How do you save on your groceries? Shop at the right store to start. For example, I recently went to Food City, a grocery store near us, for its usual great sales on fruits and vegetables. I left with the following:
- 10 roma tomatoes
- 4 avocados
- 4 onions
- 2 cucumbers
- 2 apples
- 1 bunch of cilantro
Total Bill: $2.71
That’s right, 23 fruits and vegetable for less than $3 total! Here’s the receipt:
Each item cost less than half of what other stores were charging. For example, two blocks away at Safeway avocados cost more than seven times as much ($1.79). Clearly it matters where you shop for groceries.
On the other hand, many grocery items cost less at other stores. There is no one store where everything is cheaper, and no one way to maximise savings on everything (if only life were so simple).
To save save hundreds of dollars annually on groceries and other household necessities you need to use at least a few of the tricks and strategies here (and especially number 40).
1. Use Receipt Scanning Apps
These apps offer cash-back rebates for scanning your receipts with your phone. Ibotta is perhaps the best-known, Yaarlo ($1 bonus with promo code FRUGAL) pays cash-back no matter what you buy, and bevRAGE pays cash rebates for alcohol purchases. Learn more from these posts:
2. Be an Opportunistic Consumer
My wife and I both love avocados, but we’ll go months without them if the price is too high. We’ll eat other great foods instead — the ones that are inexpensive. This opportunistic approach, buying what costs less at the moment instead of buying things out of habit or momentary desires, will save you a ton of money.
You also get a wide variety of foods. After all, sometimes oranges are cheap, while at other times it’s apples. Sometimes chips are on sale, while other times it’s crackers.
So the number one way to save money on groceries is to apply any of the following strategies to whatever foods in a given category can be had for less. Buy a few of the cheapest fruits, put your burgers on bread when it’s cheaper than buns, and learn to enjoy Pepsi and Coke, so you can choose the one that’s on sale.
3. Research Your Stores
Safeway is close enough to walk to, but we rarely shop there because they simply cost more than most other grocery stores. On the other hand, when they have their great BOGO (buy one, get one free) deals, we’re there.
Some stores consistently have cheaper vegetables while others are better for canned goods. Some are only worth visiting for sales. Fortunately you don’t even have to leave the house to research which stores are best for which foods. You can do it online, which brings us to our next money-saving strategy…
4. Check Weekly Ads Online
Google various store names plus “weekly ad” to find circulars online. Then bookmark the pages to make it easier to return. It pays to check several stores.
Make a list of the best deals at each store. If a store has only one or two good deals it might not be worth the extra driving, and you can throw out that store’s list. With the information you have you can move on to the next step…
5. Set up a Route
It’s easy to forget the cost of driving to various grocery stores. An efficient route reduces expenses and time, so use Google maps to plan your route. Also, bring a cooler or cold bag if you’ll have frozen and refrigerated things in the car while traveling between stores.
6. Walk or Bike to the Store
We have five places to buy groceries within a fifteen-minute walk, so we walk regularly. Proximity to stores was part of our decision to buy our current home. Walking or bicycling eliminates the “transportation” cost of grocery shopping entirely. Try to leave the car home once in awhile if it’s possible.
7. Get Loyalty Cards
Sign up for those store loyalty cards! The best deals are only available if you’re a member. Enter your phone number when you sign up, so you can get the discounts using that if you forget the card.
8. Use Gas Rewards Programs
Some store loyalty cards also give you the chance to get cheaper gas. Giant, Fry’s, King Soopers, and other supermarkets have “gas reward programs” that give you points for purchases made with your card. You can use those points to get a lower price at certain gas stations.
9. Get a Sunday Paper
Some newspapers come with a slew of ads and coupons every Sunday (Saturday in some cases). You might want to buy a copy every week. The ads can usually be found online, but the coupons are often fund only in the circulars in the newspaper. They can be valuable, especially if you’re near one of the stores that still double coupons.
10. Find Coupons Online
If you don’t get that Sunday newspaper and you don’t get store circulars and coupons in the mail, you can always get some of them online. Here are three places to check:
11. Use Store Coupons
There are coupon books available near the door in some stores, and there are digital ones, like Walgreen’s paperless coupons. The latter are simply loaded onto your loyalty card when you click them while logged into your account online.
A great thing about store coupons is that usually they can be combined with manufacturer coupons for bigger savings.
12. Use Coupons the Right Way
Be sure that a given brand isn’t more expensive even after the savings from a coupon. To really save money use coupons primarily for things you normally buy.
Also, with manufacturer coupons it can make sense to buy the smallest-sized item to get the lowest unit cost. Consider, for example, a 10-ounce can of tuna at $1.59 versus a 5-ounce can at $0.89.
That’s 15.9 cents-per-ounce for the larger size and 17.8 cents-per-ounce for the smaller. But if you have a 35-cent coupon good for either size, the net cost is $1.24 or $0.54, so you pay 12.4 cents-per-ounce for the larger one and only 10.8 cents-per-ounce for the smaller size.
When applying coupons to smaller sizes you save even more at stores that double the value.
13. Consider Car Expenses
I mentioned gas savings from efficient routing, but you should also consider whether some stores are worth visiting at all. I figure our vehicle costs about 30 cents-per-mile to operate.
If I go 11 miles extra to reach a store it costs about $3.30. So if I’m only going to save $3 on a couple items it’s not be worth it (not to mention the extra time spent).
Start by looking at ads for the closest stores and you may find the deals you need without needing to consider stores farther away.
14. Buy What’s on Sale
You may not properly apply this obvious strategy. Sure, you save money when you buy your favorite brand on sale, but you’ll save even more if you buy whichever brand or food within a category is on sale and worry less about favorites.
For example, why wait for your favorite crackers to go on sale? If there are four or five brands you like, buy whichever one is on sale. If you like a variety of fruits buy the ones that are cheap now. Opportunistic sale shopping will give you a wide variety of foods and keep your grocery bill much lower.
15. Stock Up During Sales
If a sale on chili beans is the best in a year, don’t buy a can or two. Stock up! Hopefully you’ll be eating cheap beans until the next great sale, so you never pay retail.
This strategy works best with canned and dry goods, but you can carefully apply it to other foods. For example, bread can be frozen and will taste just fine when thawed out weeks or months later, so buy a few extra loaves when it’s on sale.
With canned foods I want to run through my supply well before the expiration dates. With foods that can be frozen I aim for no more than a two-month’s supply. You don’t want to throw anything away, which brings us to our next strategy…
16. Avoid Waste
Americans waste more food than anyone else. We throw away almost half of our produce, for example. Much of that waste comes before the food is in our kitchens, but the less you throw away, the less you spend. Here are a few ways to avoid wasting food:
- Rotate Your Food Stocks – Don’t let those onions go bad while newer ones are being used, and put new cans of vegetables behind the ones already in the cupboard.
- Buy the Right Amount – If you’re not sure that you can eat all those avocados or apples before they go bad, buy a few less.
- Plan Meals Based on What’s Oldest – Every couple days survey the fridge and cupboards to see which items have been open the longest or are getting old, and then plan a meal that uses these.
17. Watch Price Cycles
How can Walmart and others have “new lower prices” so often? FTC regulations require that “the former price is the actual, bona fide price at which the article was offered to the public on a regular basis for a reasonably substantial period of time…” So stores create a price cycle with a higher price for “a reasonably substantial period of time,” alternating with a “new lower price.”
Over the years I’ve watched this up-and-down cycle on a number of products at Walmart. So if you ever find yourself thinking, “Hey, didn’t that cost a lot less before?” you can probably wait a month until the “new lower price” returns.
18. Check Unit Prices
The larger sizes are not always cheaper per-ounce or per-item. Check the unit-price info on the shelf. Consumer Reports says, “One study found that, in some supermarkets, as much as 25 percent of brand-name products are a poorer value in the larger size.”
This is especially true with sales, and then you may have to do the math yourself, because the unit-price data isn’t usually updated.
As I write this the 9.1-ounce box of Nabisco Wheat Thins is at the low point in its price cycle at Walmart, selling for $1.98 (it goes as high as $2.98). That makes it slightly cheaper per-ounce than the $3.49 16-ounce box.
19. Check Top and Bottom Shelves
It’s been reported before that the pricier items are placed at eye-level in supermarkets, while cheaper brands and products are on the bottom shelves. In my experience, Walmart also uses the highest shelves (the ones only tall people like myself can reach) for the better deals — that’s where I get $1 bags of potato chips.
Look down and look up to find a better deal.
20. Buy Bulk Foods
Foods like dry beans, sunflower seeds, almonds, and granola are sometimes cheaper when bought from bulk bins. If there is a local co-op near you, check it out.
Some regular grocery stores have select items in bulk bins seasonally, and for less than packaged versions. For example, in late autumn you can often bag your own walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts for much less than if you bought them pre-packaged.
21. Bring a List
A list can save you the time and expense of returning to the store for something you forgot. It also helps cut down on impulse purchases, which brings us to our next strategy…
22. Visit Fewer Aisles
A study done by the Marketing Science Institute found that shoppers buy substantially more unplanned items when they go down most or all aisle rather than just the ones necessary for the items on their lists. If you don’t need something in that aisle, skip it.
23. Use the Self-Checkout Lanes
A study found that using self-checkout lanes decreases impulse purchases by up to a third. This is partly because there are fewer impulse-purchase items placed near self-checkout lanes.
24. Use a Smaller Cart
In an interview with Today, marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom says doubling the size of shopping carts has been shown to increase sales by 40%. None of us are completely immune to normal human psychology, so use a smaller cart if one is available.
25. Eat Before You Shop
There are probably studies that show our tendency to buy more groceries when hungry, but a little bit of experience is enough to prove this to ourselves. Don’t shop hungry!
26. Leave the Kids Home
This is another strategy that doesn’t require a scientific study to understand. If you bring the kids they may talk you into unplanned purchases — or just sneak them into the cart.
27. Know Your Store’s Policies
Not all stores run their sales the same way. For example, in most grocery stores, when you see a sale that says, “5 for $5,” you can buy one for $1. But Albertsons has sales that say something like “$1 each” followed in smaller print with “when you buy five.” Buy one or two of the item and they might be $2.49 each.
Read the fine print.
28. Take a Raincheck
Sometimes a sale comes with a “no rainchecks” policy, but usually you can get a raincheck if the store has run out of the item. Whether it’s worth the trouble or not depends on the sale.
29. Cut Up Your Own Food
Sliced cheese isn’t always more expensive than blocks of cheese, but with many foods the difference between the prepared and unprepared versions is significant. For example, those little packages of freshly cut-up fruit or vegetable sticks will usually cost at least twice as much per-pound as just buying the whole fruits and vegetables.
Cut up your own food and you can save a lot.
30. Buy Fruits and Vegetables in Season
You know what’s really great about buying vegetables and fruits in season? That’s when they’re the best and the cheapest. Check out the USDA list of what’s in season to know what to watch for.
31. Buy Frozen Fruits and Vegetables Out of Season
When fruits and vegetables are out of season they’re often cheaper in the frozen foods section. More good news: Frozen fruits and vegetables may have more vitamins and antioxidants than fresh ones, thanks to quick freezing after harvest versus days spent in warehouses and trucks for “fresh” foods.
32. Buy Groceries at Dollar Stores
Many cheap items produced especially for dollar stores are low-quality and untrustworthy. Chinese food products are often unsafe, for example.
Then there are items in smaller-than-normal packages that aren’t really a very good deal if you compare unit prices.
But sometimes there are regular brands and decent foods in dollar stores. For example, one of our local dollar stores gets whole wheat bread from bakery overstock and sells it for (you guessed it) a dollar — less than half what we would pay in Walmart.
We also buy frozen blueberries at a dollar store. There is nothing but berries from Maine in the bag, so we feel comfortable with them. They’re delicious, and we pay just a dollar for a 12-ounce bag, which is less than half what they cost at other stores.
33. Buy Bread at Discount Bread Stores
Discount bread stores mostly carry products near their expiration dates. You pay up to 75% less than you would for the same thing at a local grocery store.
Be aware that the savings are most significant for bread products, though. If the store sells snacks and other things as well, these are not always a good deal.
34. Eat Cheaper Foods
Cheaper food is what this post is all about, but there is a more specific way to cut your costs by focusing on cheaper foods: Eat foods that cost less more often. If you make a point of filling up on rice and beans once in while you won’t have room for as much of the more expensive foods. And it’s a start toward the next strategy…
35. Change Your Diet Permanently
It helps to eat cheaper once in awhile, but to save even more on groceries consider a more permanent change in your diet. But don’t start eating only ramen noodles. That would cut your grocery bill, but probably increase your medical bills.
Instead, look for the cheapest of the healthy options and get used to planning meals around those. For example, soup made of dry beans (cheaper than canned ones) and whichever vegetables are on sale is healthy, inexpensive, and delicious.
If you make it a regular meal it will save you a lot of money.
36. Eat Wild Edibles
When my wife and I lived in Florida we regularly ate wild blueberries (found all over) and oranges (old groves now on public land). It’s a fun and healthy way to save on food, and you can check for wild edibles near you on FallingFruit.org, a website that maps people’s favorite foraging sites around the world.
37. Get Cash-Back on Groceries
I get 6% cash back on grocery store purchases with my American Express Blue Cash Prefered card. There is a $95 annual fee, so you have to buy a lot of groceries to come out ahead. On the other hand, the current offer includes a $150 bonus when you put $1,000 on the card in the first three months. That more than offsets the first year’s fee.
After the first year? There are no-fee credit cards that offer cash-back at grocery stores.
38. Use Discounted Gift Cards
I routinely use discounted gift cards to save money on groceries. Raise is one of the better places to buy gift cards, but there are many others.
You can’t find big discounts for grocery store cards. For example, the best discount you can find for Walmart cards is about 3% off.
But fortunately supermarkets are not the only place to buy groceries, and the gift cards for other stores sell for much less. For example, I buy Walgreen’s gift cards at a discount of 12% to 18%, which brings us to our next strategy…
39. Buy Groceries at Drugstores
Drugstores are typically expensive to buy groceries. That is, unless you shop sales and/or use discounted gift cards to pay.
For example, in the weekly ads for CVS and Walgreen’s you can usually find a few food items that are a really good deal. I often take advantage of their two-for-one deals on almonds and other nuts. Then I pay using a gift card that was bought at a steep discount.
You can get some really cheap groceries by shopping drugstore sales and paying with discounted gift cards, which brings us to our last, and most powerful strategy…
40. Combine Strategies
One of the most powerful ways to reduce the cost of just about anything, including groceries, is to combine savings strategies on the same purchase. For example, buy 2-for-1 foods on sale at Walgreen’s, using a coupon to further lower the price, and then pay with a discounted gift card to knock even more off the final cost.
That would be a “triple stack.” You can find more examples in our Guide to Deal Stacking.
If you can add to this list of ways to save on groceries, please do so in the comments below, and happy frugaling!