Clever Hacks to Save Money on Food – Part I: Before Your Grocery Trip
Most of us are looking for ways to cut costs. Sure, we can turn off the lights during the day to save on electricity, or bike to work to save on gas, but food?! We need food. We can’t eliminate this expense outright. It is, however, important to ask ourselves: how much is our food actually costing us?
The USDA publishes a new food budget every month offering different estimates for groceries based on each household’s means. The most recently published “thrifty plan” designed for a lower-income family of 4 is set at $916.70 monthly. That’s right: monthly. This works out to a whopping $11,000.40 per year — on the low end.
So, how do we get around such a costly expense each month? Though it’s true that food is a necessary expenditure, it turns out that there are tons of ways to save money on groceries — so many in fact that we’ve had to break them out into 3 separate posts, each aligning with one stage of your grocery journey:
- Before Your Grocery Trip
- At the Grocery Store
- Your Groceries at Home
We don’t necessarily recommend trying to tackle every single hack at once — change happens one step a time, after all — but choosing 2 or 3 techniques that feel achievable is a great start! Once you’ve internalized these few strategies, add on more to build a repertoire of money-saving shopping habits that will serve you for years to come.
Pre-Grocery Trip Money-Saving Hacks
- Set a Grocery Trip Budget
- Plan Where to Shop
- Join Your Store’s Loyalty Program
- Do Your Sale, Offer, and Coupon Due Diligence
- Plan Meals, Then Make a Shopping List
- Plan When to Shop
- Plan How to Pay
- Bring Your Own Bags
- Eat a Snack
1. Set a Grocery Trip Budget
This may seem like an obvious one, but many people shop first, and ask questions later. A good way to begin approaching a budget is by looking at how much you spent the last time you bought groceries, and trying to cut this number by 15%.
The more time you’ve spent actively making moves to cut grocery costs, the more you’ll get a sense of what a reasonable food budget for you should look like. Once you have that number, stick to it!
2. Plan Where to Shop
You likely have a go-to grocery store, but it could be smart to reassess whether it’s actually the most cost-effective place to get your food. Perhaps you’ve been shopping at the Whole Foods up the street out of convenience, but it turns out there’s a much more affordable Aldi a mile away.
Do some quick online research to find the cheapest places to buy groceries in your area. Ethnic grocery stores, for example, tend to offer significantly lower prices than your average grocer, especially when it comes to fresh produce.
You also might consider a membership to a wholesale store like Costco ($60 per year) or Sam’s Club ($45 per year). While these places may not make sense for your expirable food, if you make regular purchases of the same pantry items (think peanut butter or dried pasta), or even frozen produce if you have the freezer space, you could really save a lot of money adding these stores to your regular shopping rotation and buying this food in bulk.
Of all the ways to save money on groceries, this hack will probably go the farthest.
3. Join Your Store’s Loyalty Program
Grocery stores’ loyalty programs incentivize customers to keep coming back by rewarding repeat purchases. If you go to the same one or two places every time you shop for groceries, it’ll likely be worth it to join their loyalty program(s).
Each store’s program works slightly differently, but in many cases you’ll get access to immediate member discounts, as well as the ability to build up “reward points” which lead to future savings. Look into the details of your store’s loyalty program so that you can get the most bang for your buck.
As for cost, many stores allow you to join their programs for free but some chains require a small annual fee.
4. Do Your Sale, Offer, and Coupon Due Diligence
Before your trip, it’s a good idea to figure out which products you’ll be able to save on. Make sure you don’t go out of your way to buy extraneous things just because they’re on sale (or pricey items, which are now just moderately priced), but if there’s something you could actually use, add it to your list! Here are a few ways to save money on groceries by staying on top of sales, offers, and coupons:
Find Sales & Coupons in an App or Online – You can check Coupons.com for a general coupon search, but your best bet is going to be Flipp, an app that collects coupons and sale information onto one convenient platform. Or if you prefer, simply visit your favorite store’s website, navigate to their savings or sales page, and see which products have price reductions. In some cases, store websites will even have online coupons you can print out or digitally “clip” for future purchases.
Use Cash Back Apps – Useful cash back apps like Ibotta allow you to look for products you want from specific stores and find offers on them (i.e. $1.00 back for purchasing Honey Nut Cheerios at Aldi). Once you buy the items, you’ll take a picture of your receipt (you can skip this step if you have a loyalty account with the store), and you’ll receive cash back through PayPal, Venmo, or gift cards if you prefer. The best part? You can redeem many of these offers multiple times!
Clip Newspaper Coupons – If you’re more of the analog type, there’s nothing wrong with cutting out coupons from the newspaper! The Sunday paper traditionally comes with a coupon insert, and even if you don’t pay for a subscription, there are still plenty of ways to get your hands on the section with coupons.
Follow Your Store on Social Media – Do a quick scroll to see if your favorite grocery store’s social media pages tend to post about promotions. If so, follow them!
5. Plan Meals, Then Make a Shopping List
This goes beyond the old “eggs, milk, cheese” routine. The best way to make a shopping list that helps you save is to plan exactly what you’ll want to cook and eat in the following week(s). And you’ll already have a headstart on meal ideas if you did your coupon and sales due diligence from hack #4!
Planning what to buy in advance of your trip will help you avoid purchasing miscellaneous items, trying to figure out a way they can make up meals, and finally tossing out the expired food you didn’t end up consuming. It will also help you stay away from those oh-so-familiar impulse purchases.
6. Plan When to Shop
Believe it or not, the day you decide to go shopping could affect your savings too. Try timing your trip based on these tips:
Shop on Wednesdays – Most grocery stores start their new sales on Wednesdays and often honor last week’s deals — so it’s possible to get twice the discounts.
Track Sales Cycles – If you have the time and energy, start tracking when your favorite items go on sale. Many stores follow a “sales cycle” for their products (i.e. every 6 weeks), and if you start to take notes on when these sales occur you’ll pick up on patterns you can use to plan when to take your shopping trips. These are good opportunities to stock the pantry with products that will last a fairly long time.
Shop on Double Coupon Days – Some grocery stores give twice the discount on coupons during special shopping days called “double coupon days.” Call your grocery store to see if they have these!
7. Plan How to Pay
Decide between one of these two ways to pay for groceries before your trip:
Cash – If you’ve created a grocery budget (see hack #1), bringing this amount in cash will help you stick to it. As an added bonus, paying with cash really helps you to think about how much you’re spending, instead of just handing over a card and hoping for the best.
The Right Card – If you have a credit card that gives you cash back or points redeemable for food and groceries, this would be a good time to use it!
8. Bring Your Own Bags
In more and more cities across the U.S. plastic bag taxes are being put into effect. Not only is bringing your own bags a way to save money on groceries, you’d be doing your part to save the planet and reduce waste.
9. Eat a Snack
We’ve all heard the old adage “don’t shop when you’re hungry” — but just because it’s clichéd doesn’t mean it isn’t true! Science suggests that hunger increases the amount of money you’re willing to spend on food.
You could be doing yourself a frugal favor by eating a snack before shopping. It will eliminate the cravings behind many unnecessary — and potentially unhealthy — food purchases.
These hacks are just the beginning of your journey to save money on groceries. Check out Part II and Part III of our “Hacks to Save Money on Food” blog post series for a full, holistic approach to grocery thriftiness.
And remember: this is a process! Integrating just a few of these tips at a time is the best way to actually start building good habits that will stick in the long term.