Five Minute Finances #3: Make A Grocery List

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)

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.