Inflation may be cooling, but American families are still paying significantly more for their groceries than they were a year ago. In February 2023, prices for food consumed at home were up 10.2% compared to a year earlier, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your grocery budget has to increase by that much.
“There are all kinds of strategies that can be used to save money,” says Sandra Poirier, a professor in the nutrition and food science program at Middle Tennessee State University.
Start by trying these 20 tips to save money on groceries.
— Check your pantry.
— Plan your meals.
— Incorporate meatless meals.
— Shop the sales.
— Buy local and in season.
— Write a list.
— Sign up for store loyalty programs.
— Use savings apps.
— Time your shopping right.
— Skip prepared and packaged foods.
— Try canned and frozen foods.
— Stock up on deals.
— Look for private label products.
— Compare unit prices.
— Buy in bulk.
— Watch for product markdowns.
— Try new stores.
— Avoid food waste.
— Consider a rewards credit card.
— Think outside the box.
Check Your Pantry
The first step to saving money on groceries happens before you even step foot inside a store. Before shopping, check your pantry, freezer and fridge to see what items you already have in your home.
You could save a significant amount of money simply by planning meals based on these items. Not only can doing an inventory check help with meal planning, it can also help you avoid duplicate purchases.
[Read: How to Create and Maintain a Family Budget.]
Plan Your Meals
Once you know what food is already on your shelves, use that as the basis for planning a menu. Having a plan can reduce impulse purchases and help avoid those nights when you get takeout because you don’t know what else to make.
Think about how an ingredient can be used in multiple ways, too. For instance, Poirier suggests a rotisserie chicken could be stretched for several meals by using it for sandwiches, soup and a stir-fry.
Incorporate Meatless Meals
Going meatless, even once a week, can reduce your grocery costs so long as you rely on inexpensive proteins and grains to build your meals. For instance, start with a bowl of beans, rice or other grain, and then add vegetables, sauce or a sprinkling of cheese.
The internet is full of vegetarian recipes, or you could look for a book, such as “The Weekday Vegetarians” by Jenny Rosenstrach, that is designed specifically to help people transition from meat-based to plant-based meals.
Shop the Sales
Stores often provide deep discounts on a handful of items each week. Known as loss leaders, these sales are intended to get customers in the door.
“Be flexible where you can when it comes to product availability and deals,” says Mary Hines Droesch, head of consumer and small business products at Bank of America. “Be open to substitute items and generic brands as cheaper alternatives.”
Buy Local and in Season
Whether you shop in the supermarket or at a farm market, look for foods produced nearby.
“Buy vegetables in season, and you’ll save money,” Poirier says. Selecting recipes with out-of-season vegetables is likely to cost significantly more.
That’s because, in the offseason, goods need to be shipped across the country — or even the globe. Local foods don’t have those transportation costs built into their prices. Plus, foods produced locally are likely to be fresher and possibly more flavorful.
Write a List
Shopping with a list has many money-saving benefits. It can deter impulse purchases, ensure you pick up whatever sale items you noted in the store’s weekly flyer and prevent an unfortunate situation in which you forget a crucial ingredient for a meal and end up ordering delivery instead.
Many grocery stores have apps that make it easy to browse weekly sales flyers, add items to an in-app list and clip any applicable digital coupons that may be available.
Sign Up for Store Loyalty Programs
If you live in a community with multiple grocery stores, shop at the one that has a robust loyalty program.
“These can earn you points or cashback for your groceries, and quite often you will find products at special prices for loyalty card holders,” says Colin Palfrey, chief marketing officer for personal finance management company Crediful.
What’s more, loyalty programs may come with apps that deliver personalized offers and deals in real time as well as track purchases. These can provide access to targeted promotions designed with your purchasing habits in mind.
Use Savings Apps and Coupons
You may be able to combine your store loyalty savings with those from a third-party app. For instance, Ibotta offers cash back on certain purchases and can be linked to loyalty programs from stores such as Meijer, Kroger and Walmart. For purchases at stores without a linked loyalty program, users can upload receipts to earn cash back.
Savings apps such as Ibotta, Fetch Rewards and Checkout 51 essentially serve as digital coupons. Although not as common as in the past, paper coupons are also still an avenue for savings.
[READ: Best Budget Apps for Couples in 2023.]
Time Your Shopping Right
If you are hungry or tired, you may be more likely to give in to impulse buys. Shopping with children or even your spouse can also make trips more expensive, as everyone clamors for their favorite products.
Pick your shopping time carefully and be sure to eat something before heading out the door. Going early or late may mean you can leave the kids at home, too. As a bonus, the store may be less crowded at these times of day, meaning you won’t feel rushed to make purchasing decisions.
Skip Prepared and Packaged Foods
It’s more convenient to buy prepared foods, but you’ll pay extra for that. Whenever possible, buy whole foods with a minimal amount of processing and packaging. For instance, purchase a whole watermelon rather than wedges or plain rice that you can season at home rather than premade rice pilafs.
“Get into the habit of making at least a few meals each week from scratch,” Palfrey suggests. “Homemade food tastes so much nicer than the pre-packaged food we all eat most of the time, it is healthier and it can also be cheaper.”
Try Canned and Frozen Foods
While packaged fresh foods can be more expensive, canned and frozen goods can be a deal. However, don’t simply grab whatever is at eye level.
“A lot of the vendors bid for where their product is going to be placed,” according to Poirier. “Look at the bottom and the top shelf for store brands.” Those will be cheaper.
Look for low-sodium items and those without additives such as sugar, which may be common in fruit products. Since canned and frozen foods have a long shelf life, they can be purchased in large quantities so you always have meal ingredients on hand.
Stock Up on Deals
When you see a deal, buy extras of any item you use regularly. Don’t limit yourself to stocking up on just canned, boxed and frozen foods either. Meats, berries and butter are among the items that can be easily frozen, allowing you to purchase in bulk and save food for later.
For instance, buy a value pack of meat, divide it into smaller portions at home and double-wrap before freezing. If using a freezer bag, be sure to squeeze out any air before sealing tightly. Then, place frozen meat in the fridge the night before you plan to use it so it can thaw safely.
Look for Private Label Products
Virtually all grocery stores sell their own products under house brand names. Known as private label products, these goods are often of the same quality as name brands.
“The quality of food like macaroni and cheese, cookies and drinks are usually the same,” says Madison Block, product marketing manager at American Consumer Credit Counseling. “With that said, some cheaper things aren’t always better.”
For some items, such as laundry detergent, Block recommends trying different brands to find the best lower-price alternative.
Some grocers sell their private label goods under the store name while others use different brand names. For instance, Kroger has some Kroger products but also sells private label goods under names such as Simple Truth and Private Selection. Other examples include Kirkland at Costco and Frederik’s by Meijer.
Compare Unit Prices
You can’t simply look at the package price to know if you’re getting the best deal. Product sizes have been shrinking, and some packaging can be deceiving when it comes to determining how much food is actually inside.
“Shop when the store is least crowded,” Poirier says. That way, you can take the time to compare unit prices without feeling rushed by other shoppers.
Shelf labels may list the cost per pound or ounce, or you may need to pull up the calculator on your phone to do the math. Many times, larger packages provide better value, but that isn’t always the case.
Buy in Bulk
Since larger packages often cost less per unit, buying in bulk has long been a tried-and-true savings strategy. However, stocking up on jumbo packs of items may not be feasible for someone with a limited living space or a small family. In that case, join forces with a friend, family member or neighbor.
“As a group, you’ll be able to buy in bulk — which is cheaper from a cost-per-unit perspective and also happens to be a practical way to reduce food waste,” Hines Droesch says.
Many communities also have stores where products such as grains, nuts and spices can be purchased in bulk. A benefit of buying items in this way is that you purchase exactly what you need. This avoids, for instance, having an expensive jar of spice lingering on your shelf after using it for a single recipe.
Avoid Food Waste
American households toss an estimated 30% of the food they buy, according to a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. That equates to roughly $1,900 in wasted money each year for the average family.
One way to avoid food waste is to shop more frequently. Although going to the store frequently can increase the chances of impulse buys, it also ensures that you have fresh items to make meals at home each night. That way you don’t buy lettuce for salad later in the week only to find it’s gone bad by the time you pull it out of the fridge.
Watch for Product Markdowns
Many stores mark down products once they get close to their expiration date, but many expiration dates are related to food quality and not spoilage. That means you can safely purchase clearance goods which may be nearing the end of their shelf life.
“Items that are expiring soon are super cheap and still edible,” Block says. “If you can time your meals right, this is a good deal.”
Try New Stores
Branching out from your regular supermarket can result in big savings. In fact, 4 in 10 people say they shop at discount grocery stores to afford food, according to a 2023 shopper insights report from Acosta Group, a sales and marketing agency.
You may have discount stores, bakery outlets and farm markets in your area which can sell items for less than the grocery store. Ethnic stores can also be a good place to shop for less expensive specialty items and ingredients.
[READ: 10 Simple and Free Budgeting Tools.]
Consider a Rewards Credit Card
“Make sure you’re using a credit card that rewards you for your grocery runs,” says Hines Droesch. She notes that the Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards card offers 2% cash back on grocery and warehouse store purchases as well as 3% cash back on a customer’s choice category and 1% back on all other purchases. There is no annual fee for the card.
Other options include the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express, which awards 3% cash back on supermarket purchases, or the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express, which doubles the cash back to 6%. However, with the latter card, you’ll pay a $95 annual fee. On both cards, cash back at these levels is limited to the first $6,000 spent each year, and purchases earn 1% cash back after that.
If you do use a rewards credit card, be sure to only charge what you can pay off each month. Carrying a balance and paying interest will negate any cash back you earn and could actually increase your costs in the long run.
Think Outside the Box
Not every money-saving strategy is obvious. Sometimes a little creative thinking is required. Planting herbs, vegetables and fruits may take more time and effort, but it can save money in the long run. Home-grown food may be fresher and tastier than what’s at the store, too.
“Even a small outdoor space can be used for growing food,” Palfrey says. “Salad greens and herbs all are easy to look after and grow incredibly quickly.”
Other outside-the-box ideas include grocery shopping online, paying for food using discounted gift cards purchased from websites like Raise and joining food co-ops or community supported agriculture programs that deliver food directly from farms.
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How to Save Money When Grocery Shopping on a Budget originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 04/13/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.