First, if you are looking for ways to save at the grocery store by becoming a freegan (yes a real term), extreme couponing, or strategies for buying 20 lbs of rice at a lower unit price and then storing it under your bed for the next year….this is not the article you are looking for. The 5 tips below are strategies for real families, that are really busy, that want to eat REAL food, and really don’t have time to think about this but still know they should. Is that you? Then read on!
We wanted to start with some statistics: (this is really about numbers, ie your money, after all!)
1. According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, consumer spending on food costs accounts for the 3rd largest expense after housing and transportation. This is a national average and I suspect depending on where you live, this could be your second largest expense. The cost of transportation includes the purchase price of the car so if you did not buy a car this year, your food costs just jumped to your 2nd largest expense. The 2nd or 3rd largest expense…given this is a number that can change each month depending on how you shop (housing and transportation costs are relatively fixed once you buy the house and car) this is a budget category worth paying attention to.
So what are some ways to save at the grocery store without cutting back on quality of food or taking on extreme savings strategies? The list below is our tried and true tactics and really just involve implementing a few steps that if followed, will soon become routine. The best part? They really work. After we started following these strategies, our monthly grocery bills were reduced by hundreds per month. Over the course of the year, this is a significant amount of savings and could cover the cost of a wonderful family vacation, a down payment on a car, or multiple other uses.
5 Ways to Save at the Grocery Store…. for Real:
1.Make a Plan!
I know this sounds so obvious but its so valuable I am putting it as #1 on our list. If you do not make a plan for your meals during the week, you are going to overspend. That is worth repeating: No Plan = Overspending. Taking the time to plan is critical so you can avoid those impulse purchases and eliminates buying too much (increases food waste) or too little (requires 2nd trip back to the store during the week…a big no no per # 3 below). Check your list against what is in your pantry and fridge already (how many of you have 3 containers of sour cream in fridge because you did not check what you had already?) Only buying what you need is a big part of savings.
2. Pay attention to store specials
Most stores each week have great store specials to get you in the store. Usually these specials are the more expensive items on your list-protein and produce. Check out your store flyer and plan your dinners around those specials. Our meal plans use this tactic every week. A few weeks ago we did a post on how we shopped for 5 weeknight dinners at Shaws based on the store specials and the total cost was $69.71 for a family of 5. How did we do that? Every meal was based on a key grocery store special and we pulled in as many other sale items (produce/dairy/grocery items) whenever we could. (And after all, making meal plans based on store sales is what The Dinner Daily is all about!)
3. Stay away from those mid week grocery runs
Resist to urge to go back to the store during the week unless its absolutely necessary. We sometimes will run out of milk before its time to do our weekly shopping again. If that is the case, try to pick up your milk at a place other than the full service supermarket (small convenience stores, farm stands) so you are not tempted to pick up this and that on the way to the register. Or, only take a little bit of cash into the store with you that way you can only buy what you came for. A new coffee flavor for your Keurig at the end of Aisle 1, a package of festive holiday snacks for the kids up by the register, and another box or two of cereal (its on special after all) and next thing you know that gallon of milk cost you $20 to $30 in impulse purchases. Over the course of a month or a year, that adds up. And most likely, you did not need those impulse purchases anyway.
4. Frozen is Ok (yes it really is!)
I know, some of you are saying no way. We agree using fresh whenever possible is great and we mostly use fresh produce in our meal planning. However, frozen often makes more sense from a cost standpoint, with absolutely no reduction in nutritional value. We wrote a previous blog post on this topic but in summary, some produce (especially if you are buying organic) is actually healthier frozen than fresh and usually costs less. For example, my family loves berries. I use them to make fresh smoothies, put in fruit salad, yogurt, etc. I try to always buy organic berries but they are expensive and pretty much have to be eaten in a few days. However, organic frozen berries are readily available and are much cheaper than fresh. I realize if you are making chicken for dinner, serving it alongside frozen green beans on their own is not appealing. But if you are making a stew, a soup, or a make ahead casserole, go ahead and buy the frozen version. You will save money and its also convenient to work with.
5. Do your list 1st, Coupons 2nd
We have all seen the shows on extreme couponing where people are getting carts of groceries for $30. Ever looked in the cart? Its lots and lots of convenience products, snack foods, and things in the middle of the grocery store. Do you see lots of lean protein sources, fresh seafood or fruits and veggies? Chances are many of those items in the cart were not needed by the family to begin with and they do not translate well to healthy meals. The way to use coupons for true savings is to do your list first, determine what you need, then see if there are coupons available for items on your list. Its not savings if you are buying something just because you have a coupon.
We match up our meal plans each week with available coupons, AFTER we have a solid shopping list.
Lastly, even though we called this article Five Ways to Save at the Grocery Store (5 just sounds better than 6 after all), I had to add this last one since its so important:
6. Track your Spending (very important!)
This might be the CPA in me but back to the statistics at the top: If someone asked you how much you pay annually on your mortgage or rent, you most likely could do the math quickly. Its a big number for most us of and yes its quick to calculate. But doesn’t it then make sense that you should also be able to calculate how much you spend on groceries annually, especially if its your 2nd or 3rd largest expense? Maybe some of you do know…you stick to your weekly or monthly budget and you could figure it out (gold star for you!). But for those of you that have no idea how much you spend (the vast majority of us), I encourage you to start tracking it each week.
My husband and I used to do this when we were first married and saving for our first house. We kept a little notebook in our kitchen and every time we went to the store, into the notebook it went. It really helped us see how easy it was to overspend on food.
How to start? Use the notebook tactic, or your phone, or a simple excel spreadsheet. It really only takes 2 seconds to start this practice and I guarantee you if you have not ever done this, it will be eye opening. At the end of the month, look at your total spending. Higher than you thought? Go back to steps #1 to #5 and see if you can start using some of these tactics to lower the cost next month. The process of tracking your spending will be motivation enough to stop throwing your hard earned money away through waste, impulse buying and yes a lack of a plan.
We often hear people say to us “I wish I could spend less on groceries BUT….There are always lots of these “Buts” such as: “but I don’t have time, but I value high quality food, but its takes too much energy, but food is just too expensive”, The good news is you can lower your costs. This is not just academic advice…we live it at The Dinner Daily and we know it works. In fact, a recent testimonial shows it works, no matter where you shop:
“I was AMAZED I spent $88 (at Whole Foods) for the food and a few pantry items -thank you!!!! I told three people about it in the store, posted a rave review on two mom FB pages, and my friend who recently signed up for a WF menu texted me last night saying how tasty dinner was and how she couldn’t believe she spent $82. Thanks again!!!! (and I LOVE your menus way more than the (other meal planning service) Far easier to follow which is helpful for a busy momma of a 3.5 yr old and 7 mo old” (Jocelyn)
Start slowly – just try some of these ways to save at the grocery store, by picking one or two and see how it impacts your spending over the course of a month. We would love to hear how it goes….we will be cheering you on!
Oh and by the way, if you want a really easy way to make a plan that uses the weekly specials at your store, why not give The Dinner Daily a try for two weeks free! We give everyone a two week trial, and you might just find that having a personalized weekly menu based on your food preferences and store sales is well worth $1 a week!