When I was growing up I would grocery shop with my mom every week. I always really enjoyed grocery shopping because I was able to pick out the foods that I wanted (within reason). To this day, I still enjoy grocery shopping, largely for the same reason (although today my mom isn’t there to tell me I can only buy one kind of cookies).
I also like grocery shopping because it is the one kind of shopping that I get to do every week, no matter what. I always need to eat. I might be trying not to buy new clothes or spend money on other non-necessities, but the grocery store is one place where I can get my shopping fix without splurging.
That said, it is all too easy to splurge even at the grocery store. Yes, we all need to eat, but we do not all need to eat organic, grass fed filet mignon topped with truffle butter every night. Because I grocery shop every week, without fail, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to be smart about grocery spending. If you’re not paying attention it is easy to bust your budget with regular trips to the grocery store.
The fine line between health and wealth
The tricky thing about trying to curb grocery spending is that, unlike when you buy clothes or electronics or other consumer goods, when you buy less expensive food you run the risk of buying lower-quality, less healthy food. Health is your greatest asset and isn’t worth risking over a few dollars here or there. This becomes especially true when you consider the lifetime cost of conditions such as diabetes, which can be caused by poor eating habits.
So how do you balance buying healthy food with watching your budget? Here are a few ideas about how to buy quality food the smart way.
Pick your store carefully
In the Cambridge area, there are a LOT of grocery store options. We have our local chains, like Star Market and Stop & Shop. We also have more specialty stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Last but certainly not least, we have the one and only Market Basket. Market Basket is a discount grocery chain that does not provide a glamorous shopping experience but does offer the lowest prices, period. At Market Basket, I pay $2 for the box of granola bars (the EXACT same box!) that costs $3.50 at Stop & Shop. If I buy those granola bars every week, I’m saving $78 over the course of a year just by shopping at Market Basket for that ONE item. Imagine when you multiply that over the cost of your whole grocery cart! And I’m not even considering what the Whole Foods version of those granola bars might cost.
What I really mean to say here is that each store offers certain benefits: Whole Foods offers lots of organics, Trader Joe’s has items you can’t find elsewhere, and Star Market provides the basics with a nice shopping experience. Be cognizant of these things when you chose which store to shop at and shop somewhere that aligns with the value you’re looking for. For me, I don’t mind fighting the crowds at Market Basket to get the same food for a lower price.
Shop only once a week
I grew up in the suburbs, and my family shopped once a week because the grocery store was a 10 minute drive out of the way. Now that I live in the city, there are about 10 different places I could stop to pick up food on my way home from work. But I’ve learned that this is very dangerous. When I shop every night, I forget what I have in the house, I succumb to my pre-dinner urges and buy some extra cookies, and I’m more likely to pick up prepared or frozen food that can be made quickly.
A great way to save money and become more intentional about grocery shopping is to plan to shop only once a week. This will force you to look ahead at what you need for the week. It will give you time to consider what you have in your house already and therefore help you avoid duplicates. It will also limit some of the impulse buys, especially if you follow common advice and avoid shopping hungry. All of these things are good for both your health and your budget. After all, when is the last time you impulse-purchased carrot sticks? Ice cream on the other hand….
Plan meals around sales
If you’re going to grocery shop every week, it pays to be organized about what you’ll have for each meal during the week. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with all snacks and no food (that’s not just me, right?). Meal planning is a great way to make sure you have healthy options for each breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like to buy basic foods to make breakfasts and lunches from and then plan specific meals for dinner. I select the menu for the week, write down all the ingredients I need, compare that to what I already have in the house, and write the remaining ingredients on my grocery list. Simple.
But how do I know what meals to make? I’ve started planning my menu around the weekly sales at my local Market Basket. Each week they send around a flyer, which is also available online, advertising the weekly specials. The front page usually has a few meat and fish options that are substantially discounted. Since I’m often at a loss for what exactly I want to eat, I just let the weekly flier chose for me and go with whatever is on sale! This has several benefits – I don’t have to make up my own mind about what to eat, I save money without sacrificing on quality, and I get to eat a diverse array of foods. That is a lot of birds to kill with one really tiny stone.
Check unit prices
The other tips I’ve shared have all centered on decisions you make before even stepping foot in a grocery store. Once you’re there, there are still decisions you can make that will help you spend smartly. You may have noticed that most items in your grocery store have two prices. One is the price that you pay at the register, and the other is the unit price. The unit prices does just what its name implies: it tells you the price per unit of that item. Units are usually either ounces or pounds.
Unit prices come in handy when you’re looking at several different sizes or brands of the same product. For example, when I buy honey I can buy an 8 oz. jar of Market Basket brand honey for $2.49, or $0.31 per ounce, or I can buy a 12 oz. jar of Market Basket brand honey for $3.39, or $0.28 per ounce. I also have other brand options, but I’ve never noticed a difference between store brand and name brand honey, so I go with the less expensive store brand option. (Note that I don’t do this for everything – it’s worth experimenting to find out what you can get away with buying store brand for and what you can’t.) Since the larger jar of honey is cheaper on a per ounce basis, I go with that option.
Buying based on unit price works well for something like honey that keeps well and is used frequently. Make sure to think through the non-financial aspects of foods before buying a larger package just to save a few cents per ounce. For example, you’re better off paying more per ounce for a smaller package of lettuce that you will actually use up than a larger package that will go partially to waste. Similarly, there are some things that you just don’t want to have a giant size of in the house. For example, when I splurge (health-wise, not money-wise) and buy my favorite snack of Cheetos, I always buy the smallest bag I can regardless of unit price. Big bag = big belly ache. However when I buy oatmeal, I buy the largest size to get the best unit price. After all, nobody binges on oatmeal.
How do you save money at the grocery store?