One of the most powerful strategies out there for saving money on your food bill (once you’ve cracked the real secret, which is that making your own meals and eating at home is a tremendous money saver) is to do most of your grocery shopping at a discount grocer. If you shop for groceries by default at a store where you know that the prices are consistently low, it’s easy to save money.
Let’s first talk about what a discount grocer is. A discount grocer is a grocery store that focuses primarily on keeping prices low on the shelves. Compared to other stores, they often achieve this by doing things like building in a less expensive location, having fewer employees in the store, having slightly narrower store aisles, having fewer specialty departments, spending much less on advertising, and having a focus on store brands on the shelves.
Because of this focus – less-trafficked areas, less advertising – many people overlook the discount grocers in their area and shop at the more well-known and expensive grocers that occupy the more prominent locations and advertise in print, radio, and television. This is why people, for example, wind up shopping at Publix and miss out on the handful of discount grocers within a few miles of the Publix.
I used to do this very thing. If you go back and look at my earliest articles on The Simple Dollar, I shopped at Hy-Vee almost exclusively – the largest grocery store chain in my area. Over the years, however, I’ve become wiser with my grocery shopping options. Today, I mostly shop at Fareway (the discount grocer that’s closest to my house) and, occasionally, at Aldi (a very popular discount grocer) and Sam’s Club (a warehouse club). I generally only go elsewhere when seeking items I can’t find at Fareway – usually Hy-Vee or a food co-op.
How much do we save? It’s hard to say, but most months, our family’s food spending for a family of five comes in below what the USDA suggests a thrifty family of four should be spending on food. If I still shopped mostly at Hy-Vee, that would most decidedly not be the case – I know, because sometimes I have to make late-night runs to Hy-Vee, and I get sticker shock these days when I go there.
How did I make this transition? How much has it saved me? How do I maximize that savings? That’s what I’m going to share today!
Finding Your Local Discount Grocer
The first and biggest step is to simply figure out which grocery store in your area is the best discount grocer. In other words, which grocery store within a reasonable radius of your house offers the best overall prices on the goods you buy most frequently?
If you figure out what store that is and then make a concerted effort to make that your primary grocery store, you’re going to end saving a dime here or a quarter there or a dollar there on most of the food items you buy, and that’s going to add up to a ton of savings over time.
Here’s how to start.
Step 1: Make up a “typical grocery list.” Making a grocery list might seem like a strange place to start with this process, but it’s the key to figuring out which grocery store is really the best value in your area.
Simply put, what you want is a list of the 20 to 30 items you buy most frequently at the grocery store, items that pop up on your grocery list again and again. Bread. Eggs. Milk. Cereal. Rice. Hot dogs. Potatoes. Trash bags. Chicken breasts. Spinach. Dry beans. Canned tomatoes. Toilet paper. Ground beef. Whatever it is that you buy regularly, put it on your list.
Don’t just do this off the top of your head, though. When I was first doing this, what I found that worked best was to simply save my receipts and grocery lists for a couple of months and then use that material to figure out what items were most common amongst them. What items show up multiple times on those receipts and lists?
You don’t want to aim for everything that you buy or else this whole process would take a long time. Rather, you want a list that contains things you buy multiple times in a month. Occasional buys are much less important for this list.
Once you have that “typical grocery list,” you’re ready to start looking at stores.
Step 2: Find a big list of all grocery stores in your area, then filter that list a bit. The first step here is easy: just go to Google and search for “grocery stores within 20 miles of me.” That will give you a giant list of grocery stores within a reasonable radius of your house. Naturally, you can adjust the mileage number to what’s convenient for you – 20 miles is a good number for my living situation.
You’re likely going to come up with a list of 50 or so grocers (or maybe even more). There’s a good chance you haven’t even heard of a lot of them. Many of them will be specialty food stores that Google has decided to lump in with this search. Others will be your typical grocery stores that you’re familiar with.
What you’ll want to do is make a list of every grocery store that you think might even potentially be in the running for the best discount grocer in your area. The only stores you likely want to throw out here are premium grocers like Whole Foods and specialty shops where you won’t be doing your full grocery shopping anyway. Make a big list of everything else and then start researching those stores a little.
One really effective way of doing this is to type in the name of each grocery store in Google followed by the word “discount.” If you find a fair number of results, particularly if their website shows up quickly in the search results, this is a store you’re going to want to check out.
Mostly, you’re looking to exclude stores that are obviously not discount stores. You don’t want to include stores like Whole Foods, Acme, The Fresh Market, Fresh Thyme, and so on that are generally pretty expensive.
Some stores you are definitely going to want to include in your comparison shopping are Aldi, Costco, Fareway, Sam’s Club, Market Basket, Trader Joe’s, WinCo, and Woodman’s, as well as independent grocers in your area.
Ideally, you’re going to wind up with a list of five to 10 grocery stores to check out.
Step 3: Shop with your “typical grocery list” at each store in the area and keep track of the receipts. Over the next few months, go to each of the stores you found with your “typical grocery list” and try to buy everything on it (or at least check the price) along with your other needed groceries for the week.
If you have something on your “typical” list that you don’t intend to buy, find it in the store anyway and write down the regular price of that item.
You’ll likely find that different stores have different brands available. My general recommendation is to either buy the brand you normally use or compare store brands. Since I buy a lot of store-brand products, that’s usually what I use to compare the prices in different stores whenever possible.
Just make that into your normal shopping trip for the week, and then save the receipt and grocery list from that trip for future reference.
Step 4: When you’re done evaluating stores, compare the receipts and see which store comes out on top – that’s your discount grocer going forward. It’s likely that as you shop at different stores during step three, you’re going to have a strong sense as to which stores are inexpensive and which ones are not. My experience was that I came up with a small handful of stores that were clearly ahead of the pack – Fareway, Aldi, Costco, Sam’s Club, and a little independent grocer that’s no longer in business were the big winners for me when I did this.
With that data, figure out what your new primary store is going to be. I suggest choosing the most convenient one out of the top five or so stores, as it’s not worth driving a long distance out of your way just to save a few cents a week when there’s a store nearly as cheap that’s really convenient and close for you.
It’s through this very process that I wound up becoming a pretty faithful customer of Fareway, as they have really good prices and are really convenient for me. My only complaint is that their selection is a little on the limited side – they’re great for staples and basic meals, but I sometimes have to go elsewhere for unusual ingredients or items. Fareway gets the vast majority of my grocery store dollars.
Recently, I tried to estimate how much money I’ve saved by going through this process and migrating to Fareway as my primary grocery store instead of Hy-Vee. I recently had to shop at Hy-Vee in a late-night pinch due to travel issues and bought a bunch of staples there to save time, so I saved the receipt and compared it to a recent Fareway receipt. My rough estimation is that I save $40 a week by shopping at Fareway instead of Hy-Vee for most groceries, which adds up to around $2,000 a year.
Now, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with Hy-Vee. They offer a lot of items unavailable at Fareway and it’s usually easier to find an employee in Hy-Vee. Their produce section, something of particular interest to me, is far larger than Fareway’s produce section. However, when I’m buying a typical week’s worth of groceries for my family, Fareway has 95% of what I need and can cover everything most weeks, and I’m usually saving a fair amount of money by going there.
Maximizing Your Local Discount Grocer
If you’re already disrupting your regular grocery store shopping routine by switching to a new store, it’s also good time to disrupt your other grocery shopping habits and adopt some new strategies that will save you additional money when you’re shopping at the store.
Here are four new shopping strategies to try on at your new preferred grocery store.
Step 1: If available, download their weekly flyer and use it as the basis for your meals for the week. Most grocery stores make a weekly flyer available on their website. If your new discount grocer does so, visit their website before you go to the grocery store and see what they have on sale for the week.
Then, spend some time figuring out what meals you’ll be preparing for the next several days, and try to figure out how to use some of those on-sale items in those meals.
This is a really great way to have some variety in your diet while still keeping your food costs low. Just center your meal planning around whatever happens to be on sale at the grocery store when you visit. You can plan that in advance with their flyer.
Step 2: Shop with a grocery list. If you’ve got a meal plan in place before you go, which is the core idea of the previous step, take it an additional step and make a grocery list before you head out the door. List all of the things you need to pull off that full meal plan.
Doing this at home is a smart idea because it gives you the chance to go through the cupboards and the pantry and figure out what you actually need and what you already have on hand.
The goal here is to avoid redundant purchases. Redundant purchases are bad – they end up filling your pantry with an overabundance of staples. Yes, you’re using those staples, but if you have a ton of that stuff, there’s a good chance that some of it will go bad or go to waste. Buying in bulk is great, but if you have too much stuff, it can backfire on you.
Another advantage of a grocery list is that it gives you something to focus on. The trip to the store becomes a series of specific tasks – “find two gallons of milk,” then “find a loaf of bread,” then “find three zucchini” – rather than just wandering the aisles looking for things. The more you wander, the more likely you are to be distracted and influenced by spontaneous buys, which really hurt your food savings even at a discount grocer.
Step 3: Try the store brands. If you’re already migrating to a new store, it’s a perfect time to try out the store brands that are available in this new store. Quite often, store brands are just repackaging of the same exact name brand item, but with a lower price and without the marketing on the outer label. In other words, you pay less for perfectly good stuff.
If you’re already moving to a discount grocer, you’re knocking nickels and quarters and dollars off of the price off of a lot of your items already. If you combine that with a conscious switch to store brands, you’re going to knock even more nickels and quarters and dollars off of your grocery bill.
I personally buy as many store brands as possible on all types of goods. Even some items that I used to avoid store brands on, such as garbage bags, have seen me convert to the store brand version in recent years. They work well and they save money – what’s not to love?
Step 4: Embrace leftovers. One final strategy that I think is absolutely key in cutting back on one’s food spending is to simply embrace leftovers. Leftovers are not a bad thing. They’re simply a way to recoup even more of your food spending, and they become pretty convenient when you have a leftover system in place.
My preferred leftover strategy is to have leftovers as part of or for an entire family meal at least twice a week, and also to pack individual meals out of much of the leftovers after dinner. My goal is to simply avoid throwing any food away if at all possible. Some things, like a salad gone questionable, hit the trash, but if the food is still good, I want to eat it rather than throw it away. Edible food thrown in the trash is money thrown into the trash.
A few good strategies that we use:
- Eat leftovers the next day for lunch. The easy way to do this is to buy some small containers at the grocery store and pack an individual meal out of what’s leftover from supper. You don’t have to eat it the next day if you don’t want, but you should eat it within 2-3 days.
- Put all other leftovers in the fridge in larger containers and date it with a piece of masking tape and a marker. It takes like 15 seconds to do this.
- Every third or fourth day, pull out all containers and use the contents for supper. Let everyone assemble plates out of what they want from the leftovers, adding things to be reheated to their plate, reheating the plate, then adding any cold items. Yes, it might be a strange melange of foods, but it’s basically a free buffet.
One of the best ways to stretch your food budget is to simply try to avoid throwing anything away.
Making these kinds of systematic changes to how and where you buy food and how you consume it can drastically cut the amount of money you spend on food without significantly changing what it is you actually eat.
Take a typical hamburger, made out of ground beef, a bun, a slice of cheese, and some condiments. If you switch stores and the ground beef drops from $4.99 a pound to $3.99 a pound, you’re saving a quarter on your quarter-pound burger. If the price of a dozen slices of cheese goes from $3.99 to $2.99, you’re saving eight cents on that cheese slice. If your buns drop from $2.99 a bag to $2.19, you’re saving a dime on the bun. Add in a few cents saved on the condiments and that burger is suddenly $0.50 cheaper than before with no actual change to what you’re eating. If you do that with everything you eat at home, those savings are going to add up fast.
The “big wins” you can pull off in this area are to simply eat more at home, switch to a lower cost grocery store, and use a little more planning in your grocery shopping.
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