Updated on 07.31.14

Five Minute Finances #3: Make A Grocery List

Trent Hamm

Five Minute FinancesFive Minute Finances is a series of tips on how you can save significant money or reorganize your financial life in just five minutes. These tips appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on The Simple Dollar.

Ever had to face down a $150 grocery bill? I have, and the reason was usually that I entered the grocery store without any sort of plan, wandered down every aisle trying to decide what we were going to have for supper, and ended up just buying tons of unnecessary stuff – including even some things I already had at home.

You can avoid that pain by starting a grocery list, sticking it on the refrigerator, and adding items to it as time goes on. Here’s what you do.

1. Get a magnetic note pad or make one yourself. You can get a cheap magnetic pad from Amazon, or make your own by gluing a freebie refrigerator magnet (or two or three of them) to the back of a normal pad of paper.

2. Attach a pen to the pad. Just take a pen with a cap, tie a piece of kite string around it, tape that string in place, then tape the string to the back of the pad. Done.

3. Put it on the fridge. Now, slap that pad up on the refrigerator door so you have a place to conveniently make a list.

4. Whenever you notice something you need, write it down. I often notice things we’re getting low on throughout the week, so whenever I see something that we actually need, I jot it on the top sheet of the pad.

5. Before you go to the store, think of a few meals you would like to make, see which ingredients you have, and write down the ones you don’t. This usually means planning your meals ahead a bit. My wife and I usually just identify three to four meals for the coming week and check to make sure we have all the stuff for them. Whatever we don’t have goes on the list.

6. Take the list to the store with you and stick to it as best you can. Once you’re in the store, you’ve already got a list of everything you need, so just stick with it. Don’t buy anything that’s not on the list – don’t even look at it.

This seems trivially simple, but very few people actually take a few minutes to do this and it saves a lot of money. How? By focusing on your list rather than the stuff on the shelves, you’re much less susceptible to the clever packaging and advertising of the products on the shelves – and thus you wind up with fewer unnecessary items in your cart.

Time spent: A minute here, a minute there
Money saved: $20 per store visit (that’s about what I save with weekly shopping trips, based on “before list” and “after list” comparisons)

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  1. Penny says:

    Although I wouldn’t suggest spending money on these, I received them for Christmas from a friend who knows how anal retentive I am, and they’re very handy.

    All Out Of Pad and What To Eat Pad. They use magnets to hang on your fridge, and I’ve used them constantly for the last 2 months. When I get close to running out, I plan to just make photocopies and keep using them.

    (I hope HTML works here.)

  2. Jim Lippard says:

    Is that $150 grocery bill based on a weekly or biweekly trip, and for how many people?

  3. Kate says:

    I see where you’re coming from with this advice, and I understand that it is very appropriate for those struggling with impulse control and an inability to curb their spending.


    I do think there’s a value to perusing the aisles so long as one has some discipline. I keep a price comparison book for all the items I regularly purchase at grocery stores – both food and toiletries. This book includes the prices for those items at all the stores I shop at regularly. That means I can check the best prices available to me on whatever I buy with just a quick glance. So as I cruise through the aisles, I look for sales on any of my pantry items, and check them against my price comparison book. If the sale price is actually a bargain (and not a marketing gimmick), I stock up on a three- to six-month supply. It helps of course to have a sense of what I’ve already got on hand, and how quickly my household will go through stuff.

    Granted, this only works for those who don’t have impulse control issues. And you do have to follow through by using all the stuff you stocked up on. Otherwise it’s just money down the drain.

  4. Clever Dude says:

    Great list. It’s so simple, but it’s still a “duh, why didn’t I think of that?”

    Unfortunately, though, my wife loves trips to the grocery store. She’s a dietitian and wants to do research every time we go. However, she’s good about getting things on sale, but together, we’re not very good about meal planning.

    It takes time, but even more, it takes effort.

  5. kendrick says:

    Being able to conveniently make a list is a huge help. My wife and I have recently found out that having a well-organized kitchen helps just as much.

    Because of a couple of moves (moved across town, then moved in together when we got married), our cabinets were in complete disarray for a while. It became much easier to buy a jar of spice rather than hunt through foreign territory (a brand-new kitchen) looking for it.

    Of course, when we took a couple of hours last month to create order from the chaos in our cabinets, we discovered we had 2 bottles of vegetable oil, 3 boxes of corn starch, and 2 cans of baking powder.

    Hopefully now that our kitchen is easier to look through we won’t waste any more money buying stuff we already have.

  6. sfgal says:

    i dont know how you do it with three notebooks. i use a small one and it’s a mess because i write everything without dividing the pages.

    i have a spiral notebook, 3 subject i’m going to use instead of little notepads. thanks for the tips!

  7. Serena says:

    Meal planning is the key for me. A couple of months ago I made a Google Calendar called “What’s for Dinner?” for me and my husband (we both use google calendar for home/work already) – it’s been great for planning our meals, and therefore making a list for the weekly grocery shop. It also helps by giving us ideas – we can look back a month or two and see what we made that we want to make again. I also put recipes on random future dates that I want to try soon – then I can move them to a specific date when I know we have time to make that particular dish. Finally we also use the calendar to reference the recipe location (we’re big fans of Cook’s Illustrate/Cook’s Country) so that we don’t have to rifle through a stack of magazines to find the recipe.

    This has also helped in terms of lunch planning – most days we take leftovers for lunch.

    I often deviate from my grocery list based on sales, or something giving me an idea or craving, especially if something like chicken is on sale and I know I can freeze it, or chicken broth or canned beans. But I’ve been trying to incorporate those sales/urges into next week’s meal planning so that I don’t wind up with overcrowded shelves/freezer. We have a small kitchen, so that can be a real problem.

  8. Debbie says:

    Even if you don’t plan your meals (and don’t forget to check the sales fliers before planning), this system is still good once you learn to remember to add things to the list as soon as you realize you’re about to run out. Then you don’t have to make an extra trip when you run out of something.

    I like to use envelopes instead of a note pad for my grocery list. A magnet holds the envelope onto the fridge. Then I can store coupons in the envelope. You could also store a pencil inside the envelope, but I have an old notepad holder magneted to the fridge, and I leave my pencil in that.

    I generally use envelopes from junk mail, although a lot of these are no good because they have writing all over both sides.

  9. Rosie says:

    I’ve discovered that going to the grocery store less often results in overall savings because I buy more, in total, on several small trips than during one big trip. How did I cut down on trips? By freezing milk! I was making weekly trips to pick up half gallons of milk at either the regular grocery store or convenience store (too expensive!). At the grocery or warehouse club, milk is much less expensive by the full gallon, but sometimes it would go bad. And, I’d drink more heavily to make sure it didn’t. I bought a short Rubbermaid liquid container (1.75 qts) with a tight spout lid, and now immediately freeze that much of the gallon when I get it home. It takes about a day in the refrig to unfreeze (be sure to shake/stir before pouring), but I don’t drink as much milk (saving calories!) and don’t go to the grocery store as often. Double bonus! (Note: This works perfectly with skim. I don’t know about freezing whole or 2%.)

    Another trick that helps at the grocery store is keeping a mental running estimate of how much I’ve spent as I go through the store. It really cuts down on the impulse buys and splurges.

  10. Schwamie says:

    While we keep the pad for the items that we run out of and “need”, we also will always visit the fish/meat/and closeout areas for any real bargains. While it was not our original intent to get these things, we make sure that we eat them as part of our meals (or as our meals) which thereby makes our overall cost of a meal well below what we would have otherwise have spent on setting up a “menu”.

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