When ever we start looking to save money, the first place we tend to look is the grocery budget. One of the reasons we do this is because, unlike a house payment or a car loan, grocery shopping is a true variable expense. It’s an expense we have a large measure of control over which makes it a natural target for reduction.
It can be a rich source of savings as well. If you normally average $200 per week on groceries, and you can cut that by 20%, or $40, you can save over $2000 per year. There aren’t many expenses you can cut to save so much money without experiencing real sacrifice either.
Grocery shopping is a multifaceted endeavor, so there are a lot of ways to save money. I’ve come up with a list of 15 ways to cut your grocery bill that my wife and I use on a regular basis:
1. Don’t buy prepared foods or individual servings. As a general rule, the more a food item has been processed, the higher it’s price. You can buy uncooked rice in 10 pound bags for not a lot of money, or you can buy instant rice in those boiling bags, and you’ll have spent a good deal more in exchange for at best ten fewer minutes at cooking time.
2. Avoid buying for the “cool factor”. Any food item where the primary construct of the product is geared mainly toward convenience or appearance (the “cool” factor) will cost you more. Over packaging seems to be an integral part of this, giving the appearance of greater quantities than there really is.
3. Never shop at meal times or when you are hungry. This one is almost a cliché, but it’s worth mentioning. Not only will you buy more if you’re hungry, but you might unconsciously buy junk foods, the kind that we tend to look for when we need a quick bite but don’t have a lot of time.
4. Shop on the quietest shopping days. I favor control when shopping—the more of it I have, the easier it is to focus on getting the best deals and sticking to my plan. But shopping in a crowded store flies in the face of this. You will not be able to concentrate if you’re surrounded by people and noise. Monday and Tuesday nights seem to be the best days to shop, I can glide in and out of the store in the shortest amount of time and find exactly what I want in between.
5. Where possible, buy larger sizes and quantities. Small sizes may look pretty and work just right, but they tend to cost more. Buy in bulk when ever you can, and break the quantities down to smaller more usable sizes when you get home.
6. Buy on sale and buy in bulk. When ever there’s a sale on an item you regularly use, buy as much of it as possible and store it or freeze it. This may require that you have a freezer or second refrigerator—either of which you can buy second hand—as well as a cool, dry storage area. The more you can buy at any one time, the few shopping trips you’ll need to make. Which brings us to…
7. Make fewer, larger shopping trips. The less time you spend visiting grocery stores, the more you’ll save. Constantly running to the store to “pick up a few items” is a sure fire path to spending more than you need to. Have a running list in a conspicuous location in your home, and add needed items to it. Hold your shopping excursions until the list is sufficient to justify a full blown shopping trip.
8. Emphasize store/generic brands and avoid name brand products. Name brands are often a default choice because of the advertising their manufacturers blast at us all day every day. But just remember that we’re paying for that advertising every time we buy name brands, which is a big part of why they cost more. Stop paying for advertising!
9. Pay with cash or bank debit cards. Forget about credit card rewards points when you buy groceries; what ever you make on them you’ll more than give back because credit cards encourage buying more than you can afford. Cash and bank debit cards impose a natural limit on spending, because we’re using “our money”, not other people’s money.
10. Shop alone. Resistance weakens in groups, so leave the kids, spouse or significant other at home. Let’s admit it, each of us has a soft spot for a couple of extravagances, but multiply that desire times the number of people in tow, and any semblance of a budget disappears. Don’t shop with kids especially—generally they want everything they see and no one can say no all the time.
11. The biggest “tightwad” in the house should do the shopping. Not all shoppers are created equal! The person who should do the shopping is the one best qualified to do so. Some people are just better at handling money, especially doing it on the fly.
12. Clip coupons. Many people don’t do this because it requires some time but try this: save store and product circulars in a file folder, and once a month review them to find any that you might use, cut them out, and place them in a boldly marked envelope so all you need to do when you go shopping is grab the envelope and go. Store coupons may be good for only one week and may need to be reviewed just before shopping. We’ve saved more than 10% with coupons on more than a few shopping trips so it’s well worth the extra time.
13. Make and use a list. A grocery store is a literal cornucopia and if you don’t have a plan walking in the door you’ll almost certainly spend more than you need to. Have a list of what you need to buy prepared in advance and leave space to one side so you can record prices. You should have at least a ball park idea of how much you are spending while you are shopping. Bring a small hand held calculator if you’re bad at math.
14. Shop in food warehouse stores, but don’t abandon your regular grocery store. As much as I prefer buying at Sam’s Club, the reality is that they don’t always have better pricing than our local grocery store. My wife and I have found that on close to half of all grocery items, regular grocery stores are cheaper. Warehouse stores tend to be better priced on bulk items like bread, rice, potatoes, and non-food items, but can be higher on other goods. Be careful as well with the larger quantities; if they sell onions in five pound minimums, and you don’t use that many, the money you saved will go in the trash with the spoiled onions. Better yet, if ALDI opens a store in your area, investigate it and become a regular there, prices are even lower than they are at the warehouses.
15. Set a grocery budget and stay within it. You can adjust any of the components of the budget based on need, preference or higher or lower than expected prices, but stay within the overall assigned budget. Grocery shopping is comprised of a large number of variables so you need to have a game plan going in or you’ll lose control. Within reason, your food consumption should be adjusted to your budget and not so much the other way around. If your shopping and spending practices are driven mainly by your perceived needs alone, you effectively have no budget, and that will cost more.
What are you doing to keep grocery shopping costs under control? Is there anything you can add to this list?