You popped into the grocery store for just a few items—ingredients for tonight’s dinner, maybe a few household sundries. Half an hour later, you’re pushing an overflowing shopping cart out the door, wondering how what was supposed to be a quick, cheap trip has suddenly shredded your weekly budget.|
We’ve all been there. Supermarkets count on unplanned purchases to boost their bottom lines—in fact, they design their store layouts with the sole purpose of capturing extra (unbudgeted) dollars for off-list items. Given that more than 70 percent of impulse buys are made on food and groceries, the strategy seems to be working.
According to the USDA, U.S. households spend anywhere from 14.3 to 34.1 percent of their income on food. To keep that already sizable chunk from creeping up even higher, it’s important to enter the grocery store with a plan, a purpose and a proverbial set of blinders to block out all of those enticing end caps.
If you’re making any of these common—and expensive—grocery mistakes, it might be time to make some adjustments before your next trip up and down the aisles.
Mistake: Not calculating how much protein you need
It’s Taco Tuesday, so you grab a couple pounds of ground beef, only to wind up with a bunch of extra food left after everyone is finished. If that happens multiple times throughout the week, it can add up to a lot of wasted meat—and a lot of wasted money.
"Animal protein foods can become pricey, and if you just buy ‘a few packages’ as opposed to knowing how much you really need, then you can end up spending more money and serving up more food then you need to," notes nutrition expert Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D.
To make sure your hard-earned money doesn’t end up in the garbage, Amidor says to account for four to five raw ounces of meat or poultry for every person in your household (three to four for kids), and then purchase only the total amount you need.
Mistake: Purchasing the package with the smallest unit price and not using it before it spoils
"Sure, that bulk package of lettuce might be the least expensive option per pound, but is it going to get soggy and end up in the trash when you are only halfway through the bag? If so, the savings might not add up," says registered dietitian nutritionist Summer Yule.
When considering purchasing a particular food in bulk, be realistic about whether it will work for your household. In some cases, you may save money and reduce food waste by buying a smaller package with a slightly higher unit price, Yule explains.
Mistake: Purchasing a bulk food item and eating far more than if you had purchased a smaller package
On the other hand, if certain bulk purchases lead to overindulgence, you are probably not seeing the savings you’d hoped for, said Yule. For example, if you find yourself regularly pouring an extra serving or two after buying a big box of cereal versus a smaller box, you may be missing out on the bulk purchase savings.
"If you are trying to create a calorie deficit for weight loss, check in with yourself to determine whether you tend to overeat energy-dense foods when you purchase them in larger packages," she suggests. "You might discover a strategy that can help reduce your grocery spending and your waistline."
Mistake: Not planning ahead
When heading to the grocery store without a list, it’s easy to forget what you already have in your fridge or pantry, so you may end up buying doubles or triples of your food staples, warns Chelsey Amer, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Chelsey Amer Nutrition. Plus, you run the risk of forgetting items and having to spend more time and money on follow-up trips.
"To avoid food and money waste, set aside just 10 minutes prior to food shopping to take inventory of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer," Amer suggests. "You'll see what you really need for the upcoming week, as well as the staples that need refreshing."
As an added bonus, taking inventory and making a list could also lead to a healthier basket, as you’ll become more intentional with your purchases.
Mistake: Not shopping for in-season produce
Shopping in season is especially important when purchasing produce, as seasonal fruits and veggies are usually fresher, more nutritious, locally sourced and cheaper, notes Amer. For instance, it costs more to purchase imported watermelon in the middle of winter than to wait until mid-summer.
"Google what's in season and build your meals around those items when you can," she suggests. "As a result, you'll save money and eat more nutritious food."
Mistake: Buying cut-up chicken pieces instead of whole chickens
If you buy pre-cut chicken instead of the whole chicken, notes health coach Liza Baker, you’re essentially paying extra for the butcher to "render" your chicken. Chances are, purchasing a whole chicken is far more cost-effective than purchasing boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
As an added cost-saving perk, Baker points out that you can save the wings each time you cut up a chicken and then store them in the freezer until you have enough to make a batch of wings. You can also keep the bones to make stock.
Not sure how to cut up a chicken? "There are plenty of how-to videos on YouTube," notes Baker. One of her favorites is this one by health coach Julia Sarver.
Mistake: Grocery shopping on an empty stomach
Stopping at the supermarket on the way home from work to grab dinner ingredients may seem like a good idea, but registered dietitian Cheryl Russo advises against grocery shopping too long after your last meal.
"Your hunger will fuel your purchases, and you will end up buying impulse items to satisfy your hunger pangs," she warns. Instead, she suggests eating a small, healthy meal or snack before hitting the aisles.
Mistake: Always purchasing the name-brand (or organic) product
We all have our favorite grocery products, and there are some brands that have their own distinct flavors and can’t be replicated. But in many cases, Russo notes, store brands can offer a similar taste and quality at significant savings. "Compare labels and look at ingredients—the store brand may taste exactly the same at a lower price," she says.
And while organic foods are usually healthier, there is a tradeoff of a higher price. Russo points out that for some fruits and veggies—pineapples, avocados, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi and cantaloupe, to name a few—there are not significant pesticides present when tested, or they have a hard outer skin for protection. Do your research and your wallet will thank you later.
Mistake: Not taking advantage of store discounts
Yule points out that many supermarkets have weekly ads or circulars with coupons and discounts. "Some stores, such as Stop and Shop, offer a free monthly magazine filled with coupons and inexpensive healthy recipe ideas," she says. "There is no reason not to pick up this freebie and take advantage of the savings." Just make sure they are items that you would regularly purchase or could incorporate into your meals, so that you don’t waste money on unnecessary items, she warns.
Many grocery stores also offer free savings cards that are scanned during checkout. "In my area, if you have a savings card, stores will give you high-value coupons both at the register and sent to your home, based on items you recently purchased," Yule says. Next time you're at your local grocery, inquire about any coupons or loyalty programs and sign up to start saving.
By taking advantage of these cost-effective tips, you can curb impulse purchases and keep your grocery bill in check, all while still stocking up on healthy, satisfying foods.