Apart from your rent or mortgage, one of your biggest expenses is likely on groceries. We spend A LOT of money satiating our appetites. A simple search reveals that the average South African household spends R 6000 per month on groceries. In the US, the average hovers around $600 and, in the UK, around £263. Think about it – that’s a whopping R72,000, $4200 or £3156 per year on stocking up our fridge and pantry. Only for it to pass out of your system in a matter of days.
While we can’t help that eating ranks high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, have we possibly become sloppy in being intentional about how we buy food? With consumer inflation and the seemingly never-ending rise in fuel prices (I’m speaking to you, South Africa!), it’s maybe time we start taking a closer look at our grocery bill at the end of each month.
Below are some nifty shopping hacks to get you started on saving money on groceries when you hit the store. And, don’t worry, they won’t require that you live on beans and toast until retirement.
1 | Set Up a Meal Plan
I often find that, after a long and tiring day at work, the last thing I feel like doing is heading to the store, deciding what to make for dinner and then still having to actually cook it. I end up resorting to take-out or buying some form of convenience food that often comes with a much heftier price tag.
Why do I do this? Quite simply, because I haven’t taken the time to plan out my week ahead of time.
This immediately reminds me of the quote: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” You’re the only one who knows how busy your schedule is. And you’re the only one who can carve out time to prepare your meals in preparation for the week ahead.
Decide on a few different recipes you’ve been dying to make. Do a once-off weekly shop for ingredients. And then block off some time on your calendar (I like Sundays) to prepare as much as you can for the following week. Meals that you’re able to cook in bulk and freeze typically work the best. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative with perishable meals too. As long as you plan and prep them in advance so that you don’t have to givevthem another thought.
This will not only save you time but also boatloads of money. By simply knowing that you have food waiting for you at home, this will defuse the temptation to reach out for the more expensive, convenient options.
2 | No Off-List Shopping
A shopping list is there for a reason – to remind you of what you NEED to buy. Too often, we do aisle shopping – a leisurely browse for what we think are no-brainer specials that we can’t afford to miss. But we neglect to remember that grocery stores are marketing maniacs. They know exactly how to appeal to and manipulate your emotions.
And, before you know it, your list is stretching down to the floor.
Don’t fall for it. Get in and get out. Spend more time looking at your list than at the store shelves. You’ll save time and money by being hyper-focused.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t look for special deals on the items that are on your list. Kudos to you for trying your best to squeeze as much into your cart without squeezing too much out of your wallet.
3 | Maximize Cash-Back Rewards
If you’re hesitant to part ways with your credit card, at least consider using one that can get you cash-back bonuses for food purchases. When I was living in the US, it was not uncommon to find credit cards that could earn you anywhere between 1-3% cash-back. In South Africa, if you’re an FNB banking customer, you can earn eBucks on your daily purchases – I routinely make between R400-R800 per month for simply going about my normal daily purchases.
Alternatively, if you want to steer clear of credit cards, at least consider signing up for store loyalty cards (No, I didn’t say store credit cards!). There’s a huge difference.
While store loyalty cards don’t earn you the greatest returns, it’s practically free money for buying food that you already need. If you used it for an entire year, without dipping into your cash-back rewards, you might be surprised at how all those purchases add up in returns. By not touching my eBucks, I’ve managed to accrue a healthy balance of over R5,000 over the last year.
Are you hesitant to sign up for loyalty programs because your wallet is already full to the brim with cards? Then consider downloading this free app, Stocard, which allows you to store electronic loyalty cards for some of your favorite grocery store chains.
4 | Shop Once a Week
If you shop every day (or every other day), do you find that you end up with way more in your shopping cart than you had intended to buy? This is often because we’re great at convincing ourselves that we need things that we actually don’t (or didn’t budget for).
And each time you enter the store, it’s just another opportunity to fill your cart with these unnecessary things.
I find it helps to figure out what groceries you’d need for an entire week and do your shopping all at once. In this way, you not only save fuel on having to travel to the store each day but you’re less tempted to do the aisle shopping that I mentioned earlier.
Keep the grocery shopping to once a week. And only venture back out to the store for emergencies. You’ll be surprised at how this can help in saving money on groceries.
5 | Leave the Avos for When They’re in Season
If only avocados were in season all year round. Who am I kidding? I’m one of the rare anomalies that aren’t particularly fond of them. But I’m digressing.
When you buy food, try to ensure that you always stick to purchasing produce that is seasonal. If any on the shelves is out of season, there is a high chance that it’s imported. And this can come with a huge price tag. Also, seasonal produce is usually available in much greater quantities, allowing grocery stores to provide some pretty great 2-for-1 or discounted deals.
Okay, that’s good to know. But are you now sitting and scratching your head, wondering which foods are seasonal? Then take a look at these great resources: The Seasonal Food Guide if you’re in the US, the Seasonal Fruit and Vegetable Chart if in South Africa or the Seasonal Food Calendar if you’re in the UK or Europe. All the hard work has been done for you, my friend.
6 | Don’t Shop Hungry
A rumbling tummy is the kryptonite of saving money on groceries. You walk into the store with your shopping list, with the sole intention of sticking to it. But your senses are soon overwhelmed. The smell of freshly baked bread. The allure of the snack-centric checkout aisle. You find yourself lingering too long in the ice-cream section.
Very soon, your digestive system (not surprisingly termed your “second brain”) takes over and wins the war.
Why do we torture ourselves like this?
If you can help it, try not to shop on an empty stomach. You’ll find there is much less temptation to add unnecessary items to your shopping cart.
7 | Go Vegetarian for a Meal
There are no two ways about it. Meat makes up a large chunk of the cost of our meals. When I visited the grocery store recently, I realized that the chicken breasts that I bought made up over 50% of the total cost for my entire meal.
Before you protest, I’m not suggesting you completely remove the bacon from your breakfast or chicken from your curry. I’m simply suggesting that you consider picking a day of the week and make it a meatless one. Meatless Monday anyone?
If you absolutely have to have some form of meaty protein in your dinner, then an alternative is to simply reduce the amount of meat you include in the recipe. This is a surefire way for saving money on groceries.
Are you struggling to figure out what meals you can make without meat? Take a look at these Martha Stewart recipes to get some inspiration.
8 | Don’t Buy Brand
Let’s get real with each other. Have you ever done the arduous task of comparing the ingredients of novelty branded items versus the store brand alternatives?
No? Don’t worry, I don’t think I do it as often as I should either.
But you’d be surprised at how much more you’re paying for a name and packaging. This is marketing at its best. Companies have learned the strategies to pull at the strings of your emotions and convince you that you absolutely need their brand.
But why do we care so much? Maybe because you’re worried that your friends would notice if you were using No Name brand instead of Woolies? Or maybe you’ve been buying from this company for years and feel loyal to them? Maybe you need to maintain a “professional” image? Or maybe you just like the pretty packaging?
But, I’ll leave you with this question: is it really worth it?
9 | Get Creative in the Kitchen
Have you found yourself tossing out food that’s passed its expiration date because you have no idea what to do with it?
What if there was a way to use everything in your pantry (or fridge) to make something enjoyably edible before it expires?
Well, there’s this pretty great website, called Epicurious, that allows you to filter your recipe search based on what you have in your pantry or cupboards (you can include or exclude certain ingredients). It can provide you with some interesting uses for what you have in stock.
I’m a big believer in making use of what you have available. I like this quote by the UN Under-Secretary-General, Achim Steiner: ” In a world of seven billion people, set to grow to nine billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally and ethically, aside from the cost implications, all the land, water, fertilizers and labour needed to grow that food is wasted – not to mention the generation of greenhouse gas emissions produced by food decomposing on landfill and the transport of food that is ultimately thrown away.”
10 | Keep Your Fridge Organized
Don’t underestimate what an organized fridge can do for your wallet.
Have you ever returned from grocery shopping, only to find that you’ve bought duplicates of things you already had? You know… hiding behind the disorganized mess inside your fridge?
It pays (quite literally) to spend some time going through all the items in your fridge. Toss out the expired (or rotten) goods. And organize the rest in a way that you’ll always know exactly what you have in stock by simply opening the door.
This is one of the those tips for saving money on groceries that not many people give enough attention to. But give it a try for yourself. You’d be surprised how much less food you’d waste and more money you’d pocket.
11 | Stay Hydrated
According to science, there is a fine line between the signals that control thirst and hunger. For this reason, approximately 37% of people mistake dehydration for hunger. This has the obvious effect of causing us to spend money on snacks or food that we actually don’t need.
To give yourself a head start in saving money on groceries, always make sure you keep yourself well hydrated. If you want to take it a step further, have a glass of water before each visit to the grocery store. This will help curb those carb cravings, help with food digestion and help you to be more alert (which means you won’t fall for the stores’ marketing ploys!)
Saving money on groceries doesn’t need to be complicated or restrictive. It just requires us to be more aware of how we spend. If you’re wondering why we find it difficult to save money in the first place, take a look at a previous post: Why is it So Difficult to Save Money?
And, if you’re ready to get started on managing your grocery bill spending, download our FREE Financial Starter Pack, that comes equipped with a ready-to-use budgeting template to keep a record of all those shopping sprees.
O'Hagan is one of Personal Finance's New Voices and his finance blog is called the Saving Scientist.