Saving at the supermarket: 15 great grocery shopping tips

I Have Too Much OatmealKris and I went grocery shopping this weekend. We stopped at Bob's Red Mill — a local health-food store — to use some “buy one, get one free” coupons. “You can get anything you want,” Kris told me, “except hot cereal.”

“Why can't I get hot cereal?” I asked. “I love hot cereal.”

“I know,” Kris said. “But you buy it all the time. You buy it faster than you eat it. Just last week, you bought another box of that blueberry oatmeal from Trader Joe's. You never remember what we have at home. You need to shop with a list.”

She has a point.

A shopping list is a useful way to remind yourself what you do and do not need to purchase. But most frugality experts emphasize shopping with a list because it prevents impulse purchases. Impulse purchases wreck grocery budgets. In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill writes:

Supermarkets are places of high impulse buying for both sexes — fully 60 to 70 percent of purchases there were unplanned, grocery industry studies have shown us.

More than half of all grocery purchases are unplanned! No wonder creating and sticking to a list can bring down grocery costs.

But that's not the only way to save money at the supermarket. Over the past two years, I've published a lot of tips for saving money on your grocery bill. Some of these have been obvious — others less so. All of them can help you save at the supermarket. Here are some of the best:

Make a List — and Stick to It.

This is the cardinal rule of shopping. The list represents your grocery needs: the staples you're out of, and the food you need for upcoming meals. When you stray from the list, you're buying on impulse, and that's how shopping trips get out of control. Sure, a magazine only costs $5, but if you spend an extra $5 every time you make a trip to the supermarket, you waste a lot of money.

Compare Unit Pricing.

The biggest package isn't always the most cost-effective. Stores know that consumers want to buy in bulk, and so they mix it up: sometimes the bulk item is cheaper, sometimes it's more expensive. The only way you can be sure is to take a calculator. Our grocery store posts unit pricing for most items, which makes comparisons easy.

Ditch the Basket or Cart.

If you're dashing into the supermarket to pick up milk and bread, don't use a basket. Baskets induce people to buy more. If you're limited to what you can carry, you're more likely to avoid impulse purchases. Only use a basket (or shopping cart) if it's absolutely necessary.

Don't Examine Things You Don't Need.

The more you interact with something, the more likely you are to buy it, says Paco Underhill in Why We Buy: “Virtually all unplanned purchases…come as a result of the shopper seeing, touching, smelling, or tasting something that promises pleasure, if not total fulfillment.” Do you know why grocery stores place those displays in the aisles? To intentionally block traffic. They want to force you to stop, if only for a moment. It only takes a few seconds of idly staring at the Chips Ahoy! to convince you to buy them. Stay focused.

Live on the Edge.

Health-conscious shoppers know that the perimeter of the store is where the good stuff is. The baked goods, dairy products, fresh meats, and fruits and vegetables are generally placed along the outside edge of the supermarket, while the processed stuff can be found up and down the aisles. But shopping the edges isn't just healthier — it's cheaper too. Stock up on the fresh food first, then venture to the middle of the store.

Discard Brand Loyalties.

Be willing to experiment. You may have a favorite brand of diced tomatoes, for example, but does it really matter? Go with what's on sale for the lowest unit price. You may find you like the less expensive product just as well. If you try a cheaper brand and are disappointed, it's okay to return to your regular brand.

Choose Generic.

Better yet, try the store brand. Generic and store brand products are cheaper than their name-brand equivalents and are usually of similar quality. But do you know why you're reluctant to try generics? The power of marketing. Most generics have unappealing packaging. If they cost less and taste the same, who cares?

Use Coupons Wisely.

Coupons really can save you money. But you have to know how to use them. Clip coupons only the things you need — staple foods and ingredients — not for processed junk food. Learn to use special coupons. Once each month, one local store sends us a “$10 off a $50 purchase coupon”. We know it's coming, so we plan our trips around it.

Make One Large Trip Instead of Several Small Ones.

Each time you enter the grocery store is another chance to spend. By reducing the frequency of your trips, you're not only avoiding temptation, but you're also saving money on overhead (time and fuel).

Buy From the Bulk Bins.

Some stores offer bulk bins filled with baking ingredients, cereal, and spices. When you buy in bulk, you get just the amount you need, and you pay less. Much less. (One GRS reader recently shared how he saved over $150 by buying spices in bulk.)

Check Your Receipt.

Make sure your prices are scanned correctly. Make sure your coupons are scanned correctly. Sale items, especially, have a tendency to be in the computer wrong, and yet few people ever challenge the price at the register. You don't need to hold up the line: simply watch the price of each item as it's scanned. If you suspect an error, step to the side and check the receipt as the clerk begins the next order. If there's a problem, politely point it out. It's your money. Ask for it.

Shop Alone.

In Why We Buy, the author notes that people tend to buy more when shopping in groups than when shopping alone. “But men are especially suggestible to the entreaties of children as well as eye-catching displays.” Kris complains that we always spend more on food when we shop together. She's right. If possible, shop alone.

Use a Grocery Price Book.

A grocery price book is an ongoing list of the items you most commonly purchase and how much you paid for them. This list allows you to detect price cycles, spot bargains, and plan your shopping trips for maximum savings. A price book allows you to practice strike-point shopping.

Shop on a Full Stomach.

Studies show that folks who shop when they're hungry buy more. This is certainly true for me: If I go to the store for milk on a Sunday morning without eating breakfast, I'm likely to come home with donuts and orange juice and Lucky Charms, too.

Walk or Bike.

In our recent discussion about how to pay yourself first, Ross Williams suggested another way to reduce impulse purchases. By walking or biking to the store, you can automatically limit your spending. “It's amazing how focused you can be when you are limited to one shopping bag full of groceries,” he writes. “Once you are very conscious of each purchase, it seems to carry over even to the small items where space isn't really an issue.”

Any of these tips can help a savvy shopper save money at the supermarket. But when combined to create a cohesive shopping philosophy, they have the power to slash your grocery budget significantly. I'm not promising that you'll be able to feed yourself for $15 a week, but you might be able to save enough money pay down your debt or to jump-start your savings!

Here are some related articles:

Kris requested I offer some final pointers for the gentlemen. “Check with your wife before you go shopping,” she says. “Check with your wife before you put anything into the cart. And remember: Just because you like a food doesn't mean you need to buy it every time you go shopping.”

Bulk food photo by mattieb.

More about...Frugality, Food

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JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

We recently made the decision to bike to our local grocery stores (the farthest one is a mile and a quarter away, and all along bike trails). We’ve definitely found that having bikes limits our purchases to just what we need.

And amazingly enough, the first thing that’s cut? Anything that one drinks. Water is heavy!

Gal
Gal
6 years ago
Reply to  JerichoHill

Excellent idea, good sport and savings….

For me using the list is a significant part of saving. I am using a list on my phone which is always with me and also automatically sync with the rest of my family. I use https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gal.appshoppinglist

Jenne
Jenne
12 years ago

Not all ‘unplanned’ purchases are bad– IF you are buying staples that you use on a regular basis and if you’re picking up loss leaders. Have a list– mental or physical– of items that you use up with regularity, and keep a sharp eye out for particular deals. That doesn’t mean hoarding 7 bottles of detergent, but buying ahead when it’s cheap means that you don’t find yourself buying 1.89 a pound macaroni, $2.79 ketchup, or $7.99 parmesan because you need it this week and it’s not on sale. This is especially important when shopping at discount stores, because they… Read more »

Mandy
Mandy
12 years ago

This is exciting – my first comment after months of “lurking”!

This post is near and dear to my heart as I’m sure it is also to others. Everyday savings are what make you rich in the end.

In our house, we use the Grocery Game (grocerygame.com) to take care of the price book and coupons. There is a small fee (obviously) for the service but it’s not oppressive and saves TREMENDOUS time from doing it all yourself.

Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Christian
Christian
12 years ago

I wanted to point out that your “Shop Alone” suggestion isn’t quite correct. According to Paco Underhill, women shopping in together tend to purchase more items and more frequently. However, when a man and a woman are shopping together, the man puts pressure on the woman to “hurry up and go.” This is why Mr. Underhill makes the specific suggestion to put chairs in your retail store for the men to relax in while women shop. Believe me, as the owner of a brick and mortar retail store I see this happen every day. I would suggest that a woman… Read more »

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

While most of this is fantastic advice, I’m afraid I must disagree with a couple of points. “Make one large trip instead of several small ones.” I find it better to shop several times a week – I only buy what I’ll need for the next few days, and this ensures that I don’t over-purchase, and thus end up wasting food when it goes bad in the fridge. “Shop alone.” My wife and I are pretty good at keeping each other in check with “do we really need that?” I find myself less likely to buy something we don’t need… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Sounds like some husband/wife teams are able to keep each other in check! Christian’s right about Underhill’s conclusion regarding men and women shopping together. I’d forgotten about that. But I know for certain that he cautions against shopping with friend and/or with children. (And men shopping with children is a dangerous combination!)

Thomas Murphy
Thomas Murphy
12 years ago

List, list and list. Sticking to the list is the important thing. With a list, you will only buy what you need and not what you think you need when you see it at the store!

Hannah
Hannah
12 years ago

Your list of tips is excellent. I did not realize that those ‘roadblock’ displays in aisles were put there intentionally (just never thought about it!) It’s a bit annoying, being manipulated like that, and nice to have shopping strategies to protect ourselves. I like to shop early in the morning when the grocery store is not busy. Saves time, and the ‘last day of sale’ stickers are put on produce and meats then, so bargains are available then. I figure that saving my valuable time is like saving some money, too. We live 50 km. from town, and I only… Read more »

PJ
PJ
12 years ago

I agree with #2, Jenne. Make a list of stuff you *use*, not so much *need*. If I’m low on tomatoes and tomatoes are on sale, I’ll buy them, but I’m not going to pay $4/lb for tomatoes. Same goes with chicken. I wait for a big sale and stock up; buying 10lbs at a time. People need to learn to cook improvisationally as well. I don’t make big grocery store visits dropping a hundred dollars at a time. I make small ones during commutes or neighborhood bike rides – which usually limits me to what I can fit in… Read more »

Laura
Laura
12 years ago

I agree with making one large trip instead of several small ones. My husband and I do one big shopping trip a month. In between we might stop by for milk or bread, but that’s it. It forces us to use everything we buy before buying more food and saves us a lot of money!

Tim L
Tim L
12 years ago

The one way that I just can’t follow these rules is with the purchase of meat. Due to the fact that I just consider it unethical to buy just any meat. It has to be pasture lived and pasture fed meat.

This is definitely more expensive, but there are ways to save. I often find special deals on it then buy it in bulk. Also my wife and I have been investigating and are close to purchasing straight from a couple of farms.

Sara
Sara
12 years ago

Unit price, unit price, unit price. I was at Winco this weekend, and so many of the items on sale had a higher unit price than the regular items. And the small containers had consistently lower unit prices than the “bulk” ones! They’ve got great prices, but it really seemed like they were using the discount warehouse shopping patterns against people. (But I love love love their bulk section. So worth the trip!)

Rai
Rai
12 years ago

In addition to the other things you’ve mentioned, I practise a different version of your last tip: I take my own (cloth) bag to the store. This way, I’m forced to keep my purchases to what I can carry out of the shop, because I don’t rely on the store’s shopping bags. (Works well in conjunction with not shopping with a trolley)

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

Great list. You didn’t include “belong to a food co-op”, perhaps because you need to live near one and not everyone is that lucky.
Shopping like an environmentalist is also financially beneficial: buy foods that are less packaged. No point in paying for a lot of excess, wasted, fossil-fuel based plastic.
ALso buy less meat. Get more of your protein from tofu and grains. Easier on the planet, healthier, and way cheaper in the long run.

toes
toes
12 years ago

Many stores in my area no longer have grocery hand baskets available. I fear that they soon will become extinct. I know that the stores are doing it because if a person has a choice between a cart or carrying their items, most will choose the cart and fill it up. Some stores haven’t gotten rid of the hand baskets but instead hide them inside of the stores. The Target near my work doesn’t have hand baskets near the front door (where it would be useful) but instead keeps them next to the make-up.

Drew
Drew
12 years ago

My kids hate shopping with me because I don’t let them dawdle. It constantly amazes my wife that I’m able to go to the grocery store with a list and return with only the items on the list. Just yesterday, in fact, she went shopping by herself for a couple specific items and returned with extras: chocolate chip cake, chips, ice cream topping, etc. I do keep an eye out on the loss leaders and will stock up on items I know I’ll use such as dish soap or oatmeal if I see a good deal. But I’m a minimalist… Read more »

Chad @ Sentient Money
Chad @ Sentient Money
12 years ago

Shopping on a full stomach is key.

MonkeyMonk
MonkeyMonk
12 years ago

I got stuck in line behind a hardcore “coupon shopper” this weekend and it was excruciating. The whole ordeal took over 15 minutes and by the time we realized our mistake it was too late to go to another check-out. She had this huge binder with all her coupons but was still completely disorganized and appeared to be fudging the terms on a bunch of them. The checkout person was double-checking *everything* and when certain coupons weren’t being accepted they had to subtract them from the total and then find them in the bagging area and remove them. Then the… Read more »

Brigitte
Brigitte
12 years ago

I have to say, if you actually look at what you’re writing, it’s contradictory. Buy store brands but use coupons. Rarely (ever?) are the coupons in the circulars for store brands. Buy “whole foods” rather than over-processed packaged junk? But the packaged junk is (usually) what the coupons are for. Since I stopped eating sugar, I only get coupons out of about 1 out of every 3 weeks of papers, and I only look because the paper with the coupons and my grocery ad is free and I can sort thru them during the slow time at work before I… Read more »

Daniel@youngandfrugal
12 years ago

I’m really just insanely jealous that you have a trader joes nearby. I buy Bob’s Red Barn stuff at the local grocery store, but trader joes, oh how I miss that aspect of living on the West coast.

Please TJ’s, come to TX!

The Math Guy
The Math Guy
12 years ago

Great article! I wrote about this on my blog just recently, although I focused more on a variation of unit pricing which gives one more insight into the best way to think about how grocery stores price their item (and thus how much money you are REALLY sending), but the rest of the tips here are definitely essential (like sticking to a list, for example).

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

I think its true that if you shop alone you’ll buy less — but we’ll never do that. Ever since we were very poor graduate students a trip to the grocery store has been kind of like a date for my husband and me. We find it fun to shop together and often two heads are better than one for finding bargains or affordable treats…

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

@Brigitte
You’re right, of course. Perhaps I got a little over-eager when I encouraged people to do ALL of these. I plead 1 a.m. 🙂

As with many personal finance choices, it’s important to pick and choose the methods that work best for you and your situation. And combining several of these can increase your savings: Use coupons on things you’d buy anyhow. And when you can’t find coupons, buy generic. Try to make big trips, but if you can’t then bike or walk to the store.

Good catch!

Adrienne
Adrienne
12 years ago

You have to be careful on which items you choose to stockpile. I try only to stockpile items with fixed consumption and not expandable consumption. Fixed consumption items (like toothpaste) you don’t use more of just because there is more around unlike expandable consumption items (like cookies). Believe me – I spent many years working for a food company and we push multiple pricing because if it’s there you’ll eat it and eat more.

Summer Fey Foovay
Summer Fey Foovay
12 years ago

I agree and use almost all the advice above, and have for years but – Before I go grocery shopping, I check the house and make out a menu for the next two weeks, then the list (hubby gets paid every 2 weeks – I go shopping once). I leave a few meals open, however. When I get to the store, if I see something we like is on sale, or a great deal on something, then I can use that as one of the “open” meals. Since we are vegetarian and eat a lot of raw food, often as… Read more »

Liz
Liz
12 years ago

Like Rai, I take four cloth bags to the store for the week for a family of six. I can fit everything we need in those four bags. I shop with my children and make a game out of who can find the lowest unit price. I do not let my husand and children do the shopping or my 250.00 a month budget will be gone in a week and won’t feed us for the month.

dcpatton
dcpatton
12 years ago

Stores often have specials such as Get two items for $5. If you only need one item, closely check the price tag. Most of the time I find you can get one for $2.50.

TJ
TJ
12 years ago

Just one tip: Know your store well before buying bulk. I worked in a bakery, and quickly learned not to buy a thing from our bulk department. Not that they didn’t clean out the bins, but there was often a problem of bugs getting in (and not just weevils in rice)and the beans and candies had their fair share of unsupervised children running their hands through them.

Bins that only allow you to slide open a spout tend to have less contamination, but do a good checking first!

Maxine
Maxine
12 years ago

I’ve been ordering my groceries online for the past year or so and have noticed significent saving in time and money. Whereas before it took me at least 3 hours to do the weekly shop, now I do it in less then 15 minutes and it usually delivered next day for a small charge. I use the faviourite tab on the site which means I dont have to search the site for things I want. I also make a rough meal plan before writing my list and try to stick to it and ignoring all the offers on the site.… Read more »

Sean
Sean
12 years ago

Another thing that I do is I set aside much more time than I think I will need at the store. That allows me to walk around and spend a lot of time, comparing prices. Items that are not in their regular spot are almost guaranteed to be more expensive, since items are not next to the alternatives and you can’t conveniently compare the price. Also watch out for the self-checkouts, if there is a sale price and its a limit of two, make sure you type in that you have two of the item. If you scan the two… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

All good tips. As far as “sticking to the list”, I do best if I go: — Early with minimal caffeine: I don’t want to do anything but complete my list and get home! — If I take my two energetic and impatient kids along. My mantras for their “I wannas” are: “It’s not on the list” and “Do you have enough money for that?” In any case, I have to keep moving, or they find more things to ask for. It’s like a race to complete the list and check out before I want to abandon my cart and… Read more »

JustRob
JustRob
12 years ago

A tip from my bachelor days:

Shop on an EMPTY stomach, but with a FULL bladder!

Oh – you’ll get the essentials, but it’s amazing how little else you will pick up. In and out in 10 minutes.

OMAR
OMAR
12 years ago

this is a good list.

I keep a piece of paper magnetized to my fridge and I just keep track throughout the week of what I need, so I can just grab that list and go.

Also, I don’t use plastic bags, I take my own. So, instead of using a cart I just put my items in those bags. It saves time and waste, but I also know how much I’m carrying. I find that helps me get in and out with the best environmental and financial savings.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

i ONLY shop on weekends. i don’t have time during the week anyway, but if i needed something i would go without until the weekend. i find my spending gets much higher when i take my husband. he is easily seduced by things we don’t need that are cheap. he just gets a lot of them *because* they are cheap. as we know, lots of cheap adds up to expensive. i only buy what’s on my list. i spend a good half hour deciding what we need and if it’s not on the list i had better have a damn… Read more »

Khurt Williams
Khurt Williams
12 years ago

I agree with @Matt. Buying in bulk only works if you have a large family that can consume the product faster than it can go bad. Sams Club is not a bargain for myself, my wife an two kids. We almost always end up throwing away food.
Better to do your grocery shopping ( from a list ) on the way home from work.

Faculties
Faculties
12 years ago

You have to watch out for the bulk pricing too. At my local store the flour in 5-lb. bags is cheaper per pound than the bulk flour. I’m sure most people don’t bother to compare, since they’re in different sections of the store. I have a rule about certain foods: when I see them below a certain price, I stock up no matter what. My favorite kind of bread is usually $4.09 per loaf, but it goes on sale now and then. My rule is that I only buy it when it’s $2 or less. When I see it for… Read more »

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

Actually I have learnt a lot from shopping with my boyfriend, he’s the attentive one 🙂

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

I do love using lists. I make a point of writing things down on my list and crossing it off — even if I am staring at it in the store and about to toss it in my basket. Helps me to focus and know what I’m getting into.

bethh
bethh
12 years ago

I’ve never been a big shopper-for-entertainment, but I’ve noticed that isn’t really true when it comes to groceries. Many the night I’ve been home and restless and have considered heading over to the grocery store (2 block walk) to pick up just one thing. Since I’ve started tracking my spending I’ve been better able to resist, especially toward the end of the month when I’m focused on keeping my monthly spending below x dollars! I still laugh about the time I forgot I’d walked to the grocery store, and had to “borrow” a cart to get all the stuff home!… Read more »

Aaron
Aaron
12 years ago

Good list, but i have to question the idea that “living on the edge” is cheaper. I can usually get frozen vegetable cheaper than fresh (not always, but usually). Bread not from the bakery area is always cheaper. And as for the meat from the butcher area…well, meat is never cheap, but the frozen meat is almost always cheaper than the fresh meat. While I am certainly a fan of healthy, fresh food and farmers’ markets, it is starting to bug me to hear constantly repeated, here and elsewhere, the idea that fresh food is less expensive than processed food.… Read more »

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

About supermarket strategies: they’ve been used for decades. Read Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuader, it was written at the end of the FIFTIES and still relevant.

Sandy Naidu
Sandy Naidu
12 years ago

Good tips…We don’t have unit pricing here in Australia…But they are working on it…’Not shopping on a empty stomach’ and ‘sticking to a list’ are important for me…

Andrea
Andrea
12 years ago

mis-rung items- twice in two days in two stores and on more than one item. I have to wonder if this is an error or a scam. I am reporting one store to the state consumer affairs office- it happens too much. The question is- Is it bad management or dishonest management? It can’t be the employee because the computer reads the bar code. The problems have been discounts shown on the register tape- but when you add it yourself- the discounts were not taken, items that were advertised as discounted but the full price showed up and bait and… Read more »

Focus On Your Money Maker
Focus On Your Money Maker
12 years ago

This is a great article for my wife and I. Just last night we were going over our budget again and noticed an alarming trend that our biggest budget eater right now is food. We just spend way too much on it right now.

Our biggest problem is we make 5-6 small trips to the grocery store a week rather than one large trip. You don’t realize that those $20-30 trips add up so fast, but they do.

Verda Vivo
Verda Vivo
12 years ago

Great tips. Another one is to make sure to check items at the top and bottom of the grocery shelves. Costlier items are usually placed at eye level because that’s where we’re looking. ~ Daryl

Frosty840
Frosty840
12 years ago

Here in the United Kingdom, all items sold by weight in supermarkets are listed along with their cost-by-weight. Anything sold by quantity is listed along with a per-item price. It’s also sold in metric rather than imperial measure, which helps with the math, should you need it. As a result, it is always cheaper to buy the larger quantities, because rather than some complicated arithmetic with four-packs of eight-ounce cans, we actually get a note right on every item in the store that tells us the price per 100 grams. I don’t know if that’s the law these days, but… Read more »

Dana
Dana
12 years ago

I don’t know how wide-spread Freihofer’s is, but they have bakery outlets where you can get staples insanely cheap. I get a half gallon of whole milk for 2.09 and bread is never more than 1.39, but usually more like 1.19. And I am talking about nice bread, Freihofer’s country white, or any amount of Arnold Whole Grain breads. Thomas’s Bagels are $.99! They also have a calander that they give out and each month they have two coupons which are very useful. Buy one item (anything) and get a free loaf of any Arnold of Freihofer bread is one… Read more »

42
42
12 years ago

Oh definitely right on the walking thing. I walk about 1/2 mile to Trader Joe’s and always manage to buy the heaviest things possible that will fill up one bag. God forbid I decide to stop at the wine shop on the way back.

Kym
Kym
12 years ago

I agree with Aaron (comment #40): since I’ve been trying to eat healthier, I have spent a LOT more on food. Processed food is indeed much cheaper than whole food. I am paying the higher price because of the health benefits, but I come right up to the edge of my $200 food budget – for 1 person! I see commenters on here feeding families of 4 or more for that same price, and I have no idea how they do it.

Bob
Bob
12 years ago

Since my wife does most of the cooking, she makes the list. I do the shopping. Since I don’t really have much of a clue about what is actually in the house, I only buy what’s on the list. I spend much less than when she shops as she tends to find things that she forgot or didn’t think about.

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