Most families food budgets are one of their biggest monthly expenses. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture a family of four spends an average of $571 to $1,305 a month, not including takeaway and dining out. Details here. There are things you can be aware of and do to save a ton of money on groceries.
Shopping during Coronavirus
Ordinarily I would pick up sale items from Jewel, Mariano’s, Whole Foods, Target, Walgreens and CVS plus low cost staples from Trader Joe’s. Obviously these aren’t normal times but I am still keeping my food spending under control. I am currently ordering and having shipped (not Instacart) all my staples online from: CVS, Walgreens, Target, Walmart, and Sam’s Club. My orders reach the at least the minimum to get free shipping. Prices and availability varies from day-to-day and store-to-store. I go to the grocery store once a week to ten days to restock milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese and produce. I cook and freeze, freeze and/or eat all the produce first before it goes bad.
50 ways to save money on groceries
1. Grocery stores are organized to force you to walk through the whole store and load your cart up with stuff you don’t need. That’s why the milk is in the back. All the items sold on the perimeter of most stores is where you want to do most of your shopping. These are dairy, meat and produce. The aisles in the middle mostly contain processed food that can be unhealthy and more expensive.
2. Large food manufacturers pay grocery stores to place their items at eye level. That’s where the most expensive products are. Look up or bend down. That’s where the cheaper small brands and store brands are located.
3. Most store brands are produced by the name-brand companies and are the same or almost the same as the name brand product.
4. Even with coupons, brand name items are rarely as cheap as the store brand.
5. The end caps (the shelves perpendicular to the aisles are usually not sale items even though they may say “Special” or something to imply they’re a deal. Food manufacturers pay for the end caps to try and push a specific product(s).
6. Check unit prices, with a calculator. Sometimes the shelves are labeled incorrectly.
7. Larger containers of products aren’t always a better deal than smaller sizes. Check unit prices with a calculator.
8. Bulk bags of produce, like peppers, are usually more expensive than if you bought them individually.
9. “Special” sales such as “2 for 1, Limit 4”, are usually not deals. You can usually buy just one at half price. They just want you to buy more.
10. Sometimes sales of “10 for ten dollars” are really selling something you can by for .79 cents each.
11. If something is on “sale” check that you’re throwing the right size into your cart. Sometimes the sale sign is placed between two sizes and you may be buying the wrong (not on sale) size.
12. Shopping carts keep getting bigger because stores know you will fill them up.
13. The mist sprayed on produce adds to the weight and causes the produce to rot faster.
14. Don’t run out. Nearly everything in grocery stores eventually goes on sale. Many items will go on sale every couple weeks, every month or six weeks. You need to learn and keep track of when each of the items you buy go on sale where you shop (the sale cycle). That is the only time you should stock up with enough so that when you run out is when it’s on sale again. Some people start looking for sales when they’re down to 75% or 50% of an item.
15. Eat seasonally. Every week (or sale period) grocery stores have “loss leaders” for sale such as a gallon of milk for $1.99 and in-season produce. The store loses money on these items. They are intended to get you into the store so you will then load up with other stuff you don’t need. You should buy all the loss leader items (that you will use) each week and incorporate them into your meal plan.
16. Many items listed in the weekly circular are full price and not on sale at all. That’s why they call them “weekly ad” or “Circular” and not “Sale ad.”
17. Milk is almost always cheaper at drug stores. Plus if you just need milk it’s faster to just run in to Walgreens and you’re not likely to fill up your cart with junk you don’t need.
18. If you see something in the meat, dairy or bakery department that will expire the next day (see item #47 below) ask for a discount. Then cook or freeze it immediately.
19. Seafood at the seafood counter at many grocery stores was previously frozen and is now thawed. You may find it much cheaper in the freezer section.
20. Some of the same cheeses sold at the deli counter are available in the dairy case and can be cheaper.
21. Fresh baked bread is sold in open paper sleeves so it will go stale quickly and you will buy more. Wrap it in plastic as soon as you get home. Also you can have the bakery slice loaves with their machine (for free) and they will place it in a plastic bag.
22. Nearly every grocery store has a clearance rack or shelf. Find out where they. Many times they’re selling day old bakery or other items. If you can use these items, buy them.
23. You should have a grocery budget. If you don’t how much you spend then save all your receipts for a month.
24. Develop a price book. You cannot remember the cost of everything you buy. There are a many ways to do it but here’s your goal: You need to understand how much everything you buy costs based on a unit price. You also need to know when it goes on sale (sales cycle). To start developing your book, when you get home from the store record: the store name, date, brand name, price and size and calculate a unit price. Also note if it was on sale. After a couple months you’ll understand three things: what things cost, your store’s sales cycle and when to stock up. Once you’ve determined what the lowest price you should be paying is for each item you don’t have to continue to log in prices every time you shop. You can also save your receipts and just look at those week-to-week to check prices but sometimes you can’t tell from the receipt exactly what you bought (Hello Trader Joe’s). Mine is a physical little book where I numbered the pages and have an index at the front. When I’m scouring the sale adds before I go shopping or when I’m in the store I quickly calculate the cost per ounce, liter, etc. and check it against my book and if it’s a real sale I buy.
25. Take an inventory of what you have in stock before you make your shopping list.
26. Prepare a meal plan for the week using the items you have in stock. Whatever you are missing, say vegetables for several meals, is what you will purchase at the store.
27. Go through your store’s circular online before you go to the store and use the loss leaders to fill in the holes in your meal plan. Plan to replenish any items that are on sale and that you are running low on. Almost every item you buy each week should be on sale.
28. When you are in the store only buy what is on your list.
29. Sign up for store loyalty programs. Sometimes they send coupons exclusively via email that are not available in the store. Get free food at Mariano’s.
30. Driving to multiple stores to save a few bucks is probably not efficient time-wise and fuel-wise. However if you live in area where stores are close to each other check the circulars online and pick up sale items from more than one. Plan an efficient driving route and run other errands such as picking up drycleaning.
31. If your family doesn’t eat leftovers don’t cook so much food. When you scrape food into the garbage you are literally throwing your hard earned money away. If someone’s still hungry after the food is gone they can eat an apple. No one will be hospitalized for malnutrition.
32. If your family does eat leftovers cook extra food to take for lunch the next day or to eat for dinner another night but not enough for multiple meals. No one wants to eat the same things for days.
33. Each week start by eating all the perishable items first such as lettuces and tomatoes. Eat the longer-lived items like apples and potatoes last.
34. Purchase some frozen and dried fruit (on-sale) as an alternative to fresh.
35. Purchase some frozen vegetables (on-sale) as an alternative to fresh.
36. Precut or diced fruits and veges are astronomically expensive. If you know you’ll be using it in your meal plan pre-chop items like celery, carrots and onions when you get home from the store so it’s ready to use when you get home from work later in the week. Get the family to help.
37. Always eat whatever is in season. Out of season food is more expensive because of shipping costs. If some in season items are unfamiliar google for recipes and add some new foods to your repertoire. Here’s a seasonality chart.
38. At the end of a season when fresh produce is on sale flash freeze some to eat at a later date.
39. Make meat a flavoring or a small component of some meals. Divide on-sale meat into half pound packages and freeze it for future use. Eat cheap proteins like beans and eggs. Designate one night as meatless – such as meatless Mondays.
40. Cook a crock pot of oatmeal every night for instant breakfast in the AM. Make a large batch of french toast, pancakes, or waffles once a week and freeze it for instant breakfast later in the week.
41. Make your own snack foods such as granola and popcorn. Once a week make your own snack sized bags for lunches parsing out nuts, dried fruits, pretzels etc. from larger containers.
42. Prepare all your lunches on Sunday.
43. Use any fruit that’s about to go bad in a smoothie. Freeze bananas that are about to go bad to put in smoothies later or make banana bread.
44. Throw a bunch of veges that are about to go bad into the crock pot and make soup.
45. Store ends of veges like asparagus, carrots and mushrooms in a large freezer bag and keep adding to it. When it’s full make vege broth.
46. Freezer left over broths, tomato paste, chipotle peppers, etc. in ice cube trays, small containers or snack bags to use as a flavoring in future stir fry’s, rice dishes etc. Date and label the container.
47. “Sell by” dates are there to protect the reputation of the food. They have very little to do with food safety. If you’re worried whether food is still okay to eat, just smell it. Check these guidelines here and here. The US Department of Agriculture recently released an app FoodKeeper that can help you determine if something is safe to eat. Their purpose for developing this app is to cut down on food waste in the US. According to the USDA “…billions of pounds of good food go to waste in the U.S. because home cooks are not sure of the quality or safety of items. USDA estimates that 21% of the available food in the U.S. goes uneaten at the consumer level. In total, 36 pounds of food per person is wasted each month at the retail and consumer levels!” So if we’re spending $1k per month on food we’re wasting $210! Get the app here.
48. Beef labeled Angus doesn’t mean anything. You want to look at the USDA quality grade. Prime is the best, then choice, select, and standard.
49. Meat labeled “natural” doesn’t mean anything. Unless it says “organic” it is just regular meat. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Other truthful claims, such as free-range , hormone-free, and natural, can still appear on food labels. However, don’t confuse these terms with “organic.” Only food labeled “organic” has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards.
50. Expensive low fat or fat free products are loaded with sugar, sodium and other chemicals to make up for the lack of taste.
Avoid warehouse clubs. Yes many of their items, on a unit price basis are cheaper. However if you can’t use the large quantity and it spoils or goes bad in the freezer then you aren’t saving any money. If you do consume large quantities read here on How to make money on you Costco membership.
Keep a running list on the refrigerator where everyone writes down whatever it is you’re out of. If you are the last person to take a box of tissues from the cupboard or you drink up the last of the juice, you need to write that down. Then only buy what’s on the list.
Learn how to cook. This is stating the obvious but if you can put together a delicious meal you’re more likely to eat at home. If you have a friend who knows how to cook ask them to teach you the basics. Read recipes online from reputable (reputable in that all recipes are tested and work) but basic cooks like Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa.
Try a “No spend” grocery month here.
Enjoy! Remember the less you spend on food the more you can save for retirement or spend on a vacation!