Grocery shopping. Some people dread it, other people have fun with it, and people like me turn it into a game that will be WON!! Over the years, I’ve spent some time (mostly trial and error) working towards getting better at budgeting, buying healthier foods, and doing all of this in a decent amount of time. While it would be ideal to have 4 hours of time to go grocery shopping and take our time dancing on rainbow aisles and drinking free coffee the entire time, that’s just not a reality. I wanted to put together some helpful tips to make grocery shopping easier, less daunting, and suggest some easy ways for you to save a chunk of money while stocking up your fridge. Plus, the more you plan what you’re going to eat, the less likely you’ll be to binge eat all those wheat thins you bought last Thursday when you were hungry and they were on sale 2 for $5.
Tip # 1: Planning Your Trip
A lot of people don’t like to plan for a shopping trip:
It takes too much time!
I already know what I need!
The problem is that it’s super easy to get off track once you’re at the store, especially when you’re hungry or tired. Taking just 10 minutes to write up a list of what you need will save you tons of time at the store, trust me.
- Take inventory of what you already have at home. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve bought extra cream cheese, pasta sauce, or milk because I really didn’t think I had any at home. Not only is it a waste of money when you buy double of something that expires quickly, but it’s frustrating.
- Keep a white board or list on your fridge of what you need and what you run out of. Run out of dish soap? Use the last of the cereal? Make an easy and creative way to track what you’ll need on your next grocery trip. That way when you go to make your list, most of what you’ll need will already be written down. It also keeps you from getting in the shower the next day and discovering you forgot conditioner….again.
- Clear space for the new food. This may not seem obvious at first but I’ve come home so many times to realize that I need to re-organize my pantry or fridge because I have old/expired food in the way or have just been lazy shoving stuff back into cabinets.
Tip # 2: Couponing and Knowing the Sales
Don’t worry – you don’t have to go extreme couponing on your family to get some great deals and save a ton of money. Currently, I don’t even clip physical coupons, I just use a digital Safeway App that lets me add digital coupons to my virtual cart. I then enter my phone number at the store and everything is applied to my trip. More and more stores now are offering apps similar to this like QFC, Kroger, Fred Meyer, etc. Typically I save around 40-50% on my shopping trips. I try not to go below 30% savings. This can be HUGE though when you’re on a tight budget.
Signing up for a stores discount card will also bring you a lot more savings. Some people worry about the data that’s collected but my feeling on that particular piece is that yes they know what I’m buying more of, but then that comes back to me with more coupons and discounts for those specific items. Stores also base a lot of their purchasing off of this information. Commissaries now also offer a discount card.
If the idea of couponing (whether digital, paper, or both) overwhelms you, try browsing Couponing 101 that has some great tips and pointers on how to coupon without it taking over your life.
It’s also important to scope out the weekly sales at your local grocery store, you can find these flyers in the mail or online. Weekly circulars can let you know what you may want to stock up on while they are heavily discounted. Often times, I’ve gotten items for free because I’ll have a digital coupon for $2 off and if the item is on sale of $2 or less and sometimes BOGO (buy one get one) I’ll walk out of store with two boxes of granola bars for FREE!
Tip # 3: Don’t Pay Full Price for Things You Use All The Time
In line with couponing is making sure you have a general understanding of how most things are priced. Some stores have contracts with vendors to provide products at a lower wholesale price or close to cost. Figuring out which stores offer EDLP (everyday low prices) on certain things you buy regularly may help you out in the long run. Of course, we don’t want to be making 5 different trips to different stores for one grocery outing. But for example, I’ll stock up on shampoo/conditioner and body wash when I’m at certain stores that I know have lower prices when I’m in the area and then leave weekly food items to my local store trips.
Learning when stores change their prices can also be helpful. If you’re a military shopper, the commissary site goes over the dates they change their product pricing, just twice a month compared to most stores that do so weekly.
Waiting until the last minute to buy staple items you run out of like toilet paper and shampoo can leave you rushed and spending extra money. I keep a list on my fridge of things I’m running low on and add that to my grocery list as well. That way if I notice that the large tub of peanut butter is on sale for $5 instead of $11, I’ll buy it. The key for me is stocking up on goods without hoarding. I may have 2-3 of a particular item I actually use all the time but I won’t stock up on things that I don’t use just because they are free. IF you do enjoy doing that though there are great ways to donate those items to food banks and military overseas.
Tip # 4: Know The Layout of Your Grocery Store
Most grocery stores follow a similar layout with produce and flowers near the entrance, dairy and cold items near the back, and all of the processed stuff in the middle aisles in between. Ever hear that grocery stores put milk in the back of the store to get you to walk all the way through other products? This is true but it’s also easier for vendors and employees to load in those items into fridges located near the rear of the store. Grocery stores DO have a method to their madness, however.
The following image from Food Pyrenees shows how most grocery stores are arranged. They also talk about the importance of sticking to the perimeter of the store for healthier foods. The deeper you get into the aisles, the more you’re going to find processed foods and ingredients like fake sugars, food thickening agents, etc. Let’s be honest, eating some processed stuff in moderation is not the end of the world, but a good rule to stick to involves buying cleaner foods that are most likely going to be on the outside of the aisles.
Grocery stores also place products according to their price and value. For instance, products typically found at eye level will be higher end and more expensive. Store brands and value items will usually be lower on the shelf or places that aren’t as easily accessible.
Tip #5: Don’t Shop Hungry!
This may be the most important one! My Mom always told me this and truer words have never been spoken. If I go to the grocery store after a long day without having a snack or a meal first, I will buy ALL of the things that 1) aren’t good for me and 2) aren’t on my list or in my budget. Hunger is a strong beast and will make it harder to stick to your game plan.
Tip #6: Know the Ingredients
I’ve talked a lot in the past about fake sugars and a variety of ingredients that are put into processed foods to save on costs and make it easier to manufacture them. When you are standing in front of 100+ loaves of bread, the last thing you want to be thinking about is where do I start? Educating yourself on healthier products, what to look for, and what to avoid can make you more confident about your consumer decisions. I mean, after all, this food is going INSIDE you and your families bodies, it should be good stuff!
I’ll do another article soon about some of my favorite foods but for the most part it’s all about choosing food with few ingredients. If it has less than 5 that’s stellar but if it’s got more than 15 and most of them have x’s and gum at the end of them, you might not really know what you’re buying. The first ingredient is always what the product is composed MOST of. If you buy bread and the first ingredient is whole wheat flour that’s much better than high fructose corn syrup. Ingredients are then listed in order with the last one being the ingredient that’s least prevalent.
I try to buy as real of foods as possible without chemicals if I can. While many of the things we see in foods such as guar gum, which is primarily used in foods as a thickening agent, are harmless in small amounts, I still try to avoid buying things with ingredients I wouldn’t add if I was cooking in my own kitchen.
Tip #7: Meal Planning
These tips aren’t necessarily in order of importance (or in the order you should do them) but meal planning is important with grocery shopping. What are you going to eat this week? What will you need to make that happen? Do you already have avocados? Is that one that’s been sitting in the fridge still any good? Answering all of these questions before you step out the door will help. In addition to meal planning around store savings and coupons, it’s also a great idea to organize the food you already have so you know what you need to eat and when. A while back I organized my entire fridge and even labeled stuff. While it was a little bit OCD, it also really helped keep me accountable of eating food I already had at home instead of going out to eat or buying more food…just because….well more food!
Having some sort of system where you place food that’s close to expiring at the front of the fridge or pantry will ensure that more food (money and time) ends up in your stomach and less ends up in the garbage or compost bin. I’ll even just throw cans of beans in my cupboard but make sure to put the fresher one in the back so I use the one that will expire in 6 months first.
It’s also easy some days to make extra food for dinner and plan for leftovers. I do that with my coconut tilapia. So good!
Tip #8: Have Fun and Make A System That Works for YOU
Some of these tips may be helpful to you, some may already be extremely obvious, some not so much. With everything we have to do in life – on top of everything else we already have to do – it’s great to turn these types of things into something fun that we can enjoy. For me, it’s seeing the savings at the end of my trip on the receipt. I even made a pact with my fiance that he doesn’t have to come with me as long as he carries all of the groceries out of the car once I get home.
Then again, sometimes you just have to go to the store with no idea of what you might end up with 😉
Happy shopping! What are your tips and strategies?