Everything seems to cost more today than it used to, and while that may be something you cannot control, it does impact your budget. One of the biggest components of your budget is likely groceries. You need them, but many families are forced to limit how much they spend on food so they can pay other bills, including their rent or utilities. The key here is to make your food budget go as far as possible. You can save money on groceries in multiple ways, allowing you to ensure your needs are met.
Grocery stores do not always make it easy. You may find that every time you visit, the costs are higher. Here are some strategies to help you save money on groceries.
Determine What You Are Spending Now
A good starting point is understanding how much you are spending on groceries each month now. Take some time to determine what that is by following these steps:
- Use a small notebook or an app on your smartphone.
- Track every purchase made at the grocery store or on food products.
- Keep a separate tab for food you buy at a restaurant or take out.
- Add up how much you spend over a month – that's your grocery bill for the month.
By looking at how much you spend over the course of a month, you can account for purchases you may make one week but that last longer than just a week. It's a good idea to break down this figure further, such as by how much you are spending on:
- Cleaning items
- Hygiene products and personal care items
- Fresh food
- Processed foods
That way, you can see where most of your money is going. By having this understanding of what you are spending on, you can make better decisions each time you set out to the grocery store. It also means you will have more money available to you.
For example, if after a month, you learn you are spending 1/3 of your budget on snack foods (and that is not uncommon), making a few changes in what you buy could help you to lower your costs big time and keep more in the refrigerator while you do so. A lower grocery bill with fewer snack foods is often a healthier option, too.
Now that you have a good understanding of what you are spending money on, the next step is to apply some tips and tricks to lower your grocery bill.
First, Focus on What You Are Cooking
It is often thought that it is too expensive to buy healthy food. That can be true, but only if you do not prepare a meal yourself. By learning to cook (and there are dozens of cheap ways to learn how to cook basic and healthy meals), you can drastically change your diet and improve your budget.
First, recognize that dinner does not have to be a starch, vegetable, and a nice cut of meat. Dinner can be anything that works for you and your family. Here are some ideas:
- Make eggs and pancakes for dinner – breakfast for dinner is a cheap and hearty meal.
- Consider BLTs and a side of fruit.
- Replace meats with beans one night a week.
- Consider omelets for dinner – let your family customize them.
- A big salad with lots of vegetables can be an affordable dinner once a week.
Rethink meals so that they fit your budget, not just what you think dinner is supposed to be. It's fine to enjoy a few nights of pasta, for example, if it helps to cut down on your budget while keeping your bellies full. It is worth it to buy sauces, for example, with added veggies in them, or to use whole wheat pastas because they keep you full longer.
Look at the Price of What You Are Buying When Shopping
It's easy to reach for the same products and brands you have always used. However, many generic brands in stores are produced in the same factories with the same ingredients and products as the brands you know. They just come at a fraction of the cost. As you shop through the store, you'll want to focus on a few specific ways to lower your costs (there are lots of ways to compare prices in the grocery store, but here's where you should start!)
- Look at all products equally. Is there an off-brand that is less expensive?
- Consider how much you are paying per ounce to see which product is the best deal. Many of the price tags on the store shelves break down the per-ounce or per-serving number, making comparing easy to do. This is one way to consider the unit price.
- As you pick up items to put in your shopping cart, add them to a calculator app on your phone. That way, you have a running total of what you are spending.
- Ask yourself if you really need an expensive bottled drink or that high end brand of cookies that you always buy. Will it push you out of your budget?
- Consider products based on what you will eat. Just because something is less expensive does not mean it is a good deal if you or your family members will not eat it.
By paying closer attention to how you shop and what you are buying, you may be able to save a significant amount of money on the items you need and will actually consume over the course of the week. Grocery stores are designed to make it fast and easy to grab the most expensive items (did you know that the most profitable products for grocery stores are on the easiest shelves to see and reach?) Those tend to be the most expensive items in the store, and they tend to cost extra money without offering anything different or better than those items with the lowest price.
The more mindful you are when grocery shopping, the easier it is to save money on everything on your grocery list. The best price is often not on the item you are buying and taking home!
Build a Menu Based on What Is on Sale
Another cost effective way to save on groceries is to create a menu based on what is on sale. Before you make a grocery list for the week, sit down and look at what discounts are on sale at the grocery stores you like to visit. Most grocery stores release digital ads on their website for their sale items. You may also get an ad in the mail each week.
Look for the amazing deals – these are called loss leaders. The grocery store will place a few items that many people want at a discounted price to lure people in. It may be a sale on chicken breasts or other items. As you work to create a menu for the week, plan to use these items – the loss leaders for your main ingredients. That way, you end up buying what's on sale instead of what is not – those weekly ads change enough that you may be able to stock up on items when there is a great deal on them.
Since grocery prices are on the rise, you should always create a menu like this and be sure to then build a grocery list based on that menu. This way, you are meal planning around the bargains currently available. If ground beef is on sale this week, prepare that. If you learn that chicken breasts are on sale, buy large quantities (that you can consume and freeze safely) to use for a few weeks of meals.
To save money on groceries beyond this, it is critical to build out your grocery budget for more than just a few days. In fact, if you can create a monthly grocery budget, you will see a significant amount of benefit. Here are a few reasons why:
- Your grocery store probably puts some items on sale every few weeks, not every week. That could be items like canned goods. Buy a larger amount at that time.
- Menu plan around the fresh produce for the week especially. If green peppers are on sale this week, be sure to use that this week or buy a few extra, slice them, and freeze them for later.
- With a monthly grocery budget, you can also keep other items – like toilet paper – on your list but not have to budget for them every week. That way, you can take advantage of the lower prices.
Try to create the best meal plan for your family that lasts a month. Build in flexibility here. You may need a few different types of meals (those that are super fast to prepare and those that may involve the use of a crockpot!). The key here is that you can create a meal plan that incorporates what's on sale over the course of the month, keeping costs down.
Where You Shop Can Matter
One of the biggest factors in saving money on grocery shopping is knowing where to buy. Now, every location is different, and what is most important to you may be different from others. Consider these tips.
Use your local grocery store first
Local grocery stores may be the easiest place to find affordable prices, especially on local produce and other items. Use their weekly ads to help you to stretch your budget further. But be careful. You do not want to fall down the path of purchasing a lot of pre-made foods here. Many of these locations will have pre-made meals, prepared foods, and lots of ready to go snacks you can take with you. That definitely makes lunch and dinner easy to plan, but it is much more expensive than buying these items on your own separately and then preparing them.
Also, when buying groceries from local grocery stores, don't forget clipping coupons. They are still out there, and clipping coupons can easily help you to lower the cost of your groceries at your local store significantly. Buying groceries based on the coupon you have alongside the loss leaders offered in the weekly ad can be the best way to reduce your costs significantly.
Warehouse stores may be an option
Can you save money by buying groceries from a warehouse store? You may, but there are a lot of "ifs" to consider here.
- If your grocery budget is very limited, you likely do not want to or have the room to buy in bulk, which many warehouse stores sell in. Don't stress your entire month's budget for one trip to the warehouse club.
- If you are buying groceries for a large group of people – and doing so on a consistent basis – then it may be helpful to use a warehouse club.
- Use these locations to help you buy items that can remain in place long term. For example, skip those bell peppers here, and other produce you may not be able to consume fast enough before the expiration dates. Instead, buy your toilet paper here.
Know that many of these locations will offer your favorite brands, and that can be an attractive reason to buy here, especially if the unit price (the price broken down by use) is much lower than what you may be paying otherwise at a local store. Some examples of these are Sam's Club and Costco.
However, don't make these mistakes:
- Don't forget to factor in the cost of membership.
- Many of these locations do not allow you to clip or use coupons on items.
- If the unit price is great and lower than others, it's worth it, but only if you do not waste it.
- If you cannot use the product fully within the expiration date, don't buy it.
- Avoid impulse purchases here. They tend to be some of the most expensive.
- Don't make the mistake of purchasing all of the prepared foods here.
- Don't overlook the off brands – many of the warehouse stores offer fantastic quality off brands for a lower price.
Thinking About Organic Products?
You may be looking for a way to stretch your grocery budget, but you also want to be able to buy the healthy ingredients you want to feed your family. Look for the best ways to do this. Here are some tips:
- Shop at the right stores. The least expensive option is likely to be the farmers market in town. Buy what is in season and locally grown.
- Buy from retailers that offer better pricing. Trader Joe’s is less expensive than Whole Foods, for example. However, Walmart and Target often carry organic products as well, and often at a lower price even further.
- Shop within the store in an effective manner. For example, buying fresh items tends to be the least expensive if you can use them before they expire. However, if you can purchase organic foods that are frozen, you’ll get more life out of them. That way, you can skip the high cost of prepared specialty foods.
There is no doubt that you’ll want to be wise when shopping at any store. The key here is to look for quality and low prices, and that’s easier to do when you have more insight into all of the retailers in your area.
Answering Your Tough Questions on Saving Money on Groceries
It can seem overwhelming to budget for groceries each week. Yet, there are a few ways to help you to lower your costs a bit further.
Who Offers the Lowest Prices on Groceries?
Compare prices at multiple grocery stores located near you. There is no benefit in driving around for days to numerous locations, though. The key here is to find a balance between going to a few stores to get a good price and not wasting your time.
Are Grocery Apps a Scam?
When it comes time to build a list for groceries, consider using grocery apps. These are tools on your smartphone that you do not have to pay for (always look for free versions). You do not need to give them any of your personal information. Then, use these apps to benefit you:
- Use them to help you find weekly sales
- Use them to help you with meal planning
- Some offer great recipe ideas for low-cost foods
- Other apps help you find coupons and discounts
Don’t pay fees using apps. If it charges one, don’t use it.
Does It Matter When I Shop for Groceries?
What you may not know is that there are a few reasons to pick and choose the time of day and week you shop. For example, you never want to shop on an empty stomach. If you do, you are more likely to buy items you do not need. Skipping the impulse buys will save you the most money over time.
Next, talk to your stock team in the meat and bakery area. Ask them when they tend to mark down prices. Many stores will do this daily around mid-day or into the afternoon. Others do so first thing in the morning. Often, they will mark down items they did not sell over the weekend on Mondays and Tuesdays. Knowing when the grocery store places items on clearance or at a discount can help you to save money over time.
Do Shopper Loyalty Programs Work?
A shopper loyalty program is a free program at many grocery stores. Every grocery store is looking for a way to bring customers in the door and keep them there. To do that, they absolutely must build your trust. Loyalty programs often allow you to earn cash back, free products, or discounts when you scan your card with each purchase.
They may offer discounts on gas, a percentage off your next trip, or other rewards. Before you use these, remember:
- Only buy items that you will actually use with those points
- Don’t buy items just to earn points but rather because you actually need them
- Loyalty programs are not all equal – be sure to compare not just who offers the most points but what the average prices are at the location.
There’s no doubt that these programs are important ways to keep more cash in your budget each month, but only if you use them wisely.
Money Saving Tips for Single Parents
If you are a single parent, you know just how hard it can be to not just pay for groceries but also to manage preparing meals for your kids. Shopping for groceries is even that much more difficult. Here are some tips to help you.
- Create recipe ideas that you can make in bulk and then freeze. For example, if chicken breast is on sale, spend an extra hour making up a few meals of chicken tenders for the next few weeks. Freeze what you cannot use that day. This helps to minimize the amount of cooking you have to do.
- Take advantage of the services your grocery store offers. For example, curbside pickup is great because it means you do not have to bring the kids into the store or deal with impulse buys. You make a list, you enter it into the grocery app, someone else completes the shopping, and they put it right into your trunk. Some store apps also offer recipe planning and grocery list tools on them.
- The best deals are often simple meals. Do not feel like every meal has to be a superstar experience. Keep recipe ideas easy to make.
As you think about your budget, there are a few things to remember. First, comparing prices is easier to do than ever because you can make a shopping list online and check out that list with ease across several locations, finding the best deals as you go right from your smartphone.
Remember that a name brand product does not make it better in any way. Comparing prices, on the other hand, can give you the relief you need when shopping. Don’t assume name brands mean better quality in every situation.
Avoid waste. This is yet another valuable but hard lesson to learn. The total cost of your groceries will be less, and you will have more cash available to you when you buy what you need, use up all you have in your pantry, and minimize purchasing more than you can consume. By reducing waste, you are able to save money and help the planet.