How to save money when grocery shopping on a budget

How to save money on food

Saving money on groceries is no easy task. Brick-and-mortar grocery stores and food shopping apps are designed to part you from your money with overhyped sales, confusing packaging and flashy displays. In order to save money on groceries, smart shoppers can tweak their shopping strategies, meal prep routines and favorite recipes. Making lists, shopping on a full stomach, taking advantage of sales and comparing unit costs can help savvy shoppers save money on food and groceries. Read on for key strategies for saving money on food when shopping at the grocery store.

Stick to sales items.

Many food items go on sale at regular intervals or during specific seasons. For example, you may find fresh fruits on sale in August or chocolates discounted after Valentine’s Day. Or your store may offer regular discounts on certain nonperishable items. If you shop grocery store sales, you can spend less money on the foods you typically buy. Track sales and stock up when your favorite products are discounted to tide you over until the next sales bonanza. Shopping grocery store sales will help you save money on food and groceries.

Shop in season.

You’ll tend to find that your favorite foods are more affordable — and taste better — when they’re in season. Consult this chart for a look at when common foods are in their prime — and adjust your recipes accordingly. For example, start stocking up on nectarines, summer corn and tomatoes in the late summer, and purchase winter squash and sweet potatoes in the winter. If you’re a fan of shopping at farmers markets or through a Community Supported Agriculture program, you’ll find that evidence about what is in season will be on display from the local farmers and merchants.

Stock up on cheap and filling staples.

Inexpensive ingredients such as beans, oats, frozen vegetables, bananas and brown rice can be some of the best foods to buy when you’re broke, writes U.S. News contributor Geoff Williams. These cheap foods can be worked into pot roasts, pasta dishes, filling snacks and hearty breakfasts for just a few dollars. Better yet, they’re healthier than the processed low-cost foods that are often marketed as budget-friendly by grocery stores and food companies. Eating these minimally processed whole foods can save your budget and improve your health.

Commit to store loyalty programs.

Many grocery stores offer loyalty cards that earn you deals on in-store items. Some popular grocery store loyalty programs include Wegmans Shoppers Club or Harris Teeter’s e-VIC program, but even Target’s RedCard or an Amazon Prime membership can save you money on food and pantry products. Some grocery store credit cards may give you discounts on gas or allow you to save digital coupons on your card. Research the loyalty program offered by your local grocery store, and consider signing up to save money on grocery shopping.

Visit the discount store.

Expand your shopping trip rotation to include discount stores, such as Aldi and Save-A-Lot. Don’t forget that warehouse clubs such as Sam’s Club and Costco can also provide cheap grocery items in bulk. But make sure that you avoid buying perishable food products that will spoil before you can use them. “Unless you’re planning on preserving some of what you buy by freezing, canning or drying it, or you’re following a diet that involves a lot of fresh foods, fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t a great bargain at warehouse clubs because they may go to waste,” writes U.S. News contributor Trent Hamm.

Try non-grocery stores.

Target, Walmart and other general stores may post competitive prices on food items. Add them to your shopping rotation. And you may even choose to look beyond brick-and-mortar stores. Consider the relative costs and benefits of grocery store delivery services such as AmazonFresh, Google Express, Instacart and Peapod, which deliver supermarket purchases to your home. They may be worth the time saved and encourage you to cook at home. “If you were to assign an appropriate dollar value to the time spent grocery shopping, a grocery delivery service is often actually cheaper than doing it yourself,” writes U.S. News contributor Jon Lal.

Be wary of grocery store traps.

Your local grocery store may use clever traps to encourage you to spend more. Be cautious of fancy food displays and tempting end caps, which are shelves promoting products at the aisle’s end, enticing you to spend impulsively. And think carefully about “buy one, get one” promotions, which may simply be 50% off deals advertised in a way to make you buy double. “Grocery stores rely on your impulse purchases to drive sales and will do whatever they can to get you to buy more than you planned,” writes U.S. News contributor Andrea Woroch.

Buy store brands.

Grocery store brands often cost less than their name-brand counterparts — and they often taste exactly the same. “One of the best strategies for saving money at the grocery store is to buy the store-brand version of common items such as ketchup and trash bags,” writes U.S. News contributor Hamm. Some favorites include Kirkland Signature, Simple Truth and Trader Joe’s brand. Compare your favorite brand-name product to the store-brand alternative — don’t forget to note the amount or measurement — to determine which one is truly cheaper.

Skip the prepared foods.

Pre-made salads and pizzas and pre-cut fruits and vegetables may look tempting on a busy weeknight, but they come at a high markup. If slicing and dicing raw ingredients isn’t manageable on a weekday, try implementing a meal prep Sunday when you tackle these more time-consuming activities. Not only does a meal prep day save you time, but it can save you money, Hamm writes. For example, it lets you buy ingredients in bulk, which can cost less per unit, and allows you to take advantage of markdowns and grocery store sales.

Buy in bulk.

Buy large quantities of nonperishables, such as pasta or rice, or frozen items at your favorite supermarket or wholesale store. Or shop warehouse clubs, grocery store sales and coupons to stock up on foods at a lower cost. Buying in bulk can cost less per unit, and it can also ensure that you have something at home to cook on nights when you’re tempted to visit a restaurant or order takeout. Just make sure you have room for storage — and that you’ll truly eat these foods so they don’t go to waste.

Ditch the meat.

Getting your protein in meat form is an expensive proposition, and eating a vegetarian or plant-based diet can save you money in the long run. Ground beef cost $4.26 per pound on average in July 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sliced bacon cost $5.70 per pound, and boneless chicken breast cost $2.96 per pound. Dried beans, on the other hand, ran just $1.35 per pound. If you’re super committed, you can save money by going totally vegetarian.

Check out the weekly ad.

Check your weekly circular for sales on your favorite items, and plan your meals around those weekly discounts. You may find good ideas for a meal prep day or brown-bag lunch. Remember to check expiration dates to determine whether you’ll be able to consume the food you purchase before it spoils. Food that you buy but don’t eat is a waste of money and overloads your trash can, so take the time to ensure that you can truly polish off anything you buy on sale.

Download the store app.

Another way to get the best deal? Download the store’s mobile app. Safeway’s app, for example, allows shoppers to scan bar codes for deals and load digital coupons instantly. The store app may get you access to certain sales, give you a heads-up on coupons or offer extra points and gas discounts for spending. Don’t forget online shopping apps such as the Instacart mobile app or Amazon shopping app if you shop for groceries online. Just don’t neglect to truly comparison shop and compare prices, even on your small mobile screen.

Compare unit prices.

It’s a challenge to compare prices when foods come in different container sizes. Drill down to the unit price when comparing the value between one item and the next to make sure you’re getting a true apples-to-apples comparison. For example, you’ll want to compare ounces to ounces, pounds to pounds and liters to liters. You may find that the product you thought was the best deal is, in fact, more expensive than another product on the shelves, and you can adjust your grocery shopping accordingly.

Leave your credit card at home.

If you need extra motivation to stick to your budget, leave the credit cards at home and bring cash. It’s an old-fashioned technique, but it will keep you from busting your weekly food budget. It will help you reduce impulse purchases and stick to a food budget, no matter what. If you go over your predetermined budget, you’ll have to put an item back on the shelf. You won’t have your plastic to fall back on and enable your impulse purchases.

Do a pantry sweep.

Take stock of your pantry before heading to the supermarket. Consider this step like “shopping your pantry” before heading to the grocery store. That way, you’ll reduce the risk of purchasing duplicates or more than you can eat before items expire. The goal here is to minimize food waste and ensure that you’re truly getting your money’s worth from your grocery budget by eating everything you buy. You may even find that you have enough food to cook dinner or make a few lunches before you need to head to the supermarket.

Scan the bottom and the top.

Stores routinely place the priciest items at eye level — and hide the cheaper options on the top and bottom shelves. Make sure to scan the entire vertical length of the shelf before committing to a brand in order to view every product and its comparative price. Don’t just grab the first item you see on the shelf. If you shop for groceries online or via an app, it’s likely you’ll be more easily able to sort by price, which is a worthy exercise as well.

Make nice with the sales associate.

This is a good strategy if you frequent a particular brick-and-mortar grocery store. A friendly relationship with the supermarket workers — especially those who work behind the meat, fish and baked good counters — can yield valuable intel on upcoming sales and deals. Get to know your local grocery store employees. Shopping at a time when it’s less crowded, such as late at night or early in the morning, may give you more time to develop these relationships and build a friendship with your supermarket workers.

Learn how to meal plan.

Meal planning can help you stop over-purchasing ingredients and cut your grocery bill. Strategies include taking an inventory of your pantry, using overlapping ingredients and repurposing leftovers. Meal planning can allow you to buy more ingredients in bulk, utilize warehouse clubs or take advantage of store sales without wasting leftovers. If time is a concern, consider taking a weekend day, such as Sunday, to meal plan, shop and cook a bunch of meals for the week. This will help you save time and money.

Get in, get food and get out.

Dilly-dallying at the supermarket can cost you more than time. The longer you spend at the store, the more you spend on food. So, get in, stick to your shopping list and get out before temptation results in an impulsive purchase. Building a good shopping list is key to making this strategy work. Making your shopping trip short can help ensure that any children accompanying you have less time to make their case for treats, sugary cereals and other items not on your list.

Let your kids use their allowance.

This lesson on budgeting and money management can also help you save money on groceries. Let your children bring their piggy bank money and tell them that they can buy any single treat they can afford during the grocery shopping trip. This will teach your kids a lesson in budgeting, give them an entertaining challenge to occupy themselves with as you shop for groceries and stretch your food budget further each month. You’ll be able to spend less and teach your children a valuable lesson in the process.

Make a list.

Creating a shopping list and sticking to it can help reduce impulse purchases and assist you in remembering to take advantage of discounts, seasonal sales and other price reductions. Take note of what you already have available in your pantry, plan your meals for the next several days or the entire week, determine what you need to pick up from the grocery store and come up with a carefully planned list. To avoid impulse purchases and unexpected expenses, don’t deviate from the list.

Remember to utilize your freezer.

Whether you’re meal prepping, buying frozen vegetables or taking advantage of warehouse sales and bulk food discounts, using your freezer to preserve and extend the life of your foods can be critical for saving money on groceries. Remember to research the best ways to freeze certain items, including fruits, vegetables, soups or chili to get the best results. For example, you may want to label any leftovers with the date they were frozen and slightly undercook some dishes if you plan to freeze them right away and heat them in the oven later.

Try shopping at night.

If the crowds, your children, your empty stomach or other distractions have you overspending at the grocery store — just to get the shopping trip done with — consider shopping at night or at another off-period to reduce distractions and allow you to focus on getting the best price. Shorter lines at checkout may make you feel more comfortable using coupons, and fewer people in the aisles and at the deli counter can give you a better chance to get the scoop on any price reductions and compare prices.

Invest in high-value cooking appliances.

It may seem strange to spend on pricey cooking appliances, but having the right tools, such as a slow cooker, coffee maker, blender or knife set can make cooking at home easier and encourage you to make food yourself instead of ordering out or heading to a restaurant. Develop a strategy, such as shopping holiday sales or Amazon Prime Day, for buying the best versions of these important kitchen products at the lowest prices and add these to your kitchen arsenal.

Store food carefully.

To increase the lifespan of fruits, vegetables, herbs, frozen foods and other items, make sure to store them appropriately and carefully. For example, you can wrap lettuce or herbs with a paper towel to sop up moisture while they sit in your fridge. You can also place herbs in a jar of water to extend their lives. You can prioritize eating quick-to-spoil foods, such as berries, right after your shopping trip while saving longer-lasting produce for later in the week.

How to save money when grocery shopping on a budget:

— Stick to sales items.

— Shop in season.

— Stock up on cheap and filling staples.

— Commit to store loyalty programs.

— Visit the discount store.

— Try non-grocery stores.

— Be wary of grocery stores traps.

— Buy store brands.

— Skip the prepared foods.

— Buy in bulk.

More from U.S. News

8 Big Budgeting Blunders — and How to Fix Them

9 Secrets to Save Money on a Shoestring Budget

10 Expenses Destroying Your Budget

How to Save Money When Grocery Shopping on a Budget originally appeared on usnews.com

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up