Six Simple Changes to Your Grocery Routine That Can Save You a Lot of Money

As I’ve alluded to a few times recently, a Fareway just opened in the small town in which my family lives (for those unfamiliar, Fareway is a discount grocer). The new store is close enough that I can easily walk or bicycle there, as the round trip is just a little over a mile. Prior to that store opening, we had to drive about 15 minutes to the nearest non-convenience store for groceries.

Unsurprisingly, this change has caused us to re-evaluate our grocery shopping routines, and in doing so, we quickly realized that we’ve started using the same tactics we used several years ago when we started to become more conscientious about our spending.

To put it simply, we’re hacking our whole grocery shopping routine.

Here are six strategies we’re using to extract every dime of value from this new grocery store.

1. Make a price comparison of your staples.

When we first became aware of the rather large difference in prices between various grocers, we did a detailed price comparison of several stores using a “price book” method. Basically, we made a long list of the staples we buy most frequently – eggs, spinach, tortillas, and so on – and got the prices for those items from several different groceries in the area, then added them up. The store with the lowest prices overall became our go-to grocery store (it was Aldi, but Aldi didn’t carry everything on the list, so we supplemented with Hy-Vee for some esoteric items and Sam’s Club for some bulk items).

When a new store appears near you, it’s worth doing the same thing again to make sure that your old conclusions still hold. That means that, in the next few days, we’re going to price out our list of staples at this new store. If it even approaches the cost savings of the other stores, it’s likely to become our primary grocery store; if not, then it’ll simply be a good tool for convenience and for occasional on-sale fresh food purchases.

2. Reorganize your pantry and your freezer.

With a large pantry and a full freezer, it’s easy to lose track of items that may have fallen to the back behind more frequently used items. The problem is that once they’re out of sight, they’re often completely out of mind and thus they can sit there for a long time, often growing stale.

The best strategy for combating this is to regularly reorganize your pantry and freezer. Pull out everything, get rid of stale or unwanted items, then consciously put things back in a way that will encourage you to quickly use the items that had fallen out of sight and out of mind.

Whenever we do this, we usually make up a meal plan for the next several days based entirely upon those “hidden” items. This not only ensures that these items are actually used, but it also clears out our pantry and freezer and makes room for other items.

3. Switch up your grocery responsibilities.

Right now, our typical grocery shopping routine involves Sarah shopping for groceries after work most weeks, as she works in the Des Moines area. On occasion, particularly if I have errands to run, I’ll do the grocery shopping, but she does it more often than I do.

This new store is pushing us into a shift of those responsibilities. In the future, our plan is to do one very large grocery shopping trip once every few weeks (I’ll discuss this below) on the weekend, either as a family or with one of us doing it alone and, in the interim, I’ll be doing the vast majority of the shopping at the local store.

By simply switching up the responsibilities, we’re encouraging ourselves to take a really fresh look at the food we buy and how necessary the choices are. Sarah makes good choices and I make good choices, but we each have our weak points, too. For example, Sarah tends to follow a grocery list a little less tightly than I do, while I tend to overbuy on bulk items which can sometimes be wasteful.

By simply switching the responsibilities around a little, we’re able to figure out a system that uses our respective strengths as well as possible. This switch enables Sarah to curb some of my bulk-buying impulses, but enables me to stick tightly to lists during quick trips to the new store.

4. Change your grocery shopping cycle.

In the past, we’ve basically followed a weekly grocery shopping cycle, with Sarah typically shopping in Des Moines, as mentioned above. Recently, thanks both to the new Fareway and to our exceptionally productive garden and CSA program, we’ve been changing that cycle.

Rather than shopping once a week for groceries, we’re stretching our “big” grocery store visits to once every two or three weeks. In between those visits, we’re only replenishing fresh items, which for now mostly come from our garden and from our weekly CSA basket.

In the winter months, that type of fresh item replenishment will mostly come from the new local grocery store, where I head there during a weekday with a short list of entirely fresh items (that are usually just the items on sale) and take them home on my bicycle as part of my daily exercise. At the same time, we’ll save most of our non-perishable food and household item purchasing for those larger trips to Des Moines, which will come less frequently.

Another advantage of switching to this method is that it allows us to more carefully plan those big trips, as they’ll be bigger than ever before. It might make sense to make two or three stops on those larger trips to save money, and there might be items that begin to make even more sense as bulk purchases.

How does this work? As before, we’re keeping a large grocery list on a whiteboard in our house, but instead of fulfilling all of it once a week, we’re just picking up the fresh items perhaps twice a week and saving the non-perishables for a much less frequent trip. Since those “fresh item” trips to the local store keeps me just on the periphery, I’m much less likely to impulse buy than I would if I were doing a full store trip, and then the larger shopping excursions happen much less frequently and involve more bulk buys, which means that our overall incidence of impulse food buying is going to go way down and our savings from bulk purchasing is going to go way up.

5. Adopt a standard ‘staples’ checklist.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, there are certain staples that we buy very consistently at the store that we always try to have on hand – things like eggs and milk and so on. Beyond that, there are certain nonperishable items that we buy in bulk that we also try to have on hand – things like a few varieties of dried beans, dried rice, certain dried herbs, and so on. Beyond that, there are household supplies that we consistently use, like toilet paper and light bulbs and garbage bags.

It is really easy to run out of these things if we’re not careful, so we made up an extensive list of the items we use most frequently and laminated it. Now, it hangs in our home next to a dry erase marker. Whenever we notice that something is running low, we use that dry erase marker and check off that item on the list. Whenever we assemble a grocery list, we simply go to that checklist and copy over whatever items are checked off, then erase all of the checkmarks.

This system works really, really well if everyone uses it consistently. Considering it’s so easy to just grab that marker and check off the item if it’s running low, the real trick is simply remembering to do it, and that’s something that comes easily with repetition and time.

6. Use a basket instead of a cart.

This is such a smart little strategy that keeps you from buying so many impulsive things. The idea is so simple: unless your list is huge, pick up a tote basket instead of a shopping cart when you enter the store. The small dimensions of that tote basket naturally limit what you can put in there, so even if you don’t accurately follow your grocery list, there’s only so much extra you can buy. This is especially true of bulkier things, like twelve packs of soda.

I use this approach even with longer lists sometimes, because I know that with a longer list, every cubic inch counts in that basket. This keeps me from putting stupid stuff in there that I don’t really need, which keeps the grocery bill low and actually encourages healthier eating at home.

I’d estimate that in the last year, I’ve used a tote basket instead of a shopping cart on 90% of my visits to grocery stores, and that’s saved me untold amounts of cash on impulse buys.

Final Thoughts

There are so many little hacks and tweaks you can do to your daily routines that will save you time and money. The trick is to think about those normal daily routines and ask yourself if you can do them better. Can you shop at the grocery store more efficiently? Can you commute more efficiently? Can you prepare meals more efficiently?

If you can find ways to shave off time and money without losing the quality that you need from the elements of your life, you’re going to wind up with a great life that also has more free time and more money in your checking account. That’s a giant win.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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