Frugal grocery shopping: saving money on one of your biggest expenses

Your grocery bill may be your biggest monthly expenses. Unless you go out to eat most of the time, it is certainly in the top three. Learning to save money at the grocery store is vital to living a more frugal life.

Plan a menu. This is the best way to ensure that you know what you need to buy when you get to the store and makes frugal grocery shopping a lot easier. It also helps when the time to start preparing a meal rolls around and you don’t have to rack your brain thinking of what to serve.

Go with a list. If you go without a list, you will probably end up taking home a lot of things that you don’t need and then get home and find out that you don’t have what you really need for meals. Prepare a list of everything you need, pulling from your weekly menu and checking to make sure you don’t already have it in your pantry, fridge or freezer. I try to organize my list by aisles or at least by category of food (all produce together; frozen together, etc.) so I can keep track of it more easily in the store.

Keep a list on your fridge. When you run out of something (or are running low), put it on the list immediately, and you’ll never have to run back to the store because you don’t have milk. 

Make a pantry checklist. Make a checklist of everything you normally stock in your pantry. Keep it posted on the pantry door. Put a slash next to each item for the number of items you have (if you have two cans of stewed tomatoes, put two slashes). Then, when you use something, turn the slash into an x. This makes it much easier when it comes time to make your frugal grocery shopping list. 

Don’t shop when you’re hungry. This is a common tip, but it’s true: when you’re hungry, you want to buy all kinds of junk and you’ll end up spending a lot more. Eat a snack or a meal first, and you’ll be more likely to stick to your shopping list.

Shop the perimeter of the store. Not only will this save you money, but you will get home with much healthier foods. The perimeter of the store usually contains the dairy products, the produce section, and the meats. These are the most basic foods in their most natural, least processed forms. Most of the foods in the middle aisles are highly processed, full of artificial ingredients, and expensive.

Cut back on meat. Meat is expensive. If you want to be successful at frugal grocery shopping, buying less meat is a good way to do it. Consider having vegetarian meals a couple of times a week or just using a smaller amount of meat along with other protein-rich foods such as beans, whole grains, or cheese. 

Buy foods close to their natural state. It is much less expensive to buy chunk cheese and grate it yourself; whole mushrooms are cheaper than sliced (and keep longer, too!). You pay a premium for prep work that is done for you. Decide for yourself if it is worth it to you, or if you want to save money in this area. This applies to meat, too. Buying whole chicken and cutting it up is much cheaper than buying boneless and skinless breasts or thighs alone. If you don't want to cut up a whole chicken, you can at least buy it with the bones and skin. These are more flavorful anyway! Skin and bones contribute flavor and can be removed after you cook the chicken.

Stop buying soda. You can make iced tea or kool-aid at home for pennies a glass and you can use the sweetener of your choice, too (sugar; artificial sweetener; or Stevia for a natural low carb and calorie option). As well as being smart frugal grocery shopping, this also benefits the environment because you are not buying all those cans and bottles.

Pack your own lunch and snacks. Buying snacks in individual serving sized packages is convenient, but a waste of money. For more frugal grocery shopping, buy the larger packages of pretzels, chips, cookies, etc. and pack them in zip-top bags each day. Your cost per serving will be a fraction of what you would pay for the individual serving packages.

Saving with coupons . If you buy processed foods, be sure to look for coupons. You can often save as much as 50% on these expensive items if you have a coupon. Coupons are available online, in store sale flyers, and in the Sunday newspaper. If you use coupons a lot, it is probably worth buying the paper for the coupon savings alone!

Look for specials. Every store has specials. Be sure to look for them in the newspaper, or when you get to the store (they often have unadvertised specials — look on the higher and lower shelves for deals). Don’t buy them unless they’re things you use anyway.

Check the international food aisle for bargains. Some staples like rice and beans are cheaper in that aisle than they are two aisles over because it is an off brand. Items like canned tuna are often a bargain in the international aisle, and condiments like hot sauce can be more than a dollar cheaper than popular brands.

Try the store brands. Brand names are often no better than generic, and you’re paying for all the advertising they do to have a brand name. Give the store brand a try, and often you won’t notice a difference. Many stores have a money-back policy on their brand: if you don’t like it, you can get your money back.

Shop the bread outlet. If there is a bread outlet in your town, this is a great way to save money on all types of breads. They usually sell day-old bread for less than half of what you would pay in a grocery store. 

Buy in bulk only when it makes sense. If you can save money over the course of a month or two by buying in bulk, plan to do so. But be sure that you’re going to use all of it before it goes bad — it isn’t frugal grocery shopping to buy in bulk if you have to throw half of it away.

Buy frozen fruits and vegetables. While fresh fruits and vegetables in season are better, frozen vegetables are almost as good, and their prices stay constant throughout the year. They are also less likely to go to waste since they last longer in the freezer. Fresh vegetables in season are a great bargain – they also taste better and are better for you, but out-of season produce can be outrageously expensive and disappointingly bland.

Cut back on your “one-item” trips. Going to the grocery store for one item is a waste of gasoline, and almost inevitably you buy more than that one item. If you plan ahead, make a weekly menu, and shop with a list, this should reduce the number of trips you need to make for one or two items. 

Stock up on sale items. Learn to recognize a good sale price and when something you regularly buy is on sale at a bargain price, stock up (provided that it is not a perishable item). Do check expiration dates, though - even canned good have them now, and you don't want to stock up on things that are close to being out of date.

Invest in a chest freezer. To stock up on meat, frozen veggies, and similar staples, and to freeze big batches of pasta, casseroles, and other dinners you prepare ahead of time, consider buying a large freezer. You can probably find a pre-owned one at a bargain price - check your local classified ads or craigslist.

Ask for a rain check. If an item is on sale but the store has run out of stock, ask for a rain check. 

Leave the kids at home. It never fails – if I take them with me, I buy things that I don’t need because they are asking for it. Having them along makes frugal grocery shopping more difficult because it is harder to focus on what I need to get and comparing prices.

Use store savings cards. I prefer stores that don't use these cards and give everyone the same price, but the reality is that a lot of stores use them to track the purchases of their customers. If you shop at a store that requires a card to get the sale prices, get a card and use it - they can save you a lot of money.

Use fewer disposable products. Instead of paper napkins, use cloth ones and wash them (I made some very inexpensively by cutting pretty fabric into squares and hemming the edges on a sewing machine.) Use dish towels instead of paper towels in the kitchen. 

Recycle your grocery bags. It is a good idea to reuse or recycle anything we can to reduce the amount of trash that we send to the landfills. Aside from that, many stores will give you cash credit for using your own bags. 

Consider delivery service. A friend of mine shared this favorite frugal grocery shopping tip with me. I have never done it, but she swears by it! "I save sooo much money! I am able to keep to my budget and no impulse buying. The (store's) site keeps a running total of what I buy. You can shop by aisle just like the store, and if I go over my budget I can go back and take stuff off. Not like at the store when you're too embarrassed so you buy everything in your cart. And depending on when you schedule the delivery the fee can be as low as $7. I love it!!!"

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