Clever Hacks to Save Money on Food – Part II: At the Grocery Store
Food shopping at grocery stores is an exercise of convenience. While our forebears hunted, gathered, or farmed whatever they could to get access to sustenance, we stroll through conveniently labeled aisles, scan through an abundance of options, and handpick whatever grabs our fancy. But by thoughtlessly leaning into this easy access, many miss out on subtle ways to cut costs. That’s why we’ve decided to share the best hacks (both do’s and don’ts) to save money on food at the store.
In our previous post, Part I: Before Your Grocery Trip, we covered a myriad of ways to save money before even leaving home, but now we give you the best practices to save money right there in the trenches … or well, the aisles.
As mentioned in Part I, you should try not to overwhelm yourself with too many money-saving tactics at once. Pick out a few that seem manageable, and work to make them habits. Then when you feel comfortable, add more techniques to your toolbelt! You’ll know how to save tons of money on food in no time.
The Do’s of Grocery Shopping
- Buy What’s in Season
- Compare Unit Prices
- Consider Frozen, Canned, and Dried Food
- Check Out the Deli Counter
- Shop the World or Ethnic Aisle
- Buy Bigger, Cheaper Cuts of Meat
- Buy Less Meat
- Buy Generic
- Look for the Latest “Use By” Date
- Look for Manager Markdowns
* The Don’ts of Grocery Shopping*
1. Buy What’s in Season
It’s pretty much a guarantee that you can find whatever produce and meat you want at your local grocery store. But the truth is that many of these things will be overpriced — and less nutritious and delicious — when they’re out of season. Most grocers display what is in season quite clearly, and if you start to shop based on the natural optimal time for your food, you’ll save quite a bit! You can also check a seasonal food calendar if you want to plan a meal around what’s in season.
2. Compare Unit Prices
When it comes to learning how to save money on food, this is a big one. But because unit prices can be so woefully confusing (oftentimes by design), many shoppers lose out on a shining opportunity to save money on pretty much every kind of item at the grocery store.
Luckily, for those who don’t feel like doing the math manually, there are some great apps to easily compare unit prices between various brands and packaging (i.e. frozen vs. fresh). With Unit Price Calculator for iOS, Unit Price Comparison for Android, or this website alternative, you can input the price, unit of measurement, and number of units, and you’ll quickly learn which option is giving you the most bang for your buck!
Pro Tip: Do be aware that with some items, manufacturers can artificially increase the weight without adding substance. Look for things like “enhanced with up to 15% broth” or “contains up to 22% of a solution” on ham and chicken packaging. Then, factor that into your unit price calculations. For example, if the net weight of a package of sliced ham reads “8 oz,” but it mentions it contains 15% broth, you’re actually looking at 6.8 oz of actual meat: 8 oz – (8 oz x 0.15) = 6.8 oz.
With items that sometimes add sugar (like peanut butter) check if sugar is high on their ingredient list as this is one of the weight-adding tricks companies pull to make it look like they’re delivering more food than they actually are. Buying items without the added artificial sugar will do both your wallet and your health a favor!
3. Consider Frozen, Canned, and Dried Food
In some cases, the frozen, canned, or dried form of a food is cheaper than fresh — especially when the fruit, veggie, or meat is out of season. Compare one of these longer lasting versions in your store with the fresh option to make sure you’re getting the best possible unit price (see “Do” #2 for unit price comparison). The added bonus here is that food lasts longer when frozen, canned, and dried, so you’ll be dealing with less food waste (and less wasted money!).
4. Check Out the Deli Counter
The assumption is often that there are only deluxe, pricy products behind the grocery deli counter, but the opposite can sometimes be true. Compare the unit prices of things like ham and cheese behind the deli counter to those in the designated meat and cheese sections. Because there’s no packaging, the deli counter can sometimes offer up a better deal.
5. Shop the World or Ethnic Aisle
You’ll often find that spices, rice, nuts, lentils, and many other staples are substantially cheaper in your store’s world or ethnic aisle. You’ll also discover some interesting varieties, and open up your culinary world to new, global horizons. Who said shopping couldn’t be an adventure?
6. Buy Bigger, Cheaper Cuts of Meat
Meat can be one of the most expensive parts of your diet. Check out these two ways to save money when you’re feeling carnivorous:
Buying a whole tenderloin, chicken, or pork loin can substantially reduce the price of meat. When you buy smaller portions, you’re paying for the labor of a butcher — thus the higher price. But by hopping onto YouTube and watching a quick tutorial, you can learn how to cut up all kinds of meats yourself! Once you get home and portion out how much you want to eat now, just freeze the rest for future meals. Make sure to wrap the remaining meat in heavy-duty aluminum foil and a zip lock bag to avoid freezer burn and keep out other smells from your freezer.
Some types of meat are simply cheaper than others. Once you have a grasp on which meats are more of a bargain (i.e. brisket instead of steak), opt for those. You can even approach the person behind the deli counter and they’ll likely be happy to direct you to the more affordable — but tasty — options. And if you have the time to slow cook these meats, you won’t be sorry. Even the cheapest meats are mouth-wateringly delicious when you’ve cooked them for 6, or in some cases, 12 hours.
7. Buy Less Meat
We’ve just reviewed a few ways to save on meat — visit the deli counter, buy bigger, buy cheaper — but you could also save a lot of money just by eating less meat. When you substitute other protein-rich options like eggs, tofu, or legumes into your meals (or even just a half portion of one of these, half of meat), you’ll save a ton. You’ll also find that even organic eggs are supremely affordable. And who doesn’t like breakfast for dinner?
8. Buy Generic
If you tried “Do” #2 (Compare Unit Prices), you’ll already have noticed that generic brands’ unit prices are almost always cheaper than name brand items. You’re generally only paying for the name and eye-catching packaging, and could be saving a lot of money buying an almost identical product with less “shelf appeal.”
There are a few exceptions to the different-but-equal rule, however. You should potentially avoid buying generic brands of these products for health and taste reasons — or at least check the label for their ingredients!
9. Look for the Latest “Use By” Date
Stores often stock their longest-lasting products (the ones with the “use by” date furthest out in time) at the back of the shelf. By grabbing one of these instead of the first and most obvious candidate, you’ll be buying food that lasts longer, and saving money by avoiding food waste.
10. Look for Manager Markdowns
If you’re on a mission to discover how to save money on food, you probably already know to look for sales. We revealed how to plan ahead of your grocery trip with sales, offers, and coupons in Part I of this series, but a special, optimum kind of sale will only be available right there in the store. You’ll find this type of discount labeled “Manager Markdown,” “Reduced for Quick Sale,” or something similar.
Essentially, these items are approaching their “sell by” date and stores are looking to unload them quickly with extreme price reductions — sometimes as much as 50%. This food is still very much safe to eat as long as you incorporate it into your meals in the next few days or freeze it.
Check where your grocery store displays these items. There could be areas both in the produce and meat sections, or a single shelf near the back of the store. A few stores don’t have a special section, and just label those items in their usual locations. If you’re not sure, just ask an employee! They may also be able to let you in on when items get marked for quick sale too. That way you’ll know when to come in and snatch them up before other shoppers can get their hands on them. Markdowns can be competitive fare!
The Don’ts of Grocery Shopping
While there are plenty of “do’s” when it comes to ways to save money on food, there’s a few things to watch out for while shopping…
Don’t Shop Hungry
We mentioned this tip in Part I, but if you do find yourself at the store on an empty stomach, quickly buy a snack and eat it while browsing. It’ll save you from some tantalizing but needless purchases.
Don’t Shop at Eye-level
Stores tend to stock their most pricey items at eye-level. Make sure you’re scanning from top to bottom to avoid falling into this trap!
Don’t Shop for 2 or 3 Things
Avoid “topping up,” or going to the store to replenish a couple items. It’s just too tempting to add more to the cart! If you do find yourself making these kinds of trips, make note of what you tend to run out of, and buy more of this when you do your next full shopping trip.
Don’t Bring Your Kids
It’s hard to resist when your kid begs for those oh-so-tasty Lucky Charms, Oreos, or [insert your kid’s temptation here]. You may even end up adding items to the cart just to avoid a full-on public meltdown. Add to that the trickiness of doing price comparisons and markdown-hunting while you’re dealing with child care, and it’s a no-brainer to leave the youngins behind. If you can’t afford to do this, enforce a strict “one extra item” rule. Hopefully they don’t choose filet mignon.
- Too Many Snacks – Based on a survey conducted in 2019, Americans will spend just under $30,000 on snacks in their lifetime. That’s a whole lot of dough to drop on food with little to no nutritional value. Besides cutting costs, limiting the amount of snacks you buy will help out your health. Major win-win.
- Fresh Herbs – Fresh herbs are far more expensive than dry, and can go bad quickly. Opt for dry herbs instead and augment your cooking flavors for months!
- Pre-Washed or Chopped Food – Although it may seem convenient, pre-chopped and washed fruit, veggies, and other ingredients will always cost more (barring a special sale) because of the labor, processing, and packaging involved.
- Big Bags of Lettuce – Lettuce, spinach, and other greens have a really short shelf life, so if you can avoid overbuying the stuff you’ll waste less food and money. You can freeze lettuce in a pinch, but it really is at its tastiest when fresh!
- Condiments – Of course you may need to purchase some ketchup and mustard for a big backyard barbeque, but if possible, collect condiments from restaurant takeout! It’ll certainly save on family meals that require them.
If you’re like most people, you’ve fallen into a specific routine when it comes to grocery shopping. But a lot of times our habits don’t necessarily lend themselves to real thriftiness. By integrating a few of these “do’s” — and avoiding the “don’ts” — you’re starting to learn how to save money on food in a way that’ll pay off for years.
Make sure to check out the final installment of our “Clever Hacks to Save Money on Food” series, Part III: Your Groceries at Home. Once you’ve perused the tips from all three stages of your grocery journey, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a legitimate authority on how to save money on food.