Going grocery shopping doesn't have to be expensive. Hamm offers readers eight tips for trimming down their bills at the grocery store.
Erik De Castro/Reuters/File
One of the best tactics a person can have for cutting their food and household supply expenses is to always have a grocery list when they go to the store. If you go to the store without a list, you’re far more prone to buying things that you don’t really need.
Here’s the thing: just having a grocery list doesn’t help too much if that grocery list doesn’t make any sense. A good grocery list actually matches what you need at home, minimizes the amount of guesswork you need to do in the store, and gets you out of the store as quickly as possible.
A grocery list like this requires a game plan, a routine that makes sure that the grocery list you assemble is a lean and mean tool to minimize both the time and the money you spend in the store.
Here are eight steps for getting there.
Know your stores
We shop regularly at three different stores, and for different reasons. We use Fareway for most of our food staples, Sam’s Club for bulk household items (particularly non-perishables), and Hy-Vee for more esoteric food items that we can’t get at the other two stores. Because we’ve been using this three-pronged approach for a while, we have a good sense as to what we can get at each store.
We can use this knowledge to make more sensible lists. I inherently know what items we’re likely to get at each store and can thus write a separate list for each one. That way, I’m not wasting time in each store wandering around looking for something they may or may not have. A single combined list doesn’t really help at all in this situation.
Use a whiteboard
We have a whiteboard on the inside of our pantry door. Whenever we notice an item is running low – like baking powder or something like that – we just add it to that list.
When it comes time to actually assemble our grocery lists, the whiteboard on the inside of the pantry door is the first thing we look at.
Keep relevant coupons on whiteboard
The whiteboard we have has a metal backing, so we can put magnets on it. When we spot a coupon that we know we’re going to use soon, we put it on the whiteboard under a magnet so that it’s right in our face when it comes time to grocery shop.
While I do collect coupons in a mild way, I am far from an extreme couponer. However, sometimes coupons just jump right in your face. A coupon that saves a dollar on an item I’m going to buy anyway is basically a dollar bill, after all.
Get out your grocery flyers
When it’s time to buy groceries (for us, that’s about once every seven to ten days), the first step is to grab the latest flyers from the stores we regularly shop at. Those flyers can sometimes help us to figure out where to buy specific items. Most of the time, it means that we’ll choose to not buy something at Sam’s Club because of the sale at another store.
All of the flyers we need are online at the websites for the stores we use, so it’s pretty easy to find them and utilize them.
Create a meal plan at the same time
Another step we take is to make a meal plan at the same time that we assemble our grocery list. I usually try to make a ten day meal plan when doing this.
What I’ll do is literally make a four column grid with ten rows on a sheet of paper. Each row represents a day and each column represents a meal and a bedtime snack (bedtime snacks are kind of a requirement here because our daughter takes medication that requires food at bedtime). In each of the forty cells in that table, I plan a meal of some kind.
That meal is often based on the fresh ingredients for sale from the store flyers, particularly the early cells. Some of the later cells are usually covered by meals we’ve already made and frozen in advance. We’ll also make extra batches of some of the early meals and freeze them, particularly if there’s an ingredient that’s at a very large discount.
From this meal plan, you can figure out the recipes you need to make all of the meals, and thus figure out all of the ingredients needed. Since your meal plan started with the grocery flyer, you know that the backbone of many of the meals consists of sale items, so you can be pretty confident that your grocery list is a money-saver.
Don’t assume you have items – check!
It’s really easy to just assume that you have a key element of a meal. “The good pasta sauce is on sale this week… I’m sure we’ve got some pasta in the cupboard… so we’ll pencil it in for Wednesday.” Don’t assume. Check.
If you assume, then you’re likely to end up having to make an unplanned trip to the grocery store to pick up the items you’re missing, which can add up to unnecessary expense and time. A quick peek in the pantry solves that problem.
Group the items on your list sensibly
When I assemble my list, I tend to do it in groups. I have a “produce” section. I have a “dairy and eggs” section. I have a “household supplies” section. I have a few other sections for common food groupings in the store. I usually have a “frozen” section too for flash-frozen vegetables and the like.
Having your items grouped like this on your list keeps you from thinking you’ve finished your produce shopping, heading clear across the store to another area, then finding another produce item and having to go all the way back across the store again. It saves a lot of time and the less time you’re in the store, the less likely you are to make impulsive purchases.
Be specific – but not overly specific – with your list
The less specific the item is on your list, the longer it will take to buy in the store. Figure out what you want at home, then write that down on your list.
If I have a coupon, I’ll be as specific as the coupon says. The same is true with items from the flyer. On the other hand, if I need a box of whole wheat angel hair spaghetti and I just write “pasta” on the list, I’m going to likely burn a lot of time in the pasta section and end up putting the wrong thing in the cart.
Of course, if you’re too specific, you often run into trouble. I’ll write things like “kitchen trash bags – Glad ForceFlex” on my list (they’re the ones that seem to work best for us) because if I wrote the exact package I wanted, they might not have it, and this allows me to compare sizes. On the other hand, if I just wrote “trash bags,” I might not get what I want, particularly if someone else is using the list.
Using these tactics in concert results in a lean and mean shopping list. This list gets me through the store with shocking speed and minimizes the cost of what goes into my cart while also making sure I have everything I need. Sure, it takes some extra time at home, but that time is saved in the store – and you’re not going to be putting unnecessary items in your cart when you’re at home, are you?