Tips and Tricks for Saving Money at the Grocery Store, According to a Financial Expert
Benjamin Franklin famously said, "In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes," but if there were room on that list for three items, the third would be grocery shopping. Indeed, grocery shopping is something we have to do, regardless of want or desire. It's the only way to have food in the fridge and pantry.
At this point in your food shopping life, you may have a routine to ensure you pick up everything on your list in the least amount of time. It's possible you even have techniques to limit buying unnecessary items or impulse purchases that can drive up your grocery bill.
Indeed, when it comes to shopping for groceries and saving money, having a strategy is important. You may feel certain you've read and heard all of the grocery shopping strategies and tips. But even old dogs can learn new tricks — or in this case, seasoned shoppers can learn new tips for saving money.
We called upon veteran savings-oriented shoppers for their best money-saving tips, and we asked a financial expert for tips, too. Here, read on for tips and tricks for saving money at the grocery store.
1. Plan Before You Shop
Before you write your grocery list or step foot in the store, come up with all the meals you plan to prepare and eat for the week.
If you already do that, take it a step further. Plan meals that use the same ingredients so you don't have to worry about any fresh produce or herbs going to waste. Spoiled food is wasted money.
"Create a meal plan based on weekly sales and look for recipes that use overlapping ingredients," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Not only will you save by not buying an array of different products, you'll also cut down on items going bad that you'll have to toss in the compost or trash.
2. Reduce Fillable Space
You may grab a shopping cart out of habit the moment you walk through the sliding doors at your local grocery store, even if your grocery list is rather short. But limiting the amount of space you allot yourself while shopping can help you spend less.
"Use a basket instead of a large shopping cart to reduce temptations," Woroch says. "The less space you have, the [fewer] food items you can add to your basket." As the basket fills up, you'll be ready to hit the check out faster.
3. Pay Attention to Special Sales
Many supermarkets offer markdowns on fresh foods with an expiration date that is within a couple days. The same is also true for shelf-stable items that are overstocked.
"Look for discounts on meats, fish and poultry nearing its expiration date — known as manager markdowns offering 50 to 70 percent off," Woroch says. Even if you're not planning on making a meal with those ingredients or don't want to change your meal plans, you can stock up for a future meal. "Just freeze what you don't plan to eat right away."
4. Consider Store Brands
We all have our favorite brand of certain items, such as diced tomatoes or canned soups, but when it comes to staple pantry items you may be paying more for the name rather than the product.
"Only buy generic when it comes to single ingredient foods and ingredients like baking supplies, including sugar, flour, and spices or herbs," Woroch says. "Brands cannot make these any differently than a store name, so you're really just paying for the pretty packaging when you spend more for a brand."
5. Beware of End Caps
Grocery stores are masters at utilizing all the available space on shelves in order to grab your attention and get your dollars. End caps, for example, are one way for stores to highlight foods, whether there is a deal or not.
"Most people assume products promoted on these end cap displays are a good sale, but they may not beat other brand prices for similar products, so always go to the aisle where the product item is sold to see if you can get a better price," Woroch says.
6. Read the Fine Print on Sales
Sale items are enticing, even for hardened shoppers. With all the signage and sale jargon of two-for-ones or buy one, get one free, you may just assume a sale is always worth it, and that it's the best option if you're buying that food anyway. But it's important to read the small print, especially for deals that encourage you to buy multiple items to get the savings.
"Oftentimes, you can get the same price even if you just buy one instead of 10 for $10," says Woroch. Before loading up on an item, make sure to double check if you're required to buy a certain number to receive the discount. It's not much of a savings if you buy 10 for the sale price but never use all of the food.
7. Look at the Unit Price
A price-to-price comparison is not the best way to determine what's a better buy. For that, you'll need to compare the cost-per-unit prices. Most stores list the cost-per-unit price in small print next to the full price. (Bring your reading glasses!)
"Don't always assume the large bag of chips or box of cereal is the best value," Woroch says. When you compare by-unit prices, it's a lot easier to spot what's the least expensive option by weight or size. And you may be surprised that the smaller box, can, or jar is less than the bigger ones.
"If there's a sale on the smaller container, it could be cheaper to buy a few small bags or boxes versus the large or bulk size," she adds.
8. Shop the Seasons
These days, many vegetables and fruits are available year-round, but that doesn't mean they are in season. For example, if you're buying tomatoes in winter, you can be sure they aren't growing in your region because tomatoes grow in the summer in the U.S. (They love the heat.) Out-of-season veggies and fruits do not taste as good as their in-season counterparts, and they'll also cost you more.
"Stick with what's in season for the best prices," Woroch says. "Produce that isn't in season locally costs more for stores to import it, and that is passed on to the consumer at higher prices." Want to familiarize yourself with what's in season for where you live? Check out this seasonal guide.
9. Buy Frozen for More Savings
For shoppers on a budget, fresh fruits and vegetables can be difficult to accommodate. They're often quite expensive, and they have a short shelf-life. So where you can, buy frozen. Plenty of meals use frozen foods and cook up just as tasty and delicious as the made-with-fresh alternatives.
"Opt for frozen [foods], which actually offers more nutrients for 20 to 30 percent less," Woroch says. For recipes that are flexible, you can substitute for frozen alternatives, and you're likely not to notice much of a difference — but your pocketbook will.
10. Know When to Stock Up
Sales and two-for-one offers can lure you into thinking that buying in bigger quantities is a good deal, but after reading the fine print, it comes down to what products you're purchasing.
"Buying in bulk can save you money as long as you consider your usage and any potential expiration dates," Woroch explains. "For instance, buying nonperishable food items such as boxed or canned foods in bulk or household cleaning supplies can save you money."
11. Review Your Receipt
After you've roamed through all the aisles to get what you need, cross-checked unit prices and sales, and filled up your basket, you can relax as you load everything on the conveyor belt, right? Well, not so fast. It's important to still be attentive in case there are mix ups at the cash register.
"Pay attention at checkout, and review your receipts for potential pricing errors," Woroch says. "I've caught mistakes of as much as $5 per item when the sale was not added to my ticket." You don't want to spend precious time calculating deals only for them not to be applied at the register.
12. Use a Rebate App
After your shopping trip, there is potential for additional savings or earnings for future purchases with smartphone apps.
"Snap pictures of your grocery receipts using FetchRewards.com to earn points towards free store gift cards to retailers like Walmart, Target, and Instacart to offset future food costs," says Woroch. Ibotta is also a big favorite for rebate shoppers.