It’s grocery shopping day. Again.
If you’re like most people, grocery shopping is probably your most expensive event of the week and one of the biggest line items in your household budget.
Overspending on groceries is easy to do. And when that happens week after week, it can do serious damage to your finances.
You may be tempted to rein in your spending on groceries by trading down for lower-quality food, but there’s a better way.
With a little bit of commitment and know-how, there are concrete actions you can take today to reduce your food budget without sacrificing your family’s health.
This article lists 20 ways to spend less on groceries, broken down into a four-step approach:
- Shop smart
- Stay away from traps
Applying this methodology is easier than you think and can produce huge overall savings.
As I discuss in my frugal living guide, the three “I’s” come into play when cutting your grocery bill: intention, initiative, and impulse control.
Grocery stores are designed to get you to spend more money through the use of end caps, sales flyers, free samples and countless other shiny objects. If you don’t go in with a plan and impulse control, you’re likely to lose the game.
Instead, be intentional by evaluating your priorities and asking yourself questions that put your goals into sharp focus.
- What’s most important to you and your finances?
- What are your healthy eating goals, and how much money are you willing to spend to achieve them?
- What are the reasons why you tend to overspend at the supermarket?
Asking yourself questions like these helps you transform an abstract goal (saving money on food or eating healthier, for example) into a concrete plan.
Here’s our guide to creating your can’t-miss grocery game plan.
#1. Shop Your Own Shelves First
In our guide to eating healthy on a budget, we talk about two different approaches to meal planning. You can eat what you want, or you can eat what you have.
And while either approach can work with a tight food budget, the easiest way to save the most money on groceries is by eating what you’ve already purchased.
Wasting food is like throwing money in the trash can. So when you’re trying to cut your grocery bill, your meal planning process should start by looking at your own fridge, freezer and pantry.
Check expiration dates and note what needs to get used up first. Then, jot down some ideas for recipes that require those ingredients. If you get stuck, use Pinterest or Google and search “recipes with (food item)” for some fresh ideas.
#2. Make a Budget
Since food is one of the top three expenses for most people, sticking to a grocery budget gives you a lot of traction in saving money.
Having a budget will help you in your quest for “mind over menu,” and will keep your health and financial goals at the forefront of your priorities.
One way to figure out what your food budget should be is to calculate how much you want to spend per person per meal, then multiply the number of meals per month times the number of family members to get a total grocery budget.
We provide a detailed breakdown of the math in this post.
Ideally, your food budget (including groceries, snacks and eating out) should total no more than 10-15% of your overall expenses.
#3. Make a Meal Plan
With your grocery budget in mind and some ideas from the food items you already have on hand, make a meal plan for the week.
Have your calendar handy during your meal planning process. Note any times you’ll be at a business lunch or out for dinner. Also make note of any busy times (like soccer practice or school activities) when you’ll need a quick and easy meal.
Plug in the meals that you came up with in Step #1, and fill in the rest with meals your family likes.
Be mindful of recipes that call for specialty or expensive food items; there’s no need to leave them off the menu entirely, so long as you keep the whole of the budget in mind.
For example, if you plan for a meal with pricey ingredients (e.g., bacon-wrapped shrimp) on Tuesday, you can offset the cost by planning a less expensive meal (like pasta with marinara sauce) the next day.
Write down all the items you need for your meal plan on a grocery list. Be sure to include quantities if you need ingredients for multiple meals so you buy enough.
#4. Eat Seasonally
As you create your meal plan, strive to include fruits and veggies that are in season.
Fresh produce that’s not in season in the U.S. has to be shipped from other areas in the world where it is ready for harvest. On the long voyage to grocery store shelves, that produce loses much of its texture, taste and nutritional value.
In-season produce is the most delicious and nutritious produce you can buy. And because it doesn’t have to come from a hemisphere away, it’s often cheaper. You’ll likely find the best quality (and variety) of in-season produce at your local farmer’s market.
If you’re unsure of what’s seasonal where you live, here’s what the USDA recommends.
Also, consider utilizing a service that specializes in connecting you with food from growers who have excess amounts of in-season produce. You can can read about my family’s (very positive) experience with one such service in my Imperfect Foods review.
#5. Expand Your Palate
Many times, we buy and eat the same foods over and over. Grocery stores have become attuned to this. They game their pricing by rotating sales, because they know what foods we commonly buy together.
For instance, they might put peanut butter on sale one week and jelly on sale the next week so that the sales on each don’t coincide.
If you want to take real advantage of the deals you find, you may need to think a little creatively.
And one of the best ways to do so is by expanding your palate.
Think about it like this: At any given time, X% of the items in a grocery store are on sale. But the average consumer doesn’t shop the whole store — just a tiny fraction of it.
Most of us have a few go-to cuts of meat, a few favorite produce items, a few meals that we rotate in and out of our meal plan over and over. By shopping outside of your comfort zone, you give yourself a much wider selection of sales and item pairings to choose from.
A sound strategy will ensure that your food purchases align with your health goals and your budget, but don’t stop there! Here are a few more savings tricks to squeeze the most out of your grocery dollars — and many of them you can do from your phone.
#6. Use Cash-Back Apps
Once you have your bases covered with a meal plan and a grocery budget, you can supercharge your savings with cash-back apps.
Apps like Ibotta, Receipt Hog and Checkout51 help you save money by giving you rebates on things you’re likely already buying. Most of the time, it’s as easy as snapping a photo of your receipt and uploading it via the app.
There are dozens of these apps to help you save money (and not just on groceries). Check out this list of our favorites.
Lean more about how Ibotta works in our in-depth review.
#7. Don’t Overlook Paper Coupons
Some of the best discounts are still offered via paper coupons. You can snag these from the Sunday paper, machines in the store, or affixed to certain products in the supermarket.
On top of that, many manufacturers allow you to print your own coupons online.
You can also check individual manufacturer websites like Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Dove, Kellogg’s and more for printable coupons.
Another option for printable coupons is Swagbucks, a popular cash-back/rewards site and app. You can print up to 50 coupons a day, and you’ll earn points (which can be redeemed for gift cards) on top of the face value of the coupon.
You can learn more about how the site works in our Swagbucks review.
#8. Join The Loyalty Program
Many stores have a loyalty program that offers additional discounts to registered customers. Registration is usually free, so you’re leaving money on the table if you pass this up.
Food Lion, Kroger, Lowes Foods, and other chains let you load digital coupons onto your loyalty card, giving you all the benefits of high-value coupons without the hassle of clipping or digging around in your purse.
Sign up at the store’s website or on sites like Coupons.com and Savingstar.com.
#9. Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods gives you get the most bang for your buck.
Nutrient-dense foods are those that have proportionately more nutritional value per calorie. Things like lean meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits and whole grains fall into this category.
Foods that are not nutrient dense (chips, candy or white bread, for example) often contain lots of simple carbohydrates (sugars), which burn quickly, leaving you hungry soon after.
As a rule, nutrient-dense food is more expensive. But you don’t need to eat as much of it to stay full.
Plus, choosing foods that are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals is best for your body, which is one of the best long-term investments you can make.
#10. Eat Less Meat
While clean protein like lean meat is nutrient dense, it’s also expensive. An easy way to trim your grocery budget is to reduce your meat consumption.
You don’t have to abandon meat altogether, though. Instead of making meat the star of the meal, think of it as an accompaniment. Rather than having steak and green beans, consider a vegetable stir fry with small chunks of steak.
When replacing meat with other foods, be intentional about your choices. If you swap out shrimp for a baked potato loaded with cheese and sour cream, your food budget may be lower, but you’ll replace healthy lean meat with simple carbs.
Consider foods that are high in protein and/or fiber (like quinoa or beans) to replace the meat in your diet.
Having a strategy for saving money on groceries is one thing, but executing your plan takes skill and practice.
Shopping isn’t as easy as it appears. You’re making hundreds of little decisions as you stroll through the aisles, and both supermarkets and food companies spend millions of dollars every year in market research and advertising trying to influence those decisions to their advantage.
To consistently get good deals and reduce your grocery spending, you have to intentionally work on being a better shopper.
#11. Know How Much Things Should Cost
We all want great deals on groceries. But if you’re not familiar with how much food items should cost, you won’t recognize a good deal when you see one.
We may think of prices as fixed and unchanging, but in reality, prices on food items fluctuate wildly from week to week. What’s more, some “sale” items are hardly cheaper than normal; they’re just promoted for that particular week.
If you don’t know whether a box of salt should cost $.75 or $1.50, the grocery store could charge you either one. That may not sound like a huge difference, but you could literally pay half as much simply by paying attention to pricing.
And when that theory gets applied to your entire shopping trip, the extra cost can add up quickly.
#12. Go To More Than One Store
Shopping at more than one store can be a hassle. And to be fair, time is money. But doing so is often necessary when you’re aiming to save as much as possible on food.
Grocers have access to data from millions upon millions of transactions. They know how much money you have to spend, what you buy, and when you buy it. And they plan their stores’ layouts, pricing and promotions accordingly.
By shopping at multiple stores, you can take advantage of the comparative price advantages of each.
For example, you may find that eggs are cheaper at Trader Joe’s but milk is almost always on sale at Publix.
#13. Pay Attention To Deal Terms
Just because a sale says “10 cans for $10” does not mean you have to buy 10 items to get the sale. This may seem obvious, but it’s a common misconception.
Stores advertise 10 for 10 deals to get you to buy more food. So unless you’re purposefully stocking up on staple items, there’s no need to buy more than your list indicates.
Occasionally there will be a minimum purchase to get the discount. Especially for “buy three, get one free” style advertisements. Also, sometimes coupons or sales will offer a discount when you buy two related items (cereal and milk, for instance).
Don’t assume you need to buy the quantity advertised in the sales; check the terms of the deal before you load up your shopping cart with extra purchases.
#14. Shop Online For Household Goods
Compare the prices of what you’re buying in the store to online retailers like Walmart or Amazon. Household goods (toilet paper, trash bags and soap, for example), are almost always more expensive at supermarkets.
Why? Grabbing these items during your shopping trip is convenient. Running out of toilet paper? Just toss it in the cart.
But you’re paying a sky-high price for that convenience.
On sites like Amazon and Walmart, shipping is usually free for orders over $25 or $35, and you can save 5% more with Amazon’s subscribe-and-save option.
Learn about the many ways to save money on Amazon.
#15. Think Twice Before Buying Bulk
You can save money by buying in bulk, but this comes with a big asterisk. If you’re not careful, buying in bulk can also break your budget.
Buying larger quantities to get a better deal per item only makes sense if you can use the food before it goes bad. A 10-pound bag of potatoes may be a great deal, but if half of them spoil, you haven’t saved any money — you’ve just made expensive compost.
The best bulk buys are items you go through quickly or that have a long shelf life. Membership stores like Sam’s Club or Costco often have great deals on bulk items, which are a boon for many families with kids.
However, if you’re paying off debt or on a tight budget, you may have to pass on bulk deals. Even though a 50-pound bag of bag of rice is a great deal and won’t spoil, it still takes a large chunk of your food budget — and you still have to buy the rest of your groceries for the week.
Stay Away From Traps
Food manufacturers and grocery chains are sneaky and very good at getting you to spend money. Stay alert and watch out for these common pitfalls while grocery shopping to make sure you’re spending wisely and getting the most nutrition for your dollar.
#16. Prepared Foods Cost More
Whole foods (as in, foods that are close to their original, in-the-field form) are not only the most nutritious options — they’re also cheaper. When buying processed foods, you’re not only paying for the materials, but also the labor and packaging.
For instance, it takes less work, time and materials to roll whole oats into oatmeal and dump them into a large container than to roll the oats, divide the oatmeal into packets, add flavoring, and place the correct number of oatmeal packets into boxes. Hence, the big container of plain oats is cheaper than a box of oatmeal packets.
There is, however, an exception to this rule. If you make more money working in the time it would take to prep the foods yourself, save the time and buy the prepped version. Good examples of this are pre-sliced fruit, grilled chicken strips, spice mixes and veggie kebabs.
#17. Store Brands Aren’t Always Cheaper
We tend to believe that the generic store brands are cheaper than name-brand items, but this isn’t always the case. Generics are usually marginally less expensive, but they also rarely have promotions or coupons.
That means you can often get the name brand products for less with a coupon or sale.
Take this on a case-by-case and trip-by-trip basis, as the best deal for a particular item will change as the sales do.
#18. Sales Are Meant To Make You Spend More, Not Less
Shopping is a psychological battle. Store promotions attempt to draw you in, get you to buy more, or get you to buy something you wouldn’t have otherwise purchased.
So while sales can give you great deals, always be mindful of why they exist.
“Stocking up” sales can be especially dangerous if you’re not careful. If you need an item that’s at a killer price and you want to stock up, you’ll need to cut something from your budget for that week to make room for it.
If this works, then awesome! But if you buy 25 of something because it’s on sale without a specific plan for using it, you run a greater risk of wasting food, time and money than if you’d stuck to your list.
Also, keep in mind that there’s no minimum discount for an item to be advertised as a “sale price.” A 1% discount is technically a sale item, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth busting your budget to save pennies by stocking up.
#19. The Inner Aisles Are A Money Pit
The outer sections of the store (produce, fresh meat and dairy) are where you find most of your whole, nutritious food items. The maze of the inner aisles contains the majority of processed, sugary, and unhealthy foods (like chips, soda and candy).
That’s by design. Supermarkets strategically position everything you need on the perimeter so that you’re more likely to come into contact with everything else as you move from one end of the store to the other.
Obviously you have to move through the entire store to get what you need — some of which will be in the inner aisles. So, think of this tip as more of a reminder than a hard-and-fast rule.
#20. Pricing Mistakes Are Common
Watch the checkout scanner like a hawk when your groceries ring up. With thousands of products changing prices every week, price mistakes on the shelf tags and at the register are common.
Plus, cashiers are human and they sometimes accidentally double scan items or ring up a zucchini as a cucumber.
If you don’t catch the error as it’s happening, you’re unlikely to go back to the service desk and get a refund later.
Grocery Savings FAQ
We’ve rounded up a few of the most common questions relating to how to save money at the grocery store. If you’re looking for information that isn’t contained in the article or covered below, just let us know by leaving a comment and we’ll be glad to research and update this page.
This will depend greatly on your family size, location, and nutritional needs. A thrifty family of two adults and two young children can plan to spend at least $570 per month. For more specific numbers, check out the USDA’s chart on how much to budget for each family member based on age.
Unless you’re dramatically overspending, you probably won’t be able to knock 50% off your grocery expenses — at least not without putting your health at risk.
But by meal planning, resisting impulse purchases and being mindful of your spending, you can make great strides in reducing your grocery bill. A 10% reduction should be easy-peasy. A 20-30% reduction may be achievable with dedication.
Definitely. Being on a budget shouldn’t mean sacrificing your health. In fact, nourishing your body with healthy food is one of the best investments you can make.
Nutritious food may cost more initially, but maintaining your health helps prevent extra medical and other expenses later in life.
Check out our complete guide to eating healthy on a budget for extra tips on how to plan meals that are great for your body and your budget. It lists a number of simple ways that actually work, and features a sample shopping list and meal prep guidelines.
According to a recent study, Aldi wins the award for cheapest grocery store.
If you don’t have an Aldi near you, your next best options are Market Basket (northeastern US), WinCo (west coast and midwest), or Food4Less (CA, IL, OH and IN).
Many of these chains reduce their costs by having customers bag their own groceries, so don’t forget to bring your own bags!
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to save money on groceries. Just a few tweaks (using up what’s in the fridge, meal planning, sticking to a budget, etc.) will help you make huge strides in spending less on food.
It’s unlikely that you can chop your food expenses in half, but even a 10% savings every week will add up over the course of months and years, resulting in substantial savings.