Making a list and sticking to it when you’re at the grocery store is an easy way to stay within your food budget. But there are some things that you shouldn’t put on that list to start with, even if you get big discounts with a grocery store loyalty card and find the best supermarket deals.
1. Baked Goods
Buying fresh-baked goods while grocery shopping not only smells enticing, it probably sounds more wholesome than its prepackaged counterparts. In truth, you could be paying around $5 or more per loaf for artisanal bread or other baked goods that can be filled with preservatives, hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup.
Buy a bread machine instead, and toss in wholesome ingredients to make bread for about 60 cents per loaf. Or toss some cocoa powder, sugar, flour and baking powder in your cart instead of a boxed mix, and whip up a batch of brownies at home.
2. Baking Mix
With ingredients that basically include flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, ready-made pancake mix isn’t a bargain. You might be paying up to 27 cents per ounce for ingredients like hydrogenated oil. Make your own by sifting together 6 cups of flour, 3 tablespoons of baking powder and a tablespoon of salt. Then work in 3/4 cup of shortening, and store the mix in a glass or ceramic canister.
3. Bottled Water
Bottled water represents an industry that saw about 13.7 billion gallons in sales in the U.S. in 2017, according to Statista — and it’s a complete waste of your money. Food & Water Watch estimated in a February 2018 report that almost 64 percent of bottled water sold is sourced from tap water.
4. Shredded Cheese
The convenience of pre-shredded cheese might not be worth it. Additives such as cellulose, an ingredient made from wood pulp, can sometimes serve as fillers and could potentially keep pre-shredded cheese from performing the same as freshly shredded cheese in recipes. If you grate your own from a 16-ounce block, you’ll end up with a higher volume of grated cheese than you would get by buying a 16-ounce bag of shreds.
5. Name-Brand Coffee
Pass by the coffee when buying groceries at the supermarket — it can be one of the most expensive places to get your morning grind. Head to a big-box office supply or warehouse store, and buy whole Arabica beans — they give that gourmet coffeehouse taste and are the main bean in most name-brand coffee blends. Grind them at home for freshness, and use in your French press, reusable K-Cup or regular brewer. And if you have extra grounds you don’t want to use, you can always find thrifty ways to reuse them.
6. 'Dirty Dozen' Produce
Eating plenty of fruits and veggies is sure to keep you healthy, right? Not if they’re loaded with pesticides. In 2018, the Environmental Working Group listed strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples and grapes as five of the produce items with the most pesticide residues. Opt for cleaner choices such as avocados, pineapples and cabbage instead.
Resist the urge to throw that pack of baby diapers in your cart because it’s a good grocery store deal; you could pay about 30 cents a diaper for the convenience. To win at the diaper game, stop by Target, where you can swaddle your little sweetie for as little as $8.99 for a 32-pack of diapers from Pampers.
8. Endcap Items
Just because something is on an endcap doesn’t make it a good buy. Although you might find items on sale there, know that some manufacturers pay money to the retailer to have a second display of their products. Venture down the aisle where the product is normally stocked, and compare prices before choosing endcap items.
9. Energy Bars
If you think energy bars are a healthier alternative to a candy bar, think again. A chocolate brownie PowerBar has 21 grams of sugar and 330 calories, while a Snickers bar has 27 grams of sugar and 250 calories. Buy almonds, nuts, dark chocolate chips and chopped dried fruit to make your own healthier snack mix.
10. Energy Drinks
If you want an energy boost, stick to a cup of coffee. An energy drink can contain the same amount of caffeine as your standard cup of joe. For example, one 8.4-ounce Red Bull drink contains 80 milligram of caffeine, around the same amount that a cup of coffee can have. However, energy drinks have also been linked to deaths and potentially dangerous changes in heartbeat and blood pressure.
11. Eye-Level Items
Items at eye level are often more expensive than those on the bottom shelf. According to Consumer Reports, manufacturers pay retailers a fee for product placement at eye level.
12. Non-Food Items
It might be tempting to pick up a quart of oil for the car in the automotive aisle or a pack of light bulbs for that burnt-out light in the hall. Some supermarkets even let you shop for everything from a diamond ring to home furnishings. But stick to the food aisles in the supermarket. You’ll find cheaper non-food items at a dollar store, pharmacy or big-box department store.
13. Salad Dressing
You can top your healthy salad with a cheap salad dressing that might only cost a couple of bucks, but it also might contain preservatives you don’t necessarily want in your body. Healthier options can cost around $13 or more per 8-ounce bottle depending on the store and brand. Making your own dressing is easy and cheap — and healthier — when you use fresh ingredients such as herbs, garlic and vinegar.
14. Frozen Veggie Dishes
Frozen vegetables can be an easy way to add healthy ingredients to your meal while making sure nothing goes to waste in the fridge, but they can cost around $4 per pound depending on the brand. It’s easy and cheap to make your own gourmet veggie dishes. Coat chopped veggies in olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pop them in a 425-degree oven. Freeze them in a single layer on a baking sheet until set before storing them in a freezer container.
15. Frozen French Fries
Heating up fries from the supermarket to go with your meal can take about 30 minutes and costs about $1.50 per pound depending on the brand and store. If you don’t mind waiting an extra 10 to 15 minutes, you can make your own by slicing a potato lengthwise into french fry shapes, coating the fries with oil and popping them into a 425-degree oven.
16. Lunch Snack Packs
Kids love snack packs for lunch, but don’t fool yourself. At around $2 for a 3.1-ounce molded plastic dish that usually contains a handful of crackers, cheese slices and processed meat, it’s not necessarily worthwhile. Let your child pick out a reusable sectioned plastic container at the dollar store, and prep a healthier version together for much less per serving.
17. Imported Olive Oil
Imported olive oil is one item that might not always warrant the big price tag at your grocery store. Although the majority of olive oil is imported from Europe and Africa, the consumption of olive oil in the U.S. has tripled since 1990, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Domestic oils — such as California-produced oil — also might have more rigorous health standards overall and often come with freshness dates, making them the better buy.
18. Organic Produce
A steep price tag isn’t the only difference you’ll notice when buying organic produce at your local supermarket. The fruits and veggies might look withered, pale or even semi-withered unless your grocer does a lot of organic business. Shop at stores that sell organic produce regularly, such as Whole Foods or Aldi, and you’ll spend money on food that looks better and lasts longer. Better yet, head out to your local farmers market.
19. Pet Food
Buying pet food at the grocery store might not always be a good idea, depending on the brand. Some of the brands at supermarkets list corn — a cheap filler — as one of the first ingredients, along with cheap byproducts that are made from beaks, intestines and other parts. Head to Costco or Tractor Supply for pet food made with premium ingredients for about the same cost. And to save some extra money, you could make your pet its next toy instead of buying it.
20. Toiletries and Cosmetics
It might be convenient to pick up a bottle of foundation or shampoo while you’re at the grocery store, but there might be better options available. Cosmetics aisles at the grocery store can offer lower-end products formulated with arguably controversial ingredients such as parabens. You might be better off ordering quality products online or buying them at a department store.
21. Gourmet Ice Cream
You might pay $4.39 for a 16-ounce tub of gourmet ice cream, such as Ben & Jerry’s, at your local Target. Make your own delish treat with some basic Breyers Natural Vanilla for about 10 cents an ounce, and chop up cookies, candy bars and other sweets from the dollar store to make your own special mix.
22. Marinara Sauce
Depending on the brand and store, a container of marinara sauce can run about $5, but a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes can be had for less than $2 if you shop at Walmart. Make a quick pan sauce for dipping focaccia or topping pasta by adding garlic, Italian seasoning, olive oil, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of cayenne to taste.
Picking up spices to season a special dinner will cost as much as $7.69 if you buy McCormick spices and seasoning at Target. Head to Whole Foods or other stores where spices are sold in bulk if you just need a pinch or two, and buy just the amount you need for a whole lot less.
24. Checkout Temptations
You’ve made it through the store with just the products on your list: Don’t blow it on that pack of Orbit gum while you’re at checkout. The checkout line is where candy and other treats get placed to tempt you to buy when you’re fatigued. It is also the place where supermarkets can make billions. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, reported in 2015 that supermarkets sell about $5.5 billion in food, drinks and other products from the checkout aisle each year.
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Taylor Bell contributed to the reporting for this article.