Grocery stores aren’t in it to help your wallet or your waistline: Advertisements, promotions and even layouts are designed to maximize spending, both on expensive products and tasty impulse buys. There’s a reason the candy bars are stocked by the checkout line. They have focus groups, research analysts and millennia of evolution telling us we need salt and sugar – but don’t worry, you’ve got us. We’ll break down the best tools and tricks to save money on groceries.
In this article:
Tasty-Cheap: Planning Meals and Recycling Leftovers
The best way to avoid falling into the marketers’ trap is to plan out your meals a week or so in advance, making sure they fit within your budget and nutritional game plan. These interactive websites will help you find meals to suit your family’s taste buds and diet:
- Environmental Working Group: Good food on a tight budget
- ChooseYourPlate.gov 7-day sample menu
- The USDA recipe finder allows you to specify price, ingredients, cooking equipment and more
- 30 Bucks a Week follows a pair of bloggers living on $30 for groceries a week – and that’s for the two of them
What to do with the leftovers
It’s best to have 3-5 stock “kitchen sink” recipes that can accommodate pretty much whatever you find in your fridge. My staples are fried rice, stir fry, and bakes: Just throw whatever grains, vegetables and proteins you have into them, and you’ve got yourself a meal. Plus everything tastes better when it’s fried and served with Sriracha.
- BigOven matches your leftover ingredients with possible recipes featuring those items
- SuperCook is perfect for the “oh no I forgot the milk” people among us: you specify what you have, they tell you what you can make using only those ingredients
Cutting back on grocery costs
Crafting a good grocery list, and sticking to it, will help you stay physically and financially healthy. Here are some money-saving shopping tips:
- Use Amazon Subscribe and Save or other similar services to automate purchases of nonperishables that you use frequently. This solves a number of problems: It’s cheaper in bulk, there’s free shipping, you don’t have to lug 10 rolls of paper towels around, and it lets you comparison-shop to find the best price. You can also use a credit card that gives rewards on Amazon.com to maximize your benefits.
- You can also automate purchases of non-perishable indulgences like chips or cookies, taking away any excuse you might have to buy them in-store.
- Visit cash back websites such as eBates or FatWallet.com and click through to an online grocery store. This can earn you as much as 5% back or more. Our database of grocery deals can help you find the most rewards for your buck at stores you already frequent.
- Make a backup grocery list. This list contains what you eat pretty much every week – for me, it’s apples, frozen veggies, pasta, eggs and tofu. This way, you aren’t tempted to impulse-shop just because you don’t have time to make a new list, and you’re forced to think critically about why you need whatever new item you’re buying.
- Look at unit pricing to compare costs between brands. The biggest trick in the marketing book is to make comparison difficult: that’s why you’ll see an eight-ounce jar of tomato sauce selling for $2 and a six-ounce jar selling for $1.75. Thankfully, most major supermarkets list the unit price along with the total price – in this case, the unit price is $0.25 and $0.29 an ounce, respectively.
- Freeze everything. Seriously, everything. Veggies about to go bad? Make a stew and freeze it. Ditto for chicken stock, bread, Thin Mints (delicious), grapes (also delicious), wine (use it for cooking later), nuts, herbs, the works. StillTasty.comcan help you tell if a particular food is edible, depending on how you store it.
- Many fruits, vegetables and nuts are cheaper in season – freeze them and use throughout the year to save on costs.
- Coupon, coupon, coupon. In addition to looking for coupons online, get club discounts at stores by entering your phone number. If you don’t want to hand over your personal information and data to every single supermarket that asks, here’s a neat trick:
- Use Jenny’s number – 867-5309 – plus your area code to score discounts without registering. Your mileage may vary, but since it’s one of the best-remembered numbers, it’s almost always in the system somewhere.
- Join (or start) a bulk buying co-op. Most grocery items, perishable and not, are cheaper when you buy in bulk. Problem is, what are you going to do with four gallons of olive oil? Split it up between your friends and neighbors so that you all save money without food going to waste. (This reduces trips to the grocery store, too).
How not to overspend
- Don’t look at BOGO and similar deals. Let them be like Myspace: Still relevant, perhaps, but not to you. If you were going to buy it anyway, excellent, you’ll save a little bit. But if it’s not on your list, you’re falling prey to a marketing scheme.
- Avoid the baked goods section unless an item there is already on your list. Supermarkets deliberately induce that sweet, sweet bakery aisle smell to create a want where there was none.
- Get someone else to shop for you. Kids, the aforementioned grocery store co-op, the Internet – it’s hard to impulse-buy if you aren’t the one doing the shopping.
- Shop on the weeks you don’t get paid. The perception of deep pockets can make us spend stupidly, and no one is immune to the sight of their bank balance suddenly increasing. Wait for the happy breadwinner effect to subside before impulse-buying the premium steaks.
One of the best, no-hassle ways to make a grocery list, I’ve found, is to use a Google spreadsheet shared among all interested parties. That way, anyone can update, and it’ll automatically sync. However, there are even more high-tech solutions out there. Here are some of the better grocery list apps out there, which offer functionality beyond your simple pen-and-paper or spreadsheet:
- Out of Milk lets you input what you have in your pantry, as well as your shopping list, so you don’t buy what you already have. It also lets you organize by category or section of the supermarket.
- OurGroceries is ideal for families or roommates. It syncs the grocery list across all participants’ accounts, so if you realize you need some baking soda just after your spouse left for the store, you can add it to the list and he’ll see the update automatically.
- ZipList is a meal planner, grocery list and deal hunter all in one: it syncs your meals to your calendar, organizes a grocery list and sends you coupons.
Anisha’s rule for shopping
Think a lot, then don’t think again. Whether you’re trying to beat advertisers who waft cookie smells your way, or big banks enticing you to overspend, your staunchest ally and your worst enemy are the same: you. Your strategic self can plan out menus in advance, figure out debt repayment plans, what have you; but in the heat of the moment, it’s your animal self that gives in to impulse. Your best bet is to have your intellectual self map out a game plan, and don’t let yourself think beyond that – all your decisions are made, so don’t let yourself make any more. Automate as much as you can, and keep the hard parts out of sight and mind.