8 clever strategies—no coupon-clipping required.
Feel like you’re shelling out more to stock the pantry lately? It’s not your imagination: According to the most recent stats, Americans spent about $668 billion on groceries in 2016—over $100 billion more than we spent as recently as 2010. Here’s how to cut spending and still love what you eat.
Shop at more than one store.
Ticking every box at a single location is tempting—but it’ll cost you. “Never pay full price at the grocery store for things like laundry detergent, paper products, cleaning supplies, and personal-care items,” says Stephanie Nelson, author of The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half. That merchandise is typically cheaper online, at bulk membership clubs, or at discount retailers, like Target and Walmart. Nelson suggests jotting down essentials, then consulting store circulars and websites for sales. Always make a list; nearly one-third of female shoppers surveyed don’t. Then separate the items on your list by store so you can get in and out quickly and avoid overbuying.
Time really is money, says Rachel Cruze, a personal-finance expert and the author of Love Your Life, Not Theirs. She says the average shopper spends about $2.71 per minute in the store. Try setting a timer on your phone for, say, 25 minutes. Avoid grocery shopping on Saturday, the busiest day of the week—but if you must shop then, go near opening or closing time, when there’s less of a crowd to slow you down. Bring earbuds and listen to something upbeat. “Research has shown that when customers shop under the influence of slow, smooth tunes, they spend about 38 percent more because the tempo encourages relaxing and browsing,” says Lisa Rowan, a savings expert for the website The Penny Hoarder.
Buy in-season fresh produce to avoid overpaying for import costs. Case in point: The price of strawberries can more than double following the peak harvest months in spring and summer, usually topping out in December, January, and February. To know what’s growing near you, hit the farmers market—especially at closing time, when vendors are more amenable to negotiating, says Alice Figueroa, RDN, founder of AliceinFoodieland.com. Or simply plug in the month and your state at seasonalfoodguide.org. If there’s something you positively can’t live without? Look to frozen produce, which is lower-priced all year round and just as healthy.
Meal-plan like crazy.
One report found that as much as 40 percent of food in the U.S. ends up in the trash! To reduce waste, consumer-finance expert Andrea Woroch suggests planning meals with a common denominator: A package of prosciutto could go on pizza on Monday and in chicken saltimbocca on Wednesday. Get a month’s worth of easy-to-prepare recipes with shopping lists at realsimple.com/mealplanner.
Stop throwing shade at store brands.
Many consumers avoid store brands because there’s a misconception that they’re lower-quality, says Woochoel Shin, PhD, associate professor of marketing at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “But over the last decade, many retailers have introduced midtier and premium store brands that are comparable to name brands.” (Psst: Often the items are even made by the same manufacturer.) In fact, a blind test conducted by Consumer Reports revealed that in some cases, people actually preferred the store brands. Store brands tied with national brands in 10 food categories.
Avoid prepared foods.
“You’ll always save by buying the most basic form of an item and doing your own slicing, shredding, and peeling,” says Nelson. At a New York City–area Whole Foods Market, cored and cubed organic pineapple was recently going for $8 a pound, whereas an entire organic pineapple was $5. Says Nelson, “I’ve calculated the added cost of prepared foods, and it’s the equivalent of paying someone $35 to $55 an hour to peel your carrots.” The caveat: If there’s no chance you’ll get around to making that salad unless veggies come prewashed in the bag, then know thyself and purchase accordingly.
Turn a blind eye to displays.
Ever notice how endcaps seem to magically anticipate your desires? “Retailers assume you’ll spot an item there, grab it, and mark it off your list without doing any price, size, or brand comparisons,” says Rowan. Ditto for cross-promotional displays, says Josh Elledge, founder of SavingsAngel.com, such as steak sauce at the butcher counter. “The items are rarely a decent value—if you really need the extras, check the correct aisle.”
Be mindful at checkout.
“With all the overpriced candy bars and lifestyle items, it’s not hard to see why it’s reportedly the most profitable part of the store,” says Cruze. It’s perfectly fine to budget in some splurge items—like your monthly issue of Real Simple or your favorite lip balm. Just don’t load up your cart with extras on the fly. Switching to self-checkout could help: A study from IHL Consulting Group found that spur-of-the-moment splurges dropped (by 32.1 percent among women and 16.7 percent among men) when customers did their own scanning.
Three Things Worth the Added Expense
- Extra-virgin olive oil: “Since it’s exposed to less heat during production than cheaper olive oils, it’s healthier for you and tastes better,” says Figueroa. “To make sure that you’re getting pure extra-virgin olive oil—and that it hasn’t been diluted with lesser oils, like rapeseed—check for a term like ‘stone-pressed,’ ‘cold-pressed,’ or ‘unfiltered’ on the bottle.”
- Certified organic and certified humane chicken: “The term ‘certified organic’ guarantees that the birds are given organic feed, allowed exercise and access to the outdoors, and raised without antibiotics,” says Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken. “We should all be worried about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.” (Bonus points for phrases like “no antibiotics ever” on the package, since even organic chicken can be given antibiotics while still in the shell.)
- Select fruits and veggies: “Buy organic whenever the skin or peel of the vegetable or fruit is edible,” says Figueroa. Don’t worry about produce with hard, inedible skins, like bananas and avocados. But if organic is too pricey, keep in mind that it’s still healthier to eat nonorganic produce than to skip it out of fear of pesticides.