8 Little Habits That Save Me Big at the Grocery Store

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Lauren Ver Hage/TFD)

Welcome to a column from The Financial Diet, one of our very favorite sites, dedicated to money and everything it touches. One of the best ways to take charge of your financial life is through food and cooking. This column from TFD founders Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage will help you be better with money, thanks to the kitchen.

I love grocery shopping. I have an almost-comically large and well-stocked Fairway about a 15-minute walk from my apartment, and I can easily lose three hours wandering its aisles, shivering in its enormous refrigerated room, and marveling at the giant wall of pickles and olives. I don’t just love to grocery shop because I love to cook (which I very much do) — I love to grocery shop because to me it is the perfect diversion. It’s mindless but useful, it’s full of engaging colors and smells and (sample-sized) tastes, and when done with a detailed list, can feel satisfyingly like a treasure hunt. Seeing how many combinations I can make with the ingredients, how many small discoveries I can make in the condiment or dry-goods aisles, has always felt quietly thrilling.

Like I said, I love grocery shopping.

But as someone who writes about money for a living, I am acutely aware that spending on something as necessary as food can quickly morph from “a healthy part of my budget, spent in a smart and satisfying way” to “an excuse to overspend while convincing myself that I’m doing something good.” My desire to feel like Ina Garten strolling around the farmers market in crisp fall weather, cooing at zucchinis, is not a reason to see that part of my budget inflate beyond all proportion to my income.

I have had to learn to manage my grocery spending in ways that do not make me feel slighted out of the experience, but which keep me focused and thrifty. And while they are not a perfect strategy by any means, these eight habits have made me become someone who doesn’t just love grocery shopping, but someone who is actually kind of good at it.

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1. Never shop hungry.

Yes, I’m starting with an obvious one, but it bears repeating: The day I started getting serious about never shopping hungry was the day I started spending dramatically less money at the grocery store. (In fact, now, to be sure that I will not get overwhelmed with cravings, I eat a string cheese or Babybel on the walk to the store — it’s protein-dense and satisfying, and rich enough to make me not want the fattier stuff I’m always tempted to throw in my cart.)

And while yes, grocery-shopping tipsy, angry, or sad are equally not-great in terms of the spending they drive, they are also less totally avoidable. One thing you can always be sure of, though, is to not do your shopping hungry, even if that means sitting down at the hot bar first for 20 minutes to have some soup before you start.

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2. Decide where generic is fine, and be a loyalist.

Sometimes generic simply is not as good. For example, as someone who loves eating sugary cereals as dessert, you will never convince me that the giant zip-top bag versions of Captain Crunch or Lucky Charms are quite as good, plus I can’t read the box while I eat. And while it is up to you to decide which items are worth spending for brand names, you must become a loyalist about whatever you deem “not a big deal” in terms of buying generic.

If you are big on store-brand canned veggies or toothpaste, for example, stick with it, and start your shopping with those items. Once our baskets are filled up with a ton of basics, we’ll find that we are even less motivated to circle the store again for our fancier delights, such as name-brand boxed lemonade.

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3. Have two bags: one for produce, one for everything else.

I’ve found that one of the most effective habits of shopping healthier, less expensively, and more efficiently is to go to the store with two large tote bags: one to be filled with produce (and yes, frozen and canned count), and one with everything else, from dry goods to meat to dish soap. It not only ensures that you prioritize and become more creative with fruits and veggies, but it also will shock you how much lower your grocery bill is when you are not mindlessly filling your cart with dairy products, meats, packaged foods, and random German chocolate bars you found while waiting in the checkout lane.

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4. Know the seasons and follow them.

Your produce budget is guaranteed to be lower if you commit to eating within seasons. You should know when the tomatoes are good and local, when to buy the hell out of gourds, and when the watermelons are going to be red and juicy instead of sad and grainy and pink. It’s not just for deliciousness purposes that you should be learning the produce seasons, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a huge benefit. Primarily, though, you should take notice of how much more expensive things like avocados or melons are during times when they have to be shipped from another hemisphere.

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5. Find out what is cheaper at the farmers market.

Sure, your local farmers market can be a little expensive for some items, but there are times when it’s more cost-effective to shop there. For example, at a very low-maintenance produce market near my apartment, I can always find delicious fruits for substantially less than they sell for at the grocery store. (Is it just me or did strawberries at the supermarket suddenly start costing more than my Netflix subscription? Why are strawberries so freaking expensive?) Anyway, long story short, said berries are much more affordable — and delicious — at the market down the street.

It’ll take a good once-over to know what to buy there, but once you’ve got the place figured out, you can start making sure that certain purchases get made where it’s smartest.

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6. Only shop for recipes.

I used to just sort of mindlessly write things on my grocery list as they popped into my head, with only a vague idea of how they would coalesce when dinnertime came. And somehow, I would always be truly shocked when I had only three of six essential ingredients for the meal I planned on making.

Now, I’m religious about two things: one, I keep a magnet list on my fridge and always update it when we run out of something, so I am not constantly running back for extra trips because I forgot dishwasher powder again; and two, I form fully coherent recipes in my grocery list, and always strive to have at least a few ingredients with which I can make another, secondary meal. For example, if I buy some butcher’s bacon for a carbonara, I use half and save the other half for sautéed Brussels sprouts — and both recipes are on the list. It keeps me focused for my meals that week, and ensures that everything I’m buying serves a purpose.

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7. Do meat-free challenges.

I will not mince words here: I love the hell out of some meat. And I try to be as good as I can about buying ethical, healthy meats. But let’s be honest: Good meat is expensive, and no matter how much I love a good pork chop, if I’m not at least sometimes doing some meat-free challenges, regular trips to the grocery store can start to seriously rack up.

So for at least two of my dinners per week, I strive to do meat-free (or very meat-sparse, such as a carbonara), and have done an entire two-month period where I was vegan until 6 p.m. It ultimately wasn’t the right plan for me in terms of the food, but for my budget, it was a pretty amazing two months. Whatever is the right way for you, if you are a big meat-cooker, challenge yourself to have some times without.

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8. Use coupons.

Yes, there is something profoundly un-millennial and gauche about couponing, but there is a reason there is an entire TLC genre devoted to moms who build empires off buying heavily discounted toilet paper: Couponing works.

And now that it’s 2017, we are all basically carrying around hyper-efficient coupon machines in our pocket. There are tons of great apps to choose from which do basically all of the heavy lifting for you, and ensure that you’re getting the best deal on whatever you happen to be buying. Simply put, if you are not actively using at least one coupon program or clipping them yourself, you are taking money out of your own pocket.

What are your tricks for saving money at the grocery store? Let us know in the comments!