Optimizing Your Grocery List

A few weeks ago, I went to the grocery store in the afternoon to take care of grocery shopping for the week. Sarah had written a list for me (in all fairness to her, it was actually closer to a set of notes for a meal plan rather than for grocery shopping; it wasn’t really a complete and finished list), but I hadn’t looked at it very carefully. However, I did know from what she told me that I would have to do at least some of the grocery shopping at a different grocery store than our usual one because there were a few unusual items on the list for special meals. As a result, I decided to pick up most of the stuff at a different grocery store than our usual one, in order to save some time.

After the shopping was over, though, I left the store in a painful daze. It had actually taken far longer than it ever should have – and the shopping list was the big problem.

First of all, the items weren’t categorized well. There were several fresh fruits and vegetables on the list, but they were often separated by things like flour and spices and eggs and milk – items in completely different parts of the store.

Second, some of the items were simply names of complete recipes that we knew well. In a rush to complete the list (which, as I mentioned above, was closer to notes for a meal plan), Sarah simply jotted down two complete recipes by name that we both know cold. Of course, in the store, that means spending the time to think about the items required for the recipe – and also possibly buying extras of a particular item.

Third, the list annotations were unclear. Sarah had included a few notes that would have made perfect sense to her – but didn’t make any sense at all to me. I made some valiant guesses and, in a few cases, made the right guess, but I spent a lot of time puzzling them out and quite often I made the wrong guess.

Why is this an issue worth writing a post about?

First of all, it cost time. I spent a bunch of extra time in the store because of the items on this list, whether it was simply trying to figure out what they are or rushing from one end of the store to the other to find them.

Second, it cost us money. I bought a couple of unnecessary items along the way due to redundancy and also due to not understanding the list fully.

Third, it convinced me to make a few impulse buys. As I spent so much time wandering back and forth in the store, I was continually exposed to shelf after shelf of items that weren’t on my list and I didn’t need. Thanks to that exposure, I bought at least two unnecesary items.

So, how can I solve this problem? My goal, quite simply, is to save as much time and money as possible compared to this shopping trip. Here’s the plan I put in place.

First, I made a bunch of custom blank meal plan sheets. These are basically sheets that enable us to fill in full meal plans for the week ahead. These can easily be stuck on the fridge with a magnet, enabling us to fill in the blanks as we so wish.

Second, I made a bunch of custom blank grocery lists. Instead of just using a blank sheet of paper, I made a sheet that had a few distinct groups on it – “fresh fruits and vegetables,” “dairy products,” “meat counter,” “bread aisle,” and “other,” to be specific. If an item falls under one of the first four categories, we put it there. Otherwise, it goes in the “other” area.

Third, nothing gets added to the grocery list unless it’s out until we’re ready to go to the store. The only thing we put on the list during the week are items that we’re out of (or very close to depleting). This way, there is no confusion about what’s on the list.

Finally, the meal plan is finished (and the grocery list completed from the meal plan) just before we leave to go shopping. By keeping all complete meal ideas on the meal plan and not on any grocery lists, no one will have to stand in the store and piece through what the ingredients are for “jambalaya.”

What I learned from all of this is simple: doing that prep work ahead of time actually saves time in the store, and it certainly saves money, too. I learned this the hard way from that day with the confusing list.

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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