“Comparison Shopping” Shaved $273 Off My Monthly Grocery Budget

published Jul 14, 2023
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Grocery shopping is a chore that eats up hours and devours my bank account at the same time. It’s also the biggest variable expense in my monthly budget. One month, I’m spending big bucks to restock the staple ingredients I use every day, while the next there’s a smaller payout as I cook foods from my freezer. 

I’ve dabbled in grocery pickup, had ingredients delivered a time or two, and even signed up for online market subscriptions. Despite it all, I’ve remained a devoted in-person grocery shopper. Blame it on my desire to browse the shelves myself to find the best deal or perfect ingredient for a recipe, or my tendency to hop from store-to-store buying my favorite brands from various grocers.

So many services keep popping up to help with grocery shopping (which makes sense, as it’s one of the most time-consuming weekly tasks many of us undertake). I wondered if in-person grocery shopping is the best value for my time and money, or if I could be saving both by ordering food online. Would I spend more money online, thanks to higher prices, delivery fees, and service charges? Or would the pull for in-store impulse purchases put the total over the top? Would I devote less time grocery shopping if all of my interaction is on screen, or is it just as efficient to pop into a store on the way home?

To find out for myself, I decided to track my grocery spending and take note of the behavioral elements of the chore. I spent one month grocery shopping only online and another exclusively in-person, and what I found was not what I expected.

Credit: Patty Catalano

Here’s What Happened to My Budget When I Comparison Shopped for Two Months

During the month I spent grocery shopping exclusively on Instacart, I shopped less frequently, placing just three orders versus seven in-person stops at my local Publix. The totals on my receipts were more consistent when ordering online (each order hovering around $70), yet varied widely for in-person shopping trips, ranging from just over $10 on one trip to over $125 on another. I also purchased more items when shopping in-store than when faced with filling a virtual cart. 

What surprised me most was that I spent over twice as much shopping in-person as I did shopping online. 

Comparison shopping in this way highlighted how important grocery store sales are to my meal planning style. The weeks where I shopped in-store, I made meal plans on the fly based on what was on sale and what foods caught my eye. I might find inspiration from a display of pineapples, reminding me of a Hawaiian brisket slider recipe I’ve wanted to try, or swap pork chops for chicken one night if the former is a few dollars cheaper that week. 

It’s not impossible to shop the sales via the grocer’s app, but it did take more time to find the sales I was interested in. There is a designated “Deals” tab and even a place to refine the search to the BOGO deals in my store, but I found that I needed to search specifically for deals that I was looking for (or, rather, hoping for). And despite the higher in-app prices, I found ways to save money while online shopping by opting for grocery pickup and avoiding the extra delivery fee. I scheduled the pickup times around other errands and had to set aside less than 10 minutes for each pickup.

Credit: Kelli Foster

It was also easier to stick to my grocery list when I was shopping online. I prepared my list throughout the week, keeping track of what I ran out of. I planned meals in advance of shopping when making my lists online to make sure I stocked up on ingredients needed for specific recipes. When an ingredient was missing or poor-quality produce was delivered, I switched gears and adjusted dinner plans to include freezer and pantry staples rather than attempting a last-minute online order for just an ingredient or two. This helped keep my overall grocery spend down, and forced me to use food that I already purchased.

I hesitated to click the order button until my grocery list reached a certain dollar item or item count threshold (something that I only noticed in retrospect as I compared receipts). Online shopping practically eliminated last-minute grocery store stops. Upon reflection, it felt like a waste of someone else’s time to order just a few items when I could just as quickly hop out of the car and buy those items myself. Instead of placing smaller, mid-week grocery orders online, I adjusted my meal plan.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What About Time? Did I Pick Up Any Savings There?

The actual cost of grocery shopping is more than just the total at the bottom of the receipt. It includes the time spent making the grocery list, getting to the grocery store and back, not to mention the time it takes to do the actual shopping.

As a relative newbie to online grocery shopping, I started the month ordering exclusively through the app. I found it cumbersome not being able to find the package size or brand I was searching for easily or quickly. (The filter and search functions on my grocery delivery app could use some refining.) That’s how I ended up with a small clamshell of cilantro instead of a large, leafy bunch and snack-sized packages of Fig Newtons instead of the standard package.

Friends who are online shopping devotees shared that some grocery delivery services are easier to navigate from a computer, which I also found to be true. As this comparison shopping experiment continued, I got into the groove of online grocery shopping, adding items I ran out of directly to the grocery app instead of a separate list app, and supplementing that list with recipe ingredients for the week via my web browser.

I saved time out in the world ordering groceries online, but ultimately traded that time for navigating the aisles virtually. I couldn’t shake the feeling, though, that filtering my searches took longer than it would have had I just been at the store and able to visually scan the shelves myself.  

So, Will I Shop Online or in-Store Going Forward?

Both! Most weeks, I don’t mind the ritual of grocery shopping, so I feel torn that shopping online saved me so much money. Luckily, I don’t have to choose.

I’ll incorporate online shopping into my shopping routine — especially now that I’ve worked out the kinks of online ordering. I plan to do the majority of my grocery shopping online, instead of shopping in-person every week (or multiple times a week). I’m also giving myself permission (now that this comparison shopping experiment is done) to shop in-store occasionally to supplement a dinner plan or to spot the savings in-person.

Before You Try Comparison Shopping, a Few Tips

  • Consider your average grocery bill. If your monthly budget could benefit from consistency, online grocery shopping might be for you. It’s easier to track your total when adding to an online cart rather than one in real life. 
  • Think about your routine. If you’re already spending hours in front of a computer, it may be easy to add building a grocery list to your to-dos. If you’re constantly out and about, in-person shopping may be a better option for you. 
  • Reflect on how you meal plan. If you’re inspired by seeing food and comparison shopping IRL, then in-person grocery shopping is your best bet. If you rarely stray from your recipes’ ingredient lists, having someone else pick your groceries might work for you. 

Have you tried comparison shopping before? What were the results? Tell us about it in the comments below.