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.
When it comes to grocery shopping on a budget, there isn't one "right" or "wrong" way to do it. We all have different dietary needs, and a life spent eschewing all of our wants — especially the food-related ones — wouldn't be a very interesting one. So we figure out whatever works for us: clipping coupons, buying in bulk, perusing the sale produce that's on its last leg.
No matter what you choose, there are dozens of ways to shop strategically.
And shopping strategically doesn't have to mean scrutinizing every single item on your list to make sure you're saving every last penny — sometimes you just want to get into the store and out as quickly as possible. Instead of thinking in terms of saving on individual products, try focusing on a more general savings tactic.
While certain brands and products can be particularly expensive, there are also entire sections of the grocery store that are known to be budget-destroyers. You don't have to parse out an item-by-item plan of attack when you go food shopping for the week — instead, you can make your shopping trips cost you less overall by simply avoiding the sections that are chock-full of more expensive food products, or products that will drive you to spend more overall. Plus, if you confine your trips to only certain aisles, you can simplify your shopping list and shorten the amount of time you spend shopping. Win-win!
Here are the top five aisles to avoid if you want to really save money on groceries.
Note: We're not saying these are "bad" aisles — it's just that they tend to be more expensive.
1. Natural Foods Section
One recent-ish trend in generic grocery stores is to have a "green" section full of products labeled organic, all-natural, or a number of other designations (with varying degrees of legitimacy). These sections are surely helping chains keep up with Whole Foods and other "health food" stores, and while they may contain some good products that might be worth it to some people, there's no doubt that extra "healthy" label can cost a pretty penny.
Some foods are worth the extra cost it takes to buy organic, but some just aren't. And regardless, they all cost more than conventional. Learn which foods aren't worth the price tag that comes with the organic label, and plan meals centered around those.
And while it may go without saying, remember: Just because something is labeled "all natural" doesn't mean it's good for you. Ice cream made with natural ingredients is still ice cream. By all means, splurge when you want and can afford to, but justifying spending more on a purchase simply because it has a brown paper label that says "gluten-free, non-GMO" is a no-no for a buying food on a tight budget.
2. The Snack Aisle
Saving money on food means learning how much you actually need to eat. Yes, snacks are great, and you should never deprive yourself in the name of financial health to the extent that you're not actually getting the nutrients and calories you need. But some things in life are unavoidable bummers — like the fact that potato chips and soda are a bad investment.
The snack food aisle is specifically designed for you to see all the things you crave right next to each other. And, of course, these are things you have to consume a lot more of — chips, cookies, soda — in order to start feeling full. You may think you're spending less money by purchasing cheap, jumbo bags of snack food, but really you're just spending on things that aren't going to fill you up in the long run. If you're really trying to trim your food budget, steer clear of the aisles filled with snacks, and instead fill your list with foods that will give you more mileage.
3. Fresh Produce
Some of us would never give up fresh produce for the sake of saving money, and you know what? That's totally fine. If fresh fruit and vegetables are what get you excited to cook at home, by all means, keep making room for it in your budget!
But you can't deny that fresh produce, especially if you're not shopping with the seasons, can really add up. Frozen produce is an excellent alternative. It tends to be a lot cheaper for a much larger amount, and apparently it tends to retain some more of its nutritional value than fresh does — especially if that fresh produce has been shipped from far away (and thus taken longer to get from the harvest to your refrigerator drawer). No matter what, fresh produce is more likely to be wasted; some studies even suggest that half of U.S. produce is thrown out each year. Yikes! Make sure the fresh produce you're buying is in season. Otherwise, it's much more cost-effective to buy frozen.
4. Fresh Seafood Section
Another bummer alert: You can't always believe "fresh" seafood is as fresh as it claims to be. In fact, sometimes it comes in on the same delivery truck with the frozen seafood — it's simply defrosted and then put on display with a jacked-up price. As nutritionist Jamie Logie told Mashed, "Fresh items can cost as much as 40 percent more than the exact same thing that's frozen."
Frozen fish or shrimp is a better option than fresh, because you can simply thaw just the amount you need for one or two servings at a time. Less wasted, more saved!
5. End-of-Aisle Displays
End-of-aisle displays are not your friend. They are not there to alert you to the best deals in that section, or maybe even a deal at all — in fact, many brands will pay grocery store chains to have their products featured at the end of certain aisles, because they know those displays are going to catch your eye. Don't fall for it!
Remember, above all else, that grocery stores know what they're doing. It's no wonder they put the dairy section all the way in the back — they want all those folks just running in to grab milk to pass by every other thing they could spend their money on. And have you ever noticed that you have to look up and down at the canned goods to find the best price per unit? Stocking the more expensive items at eye-level is no accident.
Remember these things the next time you go shopping, and take note of how your own grocer sets up their store. The more you know about how a store tends to stock its inventory, the smarter a shopper you can be.