40 Smart Ways to Save at the Supermarket
We’ve dug up a bumper crop of tools to trim your bill. Tapping technology and shopping around can help. So can sharpening the strategies you use at your usual market, from going on the right day to hitting the right aisles. No matter how you stock your kitchen, these tips can help you load up on the best deals.
We spend too much on groceries
Even when nobody feels like cooking, everybody feels like eating. So it’s no wonder that more than 25 percent of the average family food budget now goes to easy-prep meals and grab-and-go foods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But it’s not just prepared-food prices that are nibbling at our wallets. Over the past 30 years, grocery prices have risen more than the prices of other items we buy. Americans now spend almost $700 billion a year at the supermarket. Make sure you don't fall for these supermarket tricks.
Choose the right cart
It’s the first thing you do at the store—and the first way to help yourself save. Unless you’re doing a week’s worth of shopping, grab a small grocery cart. In an experiment by a cart manufacturer, shoppers bought 40 percent more stuff when given a cart double the size they usually used.
But don’t grab a basket
It may sound counterintuitive, but carrying a small handheld basket also can lead shoppers to temptation. There’s something about the action of flexing your arm muscles to hold the basket that subconsciously leads you to reach for treats such as candy, according to a behavioral study in the Journal of Marketing Research. Watch out for these things your grocer won't tell you.
Shop on Wednesdays
The single best time to shop is Wednesday evening, according to the shopping news site smartcarting.com. Stores aren’t crowded, and, as a bonus, weekly specials start on Wednesday at nearly half of U.S. supermarkets. Some stores honor the previous week’s sales and coupons and the new week’s.
And not on weekends
Saturday and Sunday mornings and early afternoons are the busiest, according to the annual American Time Use Survey. Stores are also crowded after work on weekdays. The average shopping trip is 47 minutes on weekends, 42 minutes on weekdays. If you want to start grocery shopping online, read these tips first.
Make fewer trips
Each time you hit the store, you spend money. (For the record, $136 each week for the typical household, and $204 for families with kids at home.) Americans make an average of 1.5 trips to the supermarket per week. Cut that down to one trip, and you’ll save time and money—particularly on impulse items, which we admit to grabbing 60 percent of the time.
Go it alone
When we shop with someone else, as much as 65 percent of the things we wind up buying is unplanned, according to research from the Marketing Science Institute.
Except at the clubs
One place where you should shop with others is the big warehouse clubs—BJ’s, Costco, and Sam’s Club. Supermarket expert Phil Lempert suggests bringing a buddy so you can split bulk purchases. For the biggest savings, buy store brands; they’re as much as 75 percent cheaper than name brands. For example, Costco’s Kirkland Signature dishwasher detergent packs cost about 9 cents a load, while Cascade Complete ActionPacs cost 29 cents a load.
But don’t get stuck in a warehouse rut
Not everything is a great deal at the shopping clubs. Sometimes you can do better with a sale at the supermarket. Smart buys there include canned vegetables (20 percent to 40 percent less than club prices), soda (40 percent less), toilet paper (25 percent less), and eggs (50 cents less per dozen).
Surprise! Protein is a bargain
Last year, grocery prices overall went down for the first time in nearly 50 years. Foods that dipped the most in price include beef, pork, poultry, and dairy. Egg prices have fallen by 52 percent in the past two years, with the average price of a dozen down to $1.41. So if you’re looking for relative bargains to plan meals around, these are the big winners. (These are the healthiest foods you can buy at the supermarket.)
Eat what’s in season
Fresh produce grown locally is usually the best value at supermarkets and farmers’ markets. For instance, strawberries are usually about 30 cents cheaper per pound in June than in May. In March, look for broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, lettuce, and pineapple. In April, snap up these same foods, as well as asparagus, rhubarb, and peas. Year-round bargains include bananas, celery, and potatoes.
Buy water at the hardware store
Sometimes bargains pop up in unexpected places. Look for good prices on bottled water at home-improvement stores, says Mike Catania of promotioncode.org. He found a case of 16.9-ounce bottles of Niagara water at the Home Depot for $2.97, while a nearby grocery charged $2.99 for a case of 8-ounce bottles. That’s half the water for the same money.
Look high and low on the shelves
Stores put the most popular—and often the most costly—items at eye level. In fact, manufacturers often pay a fee for optimal placement. To find the bargains, look up and down to the higher and lower shelves. Retail consulting company McCue advises managers to put store brands and bulk items—generally the biggest bargains—on the bottom shelves.
Chop your own onions
No wonder people complain about the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables: Over the past 30 years, the inflation-adjusted price of produce has risen 40 percent, according to the USDA. But that spike occurred mostly because we’re buying for convenience—bagged salads instead of heads of lettuce, for example—not because individual items cost that much more. Save by buying whole produce and prepping it yourself. For example, ShopSmart magazine found that prechopped onions averaged $4.65 a pound versus 99 cents a pound for whole onions. Just-prepped produce is fresher too.
Get the most for your organics dollar
According to Consumer Reports, certified organics (which the grower guarantees were grown in better-quality soil and without potentially harmful pesticides) cost nearly 50 percent more than their conventional counterparts. But the potential health benefits vary. Spend the extra money on foods whose skin you eat, such as apples, peaches, strawberries, grapes, peppers, celery, and potatoes. (Try these other simple ways to save big at the supermarket.)
Watch out for water weight
“So many stores have misters for produce,” says Lempert. Shake the moisture out of lettuce, herbs, and the like before bagging, he suggests. Otherwise, you’ll wind up paying for water weight.
Compare apples to apples
When you’re buying bags of apples or potatoes, don’t just buy the first bag you grab. Make sure to pick a heavy one. In a price comparison, a Consumer Reports reporter found that “3-pound” bags of apples ranged in weight from 3.06 to 3.36 pounds—that’s 10 percent more apples for the same price.
Cut the crap
We spend nearly 25 percent of our grocery dollars on processed foods and sweets, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Soda is the most purchased item, racking up $12 billion in sales a year, per figures from datecheckpro.com. So if you’re buying certain treats just out of habit, try sticking to only a few favorites and see whether you can save some easy money. (These secrets will help you shop healthier at the grocery store.)
Hit the sales every week
Buying staples when they’re on sale is Grocery Shopping 101. You’ll usually find the best deals front and center in the sales circulars, and you can browse those before you leave home. There’s a handy website called sundaysaver.com that posts dozens of circulars from stores around the country. Money expert Clark Howard says you can save 30 percent or more on your weekly bill if you shop the sales consistently.
Make a shopping list
Yes, you need one, because people who shop with a list spend far less time in the store and also make fewer impulse buys. If you’re not good at remembering a paper list, keep one on your phone. You can use one of many free apps (simple ones include Buy Me a Pie, Grocery IQ, and Out of Milk; all work on Android and iOS) or just keep your list in your phone’s built‑in Notes app.
Consider one of the grocery apps
Smart-shopping expert Trae Bodge says using a full-service grocery app can be worth it. She likes Flipp (free for Android and iOS) because it automates everything: It matches items on your list with store specials, coupons, or rebates; it has an easy list creator that you can customize by store; and it will even scan and upload your handwritten list, then sort it by aisle so you can find what you need.
Max out on coupons
Cherie Lowe, who calls herself the Queen of Free, scouts the sales at sundaycouponpreview.com. If she sees some juicy offers, she buys extra copies of the newspaper at the dollar store, which sells a weekend edition for a buck. You can snap up downloadable coupons at her website, queenoffree.net, and other sites, including smartsource.com, coupons.com, and redplum.com.
Snag store exclusives
If you have a couple of stores you shop at regularly, get familiar with their websites and see whether they have apps. That’s where you’ll find retailers’ best offers, says Catania, citing Kroger’s and Target’s Cartwheel as two good sources of exclusive coupons, promo codes, and rebates. (Yes, men and women do grocery shop differently—here's how.)
Don’t be a brand snob
Store brands typically cost 15 percent to 30 percent less than name brands—and are sometimes made by the same companies. Three-quarters of shoppers view them as “just as good,” the latest IRI Consumer Connect survey shows, and Consumer Reports taste testers preferred them in 33 of 57 tests. Besides Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s are also known for high-quality private-label brands.
Shop like a German
If you don’t have an Aldi nearby, you likely will soon. The German discount chain plans to have 2,500 stores in the United States by 2022 (only Walmart and Kroger have more), reports Supermarket News. Inside, you’ll find mostly store brands and perhaps not everything on your list—stores are smaller than the typical American grocery. But you can save about 35 percent on meat and produce and 45 percent overall, according to a comparison with Giant and Safeway by Washington Consumers’ Checkbook. Another German chain, Lidl, opened 20 stores in the United States last year, and retail analysts say it could expand to 630 locations by 2023. Lidl claims its prices are up to 50 percent less than competitors’.
Beware of sneaky labels
Shoppers tend to assume that healthier foods cost more, reports the Journal of Consumer Research, which is why some products marketed as “healthy” come with higher price tags. Don’t get suckered. When you see a catchy claim, look for comparable lower-priced products without buzzwords.
Buy the right size
While the smallest packages are often the worst deals, the biggest size isn’t necessarily the biggest value. The key is to look for a unit price below the item on the shelf—the price per ounce or liter or whatever. In some cases, the medium-sized package might be your winner.
Hoard at the holidays
Supermarkets often offer their deepest discounts around holidays and food-centric events such as the Super Bowl, so stock up then. (These are things that nutritionists always do at the grocery store.)
Claim your group discount
If you’re over a certain age, you may be eligible for a senior discount—typically 5 percent—if you shop on the right days. Stores with this policy include Harris Teeter and some Publix stores, as well as Fred Meyer, where you’ll save 10 percent. Also, veterans who join one of the big three warehouse clubs get special discounts and perks.
Ugly can be beautiful
Check the produce section for markdowns on oddly shaped but still tasty “misfits.” In fact, Misfits is what supermarket chains Hannaford, Hy-Vee, and Meijer call their lines of imperfect fruits and veggies. Whatever they’re called, not only are these oddballs a bargain—prices average 30 percent cheaper than “perfect” produce—but buying them also helps cut down on food waste.
And so can dents
Raid your supermarket’s “scratch and dent” sale rack, if it has one. You can find products at clearance prices because the packaging is damaged or has been redesigned. Example: a slightly smashed box of Special K Red Berries cereal marked down 50 percent, from $5.49 to $2.74. For safety reasons, make sure any inner packaging is sealed, and don’t buy deeply dented cans, because a damaged seal can let bacteria in. (Minor dents shouldn’t be a danger.)
Bargain shop at Whole Foods
If you still think of this store by the nickname Whole Paycheck, take another look. Since Amazon took over last August, it has lowered prices on hundreds of items, including avocados (from $2.99 to $1.79 each), organic bananas (from 99 cents per pound to 69 cents), fresh Atlantic salmon (from $14.99 per pound to $9.99), and rotisserie chickens (from $8.99 to $7.99).
Bring the store to you
Ordering groceries and having them delivered isn’t as big a splurge as you might think. You might have to pay a fee, though some stores (such as Costco, which just started delivering in some areas) will do it for free if you spend over a certain amount. Online delivery services not only offer their own sales but also dangle hefty discounts to get you try them: For example, when you sign up for Fresh Direct, you get $50 back on your first two grocery orders totaling $99.
Buy staples online
New websites promising low prices can be smart sources for certain staples. These three offer great deals on everyday items:
- Hollar.com sells brand-name items starting at $1. Example: Hampton Creek Just Mayo mayonnaise, 30 ounces, $3.99. At the ShopRite in White Plains, New York, the same mayo was the same price—only it was the 12-ounce size. Shipping is free if you spend $25 or more; otherwise, it’s $5.95 per order.
- Brandless.com offers an eclectic selection of no-name organics: maple syrup, tortilla shells, shampoo, and more. Everything costs $3. Shipping is a flat $5 per order or free for members of its rewards club.
- Boxed.com ships bulk items at low prices. Example: Lysol Disinfectant Spray is $16.99 for four 19-ounce bottles, while Costco’s everyday price is $17.99. Shipping is free for orders of $49 or more or $6.99 per order.
Try Walmart’s produce again
If you’ve avoided fresh fruits and vegetables at Walmart, you might want to reconsider. Greg Foran, Walmart’s U.S. president and CEO, says the company has worked hard to cut down the number of days it takes produce to land in stores—by two to three days for most, four for strawberries.
When is that cooked chicken a bargain?
Despite some reports that buying a rotisserie chicken is cheaper than roasting your own, that’s not always true. A comparison by priceonomics.com found that you’ll typically pay about a dollar more per pound for the cooked bird. (One exception is Costco, which sells its $4.99 rotisserie chickens at a loss to get you in the store.) On the other hand, if you don’t have much time, a $7 precooked supermarket chicken still costs less than Boston Market’s, where you’ll pay about $10.
Fill up for less
Stop & Shop customers can save 10 cents to $1.50 per gallon on gas, based on their grocery spending. Other stores with gas-back programs include Giant, Safeway, and Vons. Get details at store websites or ask at the customer service counter.
Don’t buy so much!
If you’re like most Americans, you threw away more than $2,000 worth of food last year. That’s about one-fourth of the food and drinks we buy, reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). A smart way to cut down on waste is to plan your meals for the week, starting with dishes that use up anything you already have and need to eat quickly. Then buy only any remaining ingredients. Dana Gunders, a scientist at the NRDC, has compiled more tips in the book Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food. Learn more and buy the book at danagunders.com. (These are the 50 unhealthiest foods you can buy at the supermarket.)