On average, food costs are the third largest monthly expense for households, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, following only housing and transportation costs. Average food expenses per month in 2019 were $680.75, and of that, $386.92 came from grocery bills. That accounts for 5.6% of the average monthly income or 7.4% of the average monthly expenses. Clearly, by reducing your grocery bill, you should be able to significantly reduce your monthly expenses overall. Here are a few tips to do just that.
1. Jot down a shopping list
You will save money with a premeditated shopping list. The list serves as guidelines for what to buy and helps you stay untantalized by free samples or other marketing tricks that grocery stores employ to encourage spending.
A shopping list saves you time too. With a shopping list in hand, you are less likely to wander in the grocery store, wondering what you will eat for the next week. Jot down what you need whenever it runs out in the house and grab them all on your next trip, so you don’t have to rush to the grocery store for a bunch of parsley in the middle of cooking.
A shopping list also helps you prepare your meal plans. Spend time considering what you want to cook for the week. Add all ingredients and materials to the list prior to your trip to the grocery store. This also helps promote healthy food choices because you are allowed time to ponder over your food choices and swap the unhealthy ones with the more nutritious, and drop sweets and snacks this time until your next trip. Moreover, when you have everything planned out, you are less likely to stop by fast food Drive Thrus or get greasy take-out as a last-minute resort.
Nonetheless, a shopping list without limits is not a good one. You can choose to limit either the numbers of items to be purchased or the total amount to be paid. Plan ahead and decide on how many gallons of milk, how many heads of lettuce, how much chicken or flour you need to last you and your family for two weeks or so. Write down those numbers next to the items on your list and stick to them. Should you choose to cap your expenditure to a particular amount, be reasonable. Generally speaking, a family of four (parents aged between 19 and 50 and children between 2 and 5) can spend $745.80 each month on a low-cost plan, which means $171.20 each week. This may vary depending on age group of family members, location, dietary restrictions/preferences, and other factors. Refer to the limits you have set yourself at times when shopping groceries. It will not only prevent you from making impulsive purchases but greatly minimize food waste at home. Your list will regulate your purchases, ensuring that you only buy what you intend to buy and the right amount you can consume. It will save you from buying too much food that will go bad and end up in the trash.
Having stated the benefits of a shopping list, I want to point out a few things for you to keep in mind when you put together one before your grocery run. First, check your inventory in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer so that you know for sure what you will need in the following two weeks or so. Second, run through the list with family members or solicit their opinions to avoid unwanted or unsatisfying purchases.
It is easier said than done. It really takes some discipline to follow your list. If you cannot help it, limit yourself to one item or two that you truly crave.
2. Wait longer between grocery runs
Before the pandemic lockdown, I used to shop for groceries every weekend. It was nice to eat fresh fruits and cook meats without the added hassles of thawing them ahead of time. Nonetheless, an overstocked refrigerator each week often resulted in lots of food waste. Because there were so many items I could use, I felt obligated to cook new dishes every night. Though I tried to reheat some leftovers on some nights, nobody seemed willing to touch the leftovers when new dishes were visibly more tantalizing. I found myself scooping leftovers out into the trash can, and sometimes, I got rid of ingredients that I did not even lay a finger on. Leafy vegetables went yellow and rotten at the ends or the smell of chicken got funky.
Because of Covid-19, I started to visit the grocery store less frequently. We stocked up every two weeks, except when we ran low with essential items like milk on occasion. Every time I came home from the grocery store, I rejoiced in the bountifulness and variety on display in the refrigerator. We would eat like kings and queens for a few days in a row, with a different meat for each night. The second week is always a bit difficult. I found myself complaining to my husband, “I don’t know what to cook” or “there is nothing in the fridge to cook with.” Then, out of wits, I whip up a few things (random ingredients that mostly don’t go together) or make do with leftovers from previous nights.
Honestly, I admit that I don’t like when stuff in the refrigerator starts to visibly disappear. Neither do I enjoy cooking with so limited options. But I have seen my grocery bills going down significantly because I had to wait longer between grocery runs. Instead of spending approximately $120 each week, we ended up spending around $200 every two weeks. There is less food waste too, since I learned to make use of leftovers as much as possible. For example, I saved the baked salmon from the previous night and made rigatoni pasta dipped in pesto sauce with salmon bits for lunch.
Plus, you don’t necessarily have to endure food scarcity in Week Two like we used to. In fact, the reason we were a bit stingy with our food in the second week was partly because I was unfamiliar with buying groceries that would last us two weeks. (It was largely because we indulged ourselves too much in the first week. After all, moderation is key in the time of a pandemic.) Calculate well the amount of food you will need for two weeks to ensure that you have enough ingredients to prepare two weeks’ worth of hearty meals.
3. Use mobile apps to save
Grocery store apps can be a big help when you write out your shopping list. Add all the items you need into the shopping cart and let it calculate the total price for you. Remove or add more items as your budget permits.
Also, don’t forget that store apps often issue coupons and rebates. Wegmans’ app, for example, issues generous discounts on pre-prepared and processed food items, such as poke bowls, lunch salads, and seasoned meats. Nevertheless, you will have to clip those digital coupons to activate them before you check out.
During the pandemic, you can even use store apps to organize your route in the grocery store. Search items in the app, find out where they are in your local store, and group items by aisle number when you jot down your shopping list. Trust me, this will help minimize time spent in the store and reduce contact with other shoppers.
Other mobile apps can save you a ton too when you use them right. Ibotta allows smartphone users to earn cash back from more than 22 grocery stores, including Wegmans, Target, and Walmart. It also gives cash back on purchases users make in store or through the app. Dosh is an app that gives you automatic cash back for your shopping, travel, or dining purchases. What’s neat about Dosh is that it’s automatic. It saves you the hassle of tracking discount codes or saving your receipt and uploading it later. Currently, it offers 2% cash back per dollar spent online for both Walmart and Sam’s Club. For those of you who use grocery and restaurant delivery services a lot these days because of a prolonged pandemic, Dosh issues cash back when you use Uber Eats (12% online cash back for new customers and 5.5% for existing customers), Grubhub (1.5% online cash back), Instacart (2.5% online cash back for new customers), and DoorDash ($5.5 online cash back for new customers). Give them a try yourself! In today’s unpredictable economic climate, every penny counts.
4. Use the right credit card
Another great way to save on groceries is to use credit cards that issue cash back on grocery purchases. Discover it Cash Back Credit Card is known for giving back 5% cash on eligible purchases in pre-determined categories and 1% on everything else. The 5% cash back calendar varies on a quarterly basis. For example, for the first three months this year, you will earn 5% cash back at grocery stores, Walgreens, and CVS on up to $1,500 worth of purchases (that’s up to $75 cash back) when you shop with your Discover it credit card. To qualify for the 5% cash back, make sure that you activate it prior to the beginning of each quarter.
Chase offers two similar credit cards (Chase Freedom credit card and Chase Freedom Flex credit card) that offer 5% cash back on purchases that fall within quarterly bonus categories. For Freedom or Freedom Flex cardholders, you may earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 worth of purchases in three bonus categories from January to March 2021: Wholesale Clubs, Internet, Cable, & Phone Services, and Select Streaming Services. Though Chase has opted not to publish its 5% calendar at the beginning of each year now, it has not completely repeated Discover’s bonus categories, which makes it really nice for cardholders of both cards to max out the bonus cash back. (Granted, their bonus categories in a select number of years did overlap in up to two quarters.) Chase Freedom is now closed to new applicants since the bank has launched Chase Freedom Flex as its new line of service. Other than the 5% cash back on quarterly bonus categories and 1% cash back on any other purchases, the Freedom Flex card also offers 3% cash back on dining and at drug stores throughout the year as an added benefit.
If it seems like a hassle for you to activate the cash back button every three months, or you simply want to manage one card only, American Express Blue Cash Everyday Card is a good choice for you. It is a one-card-fits-all type of card, and you can’t go wrong with it if you are building up your credit history. Like the other two cards, Blue Cash Everyday Card doesn’t charge an annual fee. Its featured benefits include 3% cash back on up to $6,000 at supermarkets, 2% at select gas stations and department stores, and 1% on everything else. Although it does not offer up to 5% for grocery shopping, its cash back bonus applies to grocery purchases throughout the year rather than in the course of a specific quarter.
You may raise an eyebrow at the thought of opening a new credit card. A new card inquiry will result in a “hard pull” and consequently affect your credit score adversely for a brief period of time. Moreover, some of us may feel that we have a license to splurge with a credit card until we receive a bill in the mail that is too big to pay off. I understand your concern! In fact, I don’t encourage applying for more cards if you have a bad credit history, or you have defaulted on your credit card debts, or you don’t spend enough to benefit from more cards. I suggest that you analyze your spending habits and compare your options before you apply for a new one.
5. Compare food unit prices
Chances are that the item marked with the lowest price is not always the best deal. For example, below are two types of Oreos sold at Wegmans. Even though the advertised price for the one on the right ($3.19/each) is lower the one on the left ($3.79/each). Its unit price ($0.22/oz) is in fact higher than the one on the left ($0.20/oz).
In other words, never just rely on price tags to help you make decisions when shopping. So, how do you determine what the best value on the shelves is? You should always consider the unit price because it provides a more accurate gauge of how much an item costs. These days, grocery stores usually display the unit price on the price tag, making it easier for shoppers to compare between products.
But what makes prices of the same product of different packaging vary? The simple answer is size. Size matters because bulk purchases are usually cheaper. When items are packaged in smaller quantities and sold separately, their individual price is usually a bit higher than their bulk unit price because risk, wastage, and labor cost have all been factored into their individual price. In other words, they cost the producers, suppliers, and distributors more to sell them individually.
But this by no means guarantees that all bulk purchases will save you money. While rice and flour are great items to buy at wholesale clubs, you should avoid getting perishable items such as fresh produce and meat. Leafy vegetables, for example, if not consumed within two weeks, start turning yellow and rotting. If you find the unit price for bulk tenderloin beef or pork rib utterly too tantalizing to steer your cart away, you should always cut them into the right rations for each meal you have planned and store them in the freezer as soon as possible.
In short, good planning is key to reduce your grocery bill. All these tips offered above require a small amount of input before you head over to the grocery store. I have tried out these methods myself and managed to cut my household grocery bill by 20%. Start with a less ambitious plan if you are just beginning to figure out ways to save that work best for you. Feel free to leave me a comment if you would like to share your good tips to lower grocery bills.