fortunately, things have changed and I’ve become a more disciplined shopper by heading to the grocery store after meals and challenging whether I’d actually eat the product to completion. Plus, it’s a great way to exercise and digest your meal afterwards.
Saving money on groceries is not a science – everyone will know some of these tips below because they represent a common sense approach to being a consumer; however, the best ways to save on groceries may depend on where and how you live. Families who live in urban areas usually have access to more grocery stores while rural or suburban residents have more access to land for gardens. Wherever you live, you can probably save money on food if you take the time to think about how your grocery dollars are spent.
1. Track Your Spending
It is hard to save money if you do not even know how it is being spent. Take a week and write down every dollar that is spent on food, including trips to fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, or Chinese takeout. If you have young children, chances are you are spending way too much on eating out. Cooking after a day at work may not be a joy, but convenience is expensive. Meals prepared at home are cheaper, and in most cases, more nutritious than restaurant food.
2. Learn to Cook
I am appalled by the number of people I know, women and men, who do not know how to cook even basic meals. The microwave does not count. The best way to save money on groceries is to prepare meals at home using as few convenience items as possible – this means hamburger helper, frozen dinners, and canned soups that have ridiculous amounts of sodium. Prepared foods are more expensive than staples. If you do not know how to cook, take a cooking class or buy a recipe or how-to book and learn. Cooking classes will pay for themselves in a short time and you might even like to cook once you know how. A recipe book is very easy to use – just pick one recipe a day, make and enjoy it, and then turn the page. You’ll be surprised how great your cooking skills will become once you make a habit of practicing.
3. Organize Your Kitchen
It is impossible to prepare a grocery list if you do not even know what you have in your kitchen or pantry. Organize canned goods, baking supplies, herbs and spices, snack foods and other staples in cabinets so it is easy to see what you already have. Toss out expired foods and make certain that you have all the necessary cooking utensils like pots, pans, spatulas, mixers and crock pots. Clean out and organize the refrigerator and toss any items that are expired or unidentifiable. Make it a habit to put similar foods together and consistently in the same section of the fridge. Organize cookbooks and recipes for easy reference or put them in a file on your laptop.
4. Plan Menus
Check out local grocery store newsletters and flyers to find specials and plan your weekly menus around the meat, fish and produce that are on sale. Planning in advance will help you avoid overspending, buy all the necessary ingredients in one trip, and prepare a meal for every night of the week.
Although coupons are great, fresh foods, vegetables and fruits are usually the most expensive part of a meal and it is more difficult to find coupons for perishables. Remember to plan snacks and include ingredients for packed lunches for school children and workers who are away from home at mealtimes.
5. Make A List (and Stick To It)
Impulse purchases account for nearly 20% of the average shopper’s total at the Check-Out counter. Having a list of what you need will eliminate impulse buying and keep your budget on track. Check recipes before making the list to ensure you have all the ingredients you will need. Try to avoid bringing small children with you on shopping trips since they will distract you from your mission and beg for stuff not on the list.
6. Start A New List After Your Shopping Trip
Keep a shopping list with a pen in a prominent place in the kitchen, like the refrigerator door, and add items to the list as you run out of them. This helps to ensure nothing is forgotten on the next shopping trip. Family members who are old enough to write should also be responsible for adding items that they have used up. Make sure children (and spouses) don’t put empty containers back in the fridge since if you do not know you are out of orange juice, eggs or ketchup because the containers are out of sight, you will not add them to your list.
7. Limit Trips To the Store
The average shopper makes three or four trips to the grocery store each week. This uses up gas and time and increases the opportunity for impulse buying. With a complete grocery list, you should be able to buy everything for the week in a single trip, which saves money and gives you more time with your family.
8. Store Brands vs. Name Brands
You might not realize it, but most store brands are name brands with a store label. Large grocery chains contract with companies that produce brands like Green Giant and DelMonte to provide products with store labels. The best store brand items are usually canned goods (except fruit cocktail), frozen foods, and staples like cereal, butter, flour, sugar, salt and condiments. Coffee and tea can be iffy, but I always buy name brand meats and paper products.
Following the saying “you are what you eat”, the quality of beef, chicken, and fish greatly varies between name brands and generic ones, so stick to the safer option of name brands to avoid food poisoning or medical bills. After all, multiple sick-days from work that exhaust your PTO (paid-time off) or a trip to the hospital will eliminate any savings you might have had for the entire year. Lastly, I like some store brands like Kirkland by Costco or Great Value by Walmart, but not others. Store brands are usually priced lower than name brands so give them a try. If you do not like an item, return it or do not buy it again.
9. Cleaning Supplies and Personal Care Products
Although most people include cleaning, personal care, and hygiene products in their grocery budget, they are not groceries and their prices are often higher at food stores than at discount or dollar stores. Toilet paper, paper towels, shampoos and soaps are usually priced lower at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Dollar General or Fred’s than at Kroger’s, Food 4 Less, Von’s, Albertsons, Food Lion, CVS or Shop-Rite. You can save money if you make a separate list for non-food items and purchase them at discount stores.
10. Check Unit Prices
Most states require stores to provide unit prices for packaged, canned, refrigerated or frozen foods. Unit prices are based on weight or quantity and show the price per ounce or per pound. The overall price of a name brand item may be lower per package than a store brand, but the store brand may be cheaper per ounce if it comes in a larger quantity. For example, a 16 ounce box of cereal may cost $3.20, while a 20 ounce box costs $3.50. The 20 ounce box might cost more overall, but is cheaper per ounce for the amount of cereal you get (17.5 cents per ounce versus 20 cents per ounce).
Just remember that, sometimes, a discount isn’t worth the overall price. Using the previous example, if another cereal brand came in a box with 160 ounces for $5, the per unit cost would be a little over 3 cents, but if you think about it, who is going to eat 10 pounds worth of cereal before it goes stale and loses its taste?
11. Shop Specials at Several Stores
This works best in urban and suburban areas where 4 or 5 stores that are fairly close together are competing for your business. Check out all the store sales flyers before making a shopping list and separate the list into the items that will be purchased at each store. One store may have a special on chicken while another has the best price for ground beef. Taking advantage of specials is a good way to save money on meats and fresh produce. Also, do not make separate trips – go to all the stores in one weekly shopping excursion.
12. Buying and Cooking in Bulk
While this works well if you have a large family or cook for groups, buying things like bulk canned goods usually does not save money for smaller families since food is often wasted. The exception is meat, which can be frozen for later use. Meat in large packages can be priced $.10 to $.20 less per pound than smaller packages. Before freezing, separate the meat into amounts for family meals and place in freezer bags.
Soups, stews, casseroles, spaghetti sauce and many pasta dishes can be prepared in advance and frozen in individual or family size servings. You can save time and money by doubling recipes and freezing half for later use. It is convenient to have individual servings for nights when not all family members will be home for dinner and family size servings can be microwaved to give the cook a night off.
13. Eat and Finish Left Overs
Left overs can be frozen as individual servings or used to make another meal. Cooked meat can be cut into small pieces and added to rice and vegetables (even left over vegetables) for an easy, cheap meal. Sunday’s roast is easily made into Monday’s stew. Cut up, left over chicken stir fried with sliced peppers, onions and pepper jack cheese makes a great filling for fajitas. Using left overs helps keep food budgets low.
14. Look High and Low For Savings
Be wise to marketing strategies at grocery stores. The most expensive items are placed at eye level so you see them first. Check lower and higher shelves for the best savings. The most profitable items are at or near Check Out counters to ambush impulse buyers. Furthermore, pre-cut and pre-packaged foods prepared in-store like fruit salads, raw vegetable plates, sandwiches, cheese trays, and snack platters are prominently displayed and among the most expensive items sold. You can save money by preparing these foods yourself.
15. Check Prices at the Check Out
When checking out, watch the prices of purchases as they are rung up. Some sale items may not ring up at the sale price, cashiers may make errors when deducting coupons from your bill, and some products can get counted twice. Count your change and always check your receipt before leaving the parking lot or you may be leaving money at the store. This is a strategy my mom has used to catch duplicate charges and mispricing multiple times, even on her credit card.
16. Saving With Coupons
If you are not a coupon enthusiast, using coupons may be problematic. Most coupons are for name brands, which may be more expensive than store brands even after the coupon is deducted. In areas where stores double coupons or allow customers to stack coupons (use more than one per item), coupons are a good deal, but in my area the stores rarely offer these extra savings. Coupons are available through a variety of websites and it is worth checking them out for savings on brand name items you use regularly.
While growing food is not practical for most urban residents, suburban dwellers often have land that is under-utilized. A small vegetable garden can save money on fresh produce by supplying food like tomatoes, berries, peas, beans, peppers and squash. If you have never had a garden before, check with the agricultural extension of your state university for the best plants for your area and growing tips. Children can help with gardening chores and it is a great family activity as well as a way to save on food.
18. Canning and Preserving Food
Those who have a garden can extend the savings into the winter months by canning, freezing or preserving extra produce. Prepared jams and jellies are expensive at grocery stores, but extra berries and fruits make great preserves that last all year. Vegetables that are home canned do not have chemicals like commercial products and canning, while time consuming, is not difficult. Freezing fresh produce is even easier than canning. Check the internet for instructions for safely preserving food.
19. Mark Downs
Sell by dates should not be confused with expiration dates. Meat and baked goods, like bread, have sell by dates and are usually marked down when the date gets close. The store cannot sell these goods after the sell by date, but they are still good to eat if you are going to freeze them or use them within a few days. Mark downs are often between 20% and 50% so these items can be a bargain. Eggs and canned goods have expiration dates and should not be used after the date on the label for health safety reasons.
20. Bottle Water?
Studies have shown that the quality of most tap and well water is as good as or better than that of bottled water, so strike this item from your shopping list. If you do not like the taste of your tap water, a good water filter saves money over bottled water. Bottled and boxed juice drinks (not fruit juices) are mostly water and sugar and it is cheaper to buy unsweetened powered drink mixes and make them at home. Put homemade juices or drinks in a thermos or sealed cup when packing lunches.
Do Not Confuse Price and Value
Warren Buffett says “price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Some cheap items are simply just not worth the money. Generic toilet paper and paper towels are usually poor quality, thinner, and come on smaller rolls so they get used faster. Name brands are a better buy because they last much longer (Great Value brand at Walmart is an exception to the rule). No matter how low the price, there is no saving if no one will use a product, so it may be a better deal to buy certain name brand items, like peanut butter, if your family prefers them. Remember, saving on groceries doesn’t mean being cheap – it just means that you make smarter decisions with your purchasing.
There are lots of other ways to save money on products you use in your home everyday. The most important tip of all is to plan ahead, set a spending limit and stick to it. Using cash to buy groceries can help limit spending but rewards credit cards can increase savings if you have the discipline to stay within your budget and pay the bill in full every month. Anyone can save money on groceries if you are willing to invest a little time in planning ahead and developing a system that works for you and your family’s needs.