The latest consumer expenditures data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the average American spends about $7,000 a year on food, $4,000 of which is spent on food prepared at home.1 Though food is a basic need, what you spend at the grocery is completely within your control—even if you loathe coupons. Here are simple grocery shopping hacks that can lower your food expenses right away.
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1. Check the pricing policy.
Stores often have “stock up sales” but not all require that you buy the promotion in its entirety (like 5 for $10) to receive the per item savings. (On the other hand, some stores do mandate “all or nothing”). Know the policy before you start shopping.
2. Ask when the cycles happen.
Each grocery store location has its own unique time that perishable items like meats, seafood, produce and bagged salads are marked down, based on demand and delivery schedules. Ask the produce and seafood manager, and butcher what day and time the markdown process generally takes place. Set a recurring reminder on your calendar so you can plan a store visit if you know you’ll make a meal involving those items that week.
3. Weigh the cost of convenience.
There is a cost associated with convenience at the grocery store when it comes to the price of pre-sliced vegetables and fruits. In some cases, the costs are justified. (Who has the time to core a pineapple?) But slicing your own apples, celery, cucumbers and tomatoes, chopping broccoli and cauliflower, and dicing onions takes little time, and could mean you’ll spend about ½ of what you’d pay for the pre-prepped variety (which often spoils faster, too). Invest in one quality knife to make prep frustration-free, and prepare produce when you have downtime (like a Sunday afternoon).
4. Don’t pay for packaging.
The bulk foods section can save you money on items you use a lot of– like grains, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, along with spices you may need just a bit of for a recipe, says Sue Eull, an integrative nutrition health coach and founder of Eull’s Health Coaching. Some grocery stores may also offer savings for buying larger quantities of bulk foods, and case quantities of packaged foods and wine. 1
5. Shop the outskirts.
When you eat a diet composed of processed foods and empty calories, you eat more in general. Eull advises her clients to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where the freshest and whole foods (which will fill you up faster, and keep you feeling satisfied longer) are usually located, along with deeply discounted produce and in-store prepared items that are nearing expiration.
6. Make it tough to over shop.
In the research paper, Unplanned Category Purchase Incidence: Who Does It, How Often and Why, Wharton marketing professor David R. Bell and his colleagues found that unplanned purchasing goes up by 44% when shoppers drive to the store, compared to when they walk there. 2 Shopping with a basket instead of a cart keeps your shopping at minimum, too. Eull adds that you’ll be less tempted by the processed foods in the middle aisles when you’ve already filled your basket with produce from the perimeter.
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7. Don’t plan less because you’re not on a tight budget.
When you’re not feeding a large family or challenged by a lack of disposable income, it may feel easier to let your grocery shopping be carefree. But Bell and his team found that young, unmarried adult households with higher incomes do 45% more unplanned buying. Their studies also revealed that unplanned purchasing goes up by 23% when the shopping trip itself is unplanned. Make a list of items that will get you through at least one week, and vow not to go back to the store until one full week has passed.
8. Keep yourself away from temptation.
Amazon Prime Pantry delivers up to 45 pounds of grocery store items right to your door, saving you time, fuel costs, and the temptation of going to the store and overspending. Though you’ll pay $5.99 to ship each box, Joanie Demer 3, founder of The Krazy Coupon Lady, says she price compared all of the items to Wal-Mart, and never paid more than 8% above the retailer’s sticker price. Prime Pantry orders require an Amazon Prime membership, which is free for 30 days, and costs $99 for the year.
Remember there’s always an opportunity cost associated with money—regardless of how much you make. By putting a little strategy into your grocery shopping, you could realize more cash flow that can be put towards eliminating debt, building emergency savings or retirement funds, home buying, investing, or even taking a vacation.