These 29 surprising and easy moves will help you find the best prices, avoid the sneakiest store tricks, and prevent those costly impulse buys.
Regardless of whether you’re feeding just yourself or a whole family, you probably find that groceries take a big bite out of your paycheck.
Food is the third-largest household expense, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And for a family of four, the average monthly tab runs between $568 for the super thrifty to $1,293 for those on a more liberal budget, according to the USDA.
MONEY consulted supermarket-savings experts for strategies that would help you trim the fat, without giving up the foods you love. Employing just a few of these 29 tricks—because let’s face it, you hardly have time to cook let alone turn shopping into a project—can take your bills down by 25%.
In other words, you could realize between $1,700 and $3,900 in annual savings.
Now that’s pretty delicious.
1. Do an inventory. Take stock of your pantry and freezer once a month to get a sense of what items you need and what you can skip buying, says Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. Her husband and co-author Steve adds, “you don’t want to get in a panic when you’re in the grocery store and impulse buy an item at full price only to go home and find you’ve already got it.” Use an app like Out of Milk to help with your inventory.
2. Plan meals by the ads. “A lot of people make a weekly meal plan and then go look for a deal,” says Steve Economides. “Instead, look first at the deals and plan your meals around what’s on sale. This way, you can get meals for half price.”
3. Use up your pantry. Americans typically toss about 25% of the groceries we buy, according to the National Resources Defense Council. To prevent your food from turning into wasted money, sort through your fridge and pantry about once a week for items that are about to expire and place those in a designated space so that you remember to eat them before they go bad. Plug in what you’ve got at Supercook to find recipes that will help you use up your ingredients.
4. Shop only once a week. “The less you shop, the more you save,” says Annette Economides. Reduce impulse purchases and save gas by planning your shopping list so that you get a week’s worth of groceries in one shot.
5. Look for substitutes. Review your last grocery receipt and circle your most expensive purchases. When you’re next in the store, consider swapping these items for lower-cost alternatives—like ground turkey for ground beef. Subbing out a few items each trip can add up.
Get the Best Price
6. Do some reconnaissance. Pick the 10 or so items you most commonly buy (e.g. milk, cereal, bananas, chicken, detergent) and make a one-time mission to a few stores in your area (supermarket, Walmart, Target, Costco, dollar store) to compare the prices. A spreadsheet like this one from the Balancing Beauty & Bedlam blog can help. Your goal: to find out if you’re actually shopping the store with the lowest overall prices for your needs, says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the CouponMom.com.
7. Know the rock-bottom price. Learn the price range of the items you buy most frequently so that you’ll be able to recognize when they hit their lowest and stock up then, says Nelson. “For my family, one of our biggest grocery expenses is boneless chicken breast,” she says. “In my area, they’ll drop to $2 a pound and peak at $5 a pound over the course of three weeks. By stocking up at the lowest price, I’ve saved nearly $500 a year on just one item.”
8. Be wary of 10 for $10 sales. Or any promotion in which a store is offering several items for one price. Check the price of the item to make sure it is actually discounted, and not just clever signage making you think 89¢ cans being sold 10 for $10 is a steal. Also, if it is actually a discount, keep in mind that you don’t need to buy 10 to get the lower price.
9. Weight it out. Compare items by not just the sticker price but the price per ounce or pound to be sure you’re getting the best deal. Most stores post this number on the label on the shelf. For meats, look at the cost per serving instead so the bones and fat included in the weight of the item don’t mislead you.
10. Download coupons… Couponing doesn’t require circulars and scissors anymore. Visit Coupons.com, SmartSource.com or redplum.com to easily see what coupons are currently available in your area, then either print them out or load them onto a store loyalty card so you don’t even have to remember to bring them with you, says Nelson.
11. …then deploy them wisely. “When we find a coupon, we feel like we must use it right away,” says Nelson. “But wait until the item is at a really good sale price. This way you get savings from both the store discount and the coupon.”
12. Buy for 10 weeks at a time. Sales run through cycles, typically on an eight to12 week rotation, lifestyle and money-saving blogger Leslie Lambert of Lamberts Lately found. So if you know you’ll go through a box of cereal a week, buy 10 when they’re a deal to see you through the weeks when the item will be at full price.
13. Get an IOU. If a sale item is out of stock, ask the store for a rain check. It’s a slip of paper that grants you the sale price once the item’s back in stock regardless of whether the promotion is still running. Or if you don’t want to come back into the store, ask a manager if you can sub a similar item for the one on sale, recommends Annette Economides.
14. Photograph your receipt. You can earn cash-back on your groceries with apps like Ibotta, SavingsStar and Checkout51. These services offer weekly cash-back deals on a range of goods and all you need to do is take a photo of your receipt showing you bought the item to take advantage of the kickback, says Nelson.
Be Smarter in the Store
15. Be loyal. Pick one grocery store and one drugstore you go to frequently. “Sign up for their loyalty programs and get familiar with the promotions they run and what rewards they give out,” says Nelson. Understanding the program will help you concentrate your efforts so that you can get items for free, she notes.
16. Learn the layout. The more aisles you walk down, the more likely you are to add things to your shopping basket that you hadn’t initially intended to buy. Shoppers who decreased the number of aisles they visited checked out with only half their items being unplanned purchases vs. 68% of items for those who visited most or all aisles in a shop, according to a Marketing Science Institute study.
17. Go alone. The larger your shopping party, the more likely you are to make impulse purchases. About 65% of the items in our baskets when we group shop are unplanned, an eight percentage point increase over shopping alone, according to that same Marketing Science Institute study. So leave your spouse and your kids behind.
18. Pack mints. Or eat before you go. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers are likely to spend more if their appetites have been stimulated beforehand. That’s probably why baked goods and rotisserie chickens are placed by the entrance of the store. Combat those tempting odors by eating a mint—which satiates hunger and can help overwhelm other scents—or by making sure your belly is full.
19. Bring your own soundtrack. Studies show that stores play music with a slower beat to encourage you to move more slowly through the aisles. That slower pace can lead shoppers to buy 29% more, found Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Create your own mix of upbeat songs.
20. Use a Goldilocks cart. Lindstrom told CNBC that doubling the size of a cart makes people buy 40% more. And opting for those handheld baskets can be equally dangerous. A study from the Journal of Marketing Research found that the strain of carrying the basket made us more likely to pick up “vice products” like candy and soda as an unconscious reward for putting up with the hassle. Opt instead for a smaller wheeled cart.
21. Look high and low. Avoid the middle shelves and end caps. Companies pay to place products at your eye level—and your kid’s. Scan the top and bottom shelves instead as most of the time you’ll find the less expensive brands and best deals there.
22. Check yourself out. Impulse purchases dropped by 32% for women and about 17% for men when shoppers used the self-checkout line instead of a staffed checkout, found a study by IHL Consulting Group. The reason: There is less merchandise for you to pick up last minute around self-checkout stands, and the wait time is typically shorter—giving you less time with those tempting items.
Save on Specifics
23. Skip the deli. Whether you’re buying freshly cut meats from behind the deli counter or pre-sliced by the hot dogs, you’re spending more on cold cuts than you need, according to Steve Economides, who instead opts for large chunks of prepackaged meat called chubs. He then asks the deli or the butcher to slice the chubs for him. “At the deli, I can get a pound of ham for $7 to $9,” says Economides. “If I go to the meat counter and have a chub of ham sliced, it costs between $3 and $5 a pound, meaning I can save up to 66%.” You could also cook up larger portions of a meat, say a roast beef, and slice up those extras for sandwiches.
24. Do your own slicing and dicing. Prepackaged and single-serving foods are easy mark-up territory. (Example: Through New York City’s Fresh Direct delivery service, we found a cut and cored pineapple cost $5.99 while an uncut pineapple cost $3.99.) Though it may be more time-consuming, buy the whole chicken, block cheese or pineapple and do the chopping yourself. You can create your own smaller servings—say, for school lunches—by dividing up the food into baggies or Tupperware.
25. Don’t get milk at the supermarket. Moo juice sold at drugstores and convenience stores typically costs 30¢ to 50¢ less per gallon, Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, told Reader’s Digest.
26. Grow your own herbs. Stop buying bundles of herbs—at $2-plus a pop—that you’ll never be able to use up in time and instead plant a couple pots with fresh herbs to keep in your kitchen or porch. For a one-time cost of around $5, you’ll always have fresh herbs ready, and you won’t end up wasting any.
27. Follow the produce cycle. “You can save 30-50% on the price of produce by buying what’s in season,” says Annette Economides. If you do want those berries in the off-season, buy extra when they’re cheap and freeze them so you can enjoy them year round. For a guide to when certain produce is in peak-season, see this chart from the USDA.
28. Check seafood labels. At the counter you’ll find products labeled “previously frozen” in small type. That product is often the same thing you can find in the frozen-food aisle for as much as 40% less. Buy frozen and do the thawing yourself. Your fish will be fresher and you won’t have to use it right away.
29. Get meat in bulk. Washington-based Zaycon Foods offers consumers very competitive rates—e.g. chicken breast for $1.79 a pound—for those willing to buy orders starting at 40 pounds. To get these deals, you’ll have to order online and then pick your food up at a prearranged time from the back of a refrigerated truck waiting in a church or shopping center parking lot. Can’t store 40 pounds of meat? Split it with a friend, and you’ll both save.