Updated on 11.02.06

Zen and the Art of the Grocery List

Trent Hamm

Supermarkets are designed to mess with your mind. I believe firmly that they are designed by a room full of middle management folks, sitting in an office somewhere with their coffee and suits, chuckling over the tricks they’re pulling on the populace. Stores are often organized so that the most commonly purchased items are on the far side of the store from the entrance, so that you’ll have to walk past lots of frivolous items to find the things you’re looking for. As “good” consumers, we often find ourselves buying several things we don’t need as we walk past them.

The trick to visiting a supermarket and avoiding these impulse buys is to avoid them as best you can, and the best tool for this is to make a shopping list before you go and stick to that list. With a list of items you need and a desire to only get items on your list, it becomes much easier to cut down on those impulse buys.

For me, the worst impulse buy was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It’s a delicious, insidious little snack at a convenient price point that I would always pass by on my way to get milk or something else that I actually needed. Unsurprisingly, before I went with a list in hand and a goal in mind, a pint or two would always find their way into my cart. Now, if I get a strong desire for Ben & Jerry’s, I add a pint to the list, but most of the time I don’t splurge on it. Not only has it cut some pounds from my belly, it’s also saved me several dollars per store visit.

If you want to invest a little time, I’d recommend making a document that allows you to make sub-lists in general categories based on your store’s layout. For me, that means a “dairy” section, a “frozen foods” section, a “meat” section, and so forth. I use a Word template and print a new one off to hang on the refrigerator each week. This makes it even easier to stick to a list, because you do less searching for each item and thus are exposed less to frivolous items.

Here are five quick ways to build an efficient grocery list that will save you some serious money at the grocery store.

1. Cut your visits down to once or twice a week. I usually do one main visit per week (on Saturdays) and one smaller visit (usually on my way home from work on Tuesdays). This reduces the opportunities to buy frivolous things.

2. Start off each new list with the things you get every visit. For me, that means skim milk, orange juice, and yogurt – I don’t visit the store without picking up these three things.

3. Add things to your list as you discover you’re getting low on them. A good way to do this is by keeping a pad and a pen actually attached to the refrigerator so that it is central to places where you might find stuff.

4. Before you go, consider what you’ll probably eat at home in the next week. You don’t need to sketch out every meal, but have ideas for several meals before you go and make sure you have the ingredients for all of those, plus any additional foods you might want.

5. Check your coupon envelope. If you use a solid, non-intense coupon strategy, you’ll probably save some money for the shopping trip by hitting the coupon envelope before you go and updating your list to match.

The real key, though, is to stick to your list once you’re in the store. It feels like a real accomplishment the first time you see a smaller bill at the checkout and you look through your sacks and don’t see anything silly.

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  1. MoneyFwd says:

    I do a lot of those things, but you should also add “Eat before you go”. It’s a lot less tempting to buy things when you’re not hungry.

    You could also go during a time when you’re limited by how much time you can spend in the store (like 1 hour before a football game). This will force you to not wander and look at everything.

  2. Rob in Madrid says:

    I can’t get over what a cost saving a list is. I have cut my grocery bill by 40%. It was the weirdest feeling coming out of the store with only a few bags.

    I would also add shop only once a week (or month) and resist the temptation to “pop in” a couple of times. It may mean getting creative towards the end of the week but the less your in the store the less tempted you to pick up a few impulse items.

    Another trick I use is to buy the cheapest of everything and work my way up till I find what I like. I’ve been able to replace 75% of the brand names I used to buy, savings substantial.

    Last know you prices, 50 cents here and there may not seem like much but it added up to a 40% reduction in my shopping budget. That’s money in my pocket

  3. Libby says:

    Hi. These are some good ideas! If you cook a majority of your meals, another tip I would add is “shop around the sides of the store.” The fresh food (like produce, meat, and dairy) is usually around the edges of the store. I shop my way around the outskirts of the store and only venture to the inner aisles for things specifically on my list. I’m much more likely to impulse buy something processed or ready-made that I don’t need (and probably wouldn’t otherwise eat) if I wander down every aisle.

  4. Mary says:

    Hi… good article!

    Waaaay back when (i.e. 20+ yrs ago), I came up with a one page master shopping list as a Word doc. It now has 4 columns of ingredients, listed by department, and has a few blank lines at the end of each “dept list”. This list has morphed along to reflect the addition of 2 children, various pets and changes in our diet along the way.

    I print these lists out on the “draft” setting of my printer on inexpensive paper (and sometimes on the unused side of previously printed paper that’s in my office paper recycle box).

    The printed copies are kept on a clipboard with a highlighter and pen attached to it and kept in our kitchen.

    This list acts as a memory prompt as I plan what to get. “Toilet paper”… highlight that thing!! We never run out of TP, laundry or dishwasher soap, etc. And, with 2 teenage sons, when I hear “Mom, we’re almost out of peanut butter”, my response is “Have you highlighted the list?” Presto! Some of the shopping responsibility gets shifted to 2 people who will be going out into the world on their own soon AND we get a shopping list reflects what we need.

    I also sit down with it and the grocer’s weekly ads and highlight anything that’s truly something we can use and is a good deal. (We have a full size freezer, so that helps too).

    Once in the grocery market, I get only the items highlighted within each department. Then leave that dept! Go to the next one and do the same thing. I still pick up additional items but not often (e.g. the pears, or whatever, look extra good this week and they’re well-priced). I do not enter the center aisle section unless there’s a specific item I need there. Cuts down on temptations!

    This list has saved time and trips to the store, helps with approximating a menu for the week, helps me hit the sales well (I write the sale price or if I have a coupon next to the item. Just “C” in pen works!) If I’ve really focused, the coupons are stapled around the edge of the list BEHIND their specific dept…. gee, do I have any coupons in this dept? yes__ no__ Keep moving!

    I cross off each item as I get it and circle any item that I don’t find or decide to get elsewhere. There’s also a “mini-list” of things I buy at our health food store and international food market.

    A fully crossed off and/or circled list means it’s time to check-out.

    People in checkout lines often remark, “wow… I need to do that!” when they see the list in the cart. Since most people eat their favorite foods over and over, you can come up with your own list and refine it over time. It’s worked for us!

  5. Yannis says:

    There should be one exception to the list rule: a good discount or promotion in a product you buy regularly.
    If you find your brand of toothpaste at 25% off or something like that, you should not say “it is not on my list this week” and buy it with normal price two weeks later.
    The exception applies only in products you would buy anyway some time in the near future.

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