Grocery Shopping Tips That Will Pad Your Pocket, Guaranteed!

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2007-12-1139

Hang on to your grocery coupons! All you ever wanted to know about grocery shopping.

How much do you spend on groceries? The answer varies depending on where you live, how many people you live with, and what your buying patterns are and can range from a very thrifty $50 a month per head in the most frugal American households to a more typical $150 a month per person or even to a more extravagant $300 and higher a month, per head. You may cringe at thousand dollar grocery bills for your typical family of four but they’re not unheard of, especially in California.

I have one particular colleague who shops exclusively in San Francisco Chinatown every weekend for the cheapest food items and buys everything else in bulk at Costco, adhering to a carefully planned budget. His family consists of himself, his wife and young toddler and yet their grocery bill hits $500 a month — an average $166 a month per person. As for us, I’m too embarrassed to divulge our grocery bill numbers (though they’re not that far from that monthly $166 per head quoted figure): let’s just say it’s something that we can definitely improve upon but just haven’t had the inclination to do so in recent months. Since food sensitivities and allergies run in our family, we’ve shifted to organic and gluten-free products, thereby adding quite a bit to the bottom-line.

In looking at what we could do to slice those bills down, I found some really good pointers that can easily be applied to make a quick difference.

shopping carts, grocery carts

Republished with permission from Robert Wechsler

There’s so much fodder here to get started: apparently, your average bill can probably be diminished by 30% to 50% by following some of these tips. I never knew that grocery shopping can be so strategic, almost like a science, so I’m convinced many people aren’t aware of even some of the basic actions they can take to save money on this front. Nothing earth-shattering here: but the key is in the execution!

Easy Ways To Save On Your Grocery Bill

#1 Gather your grocery coupons and use them “the right way”.
Read your coupons carefully because the fine print can yield information you may not be aware of. The picture on a coupon may not tell you the whole story: for instance, discounts can apply to items of like kind or by the same brand, and not just the item displayed on the coupon. Unfortunately for us, we’ve only attempted passive coupon collecting — the kind that involves waiting for the coupons in the mail and using what’s there. But if you’d like to be a more aggressive saver, you can be more proactive by going to web sites such as CouponMom.com or using coupon brokers online! The downside to coupon hunting is that it can be time intensive so you may want to see if it’s worth it to try.

#2 Come in with a plan and a list.
Do you have a shopping plan? The easiest plan you can make is simply to write a list of the things you need before your trip to the store. Beyond that, there are serious savers who prepare menu plans and who develop shopping systems that involve knowing the sales schedule of the stores they frequent, being aware of when discounts and markdowns are available, and buying loss leaders. Consumers who have a list or a plan actually spend 40% to 50% less than those who don’t! One tip though: I’d create a simple plan first so I’d have better success with sticking to it for the long term.

#3 Check and re-check your receipts!
The bane of my grocery shopping experience is the checkout counter because I always feel anxious about getting overcharged by mistake. And you know what? My worries are NOT unfounded. There’s actually the issue of store scanner errors, which actually cost shoppers between $1 billion to $3 billion a year! Just to show you how prevalent this is, a few weeks ago we found out that we were charged $37 for 1.55 pounds of shrimp, instead of the rightful price of $7.73 — a transposition error that could have been easily missed out!

#4 Comparison shop.
This is one of the more obvious things to do — but we don’t realize how strong our brand loyalty sometimes can be. A good system is to break that loyalty. Instead, follow the price and go with alternatives that are offering grocery coupons and discounts during your shopping exercise.

#5 Shop when you’re relaxed.
Another behavioral modification trick is to shop when you are relaxed and when the store is emptier. Shop during non-peak hours so that you’re not hassled enough to act impulsively. During this time, you are less frazzled and less likely to be in a hurry to get out. The less stressed out you are, the more likely you’ll be to carefully inspect the goods that pile up in your cart and to avoid additional charges.

#6 Don’t shop hungry.
Yet something else to try — shop when you’re full. Apparently, studies show that if you’re hungry, everything looks more palatable to you and you’re more likely to make more purchases. Stores will enhance the shopping experience further by making sure their stores smell nice and aromatic, in an effort to titillate your taste buds.

#7 Check expiration dates so things don’t spoil and waste.
Do you know what’s in your fridge and pantry? Statistics show that Americans waste a lot of food: around 14% of purchases, in fact! A quick look at the expiration dates of your food and drug items can ensure that they have longer shelf and fridge life. You wouldn’t want to have to discard stuff prematurely before it even makes it to your plate.

#8 Avoid convenience items.
Bypass the junk aisle. Prepackaged foods, diet foods and other conveniently packaged items tend to be more expensive. Consider frozen food as an alternative to fresh foods for the lower cost. You may think they’re less healthy, but surprisingly, the difference in nutrition that you receive isn’t significant.

#9 Check if medicines you buy can be covered by your flexible spending plan.
If you’re prescribed regular medication, buying them through your flexible spending plan (FSA) will save you money because what you contribute to such a plan is not subject to payroll taxes. Check with your employer about how this can work out for you. But make sure you monitor and track how you’re using your plan: I’ve had sore luck on this matter and lost over a $1,000 on it last year because I failed to use my FSA sufficiently throughout the year. How did this happen? Though I made proper claims, they were denied and not considered eligible for FSA use. So beware! Such a plan is subject to a “use it or lose it” policy which can bite you unexpectedly. Take note of the details of your policy before you sign up and start contributing.

#10 Check unit pricing.
We’re all trained to think that bigger is cheaper and by buying more, we could be saving more per unit. That’s not necessarily the case! Here’s an example of this illusion. You may be surprised that some smaller items can be cheaper than larger packaged goods. Also, by applying discounts to smaller, lower cost items, the savings are even greater! When grocery coupons allow you to take off a certain number of dollars and you apply it against lower cost items, this results in bigger percentage savings.

#11 Shop on the outside.
That is, shop by starting out at the perimeter of the store. Those areas are where the highest priority items are usually located. The stuff you can’t do without — such as bread, dairy items, fresh fruits and vegetables and meats — should be stacked in your cart first before everything else so that you’re less likely to make room for non-essentials.

#12 Recognize that products at eye level are pricier.
Marketers want your money to follow where your eyes go. So they place the more expensive items at eye level for easy plucking. Be aware that this is their ploy so that you have the option to look elsewhere for what you need.

#13 Buy in bulk, stock up on discounted items.
Bulk buying is a common way of getting materials at a better price. Here’s an informal study made by an individual who discovered that buying from a warehouse club such as Sam’s Club, Costco or B.J.’s really costs less. His findings (from SoundMindInvesting.com):

I found that a great majority of the items were indeed cheaper at Sam’s. On average, the savings amounted to 31%, more than enough to easily offset the $35-45 annual membership fee. The big winners: cereal/bread, cooking/baking, snacks, and other averaged nearly 40% savings. Still not impressed? Buy some raisins, syrup, bottled water, and sandwich bags and you can save an average of 66%. And it doesn’t stop there. You can rack up even more savings by buying generics in bulk, where I found savings of up to 83% on items like aspirin and hand sanitizer.

#14 Use cash.
Though some may say it’s not for them, you may try using cash to do your purchases. This is because it is recognized that those who use cash to make their purchases save 10% to 30% more than those who use credit. More formally, a study by Dunn and Bradstreet reveals that on average, we spend from 12% to 18% more using credit cards than if we used cash.

#15 Buy at lower priced stores and even your local markets.
You may find that by checking a variety of stores and locations, that prices vary quite a bit across the board. We have a farmer’s market close to where we live and during the summer months, we buy our produce from there. We found that the savings here were significant and the food so much fresher than if we got them from the neighborhood supermarket. Plus, at these markets, there are so many stalls selling affordable organic fruits and vegetables! I’ve also got several friends who get their low-priced food items from the city’s Chinatown district.

#16 Don’t shop with kids.
Supposedly, shopping with kids actually adds $100 to $400 a month to your bill. That’s because you end up lingering longer at the store when you have them in tow, plus impulse buying tends to go up when your kids get hit by the “gimmes”. So either don’t bring them along or be strongly conscious of your buying behavior when you have them tag along.

-ooOoo-

When grocery shopping, if you go unprepared, you’ll pay more. So knowing what you can do to make small changes to your routine can help you bring your tallies lower. The magic number seems to be the $50 a head that the incredibly Economides family has achieved with their groceries including food and other products they purchase weekly. Of course, you may know about a lot of these pointers already but unless you apply them (and yes, some of them may seem a bit more work than others), you won’t make headway. I’ll admit that all these tips may not be something I’d try out right away since there are tradeoffs involving time and practicality, though I’m very certain that I’ll be tackling some of the easier tips by our next grocery trip. I’d suggest you start with the easiest changes to see where that takes you.

Copyright © 2007 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Free From Broke December 11, 2007 at 9:05 am

Great list! #6 hits home for me. I can always tell when we were shopping hungry by what we take out of the bags when we get home. Guaranteed there will be some combination of cookies, potato chips, and ice cream that we wouldn’t have otherwise bought. Bad for my pocket, bad for my mid-section!

The Financial Blogger December 11, 2007 at 9:22 am

I recently bought a 5′ freezer in order to buy meat in bulk and freeze it. This was definitely one of the best moved I made. I buy my meat from a butcher in a small village. While my meat is better quality and taste better, the cost of it is lower since I buy for $500 at the time.

Kacie December 11, 2007 at 10:03 am

This is a great list! I spend about $30-40 per week on groceries for my husband and I. We live in Pittsburgh, and the cost of living is comparatively low.

I absolutely have a shopping list when I go, and I plan my weekly menus according to what I have and what’s on sale. I’ve found that this step has saved me a ton (I used to spend $70-100+ per week on groceries. Now that I’ve changed, I don’t notice a difference in my pantry–just in my wallet).

Mrs. Micah December 11, 2007 at 10:04 am

I’ve actually gotten so stressed recently while shopping (mostly at the end, because it seems like everyone is still learning how to use the self-checkouts. It’s painful to watch… But there’s only one cashier, so her line is really long too). So I make up the list and send Micah to do the shopping. I’ve trained him on price comparison and it seems to work ok. :)

I think knowing that I’ll be stressed at the end makes me more stressed early on and make faster (less calculated) decisions.

Meg December 11, 2007 at 10:40 am

#8 is really the key: avoid convenience items.

If you want red beans and rice, for instance, you can buy a convenience box of it for around $5. This will probably contain around 4 servings. OR you can buy a $2 bag of rice and a $2 bag of beans and get 12 or more servings out of it! Sure it might take a half an hour to cook, as opposed to 2 minutes in the microwave, but it’s obviously a far better choice financially (and health wise as well).

Mary McK. December 11, 2007 at 1:20 pm

This is such a difficult arena for me. I do not like planning meals for a month and shopping for a month – I just don’t have the discipline – and I like fresh foods. I find I spend less by shopping more frequently (that’s just me). The best I’ve been able to do in w. MA is $460/month for our family of four (including two teenagers). Buying only sale items, combining sales with coupons (and I search online for coupons for the things I want), buying generic stuff, and buying only certain things at a warehouse club is what gets me through. I don’t buy convenience foods in general, I want our food to be made from good ingredients and I make all our sandwich bread and desserts, but there are a few concessions I make to teenage palates – tortilla chips and salsa is much beloved by one kid (salsa is vegetables!) and they both love bagels. Bagels are very labor intensive to make and not particularly cheap either – does anybody make good “everything” bagels at home? If so I’d like to hear about it.

I put a lot of work into minimising the grocery bill and it is tiring and discouraging work sometimes.

nickycakes December 11, 2007 at 4:13 pm

Awesome tips. I lose so much money on food every year because I don’t shop smart. I end up rushing to the grocery store only when I’m hungry and need to cook something and end up overspending. Great tips.

david December 11, 2007 at 5:09 pm

I shopped while I was hungry just now. Everything was junk food =(. It was a family dollar store so it wasn’t too expensive!

dawn December 11, 2007 at 7:24 pm

#3 Check and recheck receipts…is very important. I would estimate that every 3 out of 4 times the cashier rings an item up twice, rather than the the correct amount of once. It’s kind of crazy…you wouldn’t think those type of errors would occur so frequently, but they do.
#10 Check unit price … is also huge. Logic would lead you to believe bigger would be a better price. But it just isn’t so on a lot of items.
#16 Don’t shop with kids. In my situation I would have to add…don’t shop with hubby. He is a lot of fun to shop with, but he’s very expensive. He loves good food and drink!

Nice post…right on the money!

Jacob December 11, 2007 at 10:53 pm

Some more ideas:

a) Know your prices. Either memorize them or write them down in a small notebook. Buy first and foremostly when prices are in the lower range.

b) Buy loss leaders and arrange meals around them.

c) Often a recipe will work fine without that special weird ingredient. Improvise.

Racer X December 11, 2007 at 11:27 pm

#2 and #14 have been key in order to lower our food cost and to get on a reasonable budget. Since we “saw the light” we have pulled nearly $400 a month out of this category, with no discernable reduction in meal type.

As an added set of tips: a lot of companies will put coupons for severely marked down prices on their site or point you to a co-branded site that will. We have been able to get lots of “Buy 2 Get One” sort of coupons that way. Samples are a great way to try something first before you buy the Enormo-Can at Costco. If you Google “Free Food Samples” you can see a ton of coupons and free sample offers.

Love the Blog! Always great information — Thanks.

Silicon Valley Blogger December 12, 2007 at 12:30 am

Great feedback! As I’ve mentioned — there are some tips that are a little trickier to implement or will probably take a change in your normal routine (change can be a challenge sometimes), but definitely some easy ones to do: in my case – have a list, check receipts, shop when relaxed and full, check expiration dates are simple steps I do take to help my grocery bill out. The other actions will take a little more adjustment to do (and a little more time to become habit). But we’re on it!

Money Blue Book December 12, 2007 at 9:14 am

I think I’m the only one who seems to always advocate using reward credit cards for everything…if not credit cards, use debit cards. Some debit cards offer rewards for usage too.
-Raymond

Scottsdale December 12, 2007 at 2:27 pm

I just forwarded this article to my wife. This is really helpful. We’re, as many others, on a budget as well. We try to spend no more then $350 for both of us, but it includes other household items like cleaning goods, tissues, paper towels, soaps etc. We also shop at Costco every week. Thanks for the article. I really enjoy your blog. Thanks!

Broke Grad Student December 13, 2007 at 2:27 am

#6 Don’t shop hungry

This one is the hardest for me to follow. I definitely end up buying more food when I’m hungry. The problem is that if I’m not hungry, I’m usually full, and the last thing I want to do is walk around a grocery store when I’m full. I guess I have to try harder to find the middle point.

Dorian Wales December 13, 2007 at 3:40 am

Great tips and interesting point of view. Another aspect of saving on grocery shopping is being aware of the marketing tricks used on us by stores such as floor layout, location, shelf organization and more.

Modern Worker December 13, 2007 at 8:40 am

These are tips I live by when grocery shopping, and boy have they saved me some green =)

K December 13, 2007 at 5:12 pm

I get so confused anymore trying to read the grocery store receipts with all the sales and the buy-one-get-one-free offers and coupons.

They ring up the reg price and then deduct an amount that is sup to be equal to the sales price but it not necessarily on the same line or area of the receipt. The coupon deductions just say the dollar amount, not the item description so you dont know if they missed a coupon. And the store coupons sometimes ring up under a name of a product other than what you bought. ( I bought cheerios…it rang up as fruit roll ups.)

The other day I used a raincheck for an item off of an ad from last month and it happened to be on sale again this week only for less of a savings. The clerk had to override and redo…it took 12 lines on the receipt for one item and even looking at it I couldnt tell if I got the correct price as my raincheck. I ended up having to add up all the other items and deducting it from the total to even figure it out. And then I had to eat a brownie to replenish the brain power I expended to figure the dang thing out.

Sunny December 14, 2007 at 10:16 am

Great list. We probably average around $100 per person per month, I am always looking for ways to cut back. I would like to do more cooking from scratch and add more vegetables and rice as fillers

anonymous December 16, 2007 at 12:13 am

We live on par with $50 per head. Sometimes we plan meals as we shop. We first go to the meat dept. Often there are “manager specials” on items that haven’t sold. We also buy in bulk quantities and save. We freeze the meat we don’t plan on using within 3 days and plan sides to go along with our meat purchases.

On the note of saving money… Consider how much you spend going out for dinner! By eating at home you can save a lot! For example, the seafood dept. has crab legs for $4.99 to $5.99 a pound. Unheard of at any restaurant! Some garlic, butter, and a pinch of salt… a steamy stock pot and you have yourself quite a fancy meal. Add some Dollar Tree candles and some music and you have a date at your house! No awkward “Do you want to come up for coffee?” moments… she’s already there. But please clean up the place before she comes. You don’t want her to think you’re a slob.

Centsible Shopper December 17, 2007 at 2:13 pm

I know the chain isn’t everywhere, but I love Aldi stores–they’re simple and inexpensive, both of which earn points with me. :-)

vh December 18, 2007 at 3:41 am

Great post…and great reminder that you can eat like the Queen of Sheba by purchasing something wonderful (like crab legs!) at the grocer and cooking it yourself, for a tiny fraction of what a restaurant would charge.

One thing I’ve never been able to figure out is how you can check the receipt or figure anything out by watching the checker’s computer screen when prices aren’t marked on the products. I can’t even begin to remember the prices — and alleged markdown prices — for every item in a full grocery basket. Every now & again, when I’m entering receipts in Quicken, I’ll notice that the cashier missed charging me for something or that I was charged for some item I didn’t buy (& not for something I did), and I certainly recognize this means there must be a lot more errors. But in the confusion that is a grocery store receipt (especially a Safeway receipt!!), it’s mighty hard to tell.

It would help a lot if grocery stores had to print the cash price on those tags with the UPC, so humans could tell what the stuff is supposed to cost.

cedella garcia January 8, 2008 at 3:09 am

Totally agree with tip number one. I used my coupons three days after at the store and they didn’t honor. Definitely need to use them asap.

bill January 21, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Some stores have gotten wise to #11. A chain grocery recently remodeled several of their local stores. Now, after the produce is the “bistro” (cafeteria) section, gourmet cheeses, and high-dollar butcher shop. On the other side are the high-priced sodas and other handy useless snakc foods.

Make Friends, Earn Money March 29, 2008 at 4:47 am

Love the photo first off, whoever took it must have had great fun! Secondly I really rate this post it is so details and really practical. It’s not until you take some time out to think about simple things like grocery savings that you realise just how much you can save.

owlhaven April 29, 2008 at 2:07 pm

I shop for a family of 12, and spend about $800-$900 per month. I have wondered how that compares to what other people do, so was interested in the facts at the beginning of this post. I recently posted 3 days worth of menus and recipes, which totalled about $60….

Mary, mom to 10

mark November 7, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Your quoted figures seem cheap to me.
You referenced 166$ per person for a month which breaks down to only $5.53 a day.
Now divide that by 3 meals and we are talking a whopping $1.84 per meal per person.
Not out of line if you ask me.
You do have some great ideas though, thanks!

Mike February 5, 2009 at 9:21 pm

#11 Shop on the outside

This one is my biggest problem. I can never seem to stay out of the ice cream isle :/

Chris December 3, 2010 at 10:47 am

“#6 Don’t shop hungry.
Yet something else to try — shop when you’re full. Apparently, studies show that if you’re hungry, everything looks more palatable to you and you’re more likely to make more purchases. Stores will enhance the shopping experience further by making sure their stores smell nice and aromatic, in an effort to titillate your taste buds.”

My wife and I couldn’t agree more with this one. When you are hungry and visit your grocery store, magically everything seems like it would be the BEST tasting thing ever made, then you end up grabbing all kinds of junk food etc… Great list though.. Thanks!

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