Grocery prices are undoubtedly on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that prices for food at home increased 13.5% in the 12 months ending August 2022 — the largest yearly percentage jump since March 1979! While the increase into mid-2023 was smaller, prices still went up.
With steep grocery inflation squeezing wallets, it’s more crucial than ever to spend smart when food shopping. From impulse buys to misunderstanding unit pricing, little mistakes can have your hard-earned money disappearing off shelves. But with the right insider strategies, you can crack the code on saving and get the most from your grocery budget.
It’s important to remember, though, that advice that works well for some people doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. For example, many experts advise buying in bulk. But Naoko McKelvey, CFP and senior financial advisor at Blue Chip Partners, advises using common sense.
“Be careful about shopping at wholesale places,” she said. “Sometimes we perceive getting a better deal buying in bulk, but if you are not consuming what you buy and it is spoiling or expiring before you can finish, you might be throwing money in the trash.”
Here are the ways you’re wasting money at the grocery store — and what you can do about it.
Shopping Without a List
“If you aren’t making a grocery list before shopping, you should be,” advised Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.com. “Lists can keep you on track so that you can make more efficient trips, as well as sticking to your budget, but even beyond that, they’re good for ensuring you don’t forget anything. If you manage to forget something, that means another trip to the store later on, which opens you up to spending more because you’re having to make an unplanned trip.”
“The best thing you can do is try to group your shopping by areas in the store,” Ramhold continued. “So for instance, when making your list, put all the produce together, as well as all the pantry items, dairy, etc. That’ll make shopping easier, because you’ll be picking up things that should be near each other, so you won’t have to run back and forth to check items off your list.
“If you aren’t sure about your store’s layout, see if they have a map in the app, like Walmart, or note what aisle to find the items on, like in the Target app. Then you can note these when you’re making your list and streamline your trips. You can also make lists in these apps if you want to go that route.”
Paying Delivery Surcharges
“Grocery delivery is super convenient, but it comes with higher prices on items, as well as fees for the shopper, delivery and even fuel surcharges,” Ramhold said. “However, if you don’t want to do the shopping yourself, you can get around these charges by opting for pickup. A lot of stores started offering curbside pickup when the [COVID-19] pandemic first started, but they’ve continued to do so even as things open back up.
“Often these are totally free if you use something like Target’s pickup service, but even things like Instacart offer them now and can provide an average savings of $30 choosing pickup over delivery in some cases.”
Not Using Coupons
“Clipping coupons isn’t something a lot of people do anymore, but the truth is that plenty of stores still offer them — you just don’t have to browse physical circulars to find them anymore,” Ramhold said. “Instead, you can download a store’s app or even just check their websites. Some grocery stores will offer loyalty programs where you just sign up with a phone number and then punch that in during checkout to redeem digital coupons. Usually, these are also accessible in the apps, so you can browse and save offers and then use the app during checkout to redeem those offers.”
Shopping Only at Supermarkets
“Shoppers need to be flexible,” said Mackenzie Shand, deals and savings expert at Offers.com. “Local supermarkets near you might be smaller and not have the buying power of a huge chain, causing prices to be slightly higher. Instead, try to shop at stores like Aldi, Market Basket and Trader Joe’s, which are known to be great places to shop for budget-friendly prices. A few other great options are warehouse clubs, like Costco and Sam’s Club, where you can sign up for memberships and receive exclusive discounts and member savings.”
Sticking to Brand Names
“Store brands can save you around 30% on food, so don’t grab the name brand without looking for a cheaper option,” said budgeting expert Andrea Woroch.
“Keep in mind, some foods and ingredients are a complete waste to buy from name brands, like sugar and flour, which are single ingredient goods that can’t be produced any differently. Not to mention, grocery stores and big box retailers are more likely to run sales and offer coupons on their own brands, so there’s more opportunity to save.”
Choosing Strictly Organic Produce
“According to the Environmental Working Group, the Clean Fifteen refers to 15 vegetables and fruits that are safe to buy non-organic because they have tough, inedible peels,” Woroch said.
Ruling Out Online Shopping
“Although there may be a small surcharge for groceries when shopping online or you may face a delivery fee, buying food online could end up saving you more,” Woroch said. “That’s because you won’t be tempted by any tasty looking food displays, ensuring you stick to your shopping list and buy less food on impulse. To cut delivery fees, look for coupons from sites like CouponFollow.com which is currently offering $20 off your first order at Vons, 15% off Kroger grocery shipments and $10 off your first delivery of $20 at Instacart.”
Not Buying in Bulk and Freezing
As Chip Carter, producer and host of “Where the Food Comes From,” explained, “The best advice is to shop at a big box club to take advantage of bulk pricing, then prep or process for your freezer.”
He has found it so beneficial that his family “several years ago bought a stand-alone freezer, and we keep it full of bargain veggies and meats.” They often prep in batches for the freezer “in a variety of serving sizes so we’re ready for a quick cook.”
But remember McKelvey’s advice: if you’re not eating what you’re buying and instead throwing it away, that’s money in the trash.
Carter acknowledges this common pushback and suggests teaming up with others. “Do you have any friends? Family?” He noted that as a former family of seven now down to two, “Instead of feeding a houseful of kids, we let neighbors know when we’re making a trip and often go in together and share bulk purchases.”
Even without a wholesale club, Carter said you “can still take advantage of bulk buying” by purchasing large quantities when items go on sale and freezing for later. He explained that “properly done, freezing is the absolute best way to preserve food and, properly done, does not impact flavor or nutrition.”
Laura Beck contributed to the reporting for this article.
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