10 Tips When Grocery Shopping on a Budget

When you think 'grocery shopping, is it something that brings a smile to your face or a grimace? Is it a pleasant social experience or grinding drudgery and a necessary evil? Even though grocery shopping often takes up a lot of time when we could be doing something more pleasant and fun, it doesn't need to be something we hate doing. If we follow just a few key steps preparing for it and keep the right mindset when pushing that cart around the store, we can turn grocery shopping a big win for our budget and our family.

Grocery Shopping 101

As you head out to the store or stop by on the way home from work, how much thought do you give to the whole grocery shopping experience and how much pre-planning do you do?

  • Do you create a shopping list beforehand or just wing it when you get there?
  • What time of day do you most often go shopping?
  • What day of the week works best for you?
  • Which store do you go to most often and why is it your favorite?

These are some of the questions that will not only make your shopping experience less stressful but can actually have a big impact on your spending and on your budget. By preparing ahead of time you can reduce the time you spend shopping, save money by finding special deals, avoid buying things you don't really need, and turn grocery shopping into a game you can win. Here are ten great tips that can really help you become a champion grocery shopper and win the battle of providing for you and your family.

1. Plan out your weekly meals ahead of time.

Having a good idea of what you're going to eat for the rest of the week before you head out to the store is something few people give much thought to. While you're going through your available coupons (whether paper or electronic), take some time to figure out what meals those items would be good in. If you have a list of your favorite meals and the ingredients that go into them, you'll have a better idea of what you'll need to buy in the upcoming week.

2. Your grocery shopping list is one of the keys to winning.

Have you ever walked into the grocery store and thought “Now what did I come in for?” and then wandered aimlessly around the store, putting things in your cart you thought you needed? Then when you got home, you realized not only had you missed several important things you needed to pick up but that you also bought several things that you already had at home. How did you feel as you put away what you bought? Did you kick yourself mentally and vow it would never happen again? Well, there's a better way and it's called the shopping list.

So, how complicated does a shopping list need to be? Well, it depends on you and your shopping style. Personally, I just like to grab a scrap of paper, jot down all the things I buy on a regular basis, then go through my fridge and cupboards looking for anything I may have missed or that I don't buy often that I may be low on. It's short, sweet, and doesn't take too long to accomplish. Then, when I'm in the store, I check off the items one by one scoring wins along the way. By the time I reach the checkout line, I have all the items checked off and give myself a little mental victory dance. (I've found that real dancing in the store is frowned upon.)

Another great tool is to use a notepad app on your phone to jot things down. You can just save the list and use it week to week updating it as needed. Then, whether you start out from home or stop to shop on the way back from work, you just whip out your phone and BAM, the list is there. Easy peasy.

Whatever system you use, if it works for you, keep using it. Just make sure you have something to work with instead of flying by the seat of your pants when you get to the store.

3. Coupons can make a huge difference to your bottom line.

Coupons aren't what they used to be and clipping them out of the newspaper or mail flyer is going the way of the dinosaur. With so much digital shopping these days and fewer and fewer people reading the newspaper, grocery stores are having to up their game when it comes to drawing people into their store. Nowadays, you can download apps to your phone that provide updates to sale items in your favorite grocery store, add electronic coupons to your shopping list, and give you frequent shopper points you can use to lower your grocery bill.

I use two apps myself, Shopkick and Ibotta. Here's the basics on how they work:

  • Shopkick gives you points as you walk around specific stores and scan product bar codes. When you've accumulated enough points, you can trade them in for electronic gift cards to stores like Amazon and Walmart. Personally, I like it because it gives you an extra perk when you're shopping but there's a downside. In addition to points for scanning products off the shelf, they'll give you extra points when you actually buy the product you scan. This can tempt you into buying things that weren't on your shopping list just to get the extra points so be careful. If you want to try out the Shopkick app, here's the link.
  • Ibotta works a bit differently. With this app you check the store you're planning to shop at and the app pulls up a list of all the items currently offering coupon discounts. Then you add the items you're planning to buy to your electronic shopping list. After you check out, you then scan your receipt and Ibotta sends you the value of the coupons for the items you purchased. It's not an immediate reduction to your grocery bill and you need to remember to scan your receipt so that's something to consider when using this app. If you want to try out the Ibotta app, here's the link.

One of the sneaky ways grocery stores get you to spend more money is through the use of customer loyalty cards. When you're walking through the store, look for those tags that tell you which items have reduced prices this week because they're on sale. What they don't tell you is that if you don't use your customer loyalty card at checkout, you'll pay the regular price for those items, not the advertised sale price.

4. It's true that a lot of the cheap food is unhealthy. but a lot of healthy food is cheap.

When you're using coupons, you'll notice that some of those sale items are for food that a health-oriented person wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole like chips and soda. Then, there's the fact that some items with special pricing tags are on sale because they're getting close to their expiration dates. If you don't eat it within the next day or two, you may end up throwing it out.

On the flip side, often some of the healthiest food is also some of the cheapest. Do you load up on in-season fruit and vegetables at your local farmer's market? Or head down to your local meat market in the fall to get fresh beef and pork? These specialty stores can often provide some of the freshest and healthiest foods you can get at an affordable price. It's good for you and it's good for your budget.

5. When you buy less, less goes to waste.

Seems obvious, right? But I never used to check the inside of my refrigerator to see how much room I had available before I went shopping or what I really needed. Then, when I got home, I would end up cramming in the food I had just purchased wherever I could fit it with no plan on how I was going to use it before it went bad. My focus was always to get to the store and wait in line as little as possible. My time is valuable after all, and making fewer trips made a lot of sense.

What I didn't account for is that when I bought more than I could eat fresh in a week, I had to either take time to prepare it for the freezer or spend time dumping it into the trash and waste the money I had spent for it. Remember, if you're dumping leftovers in the trash, you're also dumping your hard-earned money right along with it.

A better way is to check your fridge, freezer, and pantry (see below for more on that) before you head out. That way you'll know what you already have and what you have room for ahead of time.

6. What you need most often is always at the back of the store.

Have you ever wondered why a grocery store is laid out the way it is? Why is it that the milk, bread, and meat are usually at the back of the store? It's simple. Grocery stores are businesses in the business to make money and they want as much of yours as they can reasonably get. When you go into the store, they make sure that the eye-catching items are right at the front while the most often purchased items (milk, bread, and meat) are in the back. You have to walk past all those expensive goodies before you finally get to what you finally came in to buy and then walk past them in the checkout aisle before you get out of the store. That's why the checkout aisle is filled with candy and other impulse buying items. By keeping your grocery list close at hand, you'll be better prepared to pass by all those tempting items and just buy what you came in to get.

7. Meat is expensive.

I'm a carnivore by nature. I love meat in all its variations be it beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. That being said, I'm well aware that the cost of a pound of vegetables is way lower than a pound of even hamburger. So what do you do if you're a carnivore like me? You comparison shop before you leave home to make sure you're getting a good price on the meat you do buy and you make those vegetables a big part of every meal. Find recipes like stir-fry that include lots of vegetables cooked in with the meat or salads with chicken strips, steak strips, or shrimp topped on them. Also, consider investing in a deep freezer and look for a local butcher's shop or meat market to buy your meat in bulk.

8. Remember where you parked.

Not all stores are created equal. Let me show you two examples of grocery stores in my area: Giant Eagle's Marketplace and Aldi's.

The Giant Eagle Marketplace has a Starbucks, a pharmacy, a deli, a bakery, a meat department, a separate seafood department, a sushi chef, and live music on the weekends. They have aisle after aisle of selections including dozens of types of peanut butter alone.

Aldi's in comparison has a much smaller store with only two or three selections of each item in a few aisles. That's it. No specialty departments, just basic groceries.

So how do they compare on prices? Not surprising, Aldi's prices are much lower overall. Now, don't get me wrong. I love many of the specialty items you'll find in Giant Eagle and not Aldi's. They have some of my favorite specialty cheeses and lunch meats among other things; I just don't shop there most of the time to keep my food costs down. So look over your choices of grocery stores in your area and decide which one offers the most items you purchase on a daily basis at a reasonable price. Use that store for the bulk of your grocery shopping needs and only use the higher-priced stores to buy the items you can't get elsewhere. Your wallet will thank you!

9. Create a Pantry for your home.

Keep a place at home where you store long-term staples so that you don't need to always go out just to pick up a couple of things. Buy in bulk when the price is low and keep them on hand for when you need them. Create a list of these items and stick it on your pantry door. That way, when you're about to head out to the store you can quickly check to see if you're low on any of them and whether or not they're on sale. If they're not, you hold off buying them until they are. When they are, you stock up and save money.

10. Just because it's on sale doesn't mean you need to buy it.

Have you ever walked through a store and bought something that didn't even cross your mind that you wanted until you saw the bright, shiny sale sign over it? That's called good marketing and it's one of the main reasons our food budget gets out of whack. Just because something's on sale doesn't mean you need to buy it. If they had baby formula on sale for a really, really good price but you didn't have any babies at home, would you buy it just because it was on sale? Most likely not. Why? Because you definitely didn't need it. So why is it that you buy things that aren't on your shopping list so often just because there's a temporary drop in their price? It because marketers know how your mind works and they know how to push your shopping buttons.

So, what's the solution? Pull out your grocery shopping list, make a note of the price and the item, and then walk away. Then when you're a couple of aisles away, look back at your note and determine if you really need the item. Odds are the impulse shopping gremlin will have gone away by then and you can make the decision on whether or not to purchase the item with a clearer head.

Closing Thoughts

Everyone needs to eat but it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg to buy good, high-quality food without a lot of hassles. By planning ahead, using a grocery shopping list, and staying focused, you can significantly drop your food budget each and every month while still buying fresh, nutritious food for you and your family. A little discipline and education go a long way towards getting you to financial independence.

Thanks for reading!


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