How to Outsmart Your Grocery Store
Grocery stores are designed to encourage you to spend more. Use these savvy shopping strategies to save money on every trip.
If it seems like food keeps getting more expensive, that’s because it is. In North America, the price of everything from vegetables to meat and seafood is forecast to climb as much as 5 percent this year, thanks to California’s longstanding drought and higher fuel costs.
That’s even more reason to keep a close eye on what you spend at the supermarket. Try these expert tips to help keep the cost down.
Make a list. If you really want to save on groceries, you’ll need to do a little planning. “Always make a shopping list before you go to the store,” says Phil Lempert, founder of SupermarketGuru.com. “Take your cash register receipt from the previous week and use that to take inventory of what’s in your refrigerator, freezer and cupboards.”
Compare unit prices. Those little labels on the shelf make it easy to compare prices, says Melissa Herrmann Dierks, registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, owner of SupermarketSavvy.com. Look for the Unit Price, which is the cost per serving size, ounce or pound.
Shop around within the store. We tend to reach for what’s at eye level first, but that may not be your best option. “At eye level what you’re going to see are the best-selling items,” says Lempert. Those can be well priced, but scan above and below to see if there are cheaper alternatives.
Also compare prices on the same item in different parts of the store. “Don’t buy cheddar on the cheese table in that expensive packaging,” says Lempert. “Go to the dairy case and you’ll save 30-50 percent.”
He’s also a fan of buying fish in the frozen aisle vs. the seafood counter. “You’ll save 30-40 percent, and frankly, it’s a better-quality product.” Why? Most seafood is frozen at sea and stays frozen until it’s defrosted either at the store or by you at home. If you’re buying “previously frozen” seafood at the fish counter, you have no way of knowing how long it has been defrosted.
Also watch out for special displays at the end—or even in the middle—of the aisle. “That doesn’t mean it’s on sale,” says Lempert. In fact, those items are only on sale about 40 percent of the time. “It’s just there to get you to buy it.”
Compare brands. Many chains have two or even three levels of store brands, says Lempert, “and they’ve really upped their game when it comes to quality, taste and variety.” But compare ingredient lists (they should be identical to national competitors and in the same order) and Nutrition Facts labels to be sure store brands really are comparable to national brands.
Beware of false economies. Coupons and specials can be a good way to save money—when you use them wisely. Stick to buying bargain items that are already on your list, says Dierks, and be sure to double-check sell-by and use-by dates since stores use specials to help clear out items approaching their expiration date. “Lowest price isn’t always the best—it may be lower in quality, too,” Dierks warns. Cheaper produce is also likely to spoil more quickly.
And skip any discounted damaged products. “Never buy them,” Lempert cautions. “They have potentially huge food-safety problems.”
Don’t pay for empty calories. “Make sure what’s in your buggy gives you bang for your buck nutritionally,” says Dierks. And a lot of junk food masquerades as healthy with meaningless front-of-packaging labels like “natural.” Veggie sticks in the snack aisle are a classic example. They’re really no better than potato chips, and “you’re really paying for nothing nutritionally.” Remember, check the Nutrition Facts Label.
Spend less on protein. “It’s the most expensive thing on your list,” says Dierks. When it comes to meat, poultry and seafood, keep it to a 3- or 4-ounce serving, max. Eggs and low-fat dairy make for affordable protein sources. So do plant-based proteins like beans, including tofu and other forms of soy.
Navigate the store to minimize impulse purchases. There are different schools of thought on this. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and author of “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life” (William Morrow), advises starting in the produce aisle so you’ll be more likely to buy healthy foods as you go through the store.
“We found that when we gave people a sample of apple vs. cookies, the apple sample motivated healthier choices after that, and the cookie triggered less healthy choices.”
If your goal is to save money, though, Lempert disagrees. The produce aisle is “the ultimate aromatherapy,” he warns. “It relaxes you and makes you more vulnerable to impulse buys elsewhere.” He advocates starting with nonperishable items from the center aisles, then moving on to produce, frozen foods and the refrigerated section.
So which is it? Try your own experiment, comparing what ends up in your cart when you navigate the store Lempert’s way vs. Wansink’s.
Pay with plastic to earn cash back. If your budget is under control and you pay off your credit cards every month, opting to pay with a card that earns rewards could make sense. For example, with the NEA Cash Rewards Card, you’ll earn 1% cash back on purchases everywhere, every time, 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 3% cash back on gas for the first $2,500 in combined grocery/wholesale club/gas purchases each quarter.