Shopping For Groceries On A Budget: How To Make The Most Of Your Money

With inflation at a 40-year high, it’s never been a better time to get smart about cutting expenses at the checkout till. Here are a few tips for shopping for groceries on a budget to keep you inflation-proof without having to sacrifice your enjoyment of food.

Opt for generic brands. A lot of us are loyal to the brands we’re used to, whether it’s our favorite childhood cereal, that brand of milk with the cute packaging, or the sparkling water brand that has all the fun flavors. But generic brands (the store’s own brands) are often nearly identical while being approximately 30% cheaper than name brands. And if you’re buying medication, that discount can be as high as 95%. The assumption that cheaper products are poorer in quality is usually misplaced. The marketing and packaging budgets may be smaller, but the products themselves are very similar.

Don’t go shopping on an empty stomach. Research from the University of Minnesota shows that hungry shoppers end up with substantially more groceries than they need. This is because hunger activates a need for “acquisition,” making us prone to grab everything in sight. Interestingly, this desire for acquisition applies to non-food items as well, meaning that you might go to the store to stock up on groceries, only to leave with additional bags full of light bulbs, toiletries, and bathmats that you definitely do not need. Having a meal before heading to the store may be one of the best ways to curb spending.

Scale back on meat. According to a 2021 study from Oxford University, a vegan or vegetarian diet is up to one-third cheaper than a carnivorous diet for those living in high-income countries such as the US. Anyone who’s seen the price tag on meat substitutes may struggle to believe this data, but if you can move from chicken and beef to legumes and whole grains rather than pricey vegan meat, you will be doing your bank account a favor. You don’t have to go cold turkey either (excuse the pun). Cutting out meat from breakfast or lunch, or committing to being meat-free for at least two days a week will make a difference.

Have a shopping list. One of the most common mistakes people make when grocery shopping is going in with only a “mental list.” If you’re like me, a mental list is equivalent to no list, because the second I see something I want, I grab it. You ultimately end up leaving the store with a random assortment of items that looked good on the shelf but do not add up to complete meals when you try to use them. Having a list will give you tunnel vision. You can even go the extra mile and take a pen with you to tick off each item as you put it in your cart. Stick to the list, and you’ll only purchase what you need. No clogged fridges and pantries, no wasted food, and more money in the bank.

Buy in bulk. We’ve all had that moment at the grocery store standing in front of a wall of toilet paper, wondering which to get. If you’re like me, you’ll end up snatching the cheapest option, which is usually the one with only a few rolls. But if you look at the unit price, it’s much cheaper to buy twenty rolls than four, even if the price makes you cringe. Buying bulk is one of the best ways to save money on groceries if you can afford to spend the cash up front. Not everything is cheaper in bulk, especially perishable items which will inevitably end up rotting in your fridge if you buy too much. But items such as toilet paper, nuts, batteries, and butter are much cheaper when purchased in large quantities.

Avoid pre-packaged snacks. As a passionate snacker, it pains me to say this, but…skip the snack aisle. Individual serving packages of chips, popcorn, and trail mix seem like a great way to get a cheap, convenient bite to eat between meals, but it adds up. According to registered dietician Lyssie Lakatos, manufacturers charge a premium on pre-packaged snacks, and, “you typically get significantly less.” I don’t know about you, but I never eat just one serving size. Buying in bulk is the way to go. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also avoid unnecessary packaging.

How to make shopping for groceries on a budget easier

Meal plan. Take your list-making to the next level by planning the week’s meals before going shopping. That way, you’ll never end up with four unopened bags of slimy spinach at the end of the week and nothing else. Meal planning will also save you time. You won’t spend 30 minutes staring into the shadowy depths of your cupboard when you get home from work, trying to complete a complex puzzle of ingredients that will hopefully turn into a meal. Instead, you’ll have a list of pre-planned meals and the ingredients to make them.

Be on the lookout for “shrinkflation.” Most people notice when the price goes up on their usual jug of orange juice or carton of eggs. One of the sneaky ways that brands avoid losing customers to higher price tags is by shrinking the packaging or contents of a product to keep the price the same. This tactic, known as shrinkflation, makes it harder for shoppers to notice that they’re spending more. They see the same price tag on their usual products and don’t realize that they’re getting 10% fewer cookies or coffee beans. The change may be so small that it’s impossible to detect, but when the majority of your grocery list is affected by shrinkflation, it adds up. Looking at the unit price or price by weight or volume will help you avoid falling victim to common trick.

Prioritize spending. If you’re a coffee snob and refuse to compromise on your preferred artisan roast, that’s okay, but make sure that mindset doesn’t extend to other items on your list. Premium cheese can probably be swapped for a store brand alternative, and opting for brown rice instead of your usual small-batch wild rice will make a big difference to your wallet without changing your recipe. Designating a few items on your grocery list as luxuries will help you avoid springing for expensive options across the board. Turn it into a game to see how cheap you can make your receipt each week while rewarding yourself with a few of your favorite luxury items.

Get creative with leftovers. It is estimated that American households waste around 30-40% of their food every year, at an average cost of approximately $1,866 per home. Being strategic with shopping (having a list, buying only what you need, etc.) will go a long way in reducing this shocking statistic in your household, but even the most carefully executed weekly meal plan will leave you with leftovers. Staying on top of the Tupperware you have in your fridge and repurposing yesterday’s dinner into a delicious meal will save you money and trips to the store. Think of it as a creative challenge. The more fun you can have with leftovers, the less waste (and expense) you’ll generate.

Embrace coupons and discounts. Doing a little research on loyalty deals, switching to a credit card with a generous grocery store cashback scheme, and scouring the internet for coupons are great ways to beat the system and save money. Being an opportunistic shopper can also pay off if you see items on sale that you can swap for what’s on your shopping list. Some stores even sell “blemished” fruits and vegetables for half the regular price, or slash the prices of products that have passed their “best before” dates.

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