How to Save Money on Groceries

August 13, 2013

groceriesIf you have a family, grocery shopping is probably one of your top two or three monthly expenses, right behind your house payment and health insurance. But the good news is that, unlike the other two, you have a strong measure of control over the size of your grocery bill. There are ways to save money on groceries and to take a big chunk out of your food budget.

1. Set a budget and stick to it!

One of the tactics that I found to work best is to set a budget before you even go shopping, and stick to it no matter what. That will prevent over-buying, impulse purchases, and the potential to buy too much of a single item simply because it’s on sale.

I’ll set a budget – say $200 – and that will force me to pay close attention to prices. If at the end of my trip, it looks as if the bill will be over $200, I’ll start putting items back. In any grocery run there are always items that you absolutely need, and others that you simply want. Some of the items in the “want” category will be prime candidates to be put back so that I can stay in budget. And best of all, what you don’t buy, you don’t miss!

2. Have a shopping list and a calculator.

In order to stay within a predetermined budget, it helps to have a list. On the list, you know exactly what you need – and just as important – what you don’t need. By sticking with your list, you have a better chance to avoid overspending. But a list does something else that is also critical: it allows you to prioritize your purchases.

What I will sometimes do is place items on my list in descending order of importance. For example, if I know that we need milk and eggs (heck, we always do) those will be at the top of the list. Other items that we want, but don’t necessarily need, will be toward the bottom of the list, giving the option not to buy if it looks like I’ll exceed my budget.

By bringing along a calculator you can tally up a running balance on your purchases. The running total will also help motivate you to make substitutions for lower-priced alternatives.

3. Never go shopping when you’re hungry.

This recommendation is virtually standard issue on any article dealing with grocery shopping, but it’s worth repeating. If you’re hungry, not only are you likely to buy more than you would otherwise, but you’re also more likely to buy impulse items. And impulse purchases are typically more expensive than other options.

If you don’t have time to have a meal before going shopping, it would be worth spending a couple of dollars to get a hot dog or a slice of pizza a half an hour so before you go to the store. Think of it as insurance against even more spending later.

4. Always shop alone.

Some people prefer to have an “assistant” – usually one of the children – accompany them on grocery shopping trips. While it can sometimes be an advantage to have a helper in tow, it’s important realize that the helper is also a consumer. That means that they will have their own purchase priorities, and it can spill over into your grocery budget. Chances are, you’ll spend less money if you go it alone.

5. Make fewer trips.

One of the very best and most productive grocery shopping strategies is to make as few trips as possible. It’s not just the time you spend and the gas and wear and tear on your car, but the fact that more trips usually results in more money spent.

If you have ever gone to the store to get “just milk and bread,” you know that it never works out that way. You’ll probably add a few odds and ends and spend more than you ever intended. How does that happen? It’s amazing how much you “need” once you walk into a store full of food.

By making fewer trips to the grocery store, you’re cutting out the temptation to buy what you don’t absolutely need. When it comes to shopping for just about anything, the more time we spend at the store, the more money we’ll spend. Think of it as a shopping minimization tactic – and one that works!

6. Avoid prepared foods and pretty packaging.

Grocery stores across the country are increasing the amount of shelf space that they dedicate to prepared foods. While these may be convenient, they are hardly a bargain. The more preparation that is involved in any food, the more expensive it will be.

Another warning sign that you’ll pay too much is pretty packaging. As a rule, the more attractively packaged an item is, the more expensive it will be. Food companies and grocery stores know this, and that’s why the products will be so prominently displayed. Pretty packages may mean more eye appeal, but you’re not eating the package. In most cases, the item in the pretty package will taste no better than the cheaper competitor that’s wrapped in cellophane.

7. Pay by debit card.

There’s some debate on this – many people maintain it doesn’t matter whether you pay by debit or credit, but I don’t agree. When you pay by debit card, the money is immediately removed from your budget. When you pay by credit card, there’s a fudge factor – the money isn’t immediately withdrawn from your budget, and the option exists to pay later.

That’s a game changer! If I don’t necessarily have to pay for something now, I’ve got some wiggle room in my budget. That puts my budget on wobbly legs, and opens the possibility that I‘ll spend the next six months paying for that gallon of ice cream that I‘ll eat next week. Translation: Debit cards remove the “pay later” option, and force you to stay on budget.

What strategies do you use to save money on groceries? Leave a comment!


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Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.

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