Grocery shopping can be a budget buster. But adjusting your habits just a little bit — and making the most of what you already do — can save you time, stress and money.
Family budget expert, journalist and author Andrea Woroch says the best thing you can do to save money is pay attention to your shopping habits. Among other things, that includes thinking about the food you don’t eat.
Waste not — pay not
“It doesn’t matter how cheap you got an ingredient, or a food or whatever,” Woroch told WTOP. “If it ends up in the trash, that is just throwing your hard earned dollars away.”
The average American family throws away about $1,600 worth of produce alone every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s about $133 a month.
Fortunately, Woroch says you can stop wasting that produce — and cash — by having some recipes at the ready and taking an inventory of your pantry before going to the store.
“It all begins with a meal plan,” Woroch said. “And really being strategic about what you’re buying at the grocery store so that you’re not just heading in and throwing items into your cart without a plan for it … Then also cook in bulk, so that you do have some leftovers and you don’t have to plan a meal for each day.”
Saving time and gas
Though many people don’t think about it, the number of trips and distances traveled when shopping add up. Combining trips to the grocery store with other parts of your routine can be both a time and a cash saver.
“If you’re heading to pick up kids from school or heading to the office, maybe there’s a grocery store on your way to or from there where you can then find your cheaper ingredients,” Woroch said.
Know where the deals are
Once you have a routine and a set of favorite stores, pay attention to specific markdowns in those stores and how they can compliment — or inspire — your recipes for the week.
To that end, Woroch recommends websites and apps like Flipp, which combine circulars from local stores into one place — so you can see who has the best deals.
Frozen can be cheaper — and better for you
Woroch said, despite its stigma, frozen produce and meats can be a more healthy option while also being easier on the wallet.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but frozen produce is flash frozen at peak ripeness, which means that it has more nutrients. Potentially more than fresh options, because those that are sitting on the store shelves start losing their nutrients each day that they’re out there,” Woroch said.
Cost wise, a couple of exceptions to some of the prepackaged options are items like sliced fruit and pre-marinated meats. There is a premium that comes with the convenience.
“You’re looking at anywhere from a 30 to 60% markup. So stick to the Whole Foods and just do the prep work yourself,” she said.
Buy Bulk — but sometimes not
In general, buying bulk for your staples, like pasta, grain and sauces is a great idea that can save both time and money. However, unless you know your family will eat it before it goes bad, buying bulk can lead to waste.
“If it is a really good deal, it’s hard to walk away,” Woroch said. “But if it’s a fresh food item, you have to think about if you and your family are really going to consume it before it goes bad. So an oversized bag of potato chips are you guys really going to eat all that before some of it goes stale, or fresh fruit that spoils potentially.”
Shopping online with coupons, coupons … and online coupons
As the pandemic took hold, more people flocked online to do their grocery and everyday shopping. In being more strategic and helping avoid gas expenses as well as impulse purchases, it’s one habit Woroch hopes will continue.
“Shopping online helps eliminate those impulse purchases, which inevitably will end up costing you more than any service fee you pay to get your groceries delivered,” she said.
There are also endless opportunities to find sales, discounts, coupons for just about anything you want to buy.
“You can go to a site like couponfollow.com, and they had deals like $20 off at Instacart,” she said.
For those still going to the store, check to see if they have an app or customer loyalty program.
“In a lot of cases, you can download an app, then get coupons through the app that you redeem at checkout,” she said. “Other times you just enter in your phone number at checkout to get the coupons applied automatically. And then hold on to your grocery receipts.”
Save your receipts
The savings can continue even after you leave the store. In addition to coupons printed on the receipt, there are apps like Fetch Rewards that give you points whenever you shop at certain stores or purchase specific brands.
“And then you can redeem those points for free gift cards. And just choose a gift card to a store like Target or Walmart that sells groceries to offset future grocery costs,” Woroch said.
Do what you’re already doing … Only better
Take a moment and see if any of the credit cards you already have offer rewards for specific stores you might shop at.
In addition, a number of websites will tell you which credit cards will give you the most for gas, grocery and other types of purchases.
“Look at sites like cardrates.com where they organize cards by type of rebates and rewards, like gas rebates for cashback.” Woroch said. “That can help you find a card that will give you more for your grocery purchases.
“Finally look for fuel reward programs. Some grocery stores partner with gas stations and allow you to redeem your grocery points for savings at the pump,” she said.
For example, “Kroger’s fuel reward program gives you one point for every dollar you spend on groceries. And you can redeem those points then at Kroger gas stations, or participating Shell stations.”
WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this story.