It’s happened. That thing countless rom coms and heteronormative popcorn flicks from the 90s warned me about. The thing I swore at the tender age of sixteen would never, ever happen to me.
Dear readers, I have become… my mother.
My fate is sealed and I’ve got proof! At the grocery store, I haughtily wave my cloth bags at the bagger and proclaim, “I prefer to bag for myself.”
It’s not that I hate baggers and seek to force their entire profession out of employment. It’s just that they don’t do it right, with “right” defined as “according to my very particular and neurotic specifications.”
The one time I was in a hurry and neglected to bag for myself, I lost a bag to the straining weight of all the most heavy items on my grocery list. It burst right there on my front stoop, ripped apart by the carelessness of a bagger who clearly had not trained for extreme grocery bagging at the feet of the expert: my mother.
All of which is to say: I take every step of the grocery-shopping process extremely seriously. And if it is also your goal to save money, eat well, and become my mother, then settle in.
Preparing for a mission to the grocery store
A successful grocery run begins long before you even get to the store. You have logistics to plan! An arsenal to gather! Alliances to forge and coupons to clip!
Become a member of the store’s rewards program
Lots of grocery stores have free membership rewards programs. There’s no membership fee, and no annual renewal. All you have to do is fill out a postcard-sized application and in exchange the world is yours.
Your membership at Safeway or Kroger, for example, will get you access to sales non-members can only dream of; “fuel points” that you can use for a discount at their gas stations; and coupons and sales flyers mailed to your home.
If you frequent one of these giant grocery chains and you’re not a member of their rewards program, you are literally leaving money on the table. Don’t choose to pay full price when you could be getting everything on sale, you fool!
Check your cabinets
Don’t buy shit you don’t need. And definitely don’t buy shit you already have. Before you make a big grocery run, check your damn cabinets to make a mental inventory of what’s there.
Checking your cabinets will also help with making sure you use all of your ingredients. If I notice I have all but one of the ingredients necessary to make chicken marsala, then that ingredient is going on the goddamn list. My little household is getting a whole dinner for the cost of a single ingredient within that week’s grocery budget!
Make a list
We’re a coupla Dinks with a Dog (DINKWADs). So we plan to cook one dinner per day and eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. On top of that, I generally know we need a few staples for breakfast and snacks. So a week’s worth of groceries involves the ingredients for seven dinners, breakfast staples, and snacks.
Not only do I make a list, I make a meal plan.
This meal-plan-cum-list helps me avoid running back to the store for extra ingredients throughout the week (a waste of money and time). Plus, I never have to wonder what to make for dinner: it’s on the fucken list.
Use your coupons and shop the sales… if convenient
Coupons are a surprisingly controversial topic. In this battle of the frugal shoppers, I’m an agnostic: neither a coupon clipping evangelical nor a rabid nonbeliever.
If you have a store membership, they’ll mail you coupons specifically tailored to your buying habits. No clipping or hunting required, so there’s minimal time invested in couponing (a verb that strikes fear into the hearts of the strapped-for-time).
You’ll also get sales flyers which can help you to stick to in-season (read: on sale) items. There’s a reason we never eat lamb outside of a two-month window in the spring.
First make your list. Then and only then should you look at those coupons and sales flyers from the mail. If any of them correspond to your list, great! Use them! But don’t go out of your way to use a coupon if it’s going to make your meal planning or cooking more difficult, time-consuming, or expensive.
On the field of battle
Store membership, list, and coupons in hand, you are now ready to join the fray.
Avoid peak hours at the store
Most people go grocery shopping in the middle of weekend days and on their way home from work during the week. This is when the stores are crammed full of harried people with little time, angrily playing bumper cars with their carts and texting their spouses about whether bok choi is an appropriate substitute for collard greens.
You don’t want to brave this melee. It gets full on Battle of the Bastards in the dairy aisle and trust me: you want no part of it.
So give yourself time to carefully compare prices and double-check your list. Shop in the off hours when the shelves are fully stocked and you won’t be competing with Women Trying to Have It All for the last pound of grass-fed angus beef.
Bring reusable bags and bag securely
Once again, we here at Bitches Get Riches are pushing our eco-liberal agenda by encouraging the use of reusable cloth grocery bags. Our motives are purely to crush the capitalist fossil fuel industry and fund the ranks of eco-terrorists. HOW YOU LIKE THEM KUMQUATS, BIG PLASTIC?
… but also? Hardy cloth bags hold up much better than plastic or paper, especially if you’re walking to and from the store. So you’re less likely to lose a whole carton of eggs to the ravages of gravity. I know this from experience.
And while I may be lamenting my transformation into my mother… she was fucking right. At least when it comes to bagging groceries (I stand by my other, non-mother-approved lifestyle decisions). Bag for yourself if you care about the structural integrity of your tomatoes. You don’t want to go back to the store to replace an ingredient crushed because a bagger wanted to see how much they could stuff into a single tote.
Shop store brand
Listen, we’ve been over this. Store brand is less expensive than name brand 46 times out of 30. And most of the time, a generic product contains the exact same ingredients as its name brand counterpart.
So why pay for the privilege of funding a large company’s marketing campaign when you could get the same food for less?
If only Peter Parker had bought the Kroger brand rice, he never would have had to face such a grim reminder.
Buy in bulk
The catch-22 of buying in bulk is that it’s more expensive in the short term, but far more frugal in the long term.
If money’s tight but you’re trying to play the long game, I recommend buying only one bulk item per grocery run (flour, rice, pasta, olive oil, etc). This spreads the cost out a bit and by the time you run out of the first bulk item you bought, your pantry will be fully stocked with bulk ingredients and you can just repeat the cycle.
Grocery store math is the easiest math.
Behold two food products of differing brands. Read their prices. Buy the cheaper of the two.
Condragulations, you’ve just mastered comparison shopping! Throw your brand loyalty and assumptions of quality to the wind! You are here to save money.
There are exceptions, of course—maple syrup and cheese, for example—cases in which the pricier food is well worth the extra cost.
But that’s between you and your god.
Your cheese god.
Use a smaller cart
I can fit a week’s worth of groceries for us DINKWADs into a single half-size cart… but only just. Shopping with the smaller cart prevents me from filling it with impulse buys. If I feel tempted to buy a box of Cheez-Its (The Superior Cheese Cracker™), but my mini cart is getting full… it goes back on the shelf.
It also makes it easier to maneuver around the octogenarians and frantic fathers of five in the aisles.
- Soda: It’s expensive and bad for your health. If you have access to clean water, drink that instead.
- Sugary cereals: See above. Buy some granola clusters and raisins to put in your milk instead.
- Individually packaged servings of stuff that comes in larger, cheaper packages: It’s astronomically cheaper to buy a quart-sized container of yogurt and a package of fresh strawberries than it is to buy a week’s worth of individual Dannon fruit-and-yogurt cups.
- Frozen dinners or prepared meals: If you have time to cook, it’s generally cheaper to buy the ingredients than to buy the prepared meals. And if you don’t know how to cook, here’s why you should learn.
- Prechopped ingredients: Packages of fresh, prechopped vegetables are priced higher than their unchopped counterparts. Just buy a goddamn knife.
- Napkins and tissues: What, you think you’re better than me? That’s what paper towels and toilet paper are for.
When the odds are stacked against you
The above advice is for people who live within reasonable distance of a grocery store. It’s for people who have full use of their bodies and don’t live with energy-sapping diseases. It’s for those with a means of carrying a week’s worth of groceries home and a kitchen in which to cook.
That’s not everyone.
If you live in a food desert, suffer from mobility issues or chronic disease, or if you have no other means of transportation besides your own two feet, a lot of frugal grocery options are closed off to you. So what can you do?
The answer is, “The best you can.”
- 7-11 sells milk by the gallon and whole rotisserie chickens for reasonable prices.
- Ethnic grocery stores and open-air markets sometimes sell fresh vegetables and fruits at a vastly lower price than major grocery chains.
- Services like Peapod will let you order groceries online and deliver them right to your door (though the delivery fee makes things a little more expensive).
- Prechopped or individually packaged servings—while definitely less frugal—do serve a purpose for those with mobility difficulties and chronic illness.
- Food banks, community centers, and houses of worship for all religions collect and distribute food to the needy. You can find your nearest food bank here.
As with literally everything, shopping for nutritious and affordable groceries is harder for the poor.
What are your frugal grocery hacks? Got advice for those struggling with hunting and gathering? Share your advice in the comments below!