Whether you're budgeting newbie or pro, one of the hardest categories to budget is food. Unlike other fixed expenses (like cable), you can't easily compare prices to see if you are spending too much. Yet it's a category that obviously can't be overlooked. Here's a compilation of hacks and tricks to help reduce your grocery bill and making grocery shopping on a budget easy. Read on for ways to help you wallet and save money on groceries.
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How much to budget for groceries anyway?
This is a tough question to answer since it really depends on many factors. The cost of living will affect the amount of your grocery bill. If you have dietary restrictions, you are more likely spending more than a typical family that doesn't.
Generally, Americans spend about 9-14% of their income on food. That being said, just because you spend 9% doesn't mean that you can't find more ways to cut your grocery bills, or if you're above the 14% mark, it could still be reasonable considering the kind of lifestyle you have.
For those of you like me who like actual numbers, the USDA has some food plans with thresholds for various lifestyles from "thrifty" to "liberal" that you can use as a gauge.
Now, let's get to the practical tips you can implement to do your grocery shopping on a budget.
1. Meal plan
By planning out your meals ahead of time helps you take the guesswork of what you need from the store.
2. Eat before you go
Don't sabotage yourself by going to the store hungry. You'll be surrounded by food everywhere and easily tempted to buy more than you really need.
3. Make a shopping list
When you write down what you need, you minimize the risk of wandering aisles and doing a grab and drop of unnecessary things.
4. Shop once a week
Reduce the number of trips to the store so you're not open to all that temptation.
5. Check store ads before you head to the store
You want to do this before you head out shopping because then you can compare prices at different stores or know what's on sale and help you with your meal planning for the week.
2. At the store
6. Price match
If something you want is out of stock, get a rain check.
7. Know when to be loyal
You probably have a go-to store for your grocery shopping, which you are familiar with the layout. Especially in times where you feel hurried or tired or stressed, if you must head to the store, try to go to one where head in and get what you need quickly.
8. Sign up for store rewards programs
These are usually free to join. Rack up the points and redeem for coupons or free stuff.
9. Time your shopping trip
For items with a shorter shelf life like in the bakery section, time your trip so that you can take advantage of clearance prices as they try to get rid of the day's inventory to prepare for the next day. Or, if you want the freshest, head in earlier in the morning.
10. Know the shipment schedule of the different departments
Each department has their own delivery schedule for foods. Check with them to see when you can expect to get the freshest stock of your foods.
11. Bring a reusable tote
Many stores offer a small discount for bringing in reusable totes. Some also charge if you use their bags, so it's best to bring your own to avoid the extra charge and get some money in return instead.
12. Check your receipt
Sometimes a sale price may not have been registered or you were rang up for the wrong item. Make sure you get price adjustments before you leave the store.
3. Don't be fooled by marketing tricks
13. Watch out for end caps
Higher priced items may appear on the end caps since that's where more traffic passes than in the individual aisles.
14. Look to upper or lower shelves
Shelves at eye level are also where higher-priced items will be displayed. Look high and low for cheaper alternatives.
15. Check different brands
Don't discount store or generic brands. But also check to see if brand labels might be cheaper, like if there's a sale.
16. Items on sale not being the best deal
Speaking of sales, be careful not to automatically think a sale item is where you're getting the best deal. The surest way to know that is to compare price per ounce. Just use the calculator on your smart phone to figure this out.
17. Two-for-one specials aren't always worth it
Most of the time, you can buy a single unit and still get the same unit price. Or, if it really is cheaper to buy 2 than 1, make sure you really can use up the 2 before you buy the set.
18. Don't be tempted by items at the checkout lane
The store's last-ditch efforts to get you to buy more before you pay the bill. Hold yourself back from it.
4. Do the labor
19. Cut your produce as soon as you return from the store
It reduces meal prep times during the rest of the week, and the effort of cutting all of it beforehand makes you less likely to waste the food (and the labor you already put into it).
20. Grow your own herbs
Herbs like mint and basil are easy to grow from stalk.
21. Prepare your own food
Pre-cut or prepared foods are more expensive because you're paying for the labor. Some easy examples are cutting your own fruits or shredding your own cheese. Buy it cheaper and do it yourself.
On that note, one thing you shouldn't buy to help your wallet: bottled water.
22. Make multiples meals from a single item
Just because you bought one of it doesn't mean you have to make it all for one meal. If you can, stretch it out across multiple meals so you can squeeze more value.
23. Keep real snacks in the house
It's easy to go to the convenience of foods like chips, but these empty calories are costing you money because they offer no real nutrition and aren't filling either. Cut these empty calories and stock up on real snacks. Have carrot sticks with hummus or apple slices with peanut butter.
5. Don't waste food!
24. Extend shelf life
Know the proper placement of foods or what you can do to preserve its freshness for as long as possible. For example, don't store milk on the side of the fridge door. Or you can place a wet paper towel with lettuce to help it last longer.
25. Eat what you have
Money is down the drain when you throw bad food out. Make the effort to eat up what you have. This goes for preparing the foods you have in your fridge and pantry as well as eating up leftovers.
26. Keep food visible
Foods that get buried in the back of the fridge or freezer are likely to go bad, or you might not remember you have it and end up buying some more of it. Keep food visible, whether physically visible or with an inventory list to help you track what foods need to be eaten up.
27. Use recipe puppy
If you're stuck on what you can make with what's left in your pantry, try the Recipe Puppy website. Put in the ingredient you have and it'll return a bunch of recipes you can use it in.
28. Freeze some of your foods
If you know you won't use up all your food in time, consider freezing it to stretch out the shelf life.
29. Salvage food before it spoils
Foods that are on the verge of going bad can be made into delicious foods. Some examples:
- stale bread into croutons
- kale into chips
- ripe bananas into banana bread
- veggies into soup stock
- fruits into jams
- herbs can be dried in the oven and used as seasoning
30. Use food to clean your house
Some of the best cleaners out there are actually made from edible ingredients. Use leftover lemon rinds and salt to scrub your cutting board clean. Or, a banana peel actually makes a great polisher.
6. Save online
31. Use Ibotta
Scan your receipts for qualifying purchases and get rebates on your groceries. Some are specific to the store or product, but my favorite ones to redeem are for any item from any store, which pop up quite often.
32. Use Raise.com
Get gift cards at a discount through this gift card marketplace.
34. Use digital coupons
This could be store coupons that you can find online or manufacturer's coupons for specific products. These are stackable, so use that to your advantage!
35. Take a simple course on couponing
Speaking of stacking coupons, it's really not that difficult at all to learn how to do this effectively. A course called Grocery University teaches you the principles to be a productive couponer. You'll be making back your investment in this course in grocery savings within the first week of implementing it.
36. Get social
By signing up for text alerts or follow your favorite stores on social media, you can get exclusive coupons and deals.
37. Sign up for the store app
Lots of stores are offering incentives to sign up for their phone apps. My husband did that for Safeway, and we've gotten free orange juice, soups, and such just by checking in the app.
7. Other ways to keep costs down
38. Buy in bulk (if it makes sense)
You will generally get a better price if you buy in bulk (do the math to be sure), but having more food means that it is likely to go to waste if you don't use it up in time. One way to work around this problem is to split a bulk purchase with a family or friend.
39. Buy in season
It's a matter of supply and demand. When it's the appropriate growing season and therefore a certain produce item is more abundant, the price will be cheaper then, and that's when you buy.
40. Keep track of prices
After you've been doing your grocery shopping for a while, you'll become familiar with prices. Try to remember them as you shop in the store and buy when you know it's a good deal.
41. Incorporate some cheaper meals in your meal repertoire
Pastas tend to be budget-friendly, so think about making a few pasta meals a month to offset some of the more expensive groceries you may be buying.
42. Go meatless
You can still get sufficient protein and hearty meals without the meat. If you're not up to a full-time vegetarian lifestyle, just doing it once or twice a week will help your wallet.
43. Save jars and bags
Repurpose jars and bags to save in other ways. Jars are perfect small storage solutions and the bags that you wrap your produce in can be easily used as trashbags.
44. Check other stores
Some items are generally more expensive at the grocery store, so don't buy from there if you can. Examples include toiletries and batteries. You're better off at drugstores. You also shouldn't limit your groceries to a grocery store; drugstores might have sales on produce that make it cheaper to get there.
45. Redeem bottles for cash back
In some states, you pay a beverage deposit that you can get back when you return the empty cans or bottles. Do it!
46. Be open to change or no change
Saving money could mean eating a lot of the same kinds of foods or it could mean trying out new cuisines that might be on sale. If you're flexible with your eating options, you'll snag the best deals on foods.
47. Use storage containers in fridge
Psychologically, humans want to fill up the white space in their fridge. Use storage containers to make your fridge seem fuller, without necessarily having to fill them up to the brink with groceries. That not only reduces the amount of food you buy and likelihood that what you do have goes to waste, it helps keep your fridge organized.
48. Jars are not as empty as they seem
Even if it looks like your peanut butter jar is almost out, chances are, you can still use some of the remnants stuck on the sides and bottoms of the jar. Use a spatula for better scraping or how about using the jars as a serving bowl? Throw some oats in an empty peanut butter jar for some overnight oats or scoop ice cream into a nutella jar.
49. Make it a family affair
Most coupons are limited to one per person. If the item you are looking to buy is one that you'll be eating often (eg. boxes of pasta), then bring your spouse or sibling to use a coupon as well.
Groceries aren't the only food that we buy to eat. Eating out is another way people spend money on food. In general, eating out tends to be more expensive than eating in, but that doesn't mean we should completely eliminate this budget category to save money on our food bill. Here are three tips to save money on eating out for those days when you just don't feel like cooking:
- If you have the choice, choose lunch
The exact same thing on a menu is somehow cheaper during the day than night.
- Eat during non-peak hours
You can often get foods at a fraction of their cost if ordered during outside of the busiest hours.
- Portion for another meal
Restaurants tend to give more than what we should eat in one meal, so save a little extra for a meal the following day
With these simple hacks, save money on groceries and make grocery shopping on a budget a breeze.