How I Shop: Specific Tricks for Your Next Trip to the Grocery Store

Jenny writes in:

How do you shop for groceries? I mean, I tried following your general plan of making a grocery list first but I’m still spending $300 a week on groceries for me and my husband and two kids. You’ve said you can get by on $400 a month for 5 people. How? What do you do at the store that’s so different?

I like questions like these. They come in every once in a while from people who aren’t afraid of frugality but just don’t know how to approach situations from a frugal mindset.

Jenny’s question came in a month ago and since then I’ve been actually taking careful notes on as many details as I could about my grocery store trips. In particular, I’ve been trying to focus on the little details of my practice.

So, let’s go deep into my grocery shopping routine.

Before I Go to the Store

First of all, I intentionally shop for groceries when I’m alone. I want to spend the absolute minimum amount of time as I can in the store and going with my wife or my kids just adds time in the store. The longer I’m in the store, the more likely I am to fall for impulse buys. The more people I’m with, the more likely I am to use their input to make unplanned and unnecessary purchases. When I hit that grocery store, I want to get in and out as fast as I can while still making rational decisions.

Second, I go grocery shopping early in the day, if at all possible. I often go grocery shopping before anyone else in the family is awake, or right after the kids go to school. The reason for this is decision fatigue. In a given day, you have the mental willpower to make a certain number of really good decisions; after that, your mind starts getting tired and sluggish and you make worse and worse decisions. It’s like any muscle – if you work it too much, you get tired. So, I try to get to the grocery store nice and early, while my “decision making muscle” is still fresh from a night of sleep and not worn out after a day of parenting and/or work. I do everything I can to avoid shopping any later than the early afternoon; my grocery shopping after work is disastrous.

Third, I shop by default at a local discount grocer. Fareway gets almost all of my grocery business. It’s a small chain existing mostly in Iowa with a few stores in surrounding states. Their prices on almost everything are very, very solid, and given their relative closeness to my home (the only discount grocer within at least 10 miles), they’re my default choice. I strongly recommend figuring out which discount grocery store is most convenient to you and use that as your primary store. You can figure that out by visiting several stores that are convenient to you and tracking prices on the 20-25 staples you buy the most often. Stick with the store that has the lowest average price. Aldi is the only store I’ve found that can slip a little under Fareway in price around here, but there isn’t a super-convenient Aldi for me, so Fareway is my choice of stores. This keeps my prices low by default.

Finally, I don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach. I often hit the grocery store right after eating a meal – usually breakfast, as I often go in the morning. If I’m hungry in the grocery store, my decisions are going to swing toward picking up food that looks tasty and I’m going to think less about what we need and what the prices are. If I’m full, I’m much much more likely to stick with the grocery list.

Speaking of that grocery list…

I make a grocery list at home before I go. These days, I usually do it at home the night before my grocery store trip. To clarify, I go to the grocery store roughly once every seven to ten days, though I will make a very brief trip solely for a few fresh items if the gap is a long one.

The process of making a grocery list takes several steps. I usually start by laying out the next week on a whiteboard that hangs on a wall next to our kitchen. On that whiteboard, I write down our family’s schedule for the upcoming week and then identify what we’re having for meals. On weekdays, I account for family breakfast and dinner and lunch for the adults, with Sarah and I usually eating leftovers. On weekends, I account for all three meals.

Once I have a good grip on what the schedule for the next week to ten days looks like, I look up the grocery store flyer for my preferred grocery store I just visit the website and check out the flyer. What I’m looking for are super-cheap sale items that I can build a few meals around. For example, this week in the flyer, I noticed that green beans and potatoes were at very low prices, along with a few different meat items. So, I centered my meal plan around those items, making sure to come up with simple recipes that used them. One example: we’re grilling one night and simply grilling sliced potatoes in aluminum foil with just a pat of butter in there. On another night, a big part of our meal is green beans and cubed potatoes cooked together. We aim for simple things using whatever’s on sale.

Once I have a meal plan for the week, I make a list from that meal plan. Naturally, this means my grocery list is going to have items on it that are on sale at the store, because I made that meal plan by looking at the flyer. I’ll check and make sure that we have some of the other ingredients we need; if we’re low on or out of that item, it goes on the list.

I’ll also check on common household supplies. Usually, I buy these in bulk at warehouse clubs because the price there is even lower than Fareway most of the time, but, again, there isn’t a warehouse club that’s super convenient for where we live. I’ll usually plan to buy a bunch of staples on an irregular trip to Sam’s Club, but if we just need a few rolls of toilet paper or something to get through, I’ll grab them at my local grocer, so they’ll go on my list. I actually keep a running “warehouse club” list going on my phone, to which I add anything that we need to pick up in big bulk and then I use that list when there’s opportunity and need to stop at a club.

Since I know the layout of the store I frequent, I’ll usually organize the list roughly by aisle. I know I’ll go through the produce section first, then down an aisle with things like canned vegetables and beans and rice, and then… you get the idea. I know the rough layout of the store, so I can organize the list to be in the approximate order in which I’ll find things in the store. This serves the purpose of again minimizing my time in the store, which gives me even less time to talk myself into impulse buys.

I don’t bother with coupons unless they’ve been dumped right in front of my face. Sometimes my mom will give me a coupon she found in the paper and clipped for me and it’ll be useful, but most of the time it’s just not worth the time invested to find coupons. Coupons are almost always for items I wouldn’t buy anyway. If they do happen to be for items that I would buy, they’re coupons for the name-brand version of that item when I’d usually buy the store brand, so the coupon savings – if there is any – is minimal. It also takes a fair amount of time to do it. It just doesn’t add up to enough value for me, so I don’t bother.

This entire process takes maybe twenty minutes, and I usually do it the evening before I go to the store. I go to bed with a list having already been prepared for me, so that I can get up with a fresh, clear, non-fatigued mind and do the shopping when I’m making good decisions, as mentioned above.

So, let’s go to the store! I usually take a beverage with me to drink on the way so I’m not hungry or thirsty when I go in the door. This pretty much eliminates the temptation to stop by a coffee kiosk that one will often find at the entrance of the store. If I’m not thirsty and generally feel sated in terms of food, getting a big cup of rich “coffee drink” is pretty unappealing, so I keep the cash in my pocket.

At the Store

When I get to the store, I’m all business, focusing intensely on my list and little else. My goal isn’t to wander and look around, it’s to go through that grocery list as fast as possible while making smart decisions about each item on the list. I have that list in hand and I’m constantly looking at it as I go.

Since my list is organized in an order matching the layout of the store, my goal is to do zero backtracking. I want to be able to go up and down each aisle starting from the entrance and going across the store until I’m at the checkout with no backtracking if at all possible. I don’t want to backtrack unless I absolutely have to, because that adds to the time in the store.

I don’t waste my time looking for “in-store sales” or clearance items or anything like that. Yes, I might see one and take advantage of it, but I’m not looking around at all for sale prices on items I’m not intending to buy. I just don’t care. The value I get from discovering a worthwhile sale on an item that I might actually want is devoured by the impulse buys I’m likely to see if I’m constantly looking around the store at all of the displays and thinking about all of that stuff I don’t need. I ignore all of that and stick to my list.

When I’m making a product selection, I favor the store brand virtually every single time. Unless I know from personal experience that the store brand won’t fulfill my needs, I grab the store brand and move on from there unless I happen to notice a sale on another item. I do sometimes quickly compare the store brand to a few other items, but virtually every time the store brand is notably cheaper, so most of the time I don’t even really compare it at all. I just grab the store brand and keep moving.

If it’s a non-perishable item, I choose the largest store brand version of that item. I’ll usually do a quick mental check to make sure that the big package really is the least expensive per unit. If there’s a sale, that formula changes a bit…

If I spot a sale, I compare the store brand and the sale item in terms of price per unit and go with the cheaper one. Let’s say there’s a store brand 16 ounce box of pasta for $1.99 and there’s also a jumbo 32 ounce box of name brand pasta that’s usually $4.99 but is on sale for $3.49. Ordinarily, the store brand pasta wins, but due to the sale, I’ll stop and figure out the price of each of them per ounce, and I find that the name brand is cheaper. In that case, the name brand goes in my cart! In the event that the store brand is still cheaper, the store brand goes in my cart! It’s that easy.

In other words, when I’m buying nonperishable items or things that can last for a long while, unless a particular brand has shown me that it’s not good, I go with whatever has the lowest price; if a brand has shown me that it’s going to fail me, I just avoid that brand and get whatever’s the least expensive besides that brand. Easy enough, right? I can make that decision in just a few seconds.

I absolutely positively avoid impulse buying. If it’s not on my list, I don’t buy it. But what about spontaneity, Trent? If I’m going to buy a “treat” or a “surprise” or something like that, I’ll have it on my list with vague terminology, like “after school snack” or something like that. In that case, I will actually slow down and look at the options for that specific item. I try to minimize that kind of serendipity on my grocery list, though.

The thing is, though, if I’ve made a meal plan to begin with, I already know what I actually need at the store and buying extra food is kind of wasteful. If I buy extra food, I’m probably disrupting that meal plan. If I buy extra snacks, I’m probably just tossing extra calories into my body that I don’t need – I usually plan for pretty healthy snacks, like fruit or something. Buying impulsive food usually ends up with something going stale or something going to waste or something getting mindlessly eaten at home, and none of those things are a good use of my money or a healthy choice, either. There’s nothing wrong with a treat every once in a while, but if you’re eating a lot of food that you haven’t planned on at all, you’re not only spending a bunch of money, you’re likely heading down an unhealthy path, and if you’re buying food only to throw it away, you’re throwing money in the trash. Basically, impulse food buys at the grocery store lead either to wasted food or excessive eating, neither of which brings value into my life.

Part of the reason I grocery shop in the morning when my decision “muscle” is strong is so that I can constantly stick with that decision against impulse food buys throughout my shopping trip. When I’m suffering from serious decision fatigue, I’m much more likely to forget my decision to not buy impulse foods and be persuaded by hunger or temptation in the moment.

So, I zip through the aisles, focusing on my list and buying lots of store brand items. I get to the checkout. Now what?

Well, if I’m waiting or I’m putting items on the conveyor belt, I review what’s in my cart. I do this instead of standing there idly and looking at all of the impulse buys at the checkout, which keeps me from making impulse buys, but it also helps me to make sure that I actually got everything on my list. It also gives me a chance to give a second thought to any impulse items I did pick up, even though I usually strive to make impulse buys as minimal as possible in the grocery store.

If I find an impulse buy in my cart at the end of that trip, I give it the old “ten second rule.” I think about that item for ten seconds and consider reasons not to buy it. It’s unhealthy (usually). It’s probably going to replace something else in my meal planning and possibly result in something going bad or going to waste, which is just a waste of money. I have a lot of other food to eat. There are a lot of other things I could be doing with that $3 or $5 or whatever – this item has an opportunity cost, in other words. Is it really all that good anyway?

Most of the time, those thoughts usually convince me that I don’t need the item, so I’ll hand it to the cashier and simply tell him or her that I changed my mind about that item.

Sometimes, I’ll find that I missed something on my list, so this is a great time to go back and get it so that I don’t check out and walk out and drive away only to realize I’m missing something that I needed when I’m putting things away at home.

After this, I just pay for the items I bought and head home to unpack those groceries!

Final Thoughts

My grocery store routine is made up of a lot of little tricks that combine to keep me from spending money unnecessarily at the store.

My main enemy at the grocery store is impulse buys; it’s so easy to talk yourself into tossing an item or two into the cart because they look “yummy” at the moment, but those costs add up really fast. I try to avoid them as much as I possibly can, which is why I try to shop on a full stomach early in the day with a well-planned grocery list in hand.

I also try to avoid name brands as much as possible because they’re virtually always more expensive than the store brand version of that item. Usually, they’re functionally identical; you just paid more for the familiar logo on the package. I’m not down with paying good money for a logo on a package.

It’s also worth noting that the backbone of all of this is basic cooking skills. I feel reasonably adept in my home kitchen and can prepare a lot of different meals with minimal fuss. I didn’t magically acquire cooking skills, though; I went through a lot of meals where it seemed hard and it seemed like a ton of work and it seemed like a ton of cleanup. Now? I can have a lot of different meals on the table for my family in twenty minutes or less with everything cleaned up and in the dishwasher. I also have a huge repertoire of slow cooker meals and make-ahead meals that offload the work to other times entirely. To keep your grocery costs low, you have to know how to cook effectively and not be reliant on packaged meals or convenience foods. There’s simply no way around it. However, when you get to that point and have some cooking skills under your belt, it gets a lot easier.

If you combine all of those elements together, you find that it’s pretty easy to escape the grocery store with a week’s worth of groceries for a family of five for less than $100. I do it fairly regularly. While there are some weeks that bubble over $100 – especially when we have a dinner party or are making some creative meals or are making some meals in advance – there are other weeks where we spend $50 or less for a full week of groceries.

It just requires having a plan and sticking to it!

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.