Although we all need to eat and shop for groceries regularly, the montly food budget is one of the first (and easiest) places to pinch the pennies when needed.
But here’s the thing: With rising food costs, clever marketing and smaller packaging, it can get a little tricky to manage if you don’t know what to watch for.
Here are a few tips that can help you get the most bang for your buck…
1. Shop On Non-Peak Days
Know what days of the month are busiest for shopping, I find the prices tend to be average to high on those days since the stores don’t have to work hard to bring in customers (there are some great price leaders, but overall bargains aren’t easy to come by).
Paydays, government check mailout days (like social assistance, family allowance, retirement checks), holiday long weekends, the 1st, 15th and 31st (or last day of the month), Fridays, Saturdays are all days in my area that are busiest for grocery shopping.
Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are not only less busy, I find items are marked at much better deals and pricing (if they don’t fall on the no-nos listed above). Plus if you don’t get to the grocery store early enough on high traffic days, the stores are crazy busy and pickings are slim with the deals scooped up long before you arrive…not as many product choices.
Your area may operate differently with store pricing cycles, so take some time to track.
2. Be Picky About Expiry Dates
For fresh bakery goods, meats, dairy and packaged fresh produce (anything with an expiry date), don’t pick from the front of the shelf or top items. Merchandisers will push the soonest to expire to the front of the shelf and stock the fresh stuff at the back (better chance to sell an item before it expires).
Select the longest expiry dates so you have more time to consume it (and less waste). For fresh items, I prefer shopping at a large, busy grocery store since their product turnover is much higher (giving a better chance to find longer expiry dates).
3. Stock Up On Deals
Staples like shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, toilet paper, coffee, these are safe to buy in lots of 6 or so since you’ll definitely use them. This will cut back on your future grocery bills since you already have plenty on hand and you’ll never pay full price again!
Where things can go wrong: Keep your pantry and storage area well maintained. Stock the soonest-to-expire at the front so you’re reaching for that first. If you end up throwing out a bunch of canned goods (for example) because you didn’t consume them before they expired, the deal isn’t so great after all.
4. Know Your Prices
It’s a good idea to track prices with a price book, but if the thought of tracking each and every product you buy overwhelms you–you don’t have to go crazy and track every single thing, just track the main things that you buy: meats, dairy, cereals, etc. You’d be surprised at how many items aren’t the deal you thought they were (pay attention to sizes too).
5. Take Advantage Of Coupons
Use coupons whenever you can, but only for items that you really will use. Buying to take advantage of a good deal doesn’t save you any money if you don’t use it!
It’s important to keep the coupons organized to make your savings system efficient. Also use the instore membership cards wherever possible to accumulate points and savings.
6. Keep Your Pantry, Fridge & Cupboards Organized
If everything is disorganized and jumbled together, it’s easy to miss an item (or several) that you already have in stock and don’t need to buy. A lot of money is wasted due to disorganization.
Also, as mentioned above, pay attention to expiry dates and stock the soonest to expire products at the front, longer dates behind them. This gives you a better shot at using items before they expire.
7. Buy In Bulk Sizes When Possible
If something is easy to freeze, buy large flats or packages and cut down to meal size, repackage then freeze. Buy big when prices for in season fruits and vegetables are good and freeze the excess (see How To Freeze Vegetables and How To Freeze Fruit for tips). You can save several cents per pound (but…make sure you know your prices since buying bulk doesn’t always mean saving money).
Make friends with a farmer: buy meats in bulk if possible. If you don’t have family members who farm and you can invest with (like buying a pig or a cow), you can make connections at the local farmers market.
8. Look For Cheap Meat Cuts
These can be used for soups, homemade broths, hearty stews and slowcooker recipes…costing you just pennies on the dollar when compared to premium cuts. The meat will be tender and moist if you use them in slow cooked recipes (see Tender Ways With Less-Tender Cuts Of Meat). Use rice, beans and pasta as cheap fillers.
Another way to stretch meat is to stuff pieces to bulk up the portions. An example: Pork Chops. Normally you’d probably prepare 2 per adult, maybe even 3 if your fella is hungry and depending on the thickness. By stuffing them, you bring down that meat portion by at least one.
9. Train Your Eye For The Bottom Shelf
Understand that the goal for grocery stores is to make the most profit possible, they’re not our deal buddies. In most cases all the aisle and shelf displays are designed to make it easy for you to choose items that have the highest profit margin (for the store). Not necessarily the highest priced items, but the highest profit margins.
Look for good deals hiding on the lower shelf (it’s easier to look straight across and up than it is to bend low–stores know this).
Also watch for small shelf displays, the items that make the store big bucks get larger amounts of shelf space, with only a small section for some of the lower priced items. You see them–but your attention is mainly caught by the large displays. Be aware of that so you don’t miss the better deals.
10. Make Less Trips To The Store
This is a no-brainer: If you go weekly, you’ll find stuff to buy weekly–and that can easily pump up your monthly total. My ideal grocery shopping plan: Big spend once a month with fresh produce purchased weekly.
I realize that conflicts with the leading suggestion to avoid weekly trips, but it’s one thing to run into a store, go directly to the fresh produce area, get what you need, then get out. Choose a hand basket instead of a grocery cart for quick trips, this way there’s no room to fill it up with non-essentials.
11. Buy Packaged Produce With No Regrets
When it makes sense! There are certain vegetables that just don’t do well in my home (have I mentioned I have a house full of fussy pants?). Instead of buying a head of cabbage and a bunch of carrots, I’ll buy a small coleslaw bag…or I’ll buy two sticks of celery instead of a whole celery bunch.
I’m paying more (per weight), however it’s costing me less at the cash register and I have no waste. Throwing out spoiled produce is throwing out money.
12. Introduce Cheap Meals
If you don’t already do so, make a goal to have at least one healthy, cheap supper meal a week (leftovers day doesn’t count). This can be a slowcooker meal, cheap meat cuts dish, homemade soup & a biscuit or even a meatless Friday (for example).
By doing this at least once a week, watch the dip that happens in your monthly budget (that equates to at least 4 meals you’re slashing costs on).
13. Plan For Once-A-Month Cooking
Try preparing at least one or two meals that you can make in big batches (see Once A Month Cooking for more details).
The idea is prepare a whole month’s worth of meals at once, but you don’t have to go to that extreme at first. Try making just one or two dishes in bulk (3 or 4 meals) then freeze them–this accomplishes savings two ways: Less temptation to order takeout on busy days as well as uses up those items purchased in bulk (at lower prices).
14. Make Your Own Stuff
The ideas are endless! You can make homemade laundry detergent, swiffer cloths, DIY cleaners, feminine pads, dishwasher detergent, fabric softeners & dryer sheets…there are loads of things you can make yourself for a whole lot cheaper.
15. Kill The Hunger Beast
Before heading out for groceries, have a snack so you aren’t hungry while shopping. If fresh bread is a tempting trigger for you, have some toast before you head off to the store. If chocolate items makes you weak at the knees, have a bit of something chocolate.
These may not be as wickedly good than what’s waiting to tempt you at the store, but it’s enough to kill the craving and those triggers are harder to manipulate you when you’re fortified ahead of time.
16. Give Yourself Time
If you’re shopping in a rush or with three young children hanging off you begging for 100% sugar content cereal, you’re not going to be in the mood to scout for good bargains. Try to shop when you can do so alone and not pressed for time. If your spouse isn’t a strong shopper, agree he or she stays home for the sake of the family budget (waiting to help unload the groceries of course!).
For quick trips to replenish fresh produce, I do the opposite and squeeze in picking up groceries between other errands–less time to dawdle (and spend).
17. Build A Better “To-Buy” List
Throughout the month, track all the items that you need to replenish or will soon run out of. On shopping day, create your purchase master according the store’s floor plan so you have items listed by aisle or section. Knowing just want you want to buy helps you stay focused and less browsing the shelves trying to remember what you need (less chance to be tempted).
I find it best not to be too rigid with buying only what’s on my list, I’ll buy other items when the prices are a bargain (knowing your prices is important for this to work out well).
18. Grow Vegetables & Herbs
Don’t let the thought of a large garden overwhelm you, go as small as you like at the start and grow in size as you feel comfortable and can manage. Both large gardens and small pots can save piles of cash by growing your favorite veggies & herbs. Consider herb pots, small plots of potatoes, container tomatoes & cucumbers, grow a small pot of onions and even bean sprouts right on your kitchen counter.
Whether you have a large backyard, a small apartment balcony or just a sunny window, you can grow some of your own food and pocket the savings.
19. Bargain Hunt At More Than One Store
In my city I have one favorite grocery store that has the best prices on packaged and canned goods, and another favorite store that has the best quality (along with good prices) for fresh produce and meats. I’ll plan my shopping trips to buy at both–paying a bit more for fruits and veggies that really are fresh and of good quality since they’ll last longer.
Stopping at a variety of stores only works well if it’s worth the cost of extra gas and if you can manage the time, for me it really does pay.
20. Watch The Deli Area
If you shop after 7 p.m. or so, good deals can be had in the deli section for roasted chicken, roast beef, prepared salads and other dishes that the store is eager to sell before closing.
If you can use them up for a late supper that night, great. If not, think about ways you can use the meats: I like to grab a couple of the roasted chickens, shred them and made chicken salad for the next day, chicken pies for the freezer, stir frys for the next night. Keep the chicken carcass and make some soup stock the next day. Cheap meat that’s already cooked for you, love it!
Bring Your Own Fabric Bags: Not a big money saver, but many stores will give you a few cents off for each bag you bring in plus there’s no danger of the cheap plastic bags ripping open and spilling out groceries (and smashing jars, breaking eggs, etc.).