How I cut my monthly bill by over 50%
Behind housing and transportation, food is one of the average household’s largest recurring expenses. And while most of us tend to pay for housing and transportation costs as a lump sum each month, food spending tends to eat up our budget little by little. Consequently, overspend in this category is remarkably easy to overlook. The good news is is that by putting a few of these tips to the test in the supermarket, you can cut your bill significantly without having to forgo the foods you enjoy.
Tip #1: Avoid the following items
K-Cups; bottled water; instant foods; organic avocados and bananas; name brand staples; ziploc bags; dryer sheets; prepackaged snacks; anything in the candy aisle; paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery; frozen meals and bagged meal kits; pre-cut produce; and anything in the checkout lane.
K-Cups can run you close to a dollar per pod. While a dollar per cup is still far better than going to your local Starbucks, this is still wildly overpriced for homemade coffee. Opting for a traditional pot of coffee or a French press instead is a much more economical way to get your daily caffeine fix. Even if you own a Keurig, buying these disposable pods is unnecessary. Since swapping my generic K-Cups for a pack reusable pods off Amazon and bulk store brand coffee grounds, I’ve saved over $30 a month.
If you enjoy the taste and convenience of bottled water, pick up a knockoff Brita pitcher and a few reusable water bottles to ensure that you have great tasting water on the go without the recurring expense.
Instant foods such as ready rice, instant oatmeal and coffee, and now ready pasta, will cost you twice as much and come in a much smaller container. Boiling water and waiting a few minutes is more than worth it to get a lot more food for half the price.
If you value and have the room in your budget for organic produce, prioritize buying items in the dirty dozen. The dirty dozen refers to produce grown with the highest concentration of pesticides. Doing so will give you much better bang for your buck. As a general rule of thumb, fruits and vegetables with peels as opposed to skin are safer to save your money on.
Going for the generic option will typically cost about 25% less and is often the same or better quality than the name brand product. Often times, these products are actually made in the same facility as the name brand pick. Market Pantry, Up&Up, and Great Value are consistently strong generic brands that can be found at Target and Walmart.
While choosing generic is always a winning strategy when it comes to staples like beans and rice, you may want to test the generic brand or read a few consumer reports before you avoid the name brand altogether. While I’ve found no difference in taste and quality with off-brand cookies, for example, my partner wholly disagrees and insists that we buy real Oreos. So before you switch to all generic, take some time to determine the items that really make a difference to you.
Instead of ziploc bags, switch to generic tupperware. It’s better for the environment and the savings can add up considerably over time.
With prepackaged snacks, you’re paying an outsized premium just to save the few seconds that it would take to pack your own snack from the box. You’re also getting a lot less product.
Nothing in the candy aisle does anything to keep you satiated throughout the day and instead leads you to just crave more sugar in the future. At the same time, cutting out this nonessential can easily save you $10-$15 over the course of a month.
Pre-cut or pre-peeled produce can cost you 200–300% more per pound and usually comes with a shorter shelf life. So not only are you overpaying for a couple seconds of convenience, but you’re also less likely to eat the item before it expires.
The checkout lane is engineered to get you to make impulse buys. Translation: you are not going to find anything you need in this area of the store, so skip it.
Tip #2: Pick up your healthy items last
The Rollins School of Public Health found that when shoppers picked up their produce items first, they were more likely to fill up their carts with treats as they moved through the store. The reason for these shoppers subsequently loading up on sweets is that starting their shopping in the produce section made customers feel virtuous and thus more likely to reward themselves with junk food as they kept shopping. When I first started shopping at Trader Joe’s, I noticed myself doing exactly that. Once I picked up my steamed lentils and leafy greens, I picked up enough frozen treats and cookies to more than cancel out the healthy items that I picked up initially.
Consequently, I decided to start shopping in the back of the store and end my trip in the produce section. Frankly, I was shocked at the results. Instead of picking up an average of 4–5 unhealthy items over the course of my trip, I only left the store with the one that had been on my list to begin with. Not only has my physical health improved dramatically as a result of consuming far less sugar, but I’ve also saved at least $15 per trip by simply reversing the order in which I shop.
By starting at the back of the store, I didn’t feel even a fraction of the urge I typically did to fill my cart with treats. And whenever I picked up one of my favorite unhealthy items, I ended up putting it back. I was able to back out of these purchases much more easily because not only did I lack as many healthy foods in my cart working to rationalize the extra junk food, but I also had much more time to reconsider each item as I shopped.
Tip #3: Shake your produce before bagging it
Most supermarkets mist their produce in order to make those items look especially crisp and pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately for shoppers though, since most produce is sold by weight, you may be paying more than you need to by bagging it right away. Because most produce is rather porous, much of what you pick up under a mister is going to be artificially heavy. For leafy items especially, make sure to give them a shake before bagging them up. That way you’re paying for more food and less mist. And if possible, set the item on top of the bag and let it air out in your cart as you shop.
Tip #4: Use a smaller cart
Marketing consultant Andrew Lindstrom found that shoppers who were given larger carts bought up to 40% more. This 40% increase can be primarily attributed to two factors. First, the larger carts appear emptier. In response, shoppers were more likely to pick up treats and other impulse purchases as they shopped to fill in the extra cart space. Second, the larger carts allowed for much slower shopping due to their limited maneuverability through and around aisles. In other words, the larger cart makes pivoting mid-aisle and going to the next section of the store to find the next item you need much more difficult. As a result, you’re more likely to be tempted with far more items and flashy promotions as you do your shopping.
While skipping the cart altogether and going for the basket instead may be tempting, keep in mind that the Journal of Marketing Research found that basket shoppers are more likely to select unhealthy items as an unconscious reward for having to carry the basket through the store. Instead, pick up a smaller cart so that you’re less tempted to stray from the essentials.
Tip #5: Take the free sample only if you have an exit strategy
In 2011, the British Food Journal found that free samples created a subconscious sense of obligation among customers. This sense of obligation came not only from the social pressure created by the exchange between the employee offering the sample and the shopper, but also from the fear of negative evaluation by other shoppers that the customers reported. When approaching the sample counter, keep this and a few other points in mind before feeling guilted into picking up an item that you don’t need.
Aside from creating a sense of customer obligation, supermarkets hand out samples because they know that they work. Free samples have not only been shown to make shoppers loyal to the store and brand over time, but they also significantly boost sales. In fact, free samples have the highest sales lift of all in-store promotional efforts, according to Interactions executive Giovanni DeMeo. So before you feel too bad about turning down the featured product, remember that the store isn’t just giving you the freebie to be nice.
Tip #6: Look up and down, not just side to side
You may have heard that the prime products are always placed at eye level. This may not always mean that these are the most expensive products, but they’re generally the most profitable ones for the store. To find the cheapest items, look on the bottom shelf and get comfortable stooping down a bit as you do your shopping. Getting in the habit of looking around the full set of items and carefully considering your options will ensure that you’re always getting the best deal on what you need.
When shopping with children, however, be careful of the area between the bottom shelf and products at your eye level. This area is generally chock full of brightly colored, sugar laden, and overpriced products to grab kids’ attention. If you need to do your shopping with children in tow, try keeping your smallest ones at the top of the cart.
Tip #7: Pause and read the fine print on quantity promotions
My local supermarket likes to run the ever popular 10 for $10 promotion nearly every week. But it wasn’t until I was seriously considering buying ten bags of beans that I thought to read the offer terms just below the big red sign. It turned out that the price had been lowered to just $1 per unit, regardless of how many of the items that I bought. I was shocked and will now always check the fine print to see if I can get the deal without jumping through all of the implied or advertised hoops.
If you do in fact have to buy all 5, 10, or however many other items in order to get the deal, I recommend proceeding with caution. While you may be spending less per unit, buying up to to ten times more than you intended, is not the most financially advantageous choice for several reasons. First, by buying much more than you’d planned, you may significantly overspend your food budget in the hopes of saving a dollar or two. You can get a much better return on your money by staying in budget and investing the difference toward your retirement or another financial goal.
Second, the reasoning that if you purchase a larger quantity of a given item on this trip to the supermarket, then you won’t have to buy any at your next trip, isn’t as sound as it may seem. Jeff Weidaur, former VP of Marketing at Westcom, cautions that buying larger quantities in connection with a multibuy promotion can often lead to consumers starting to consume that item at a higher rate. So when buying multiples, be sure that your consumption habits don’t start to change in response to simply having more on hand. As a general rule of thumb, unless you plan to use the extra items before your next grocery trip and/or have a plan in place to avoid habit inflation, skip the offer and only buy what you need.
Tip #8: Take a full kitchen inventory before heading out
While I only shop for food once I’m completely out, doing so may not be realistic for most people. After all, it’s tough to keep a family fed on nothing but frozen peas for a day or two. So instead I recommend taking note of the odds and ends in your kitchen like butter, spices, and extra produce. Even if you don’t plan to put them to use immediately, knowing what you have on hand will prevent you from buying duplicate items.
Tip #9: Meal plan with what you have on hand
Once you know what you already have in your kitchen, consider plugging your existing ingredients into an app like SuperCook to find out what you can make with what’s on hand. Doing so will cut down on food waste and stretch your budget a bit further. I’ve also found that meal planning with my extra ingredients has pushed me to try new recipes that are now fixtures in my diet. Being a rather picky eater, this is no small feat.
Tip #10: Substitute out expensive ingredients
Vanilla beans, saffron, pine nuts, and gruyere cheese are among the fancy ingredients that I’ve spent money on over the years to make some of my favorite special occasion dishes. But the problem with buying these ingredients, even just every once in a while, is they’re often bought in excess of what the recipe calls for. Instead of biting the bullet and accepting these once in a blue moon expenses as necessary luxuries to make my favorite meals, I’ve substituted them out or omitted them entirely. Since I’m hardly a food connoisseur, I haven’t noticed a difference aside from a reduced bill.
Tip #11: View the weekly ad before you go
Since I mostly buy the same foods every trip, I already know which items are cheapest at each store. That said, viewing the weekly ad at local drugstores, discount retailers, and even sometimes more expensive chains like Sprout’s, has at times led to even better deals on my core staples. I highly recommend browsing at least 3 different store ads to see if going a little out of your way may be worth your while.
I generally check online ads before finalizing my meal planning and grocery list for the coming few weeks. Doing so takes just a few minutes and ensures that I not only get the best deal, but it also makes me far less likely to fall for in-store promotions on items that I’m not planning to buy.
Tip #12: Combine manufacturer coupons and store promotions
Shopping at clothing, beauty, and other specialty retailers has conditioned most shoppers to not even bother trying to combine offers. That said, the one coupon rule doesn’t necessarily apply at supermarkets and drugstores. While the generic option is usually at least 20–30% cheaper than the same name brand item, keep an eye out for manufacturer coupons whenever you see the name brand version of an item that you frequently buy in the store’s weekly ad. Nine times out of ten, I’ve been able to combine the store markdown with a manufacturer coupon, driving the price of the item sometimes far below what I would have paid had I just gone with the store brand pick.
Tip #13: Avoid going into the store without a list
The few times I’ve shopped without a list, I’ve not only forgotten most of what I’d been planning to buy in the first place, but I’ve also spent up to $20 more than I would have per trip without my list. The inflated spending that generally occurs when you don’t have a list handy is due to several factors. First is decision fatigue. The more time you spend in the store trying to remember what you need eats up your rational decision making capacity and makes you more likely to pick up unplanned items after about 20 minutes.
Second is the lack of structure. Having a list right in front of you turns grocery shopping into a well defined task in which you are there to cross off each item and promptly get on with your day. Reframing grocery visits as structured tasks removes the temptation to look for deals and to buy those extra fun items by shifting your focus toward completing your list and moving on.
Tip #14: Shop with headphones
Supermarkets in my area tend to play slow, classical music. While I appreciate relaxing music in some contexts, it tends to tire me out and slow my progress when I’m in the middle of running errands. But it turns out that the calming music in the supermarket is no accident. Professor Ronald E. Milliman found that stores that played slow music increased their sales by 40%. So unfortunately, the music selection is here to stay.
Aside from personal preference, it turns out that slowing things down at the store can really eat up your budget by triggering impulse buys. Bangor University found that after 23 minutes, shoppers started to make purchase decisions with their reptilian, or emotional brain. And after 40 minutes, which is the average duration of a trip to the supermarket, shoppers quit making rational purchase decisions completely.
Since listening to slow music tends to put us in a relaxed state and we’ve established that we only have about 23 minutes worth of sound decision making capacity while shopping, listening to upbeat music can help you mind your time and avoid buying too much on impulse. Once I got in the habit of listening to my workout playlist while I shopped, I immediately noticed a 15 minute reduction in my trip duration and walked out of the store with 2–4 items fewer than I would have on a longer trip.
Tip #15: Consider visiting a few different stores to get your shopping done
I used to shop exclusively at Trader Joe’s because it’s generally cheaper than most of the other stores in my area. While the majority of what I buy at Trader Joe’s is still cheaper than what I would find at even a discount retailer, this isn’t always the case. Since working from home, I’ve found new ways to stock up on my staples at an even better price by checking out store brands from Walmart and Target. Doing so has worked especially well on items like generic cookies and bulk coffee grounds that, while still cheap at Trader Joe’s, are particularly inexpensive at discount retailers. Making the switch for just those two items has saved me $7 per trip.
That said, I’ve price compared just about everything on my grocery list and found that bananas, tea bags, pasta, tortillas, and eggs in particular will almost always be cheaper at Trader Joe’s. Other items that tend to be cheaper at TJ’s are cheese, olive oil, frozen pizza, wine, nuts, and ice cream.
Tip #16: Shop on a full stomach
While the smell of freshly baked bread right as you walk in the store is meant to make you feel hungry and that when you’re hungry you’d logically buy more food, that’s not the meat of this tip. When you’re hungry, your ability to make sound decisions tends to rapidly deteriorate. USC professor Norbert Schwarz found that hungry shoppers tended to not only buy more of what they need, but that they also made more impulse purchases. With food being one of the largest line items in the average budget, eating even something small before doing your shopping can save quite a bit over multiple trips.
Tip #17: Limit in-store surprises with an anti-list
If you frequently come home with unnecessary items, taking the time to identify the pattern underlying those purchases can pay dividends over time. In the case of my Trader Joe’s and Target impulse purchases, I found that junk food, beauty products, and to a lesser degree cheap home items were the three categories in which all of my impulse purchases were taking place.
Once I noticed this, I decided to write the items that I would not be buying at the store underneath my primary grocery list before I went out. Most of the time, my anti-list just consisted of the aforementioned junk food, anything in the beauty section, and random knick knacks. While an anti-list may seem unnecessary to some, I’ve found that having this gentle reminder to avoid those items in the first place has kept me on guard and focused while I shop. As a result, my apartment isn’t cluttered with candles, mugs, trendy makeup items that I rarely use, and snacks that only serve to inflate my bill.
Tip #18: Bring only what you plan to spend in cash
While keeping the urge to impulse buy in check using a variety of other tips and tricks discussed in this article can take the temptation out of your shopping trip, consider leaving your credit cards at home if you still struggle to stick to your list and budget. Instead, withdraw only what you’ve planned to spend in cash and hold yourself to returning home with everything you need without making any unplanned return trips. Doing so is a foolproof way to stay true to your food budget no matter what.
Tip #19: Keep a calculator handy
As I shop, I like to keep a running total of my grocery bill. Doing so not only allows me to quantify the impact of straying from my list before I feel it in my budget, but it also pushes me to consider cheaper options whenever possible. When I went to repurchase a few essentials from Target last night, I noticed a swift enough uptick in my total after loading my favorite clear gel deodorant into my cart. Registering that item’s impact on my bill before reaching the checkout lane led me to pause and select another brand. As a result, I saved $5 with an alternate product that works just as well.
Tip #20: Shop online and pick up in store
If you find yourself routinely falling for multibuy promotions and bringing home a bunch of unplanned purchases despite your best efforts, remove in-store temptation entirely by sticking to your list online and picking your items up at the front of the store. Since I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe’s and a local discount grocer, Target is the ultimate novelty for me. In the past, my trips to the mega retailer have resulted in at least 3 nonessential items also making their way into my cart.
So I decided to give buy online, pick up in store a try. By not wandering through the aisles like a kid in a candy store and instead doing the bulk of the shopping on my laptop, I was not only able to avoid the cute mugs and tempting beauty promotions, but I was also able to shop around more thoroughly to ensure that I had the best deal. By shopping online, you’ll be able to not only apply coupons that you may not have even known about in store using a browser extension like honey, but you’ll also have a much easier time checking prices at other retailers. Even better still, you may find better priced items online that aren’t always available in your default location.
Just last night, I was able to cut what was going to be a $30 purchase down to just under $12 in 20 minutes on my laptop. I did this by sticking to my list, price comparing between Target and drugstores with applied coupons, and being just a little flexible on the pickup location. And that $18 savings doesn’t even account for easily another $10 of unnecessary items that I likely would have picked up had I chosen to do all of my shopping in store.
Tip #21: Shop by yourself whenever possible
It’s no accident that supermarkets cater to children through offering free cookies, brightly colored displays, and even in-store activities. And as mentioned in Tip #6, grocery stores place nonessential, sugar laden products right at their eye level. Supermarkets cater to children because they understand the role that kids play in family purchase decisions.
While moms have historically been the key decision makers, the “pester power” of children is now well understood. And the effects of pester power, or the ability of children to wear down their parents as they try to get their shopping done, only compounds with time spent in store. So whenever possible, leave the kiddos at home. Your wallet will thank you for it.
And even though children are often cited as one of the major drivers of unplanned purchases at the supermarket, this tip need not only apply to them. When I started college, I used to grocery shop with my best friend and roommate. While shopping with a friend makes the experience much more enjoyable, we quickly realized that we were feeding off each others’ urges to get sidetracked and pick up a bunch of unnecessary items.
While we noticed the rather expensive pattern forming, we assumed for several more months that since we were splitting the bill, we had to take each trip together. One weekend, however, my roommate and I decided that we would alternate shopping trips and hold each other accountable for sticking to a list. By shopping alone, we collectively saved $70 a month. If you have a partner, close friend, or roommate that you often shop with, try going solo to see if you notice a difference in your bill.
Tip #22: Buy meat only when it’s on sale
Even before pandemic driven supply chain disruptions, meat has always been one of the priciest items at the store. On top of cutting back on your meat consumption whenever possible, waiting for a sale is another great way to trim your grocery bill. Buying meat on sale works especially well because of how easily meat keeps when stored properly in the freezer.
Tip #23: Substitute in cheaper protein sources like beans and eggs
I used to go through several $8 packs of chicken breasts every week until I noticed that this one item was starting to account for most of my monthly food expenditure. It wasn’t until I started auditing my grocery receipts that I noticed that two of my favorite items, lentils and egg whites, were way cheaper than I’d assumed.
Even better, these two items also had significantly longer shelf lives than most of what I’d kept in my fridge. So each week, I challenged myself to replace at least half of my chicken intake with these two items. Since making the switch, I’ve saved over $24 per month. In case lentils and eggs aren’t your forte, chickpeas, black beans, and Greek yogurt are a few other budget friendly alternatives to frequent meat consumption.
Tip #24: Skip the toiletries and household items
As a general rule of thumb, expect about a 30% markup on toiletries and makeup when you buy them at your local supermarket. Instead, keep a separate list of personal care items that you may be running out of soon. From there, clip manufacturer coupons and look for online promos at CVS and Walgreens. By clipping manufacturer’s coupons and combining them with retailer promotions, I’ve been able to not only avoid paying the convenience premium at the supermarket, but I’ve also scored countless free products. In case you don’t find a great deal at the pharmacy, you can count on consistently lower prices on these items at discount retailers like Walmart and Target due to their everyday low pricing strategy.
Tip #25: Arrange your purchases in your fridge with the closest expiry date item most accessible
According to a 2020 Penn State estimate, the average American household loses about $1,866 a year to food waste, or 30% of food purchased. While I only go to the store after I’ve eaten everything in my kitchen, I’ve still let a few fresh items fall through the cracks over the years. Since I only buy items that I eat regularly, my food waste wasn’t due to buying the wrong items. Instead, I would simply forget about the expiration dates on some of my food because I made large, infrequent purchases.
In order to nip this money waster in the bud, I got in the habit of checking the expiry dates of each product I purchased and then storing those with the shortest shelf life front and center in my fridge. This way, I eat the fresh items first and haven’t had to throw anything away in months. And as a result, I’ve saved over $15 a month.