How To Save Money When Grocery Shopping

The pandemic has reshaped our lives in many ways. We are home more due to social distance, remote work, distance learning, traveling, and dining out less. We have spent more on grocery shopping to accommodate this “new normal” lifestyle. 

We were surprised to see a panic buying cause of shortages on store shelves for food and toilet paper. We recognized that as we spent more time at home, we had more significant needs. With vaccines becoming more available, we can start to see the light at the end of this very long tunnel to our regular lives. Hopefully, we will sport some new and improved financial habits. Americans are saving more time money, becoming more frugal.

We can save money by using grocery shopping tips to consciously change our ways. First, let’s take a look at some grocery statistics.

 Grocery Statistics

The average household spent $8,169 annually or 9.9% on food in pre-pandemic 2019. There are 2.53 people in the average household. Roughly 57% of the amount spent was for food at home and 43% for dining out. This year, many of us remained home rather than dining out. 

According to a Lending Tree study released in October 2020, the average consumer weekly grocery spending increased 17% due to the pandemic to $190 from $163.

C+R Research reported that most Americans (85%) found grocery prices have been higher during the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, the 2019 American Time Use Survey showed the average shopper spent 41 minutes in the grocery store. That time may decline as we make more purchases online.

Ways To Save Money When Grocery Shopping

1. Have A Reasonable Shopping List

The better your shopping list is, the more productive your experience. Make your grocery shopping list as specific as possible. Peruse your pantry, frig, and freezer for what you have. I leave a pad on the counter for things we run out of to form our next list.

My kids aren’t that reliable in writing their preferences down, which are frankly more junk food-oriented. When I come home from shopping, and their stuff is missing, I feel it is their responsibility. They have gotten remarkably better at adding to the list ahead of time.

It saves time and stops us from meandering down all the aisles. I often give myself just enough time to buy what I need. When shopping for groceries without a list, I find surprises in my cart. It feels like somebody possessed me. I bought things we didn’t need but forgot the items I needed to cook with that evening.

2. Use Unit Pricing As A Great Tool

Unit pricing is a valuable tool to use to help you find the best prices. The price label on grocery shelves usually includes the unit price for the product. Sometimes in small writing, the unit price tells you the cost of the product in ounces or pounds, allowing you to compare the price of different sized packages better. Larger-sized products and store brand items often have a lower unit price but not always.

Take the case of buying carrots:

  • One pound of baby carrots,  $0.99 ($0.99 per pound)
  • Two pounds of baby carrots, $1.89 ($0.94 per pound
  • One pound full-size carrots   $0.68 ($0.68 per pound)

If you have time to peel and cut the carrots, the full-size carrots are the better deal. All you need is basic math to make better buying decisions.

A Teachable Moment With My Son

Tyler had bought one ounce of cashews at a small grocery store with about 18 cashews for $4.99. He was “starving” on the way home from school, about a 15-minute walk home. We had just bought a large container (40 ounces) of cashews from Costco a day earlier. He had asked for them.

I asked him to do the math. He then realized he had paid 10x more for his little plastic cup. Incidentally, Costco sells that large-sized Kirkland cashews for $26.99. Just saying!

3. Cut Your Fresh Produce and Grate Your Cheese

In a pinch, I will buy fruit, cheese,  and veggies, cut up already. However, I find cutting fresh produce very therapeutic. They stay fresher longer, tastier, and are less expensive. I have all the tools–shredders, graters, dicers–and I use them as needed. However, I enjoy the feeling of cutting a cucumber or carrots. It may not look as pretty (so I have been told), but it is a relaxing activity.

Making our salads and experimenting with dressings has been fun and rewarding. Alex always asks for the recipes, but they are different each time. We have also bought bagged greens or salad packages to save time but feel better about our own. Saving money is a collateral benefit when you are enjoying your salads more.

Grating your cheese from a block is better compared to pre-shredded packages, which can spoil faster.

There is still way more processed food such as Kraft Mac and Cheese than we should have in our home. On American shelves since 1937, I’m sure I am not alone in hoping that one day these boxes disappear.

4. Leftovers Provide Benefits

Leftovers are the bane of so many people’s existence. Not to me. Growing up, we had leftovers though we never called them as such. My mom, a Holocaust survivor, believed in plentiful portions, eating at home, never in restaurants, and having a refrigerator filled to the gills. We didn’t discard food in our home.

Sometimes, leftovers, specially marinated recipes, taste better the next day. I view leftovers as extra portions after purposefully making more to freeze or have the next day or so. Having leftovers save time and money at the grocery store, in the kitchen, and searching for a new recipe. Certain foods are better (lean proteins, vegetables) the next day than other foods. 

I repurpose leftovers for snacks, breakfast, add-ons to other meals. Leftover chicken or salmon is excellent as a salad. As such, these portions provide me with some flexibility and feedback if I know my family liked the meal in the first place. I’m not a great or even a good cook, but I enjoy feeding my family.

 5. Bring Your Phone

There are good reasons to have your phone available. The calculator comes in handy for crunching unit prices, comparison shopping, or playing upbeat music to pick up your pace. It’s a good alternative to overcome piped-in Musak used to slow down your shopping.

6. Use Cash To Avoid Overspending

Credit cards are more convenient when I have significant grocery shopping to do. You can track your spending better. Plus, getting some money back is satisfying if you are using a cashback rewards credit card. However, I often use cash to pay for groceries as a way of limiting my purchases. You can still use some money and get rewards if you are in a store loyalty program.

When using limited cash to pay for groceries, you are increasing your pain which curbs overspending. As such, it is easier to budget.

7. Bulk Buys Don’t Work For Everything

When it comes to bulk buying, my husband, Craig, and I are different shoppers. When Craig goes shopping and sees sales on produce, he is liable to overbuy some things that aren’t bargains at the end of the day. He bulks up on perishables or non-perishables alike.

Buying in bulk does make sense for certain products that don’t have “Best by dates.”  Many household products fit that bill, such as paper goods, cleaning, or items you use frequently. If we buy too much of something like shampoo, my kids often overuse it. A lot of these items take up a lot of space. Family and friends envied us for having so much toilet paper during the early days of shortages. We mailed some rolls to friends. I am not kidding!

Perishables Are Not Good Candidates For Bulking

My daughter, Alex, was going through a veggie stage, asking for red peppers. Craig saw a pepper sale and came home with huge packages, amounting to 24 red peppers! After two peppers, Alex was bored with them. I used them for many recipes over the next week or so, then froze some, but we had some spoilage.

The next day, Alex wanted Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and cucumbers. Of course, Craig found a sale and bulked up again. I am appreciative that Craig was doing a lot of the shopping those days. However, I finally pointed out the amount we were throwing out was outweighing the cost savings. There are better cost savings when buying large quantities of non-perishable items. That is not true when perishable food spoils.

 8. Buy Generic Brands

Buying generic brands for food, drug, and household products at supermarkets and wholesale stores is a terrific way to save money.  A generic brand for a consumer product is typically sold without a widely recognized name and is usually not promoted by expensive brand advertising.

Brand marketing for products is higher for often the same quality when you buy name brands. The private brands (also known as private label or generic brands)  and the name brands are often sitting next to each other, so it is easy to compare the ingredients’ labels. They are usually identical except for the price, with the generic brand costing one-third to two-thirds less. These savings are very worthwhile.

Kirkland Signature, a store brand, accounts for 25% of Costco Wholesale revenues.  Several notable brands—Starbucks, Duracell, Huggies, and Grey Goose—are manufactured under a private label by name brands with varied savings of up to 50% on some items.

9. Buy In Season

“For everything, there is a season.” These lyrics are from “Turn! Turn! Turn!” written by Pete Seeger and originated in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The words are a reminder that we should value our seasons. And so too, our seasonal foods. Sure, it is always fun and convenient to get a pomegranate when we want to have one.

Transporting produce is easier done these days, but if they are sourcing overseas, that country’s pesticide regulations may differ from ours. Convenience is not a good enough reason to eat out of season.

On the other hand, the cost of seasonal food is cheaper because farmers are harvesting in abundance. Fresher food is tastier and retains more nutrition than food consumed out of season.

10. Go To The Farmer’s Market

As a result of the pandemic, we have shopped less from farmers this year. I missed doing that this year as that is a fun experience to do.  Farmers are typically proud of their offerings,  appreciative of your purchases, happy to share information about their crop. We buy food from the farmer’s market for its freshness, organic, and uniqueness but not necessarily because it is cheaper.

However, buying eggs, cheese, and produce from the farmer’s market is usually better and cheaper. You are also supporting the farmers who have had a tough year.

11. Certain Stores Have Different Purposes

There are many different types of stores that sell groceries. Supermarkets have significantly more choices, such as Publix, Wegman’s, Safeway, and Aldi’s. We have shopped at Aldi’s, which has great prices. Wegman’s recently opened nearby, and we have found reasonable prices, especially for their private brands and excellent service. Their meat counter is accommodating and will cut to the size we need at the same price.

Superstores like Walmart, sell food and household items at affordable prices. Also, they sell clothing, gardening, games, and much more.

We have been members of warehouse clubs, favoring Costco’s, especially for Kirkland Signature, and to a lesser extent BJ’s. Membership pricing has gone up, but they offer value.  In recent months during the pandemic, we have avoided these larger stores. These stores are great when bulking up properly. Trader Joe’s and Costco are exceptionally terrific when you return food without question that has spoiled or doesn’t taste right. We have done it infrequently, but everyone I talk to says the same thing about these retailers.

Aldi’s and Walmart are perfect for grocery staples. Amazon and Walmart are great for buying nonperishables online. I buy a variety of things at Ocean State Job Lot, from spices to hand sanitizer, when no one else had it.

On the other hand, our local grocery store is typically more specialized, smaller, often more pricey. That said, we favor them for their neighborhood feel and want them to do well.

Convenience stores are for grab and go stops to pick up eggs, coffee, bread, and milk at a gas station. Drug stores can serve a similar purpose with like prices for specific food items.

12. Know Store Policies, Sales Cycles

All stores have their own sales cycles, which vary every six-to-eight weeks. The key is to know your store’s predictable cycle to make your purchases at their lowest price points. This information can be found in-store ads, on websites, or ask in the store. You can also find more discounts on certain items during the quieter morning hours.

Certain stores have coupon policies that allow “coupon stacking” meaning you can use both the store coupon and the manufacturer coupon. Retailers may give you twice the discount on whatever coupon you use or double couponing. Some stores will take competitor coupons.

 13. Use APPs, Coupons, Rebates, And Other Tools

Technology has evolved for the grocery shopper to save more money. The first coupon was created by the Coca-Cola company in 1887, providing a free sample of the one-year-old drink. The rebate coupon became popular though there have been skeptics. Craig has been an avid user of coupons for years and is a loyal shopper at certain outlets.

There are useful apps for saving money on groceries, notably using Ibotta, Checkout 51, Rakuten, among others. We can’t do full justice in this article for all the apps that can be used efficiently for savings and will do a standalone post soon.

14. Grocery Owners Use Marketing Psychology

All retailers use behavioral psychology to form biases that cause us to spend more money than we should. We discuss cognitive and behavioral biases here.

Grocery store owners use their trickery to encourage us to meander and linger longer in the stores. That way, we will spend more money on higher-margin items, be attracted to colors like red sale signs, and use larger shopping carts than we need.

Here are just a few schemes they use:

Piping in easy listening Muzak to slow on our pace in the store and stay a little while longer.

Grocery store layouts encourage you to enter their stores by walking to the right, counterclockwise where revenues are slightly higher ($2 per trip on average). Most people, notably right-handed people, steer with their left hand and grab with their right hand. That is where the goods are. I am left-handed but conditioned to go in that same direction, right into the baked goods and produce area. Typical supermarkets want you to walk to the right pleasant smells, freshness, and beautiful colors.

The aisles are especially desirable places for retailers to want customers to go. There are displays in your way at the ends of the lane, which will be another way for customers to stay longer. Grocery owners fill their shelves with their higher-margin products on the shelves at eye-level. Manufacturer fight for this space and pay slot fees for desirable space.

15. Bigger Shopping Carts

The average family size in the US has not increased, and oddly the proportion of our spending on food has decreased to below 10% of income from far higher decades ago. So why has our shopping cart tripled since 1975?

Marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom has said that retailers tried doubling the size of the shopping cart as an experiment, resulting in shoppers spending 40% more on merchandise. Ever carry one of those little baskets? They can hurt and cause black and blue marks at least on my arms.

The giant carts are subliminally causing us to shop and spend more.

16. Order Online And Pickup Your Packages

New research reported that more than two-thirds of shoppers are buying online pick up in-store (BOPIS) for the first time, and more than half are spending more when doing so. The numbers were highest for April 2020. Even as grocery stores opened in May and June, they were at limited capacity.   

Still, online grocery shopping has some lasting benefits. You are less likely to purchase impulsively, more comfortable to compare prices, contactless payments, and more time-efficient.


Final Thoughts

There are many ways to save money when grocery shopping. Our lifestyle has changed due to the pandemic, causing us to reconsider how we make purchases. We may realize lasting benefits as we improve our financial habits and time management. Buying groceries is a prime example of how we can save time, money, and become more healthy.

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