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Saving Money at the Grocery Store

little girl pushing shopping cart

The grocery store holds enchantment and threat, excitement and dread, enjoyment and worry. And maybe boredom tinged with annoyance. Trips there are cemented in childhood memories, gripping shoppers and eaters. Food functions as an essential subsistence need, and the grocery store with its connection to home cooking and family life is its most meaningful hallmark.

In his 2022 poem “Grocery Shopping With My Mother,” poet Kevin Powell writes: 

My mother’s altar

is the shopping cart at the supermarket….

You told me food is your happiness

You begged me not to take away your happiness

I will not mother I will not

I see your beauty and your genius

in the way you boil the water. 

in the way you season the food

in the way you create kitchen magic

as you did when I was a boy

The grocery store. How are we supposed to deal with a symbol that wields so much power? It costs so much to fill a grocery cart, a kitchen, a stomach, and a heart. What are ways to spend a bit less?

In today's economy, many of us are looking for ways to trim budgets without sacrificing quality or nutrition. One of the most effective places to start is at the grocery store. With planning and smart strategies, you can reduce food expenses while enjoying delicious and healthy meals. Let's explore practical tips and ideas to help you save money on your next grocery run.

Plan Ahead and Make a List

Planning acts as the foundation of smart grocery shopping. When you plan meals and write a shopping list, you reduce impulse purchases and food waste. 

• Review your pantry and refrigerator before making your list to avoid buying duplicates

Plan meals around seasonal produce and sale items

• Stick to your list 

Shop with a Full Stomach

Shopping on an empty stomach can lead to poor decisions and unnecessary purchases. When you're hungry, everything looks tempting, and you're more likely to grab high-priced convenience foods or snacks. Eat something before you go so that you don’t end up opening the Publix white mountain bread and eating the end pieces with the hand that’s not pushing the cart like I regularly do.

Compare Unit Prices

Decades ago, you had to do math in your head to figure out which size was the best deal. Now, most stores display the unit price (price per ounce, pound, or item) on the shelf label so that you can compare brands and sizes.

For example, a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter priced at $3.99 ($0.25 per ounce) is a better deal than a 12-ounce jar priced at $3.49 ($0.29 per ounce), even though the smaller jar has a lower total price. However, if you don’t have room to store the bigger sizes, the inconvenience might not be worth the price savings.

Buy Generic or Store Brands

Brand loyalty can be expensive. Generic or store-brand products can be just as good as name-brand. For instance, a 16-ounce box of name-brand cereal might cost $4.99, while the store-brand equivalent could be priced at $2.99 – a 40% savings.

• Start by trying generic versions of staple items like flour, sugar, and canned vegetables

• Compare ingredient lists to ensure you're getting a similar product - cheaper products may have unhealthy ingredients like corn syrup, the preservative calcium disodium EDTA, fillers, MSG, maltitol, or other less-desirable ingredients

• If you don't like a generic product, most stores offer a money-back guarantee

Shop Seasonally and Locally

Fruits and vegetables are often cheaper when they're in season and locally sourced. Not only will you save money, but you'll also enjoy fresher, more flavorful produce. Consider visiting local farmers' markets or joining a community-supported agriculture program for deals on fresh, local produce.

Embrace Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

While fresh produce is great, don't overlook the frozen aisle. Frozen fruits and vegetables can be as nutritious as fresh counterparts and can be cheaper, especially when out of season. They also last longer, reducing food waste.

For example, a pound of fresh blueberries might cost $4.99 when out of season, while a pound of frozen blueberries could be priced at $2.99 year-round.

Use Coupons and Cash-Back Apps

Coupons and cash-back apps can lead to substantial savings, but only if used strategically. Focus on coupons for items you already plan to buy, rather than using them as an excuse to purchase unnecessary products. When I was young, we cut coupons out of magazines, newspapers, and food boxes. Now most everything is digital.

• Combine manufacturer coupons with store sales for maximum savings

• Use cash-back apps to earn rebates on your purchases

• Be cautious of "buy more, save more" deals – they're only worthwhile if you'll actually use the extra items

Buy in Bulk – Selectively

Buying in bulk can save money on items you use frequently, but it's not always the best choice. Consider these factors before making a bulk purchase:

Storage space: Do you have room to store the extra items?

• Shelf life: Will you use the product before it expires?

• Unit price: Is the bulk option actually cheaper per unit?

Good candidates for bulk buying include non-perishable items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and dry goods such as rice or pasta.

Eat Less Meat 

Beans, lentils, and other legumes can substitute for meat. They're rich in protein, fiber, and various nutrients, making them an excellent and inexpensive alternative to meat in many dishes.

For instance, a pound of dry lentils costs around $1.50 and can yield about 7 cups cooked – enough for multiple meals. Compare that to the cost of meat for the same number of servings, and the savings become clear.

• Experiment with different bean varieties in soups, stews, and salads

• Try meatless Monday dinners to incorporate more legumes into your diet

• Buy dry beans instead of canned for even greater savings

Shop the Perimeter

Most grocery stores are laid out with fresh produce, dairy, and meats around the perimeter, while processed foods fill the center aisles. By focusing your shopping on the store's perimeter, you'll not only save money but also tend to make healthier choices.

Avoid Prepared Foods

Pre-cut fruits and vegetables, deli salads, and other prepared foods come with a convenience fee. You can save by doing the prep work yourself.

For example, a 1-pound container of pre-cut pineapple chunks might cost $4.99, while a whole pineapple could be priced at $2.99. With just a few minutes of work, you can save 40% and have more fruit.

Time Your Shopping

Many grocery stores mark down perishable items like meat and baked goods in the evening as they approach their sell-by dates. If you can be flexible with your shopping time, you might find great deals. Just be sure to use or freeze these items promptly.

Grow Your Own

Even if you don't have a large garden, growing some of your own herbs or vegetables can lead to savings over time. Herbs like basil, cilantro, and mint are easy to grow in small pots and can save you $2-$3 per bunch each time you need them for a recipe.

Saving Money at the Grocery Store Helps Reduce Grocery Store Anxiety

For me, going to the grocery store is one of my favorite things to do and has been since I was a little kid. But I also like saving money at the grocery store whenever I can. By implementing these strategies, you can reduce your grocery bill without sacrificing the quality or variety of your meals. Start with a few of these tips and gradually incorporate more over time. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it always cheaper to buy in bulk?

Not always. While buying in bulk can lead to savings, it's not a universal rule. For non-perishable items you use frequently, like toilet paper or rice, buying in bulk makes sense. For perishables or items you use infrequently, it may not be the best choice.

Are generic brands really as good as name brands?

In many cases, yes. Generic or store-brand products may be made by the same manufacturers as name brands and can be of similar or identical quality. 

How can I save money on produce without compromising on nutrition?

Fruits and vegetables are typically cheaper and fresher when in season. Frozen produce is as nutritious as fresh and can be cheaper, especially for out-of-season items. Farmers' markets or local produce stands offer competitive prices on fresh, local produce.

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