This week, we’ve taken a serious look at making your food cheap. We’ve looked at using a $1-per-meal strategy and then some ideas for implementing that strategy with very cheap recipes for snacks and light meals.
However, these strategies mostly focus on the actions you need to take in the kitchen to save money. In reality, the place where we spend most of our money on food is actually at the grocery store, and for my dollar, there are few ways to beat the savings that one can get from simply choosing a discount grocery store and making that your main place for grocery shopping.
Confession time: I am an avid discount grocery shopper.
That means that the vast majority of the time, I do my grocery shopping at a place that is known primarily for low prices. I go to the grocery store to shop for groceries, not for ambiance or samples or concierges or pretty displays. I want good prices on the things that I buy, and I want to get out of there as soon as I can.
In addition, I spend as little of my time as possible in the grocery store. I don’t view it as a “destination” or as a place to wander and hang out. I view it as a place to get the food that I need and get it home with the least possible time and money cost.
All of this adds up to minimal time and minimal money spent on grocery shopping. I go to the store with a plan, I’m confident that my store of choice has low prices and that my list has items that are on sale already, and I just take care of business.
Here are some of the specific strategies I use to make this work and keep my grocery bill as low as possible by taking advantage of discount grocery shopping.
Use an actual discount grocer and/or warehouse club.
This really is a pretty obvious first step. If you’re not shopping at a discount grocer, you’re spending money for things like packaging, advertising, and ambiance instead of food. To me, that’s a waste of money. I want my dollars to go toward food when I’m at the grocery store.
How do you find a discount grocer, and how do you know if a particular store is one? Consumer Reports actually already has a great little guide to discount supermarkets. Their top five discount chains? Trader Joe’s, Fareway (that’s where I shop!!), Market Basket, Costco, and WinCo. If you have any of those stores near you, you’ve got access to a discount grocer. I would personally add three more chains to that list – ALDI, Sam’s Club, and BJs.
Choose your ‘primary’ store and learn its layout.
The key is to choose a supermarket that you’ll use every week that has consistently lower prices than the competition. Price should be your focus. Sure, other stores may have better ambiance and more esoteric product selection (like Whole Foods or your local co-op), but you can take advantage of those for individual ingredients. Your main store should be price-focused and it should be your default stop for grocery shopping.
Once you’ve decided on your store, get to know the layout. If you shop there regularly, you should start picking it up by default anyway, but be extra mindful at first as to where everything is in the store. Don’t be afraid to actually draw a diagram on a piece of paper while you’re shopping there, not only for future reference but to aid you in memorizing where things are.
Why is this important? The next two steps should make it clear.
Watch the store flyer every week.
Most discount grocers go even further than their low everyday prices and put many items on sale each week, which they share with shoppers via their store flyer. They also share these flyers via their website.
Whenever you’re thinking about grocery shopping, stop first and visit the website of your preferred store and download their flyer. Use those on-sale items as the basis for your meal planning. Speaking of which…
Make a meal plan and grocery list before you go, and organize the grocery list to match the store’s layout.
This kind of ties the last two pieces together into one convenient strategy. You’ve got your flyer, so pick out some interesting ingredients from that sale flyer and use it as the basis for your meals for the week. Simply list what meal you’re going to have each day and make sure each one relies on a sale-price ingredient or something you already have on hand.
From that meal plan, build your grocery list by simply writing down the ingredients you need to pull off those meals. That’s really all you need to buy, after all.
Since you know the store layout, organize your list based on the layout of the store. Put all of your “bread aisle” items together. Put all of your “refrigerated” items together. Put all of your “freezer” items together. Put those sections on your list in an order so that you’ll just walk right from section to section as you go through the store. This makes a grocery store visit even faster since you’re not backtracking, and that means even fewer impulse items in your cart.
Stock up big on sale-priced nonperishables.
If your grocery store flyer includes a great sale price on a nonperishable item that you know you’ll use in future meals – like pasta, for example – don’t be afraid to hit that sale hard.
We’ll usually buy as many as 10 boxes of pasta (since we eat pasta once a week) when it’s on sale at the store. We’ll buy many, many cans of diced tomatoes if they’re on sale. We fill the cupboard with things like these because we know we’ll use them in the next month or two.
We don’t use this strategy for perishable items. If an item has any risk of going bad, we don’t buy it in bulk. We buy merely the amount we think we’re going to use.
- Related: 15 Items Always Worth Buying in Bulk
Listen to uptempo music while you shop.
Grocery stores intentionally play music with a slow beat in order to encourage shoppers to walk more slowly in the store, which gives them more time to look at the goods on the shelf and then make impulse buys. Uptempo music in your ears overrides this, meaning you’ll move much more quickly from item to item.
In addition, the faster music that you choose will gently distract you away from the items on the shelves when you’re shopping so that impulse buys are much less likely to grab you. It also helps you to avoid hearing the audio advertisements that stores often play when you’re shopping – no more getting distracted by a “big sale on potato chips!”
Figure out the price per unit when buying a specific nonperishable item.
If an item isn’t going to go bad in your cupboard, you should almost always be buying the version that’s cheapest per unit – per ounce or per individual item.
Many stores will list the cost-per-unit right on the price label on the shelf, but if you’re not sure, the easiest way to figure it out yourself is to simply figure out a numerical count of how much “stuff” you’re getting – the weight is a good number – and then open up the calculator app on your phone. Enter the price of the item you’re looking at, then divide that by the amount of “stuff” you’re getting. That’s the price per unit for that item. Do the same calculation for other ones you want to compare and then go for the one with the lowest price per unit.
If an item is in multiple locations, compare the prices.
Even the best discount grocery stores will offer similar items in different places in the store with different prices. Take advantage of this.
My favorite example of this is the difference in prices between cheese and deli meat at the deli counter versus in the refrigerator section. You’ll often find the exact same brand of cheese in the refrigerator section – or at least some very similar alternatives – and the price will vary substantially. Often, there will be sales at the deli counter that don’t appear in the refrigerator section and vice versa. Thus, if you have “sliced cheese” or “deli meat” on your list, check both areas.
If you use these strategies, you’ll milk the maximum value for your dollar from your grocery store visit. Doing so lowers your food bill for the month, which means you have money left over for other elements in your life – paying down debt, building an emergency fund, saving for the future, or whatever else your dreams and plans may hold.
- The Emergency Food Fund: Why Every Family Should Keep Three Easy Meals on Hand
- 20 Strategies for Radically Cutting Your Food Expenses
- Four Best Credit Cards to Take to the Grocery Store