I recently got really irritated at my local grocery store. I walked in and found that the usual tall aisles had been replaced by chest-height shelving that allows you to look out over much of the store in a much more friendly, open feeling.
That’s not the part that bothered me, though. I walked around a bit, unable to find anything in its normal spot, and came to the realization that all of the staples like flour, sugar, bread, and cheese had been moved to the very back of various rows. The front of each and every row was filled with expensive processed food of some sort. The store was employing a subtle psychological gambit that few people would probably pick up on. The hope is that in wandering the aisles all the way to the back of the store to get the stuff that everyone needs, that you will encounter the maximum number of marked up, preservative-filled junk foods– twice. Once on the way to the back, then again on the way to the cashier.
If the grocery store is willing to manipulate you to get you to spend more money on less healthy food, surely there must be a way to get maximum savings out of the store, right? Let’s brainstorm some frugal grocery shopping tips that should have us coming out ahead at the market.
Shop at Low-End Grocery Stores
I like luxury grocery stores too, but if you really want to save money on food, do so by avoiding those that sell premium goods. I buy a ton of my basics at Target, usually choosing their store brand (unless there’s a really excellent deal on a name brand).
Wal Mart and Target are about the same price on these items (baking needs, pasta, sauces, etc.). If you happen to have a Target Red Card, you can get an additional 5% off, which usually makes Target a slight winner. If you plan to attempt any sort of extreme couponing, apparently Wal Mart has the advantage, though I don’t know from experience.
Write a Weekly Meal Plan
Make a pledge to purchase nothing but what is on your shopping list. Plan which meals you will eat on each night of the week, and then stick to the plan! Decide on a consequence for breaking this rule. Deposit $5 towards your investments for every item you buy which is not on your shopping list. Deposit the amount you spend on fast or processed food into your investments. Whatever it is, follow through.
Use the Circulars to Select Recipes
Check your junk mail for this week’s supermarket circulars. Figure out what looks like a fantastic deal (and what is something you will actually eat). Now, use Supercook to input those items and see what recipes are available to you. Supercook is a pretty cool website that allows you to input what you have and see what recipes match rather than pick a recipe and then purchase the ingredients. Once you’ve got a set of recipes that works with the deeply-discounted items, you can prepare a shopping list and head to the store!
Once you get home with your haul, combine new purchases with any staple goods you already have, and eat for drastically less than if you had started with a list of recipes and then gone grocery shopping.
Purchase in Bulk
If you have a warehouse store membership, you can purchase items in bulk. This is usually, but not always, the best deal. If you purchase meat and can be sure not to let it go to waste, this is probably your best bet.
Another tip: For things which keep for a long time, check Amazon. You may be able to buy extremely large (fifty pounds or more) bags for pennies on the dollar versus even the warehouse store prices. Some examples include:
Purchase Only Local, In-Season Produce
If the produce you purchase is out of season where you live, that means it’s being trucked or flown in. For those who purchase produce that doesn’t even grow where you live, it means the produce is being trucked or flown in from really far away. This price is passed on to you.
If you live in an agricultural area, buy from a farm stand. If you have farmer’s markets in your area, check out the prices there– though beware, as trendy farmer’s market prices are often marked up too.
For those who live with a lot of snow, it is often impossible to find produce which is truly in season during the winter months. That’s why it makes sense for you to spend the spring and summer…
Canning, Preserving, and Dehydrating
Don’t let food go bad! This is something I struggle with a lot. We frequently allow produce to go bad, and it always pains me to throw it out. With foods like bananas, we often make banana bread, but items like celery, tomatoes, and others often get squishy before we get to them.
Since produce is not something that generally becomes cheaper when you buy more of it (as it is generally priced by the unit or by weight), purchase only the minimum you need. If you end up with extra, see if you can find a way to preserve it. Fruits can be made into jams, and vegetables can be canned. Jams are easy to make and require no specialized equipment (I repurpose glass jars) but canning is something that does require some investment.
For your meats, dehydrating is an awesome option. It can also be done really cheaply, without any specialized equipment! All you need is a box fan, some cotton HVAC filters, a couple bungee cords, and maybe some spices to suit your taste. Dehydrating is also a great way of preserving fruit, which costs a fortune when purchased dehydrated.
Stock up on Non-Perishable Items When On Sale
Don’t be picky about things like soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. It’s not uncommon to get these items on sale for 10 or 20 percent of the normal price, particularly with a coupon. When this happens, make sure to stock up. Over the long run, this will save you lots of money.
Buy the Store Brand
Consumer Reports did a great set of blind taste tests that show that for most items, the average person can’t tell the difference between the store brand and the name brand. You can save a ton of money by being open to the store brand. Make sure to check sale prices, though, as it’s common for on-sale name brands to temporarily slip below store brand prices.
Check the Top and Bottom of Shelves First
Supermarkets place their most expensive brands at about eye level. Always check the brands at the top and the bottom of a shelf, which is usually where you’ll find the least expensive (and equivalent) products.
Avoid Other Attempts to Subconsciously Manipulate You
- Grocery stores play slow, tranquil music because most people subconsciously slow down the pace of their walking to match the tempo of the music.
- They place high price-per-unit (and nutritionally vacant) products at the checkout when cheaper equivalent items are available elsewhere. Never buy anything found at the checkout.
- Never take a cart when what you need will fit in a hand basket. Carts are the size they are to encourage shoppers to fill them.
- The cheapest and least processed food will be at the back of the store.
- Never enter an aisle that doesn’t contain something you know you need. Supermarkets know that people are conditioned to weave through all the aisles. Avoid this pattern by being aware of it.
- Never purchase anything which is being sampled without first checking for a lower-priced alternative. Better yet, if it’s not on your list, don’t buy it at all! Force yourself to go home and think about whether this is something you need.
What other ways can you think of to save money on your grocery shopping? Let me know in the comments!