When Vanessa and I first got married, we carried more than $25,000 of student loan debt. This debt felt like a crushing burden, so we decided to make major lifestyle modifications that would allow us to reduce our living expenses. Food is a large, recurring expense for every couple, so one of our first priorities was figuring out a strategy that would allow us to save money on groceries.
Over several months time, we developed a cost-effective grocery shopping system and have been using it to save thousands of dollars on groceries each year. In fact, in our first year of marriage, we spent less than $12,000 total, with an average of $140 per month spent on groceries. While $140/month might not seem overly impressive at first glance, you should understand that we were only purchasing healthful, whole foods.
Our diet consists of fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, lean meats, healthy fats, and nutrient-dense grains and legumes. It’s a solid, research-backed diet that should lead to optimal health and longevity. Because we avoid prepackaged or otherwise unhealthy snacks, coupons were never an option.
All that to say, we don’t have the cheapest diet. We eat delicious and nutritious whole foods that can otherwise be expensive. And still, using the grocery shopping strategy we created, we are able to maintain our diet without breaking the bank.
All of the tips you see below are proven methods that we have used to find significant grocery savings, and we hope that the remainder of this article will help you save money while feeding your family healthful foods.
Save Money on Groceries by Planning Ahead
Significant grocery savings can be realized before you ever set foot in a store. Consider combining each of the techniques in the section below to reduce your net grocery expenses.
Choose the correct payment method
Although you could pay using cash or debit, we recommend that you select an appropriate credit card for grocery purchases. A variety of credit cards now offer bonus rewards for grocery-related spend. Some of these cards provide straight cash back, while others provide airline miles or hotel points. We have a variety of open credit cards, which allows us to choose the most valuable rewards structure at any given merchant.
The cash back and rewards can be significant over time. For example, some cash back credit cards offer 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories that include groceries, with a maximum quarterly spend of $1,500. Even if you can’t spend that at once, you can use one of these cards to purchase $1,500 worth of gift cards, effectively locking in 5% cash back on all future grocery purchases. Or, if you’d rather earn free travel rewards, the best hotel credit cards offer as much as 6 points per $1 spent on groceries.
Use grocery cash back apps
In addition to rewards from your credit card, you can also utilize several grocery cash back apps which allow you to receive cash back after purchasing select food items or brands and submitting a picture of your grocery receipt. Each cash back app operates independently, so it’s possible to recycle the same receipt to collect cash back on the same item, multiple times.
How it works:
- Download the app(s) and create free account(s).
- Select your favorite stores and cash back offers.
- Go purchase your selected cash back items.
- Take a photo of your receipt and submit it within one week.
- Receive cash back.
Ibotta is our most frequently used cash back app because it is easy to use, has tons of cash back opportunities, and has chances for cash back bonuses every month. Receive your $10 signup bonus when you use referral code CASHCOWCOUPLE.
This $10 bonus gets you halfway to the $20 minimum cashout via Paypal or Venmo.
Berry Cart emphasizes health food items like organic, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and non-GMO.
Once your account reaches a minimum of $5, cash out via Paypal or your choice of gift cards.
Shop Around to Save Money on Groceries
There is very little reason in our modern economy to shop at a single grocery store. Most of the time, it’s possible to realize significant savings by shopping around. The section below provides a brief discussion of the various local and online retailers that we have explored over the last five years.
Focus on the weekly ads
Here in Texas, local grocery stores publish their weekly ads every Tuesday. Part of our grocery shopping strategy can be boiled down to intentional, opportunistic shopping around the weekly ads. We collect the ads, create a basic grocery list that focuses on the weekly sale items, and then we create meals using those sale items. Although it’s rather simple, this strategy produces significant financial savings when compared to traditional meal planning advice (design meals, then shop for ingredients).
The reason it’s so effective is that different grocery stores offer different weekly sale items. By focusing on these rotating sales, you can eat a variety of healthful foods at significantly discounted prices. For example, about once per month, a local grocery chain offers USDA choice beef roast on sale for $2.99/lb, along with various discounts on vegetables. That week, we eat a roast and vegetables as the main staple. Another week, chicken breasts and other vegetables will be on sale. When there are outstanding deals, we purchase in bulk and freeze for later use.
Most of our fresh staples – produce, meats, cheeses, etc. – are purchased locally. However, a significant part of our diet does not need refrigerated or frozen, which means these items can be purchased online and delivered to our door. In fact, many of the less common health foods are actually cheaper online.
For example, organic cooking oils, raw honey, and raw beans are far too expensive at our local health food store. Instead of paying the local premium, we compare prices online. The obvious first stop is Amazon.com, where we have been able to find great deals on staples like organic coconut oil, organic brown rice, and all-natural peanut butter.
Thrive Market, which might be described as a combination of Costco and Whole Foods, is another merchant that we have used. They offer natural and organic products at competitive prices. Sometimes Thrive products are more expensive than Amazon, but sometimes they are significantly cheaper. Some of their products are sold in bulk, which might be a positive or negative depending on your personal situation.
You can create a free account to browse the deals on their site, and they are offering Cash Cow readers 25% off your first order.
Become a member
Club membership stores source and sell groceries in bulk, which helps to reduce unit prices. We’ve had annual memberships to both Sam’s Club and Costco, and wholeheartedly recommend Costco.
Costco offers free daily lunch samples – and these samples are generous enough to make a full meal on many days. They sell bulk staples for far less than Walmart, but they also stock a variety of organic and specialty items at reasonable prices. Every month, they rotate sale items, which further reduces the cost of groceries. We have used our Costco membership extensively over the last year, and will likely renew next year.
Explore drugstore specials
For groceries, Walgreens and CVS are usually wildly overpriced. But once in a while, their weekly deals can be a steal. On multiple occasions, we’ve purchased a dozen eggs for $1 at Walgreens. In order to get these special deals, you’ll need a free Walgreens card (signup) or CVS card (signup). If you don’t want to register online, you can sign up at the cash register before making your purchase.
Shop at discount grocery stores
Don’t be afraid to shop at discount stores like the Dollar Tree, Aldi, and Save-a-Lot. Their supply is generally limited, but their low prices make it worth the trip. However, be careful when you go into discount stores because not everything is a good value. For instance, paying $1 for a pack of gum at the dollar store is not as good of a deal as paying $2.00 for four packs of gum elsewhere.
Explore your local farmer’s market
Check your area for a local farmer’s market. In some parts of the country, these local markets offer extremely competitive pricing on fantastic foods that are sourced in the area. But we’ve also visited local markets where vendors are trying to charge 5x the going rate on Amazon. Pricing largely depends on the size of the market, the size of your town, and the number of supplying vendors.
Some of the best foods that we’ve purchased from a local farmer’s market include fresh produce, raw honey, raw nut butter, and hormone-free meats. It’s important to know the average price of groceries in your area before going to the farmer’s market, so you’ll know a good price when you see it. You can also search Craigslist (or ask around) to barter with a local farmer in your area. There are a lot of farmers who will provide discounted prices if you buy from them on a regular basis.
How to Save Money on Groceries at the Store
After you’ve compared online prices and identified the best grocery stores in your area, it’s time to shop. Many of the tips in the next section are designed to help you make the best possible decisions when you are inside of the store shopping. Keep in mind, not every tip will apply to both online and physical store locations.
Create a list
It’s important to shop with a plan. When you browse local grocery store ads, be sure to make a list of the best deals and where they come from. Usually, items go on sale based on availability and demand. This is why you see cherries, watermelon, and avocados on sale during the summer and squash and pumpkins on sale in the fall and winter.
Creating a list of sale items is imperative. Not only will it help you avoid impulse purchases, it will also help you get in and out of the grocery store faster so you can get on with the rest of your day.
Shopping alone is not only the quickest way to grocery shop but also the most efficient. Bringing along children or a spouse can be distracting, increasing the chance you’ll forget an item on your grocery list. Shopping alone will help to reduce the amount of time in the grocery store and will help you stick to your predetermined grocery list.
Don’t shop hungry
I know you’ve heard this rule before, but it is true. If you shop hungry, you will have less patience and less self-control, which will increase the likelihood of making impulse purchase decisions. Do yourself a financial favor and eat before you shop.
Use a smaller cart
Similar to eating from a smaller plate, a smaller grocery cart will limit the amount that you purchase, therefore eliminating food and financial waste. Many grocery stores now offer multiple grocery cart sizes. By choosing a smaller one, you’ll be forced to determine if you really need an item before placing it in your cart.
Knowing the average price of any given item will allow you to distinguish a good deal from a bad one. This may take some practice, so in the meantime, compare prices in your grocery store to those on Amazon.com and Walmart.com, two sites that will give you a good idea of average, non-sale prices for grocery items. Over time, you won’t have to compare prices because you’ll have them memorized.
When you are buying items that come in a variety of sizes and brands, it’s important to know the price per unit (such as ounce, pound, etc.). Knowing the unit price will allow you to compare two items of different size or brand, and will help you determine how much money can be saved by purchasing in bulk. Some stores kindly do the work for you. Other times you have to do the math yourself. Look to the left of the price tag at the grocery store to see if they display the unit price.
Consider generic brands
Generic groceries can provide more value than a name brand. The only way to evaluate each option is by reading the labels to compare the ingredients and product weight. In many situations, it is the exact same product in a different package.
Shop after-holiday sales
Take advantage of the discounted prices on holiday food by shopping the day after a major holiday when expensive items like turkey, ham, lamb, pecans, and cheese go on sale. Many stores overstock their shelves for the holidays to ensure they don’t sell out before the holiday is over. However, after the holiday they must sell the leftover inventory. It may not be convenient to grocery shop when you’re still recovering from a major holiday, but the chance to stock up on pricier items can be worth it.
Know when to buy organic
While we’d prefer to buy everything organic in order to reduce our exposure to pesticides and to support environmentally friendly farming practices, it’s not always affordable to do so. Therefore, we shop by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This environmental group conducts a study every year to help consumers make the healthiest choices possible according to their grocery budget.
Print off, bookmark on your phone’s web browser, or commit to memory the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen lists that detail which items should be purchased organic and which conventionally grown produce items can be eaten safely.
Find the clearance aisle
In every grocery store visit, we make sure to scout out the clearance aisle, which is often hidden somewhere in the back, out of site. If you can find this little section of the store, you will often be rewarded with significant discounts on items that have been discontinued and moved off the regular shelves.
Use coupons strategically
Coupons can be great when you are looking for a deal on nonperishable or hygiene items. However, they can also encourage you to purchase unhealthy, prepackaged foods that you otherwise wouldn’t eat. If the temptation to buy processed or junk foods is too great, skip the coupons and follow the other tips in this article.
Sign up for rewards
Many grocery stores now offer a rewards program to encourage customer loyalty. These stores will ask for your name and phone number during checkout. If you create a free account, you’ll earn reward points that can be redeemed for grocery discounts, gift cards, or gas discounts.
Ask for a rain check
If the store runs out of an advertised special, request a rain check. A rain check will allow you buy the item at the advertised sale price when the item has been restocked, even though it is no longer on sale. Be sure to pay attention to the expiration date on the rain check to avoid missing the deal altogether.
Keep an eye on the cashier
When you go through the checkout line, make sure you are watching as the cashier scans your items. Mispricing occurs frequently, for a variety of reasons. If you aren’t paying attention, you will end up paying for someone else’s mistake.
How to Save Money on Groceries at Home
As you plan ahead, shop around, and follow the other recommendations in this article, you will realize significant savings while grocery shopping. The only potential savings that remain are related to planning and creating processes at home.
Buy first, then meal plan
In the sections above, we recommend that you create a grocery shopping list that is comprised of weekly sale items. The next step is to use those sale items to create healthy meals.
To find recipes, go to Pinterest and type in the main ingredient and the type of food you would like to prepare. For instance, if you purchase chicken and squash on sale, you could type in, “Mediterranean chicken and squash recipes.” Pinterest will then provide a plethora of recipes to choose from. If you don’t have all the ingredients for a chosen recipe, either improvise or skip it and find one where you do have all the ingredients.
Keep a running list
It can be helpful to keep a running list of important ingredients that identifies the quantity on hand. When you know that you are running low on supplies, you can find an opportune time to purchase those ingredients. And more importantly, you can avoid making frequent trips to the store, wasting gas and time, to purchase one or two items. We grocery shop once per week and try to plan other errands on the same day to avoid wasting time, energy, and money.
Keeping a list is also important in reducing food waste. If you keep track of the foods in your refrigerator, you can make sure that nothing spoils or goes to waste. If you keep a list of foods in your pantry, you will be sure to use your existing supply before purchasing new items.
Grow your own
The best way to save money on produce and spices is to have a garden full of items you would normally buy at the store. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but even if you don’t have the time or the space to farm a full garden, it’s possible to keep a few herbs like mint, basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and lavender growing on your countertop or windowsill. Fresh herbs are more nutritious, better for cooking, and cheaper if grown at home.
Eat wild game
Hunting wild game is a cheaper and healthier alternative to buying meat at the grocery store. Two years ago, a relative shot an extra deer, so I helped skin it and paid $30 to have 40 pounds of meat ground. We made venison burgers and chili for months. If you live in a viable hunting area, ask around and try to source your own meat. You can hunt and clean the meat yourself, or you might be able to purchase meat from a friend or family member.
Learn to freeze food
Most meat freezes easily and can be thawed when you’re ready to use it, so it’s smart to buy in bulk when there is a deal. Additionally, knowing how to freeze produce is important for when you have bought in bulk or grown more than you can eat and need to save some for later. Use this strategy to get produce and meat on sale to use weeks from now.
Do the work yourself
Ready-to-bake foods are usually not a good deal. For example, a green pepper that is already stuffed will be much more expensive than buying rice, beans, meat, and cheese and stuffing the peppers yourself. Another great and common example is a veggie/fruit tray. You get less food for a higher price when you buy items that come pre-cut. Don’t be duped by convenience, and do the work yourself to save money.
Items like peanut butter, juice, and beans are better to make yourself. Not only will you cut out any harmful additives and excessive salt and sugar, but you will also save money by making it yourself. Buy peanuts, fruit, and raw beans and crush, juice, and boil your way to savings.
Never throw food away
Try to recycle the meals you make at home. For instance, if you have grilled chicken one night, use the leftovers to make fajitas the next night. There are tons of creative ways to keep your leftovers from going to waste. If you need to find a creative spark, just ask Pinterest.
If you are looking for a cookbook recommendation – Nourishing Traditions – is outstanding.
Thank you for reading our guide. Do you have any other suggestions on how to save money on groceries?