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Whether you love grocery shopping or would rather spend an hour in the dentist’s chair, one thing’s for certain: We can all stand to be a little more strategic about our grocery budgets. Unless, maybe, you’re a financial expert? Yeah, financial experts probably know a thing or three about keeping a balanced budget and a pantry full of food. They’re experts, after all! So I chatted with two money bloggers to get their best tips. Here’s what they had to suggest.
Calculate how much you actually spend on groceries … and look for patterns.
Lots of resources will try to tell you how much you should spend on groceries. The USDA even publishes monthly food plans with averages. But budgets aren’t one-size-fits-all, explains Bola Sokunbi, the founder and CEO of Clever Girl Finance and author of the Clever Girl Finance book series. So while it may seem like a good idea to create a budget based on an aspirational number, that tactic likely won’t be sustainable. A budget “should be based on the foods you eat and how many people you are preparing meals for,” she says, adding that the national monthly average spent on groceries ($387) may be totally off-base for you and your household.
Here’s what you should do instead, according to Sokunbi: First, determine how much you actually spend on groceries over the course of a few weeks. Laura Dempster, the founder and blogger behind The Thrifty Londoner, agrees: “Once you start tracking your grocery spending for a few weeks, you’ll soon start to see patterns emerge.” You may start to see that it makes more sense to buy certain things in bulk or that shopping for generic for something could save you money.
Meal planning really is so important. With a meal plan in place, you’re less likely to panic and order costly takeout. A meal plan can also help you when it comes time to grocery shop — mostly because it will ensure that you only buy things you’ll use.
Sokunbi makes use of a meal plan every week, explaining that the intricate planning helps her identify exactly what to put on her grocery list, including items she may be running low on, like spices. That’s crucial to making this tip work for you: Think beyond the perishable items (fish, eggs, meat, produce, or dairy) on your meal plan and do a quick sweep of your cabinets with the week’s recipes in hand. Don’t forget to factor in school lunches when you meal plan, too.
This way, you’re also less likely to have to run to the store for “just one thing” because we all know that ends up being five or six things.
Grocery shop in the middle of the week.
Grocery stores can be zoo-like during the weekends — especially at popular places, like Trader Joe’s. But doing your weekly shopping trip on a Tuesday evening won’t just make for a better experience, it could help you save cash, too. Sokunbi notes that grocery stores tend to offer better deals and discounts during the week, as they get ready to turn over products for the rush of weekend traffic.
Think twice about items nearing their expiration dates.
Of course it’s smart shopping to buy reduced-price items that are close to their expiration or “sell-by” dates. But Dempster is skeptical of this practice, and notes that the expiration can be within days of purchase. While food doesn’t automatically become inedible when those dates come around, Dempster has found that these “great deals” often end up going to waste in her refrigerator, because she doesn’t have time to eat or cook with them.
Actually, think twice about all sales.
You’ve probably heard this before: It’s only a deal if you need it. If you pick up buy-one-get-one-free cookies, but didn’t plan on buying cookies, then you did not save money. Dempster says, “Go in with a list and don’t stray from it or else you can end up spending more than originally intended.“
Skip the corner stores when possible.
“Corner stores tend to be more expensive because of the convenience factor, so it’s best to avoid these when possible,” says Sokunbi. That said, for some shoppers, corner stores and small shops are the only option available. In that case, it may be helpful to use an online grocery service (see tip number 8!). The takeaway here, from Sokunbi, is that convenience stores should be used largely in case of “I’m out of milk and halfway through a recipe” emergencies.
Don’t be afraid to return items.
It’s happened to the best of us: You feel a sudden pang of buyer’s remorse when unpacking impulse purchases after a grocery trip. Don’t beat yourself up, but do head back to the store ASAP. “Immediately return [the unplanned purchases] so you can salvage your budget,” says Sokunboi. Of course, any item you mean to return should be unopened, with the seal intact. Can’t make a return? Sokunbi skips takeout or restaurant meals to course-correct — even if she’d originally worked them into that week’s or month’s budget.
You’ll need to pay a little extra for groceries delivered to your door, but this tactic is a budget saver for Dempster, who lives in a city and does not have a car. “I get an online delivery about once a month.” she explains. “This includes bulk items such as rice, pasta, and things I can’t easily carry home, but use constantly. I then top up throughout the week with fresh foods.”
There’s another key to this tip’s success: Grocery shopping online can help you manage impulse or emotional purchases, especially if you’ve got your budget document open in the next tab over.