Grocery Shopping: Is it Eating Up Your Cash?

Saving money on groceries

Food. You can't live without it, but it sure can be expensive.

It's also a time suck, especially because the grocery stores spend so much time playing bait-and-switch with us, requiring Inspector-Clouseau-level skills to find, for example, the pine nuts.

For those who have been following my tales on GRS, it should come as no surprise The Husband does the grocery shopping, at least the bulk of it. I tend to suffer from sensory overload in the grocery store (the cereal aisle is paralyzing to me) and often will come home with $300 worth of … well, not much. So early on The Husband took it over. Recently, he was under the weather and the kids and I lasted as long as we could with the provisions we had, but the realization finally came that we needed to do what The Husband calls The Big Shopping. My daughter and I went together, and at the end of the travail, she turned to me and said, “How does Dad do this every week?” Whoever does the grocery shopping in your household, give them a hug.

Back to the expensive part. According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, in 2014, U.S. consumers, businesses, and government entities spent $1.46 trillion on food and beverages in grocery stores and other retailers and on away-from-home meals and snacks. That's the most recent year that full statistics are available. But the USDA can tell us that

“While the all-items Consumer Price Index has risen 5.4 percent from 2011 to 2015, the all-food CPI rose 8.5 percent over the same time period, just under the 8.7 percent rise in housing costs. Livestock diseases, major weather events, and shocks to global food markets have caused price inflation for food to outpace many other consumer spending categories. Only prices for medical care and housing have risen faster than food prices.”

Holy smokes. That's a huge increase in costs, and a lot of money out of your wallet.

What's an eater to do?

Well, there are tons of strategies to help you keep your at-home food costs in check. The one dating back to the dinosaurs is couponing, in which you spend time poring through Sunday newspapers and clipping little squares, then filing them by category, then bringing them to the grocery store with you, then making sure you by the right brand and the right amount, etc. etc. There have been TV game shows made, entire books written, and housewives made famous by uber-couponing.

We (and by we, I mean The Husband) quit coupons years ago (although for a long time he was meticulous about it). His reasoning is that brand name products are typically more expensive than the store brand, and in nearly all cases, the product is identical (except not when it comes to English muffins or peanut butter, two battles I wage constantly). Also, we do the bulk of our shopping at Big Y, a regional New England family-owned chain that offers discount coins on specific items (gold and silver) and for $25 a year, you can have a Silver Card, which gives you discounts on many items. Our most recent grocery bill (butter, eggs, milk, cheese, toilet paper, etc.) was $91.95, and with our Silver Card we saved $23.21. Figuring an average of $25/week savings (and trust me, that's low because our typical weekly grocery expense is around $200), that's $1,300 we save a year.

There's also digital coupons, in-store coupons, etc. Our store offers lots of Buy 1, Get 2 free deals, which, if you have a chest freezer like we do, works out well in terms of both saving and stocking up. Bread, bagels, chicken breasts, pork roasts … all freezable and huge savings.

Shop around

We also have a Stop & Shop, and their card as well, although their prices are overall higher than Big Y. Stop & Shop gas points is a great incentive, except for two things: We don't have a Stop & Shop gas station near us, and gas prices are pretty low now. So we typically only go there if it's a couple of ‘emergency' items, or if we need fried chicken (their fried chicken is SO GOOD).

We have one other locally owned grocery store, which does not offer a value card like Big Y. We shop at this store for any higher end or gourmet items we may need, as they cater to a more upper class clientele and have a great selection of gourmet cheeses and organic items, for example.

Paper goods, bathroom products, contact lens solutions, etc. — all that we try and get at the large discount stores, like Wal-Mart, because they are significantly cheaper than at the grocery store.

Our one hard-and-fast rule is groceries are paid with cash! Always.

We do try to be smart about shopping, eliminating the impulse buying and planning our meals in advance in order to shop efficiently and cost-effectively. But with a 15-year-old boy in the house, you just never know when he's going to eat an entire … something … and it requires that last minute run to the store. Those can add up!

How about you? What's your grocery shopping/saving strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments!

More about...Food

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Slackerjo
Slackerjo
3 years ago

A little meat, some fruit, spices, and veggies, veggies, veggies. They fill me up and don’t cost much. I live in a food desert so getting food is very hard so I buy frozen veggies and they taste just fine.

My dad did the groceries when I was a kid. He loved doing them because he could wander through the grocery store smoking with his grocery list. Yeah, the 1970s were a very different time.

Cody
Cody
3 years ago

My strategies: -I shop for groceries every 2 weeks instead of every week. This saves time and the less you’re in there, the less temptation to buy extras you don’t need. -My gym membership is paid for by my employer so it is a free benefit, and having that membership also gives me a 5% discount at my local earthfare (where I get most of my groceries) -I always use my AMEX for groceries, it gives me 6% cash back on groceries and 3% back on gas, it seems crazy to me to use cash, as I am getting free… Read more »

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston
3 years ago

Lists!!! Writing a list and sticking to it helps a lot. Of course, once I’m in the store I will see things that I had forgotten we were low on, or I’ll be tempted by something like ice cream. I will also go off list if I see an item on sale that we regularly use. As for the time sink it helps if you know where stuff is in the store. When I was able to drive and still living at home my mom would make the list, and put everything in order that you’d find them while walking… Read more »

Fede
Fede
3 years ago

We buy from different stores. I realize that for example Stop & shop carry some of the products that Whole Foods has, but “cheaper”, yes, same product but cheaper, sorry for been repetitive but I was mad when I find that out.
A good tip also is to use all that you have left in your refrigerator and freezer before you hit the supermarket again. Be creative, You will be amazed the meals you can come up with.

Debi
Debi
3 years ago
Reply to  Fede

That’s a good way to keep food items from getting lost in the back of the freezer as well. I always try to be mindful of the food I buy so that partial portions don’t spoil in refrigerator because I don’t have a meal planned to use them. For example, before I buy a head of celery I’m already thinking about what I can make over the next 2-3 weeks to use it in multiple meals.

Gigi
Gigi
3 years ago

Grocery shopping has been very expensive. Fish, shrimp and fruits cost so much more these days. I think we need to start planting vegetables soon!

Katherine
Katherine
3 years ago

I used to be a Publix shopper. But then I had another kid and became an ALDI shopper because…daycare costs. I can’t even tell you how much we save. Like half. And I used to be big on Publix BOGO sales. I find ALDI cheaper than traditional stores with coupons. I still go to Costco for things I can’t get at ALDI, but now I just consider it a hassle because of the parking and long lines. Amazon Prime Pantry is pretty decent too. I’m not going to lie, I still miss Publix but I am so glad there’s another… Read more »

Professor Kate
Professor Kate
3 years ago
Reply to  Katherine

Most people I know rave about Aldi’s, but they don’t have any stores in New England yet. I shop at Market Basket and at Stop & Shop (I have their reward card, too), and by being careful, I can keep the grocery budget to about $150 -$175 a week for a family of 4 adults and a cat. This includes cat food, paper products, cleaning needs, laundry supplies, and cold cuts for the lunches. We tend to eat our leftovers at dinner, hence the cold cuts.

A
A
3 years ago
Reply to  Professor Kate

Not True… I live in Massachusetts, and we have an Aldi right in town. But I have to admit, I prefer Market Basket, just because such a better variety even though I have to drive a couple towns over.

kiki
kiki
3 years ago

I’ve been saving money by going on a weightlifting pre-competition diet. More meat and veggies, but very little carbs. What I can actually eat is pretty limited, and I can’t eat out (which I consider part of my grocery budget) so I’ve save about $300 this past month, and I’m eating substantially better. Feel pretty good too, except for the whole hangry thing.

Jerome
Jerome
3 years ago

When we started living from our saved capital about 9 years ago, having enough to eat was one of my fears. So I did a lot of research and in the end collected 50 recipes from around the world which gave cheap and healthy meals. With these recipes I made a 12 week rotating meal-schedule which I have used since than, with small changes based on experience. Based on the recipes I also made a list of essentials for my larder. This way I always know what I need, what the meals will be for the coming weeks, which deals… Read more »

Katie Ryan O'Connor
3 years ago
Reply to  Jerome

Jerome, Thank you so much for stopping by (and everyone else! I’m loving these comments). I’m interested in hearing more about your system and totally agree that if you pay close attention you can start to see and anticipate recurring discount cycles. It’s a little anti-planning but this works for me: I try to only buy meat when it’s 50% off due to the sell-by date expiring the next day. I’ve never noticed any quality issues (whatsoever) and if it’s not in the plan for that night’s dinner or next day, I simply throw it into the freezer as soon… Read more »

RetirementBuff
RetirementBuff
3 years ago
Reply to  Jerome

I think you should publish an e-book of your recipes and system. I’m dying to know the details!

freebird
freebird
3 years ago

With respect to grocery shopping I think the main costs, and opportunities to save, are not so much on the financial side. No they’re on the health side! Respect food like spiritual medicine and your mind and body will respond. Here’s my list: (1) knowledge about nutrition has grown over the years, but this hasn’t improved our aggregate health very much– because most people simply ignore what the experts say. For most of us the right answer is more fruits and veggies, and less of meat/dairy and simple carbs. Going this route can both fatten your wallet and slim your… Read more »

jestjack
jestjack
3 years ago

I’m gonna second a couple of “motions”….First Aldi is THE place to shop for groceries. Excellent prices, good quality and quick/easy shopping. And now they accept credit cards. Which is great as I too use my Amex…with 6% cash back on groceries…But the annual fee is going up to $95. MAN $200 a week for groceries sounds a bit pricey to me….

lmoot
lmoot
3 years ago
Reply to  jestjack

I need to check Aldi’s out since it’s right around the corner. I went in a few years ago and wasn’t impressed as it seemed it was mostly things I don’t normally eat (or try not to eat at least). I’ll have to give it another go as food is my 2nd highest expense, after mortgage. I have the Amex Blue Cash Everyday card with no annual fee. It offers 3% cash back at grocery stores. I’ve never had a fee card simply because I don’t spend enough to make it worth it, after deducting the fee. Otherwise I shop… Read more »

Katie Ryan O'Connor
3 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

This would save so much … I’m with you on this.
“Ideally I would be a lacto-ovo green-thumbed vegetarian with backyard chickens and a garden. Now THAT would be a saver. Maybe one day.”
–Katie

Courtney
Courtney
3 years ago

I still thinking coupons are a beneficial way to save on groceries. It really only takes me a few minutes to look on coupons.com and in circulars for the items we need. Plus you can link your store card with coupons.com for even more offers and without having to print/cut anything out. I have found the biggest savings come from holding onto the newest coupons for a week or two. That’s when you are most likely to see the overlap in coupons and the store’s weekly sales. We purchase gift cards for all the stores we shop from our church.… Read more »

Colleen
Colleen
3 years ago

I started using (another New England chain) Hannaford’s “to go” service after I had surgery last fall and have continued to use it for my “big shopping.” I place my order on line and pick it up, usually the next day, without even going inside. Surprisingly, the produce and meats have been as nice as if I’d chosen them myself. I too am overwhelmed by the grocery store and I like being able to compare prices and keep track of how much I’m spending as I go. I find it’s easier to resist impulse buys (end-cap brownie mixes anyone!?). The… Read more »

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