Grocery Shopping as a Tactical Excursion

By Michael Peterson
In September 12, 2004

We all have to eat, and as they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. A large portion of our budget has to go towards food. But you don’t have to spend as much as you think.

At the end of a long day at work, it is easy to reach for the phone and call for pizza or Chinese food. But take-out dinner for a family of four can easily cost as much as $40 dollars. At that rate, just one night of takeout food a week will cost you $2,080 a year!

Cooking and eating at home is a good alternative, but even there, it can cost you. A weekly shopping bill for a family of four can cost over $100, more if there are hungry teenagers in the house.

But you CAN lower your grocery bills; all it takes is a little planning, some creativity, and determination. Make grocery shopping a tactical excursion, not a quick errand. Choose a day of the week when you aren’t too busy, and take the time to do some careful shopping. Avoid just stopping off on your way home from work to pick up a few items. If you make grocery shopping a well-planned, well-executed expedition, you can get the job done wisely and economically.

What To Take With You

  1. Grocery List
    Take your list seriously. Your grocery list is probably your most important tool for saving money at the store. How many times have you been at the store and wondered if you needed milk, bought some, and come home only to discover you already had a gallon? Leave a master list on your refrigerator door, so that as you run out of something, you can write it down right away.
  2. Cash
    If you bring only a certain amount of cash with which to pay, it is impossible to spend more than you planned.
  3. Coupons
    Coupons can be a great way to save money, but only if you use them on things you would normally buy anyway. Also, be certain that the coupon price is a good deal; compare the sale price to the price of the store brand. If the store brand is still cheaper, the coupon doesn’t help you much.
  4. Calculator
    You will want to crunch a lot of numbers to figure out the best deals. Calculate price by volume, compare sale prices, and determine which item really has the best value. Pay attention to the prices per ounce, that’s how much you’re really paying per item, not the price on the tag.
  5. Notepad and Pencil
    All those calculations may require some scratch paper. Also, you may want to make reminders for the next time you shop. Or you may want to write down the price of a can of peas at one store so you can go to a different store and compare the prices. Comparison-shopping can save you a great deal of money, if you do the work.
  6. An Open Mind
    Maybe you were raised on a particular famous brand of soup, or you are suspicious of brands you don’t see on big-production commercials on TV. But when you buy name brands, you aren’t paying just for the item. You’re paying for that name that comes on it as well. Many stores have their own brands that are just as good as the name brands, and quite a bit cheaper. So go to the store with an open mind, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

What NOT To Take With You
There are a lot of tools to take with you on a no-frills day of down-and-dirty comparison-shopping, but there are a few things you should definitely leave at home.

  1. Kids
    Kids have a way of zeroing in on the new (and expensive) junk food items they see on TV. They will either whine and beg you for them, or, worse, sneak them into the shopping basket when you aren’t looking. You can concentrate a lot more on getting the best deals when you don’t have to deal with, “Mommy, mommy, can we get this pleeeeeease.”
  2. A Hungry Stomach
    Shopping when you are hungry is a huge no-no when you are trying to save money. Everything looks good, and you are practically salivating on every aisle, so you won’t be in a position to shop wisely. Eat before you shop, so your mind is on saving money, not on pigging out.
  3. A Bad Mood
    Similarly, a bad mood can hinder your shopping by making you too impatient to calculate and think or make choices. It can also make you reach for (expensive) indulgent foods that you might use to comfort yourself. Treats every now and then are fine, but going shopping when you are grumpy can make it harder to make the best money-saving choices.

Aside from what to bring with you and what to leave at home, here are a few other tips for lowering your grocery bills.

  • Get down low.
    Major labels pay grocery stores to stock their items at eye level. You can find the less expensive, just-as-tasty products down a little lower on the shelves. They’ve been there all along; you just have to look for them!
  • Stock up.
    When something goes on sale that you know you will always need, such as toilet paper, paper towels, or food staples such as canned vegetables or rice, buy plenty and you will save. Even meats can be bought on sale and frozen.
  • Watch closely.
    Keep a close eye on the cash register to make sure there are no mistakes, such as items rung up incorrectly or a sale price not recognized by the machine. Also, watch to make sure all your items wind up in the grocery bags, so you don’t arrive home only to find that the cereal or apples didn’t make it home with you.
  • Build a staple pantry.
    Fill your pantry with the very basic ingredients you will need to throw together simple meals. Items such as dry pasta, rice, canned vegetables and fruits, cooking oil, flour, chicken stock, and various spices are excellent to always have on hand. Tired at the end of the day? Boil some pasta and add some canned sauce and some Parmesan cheese and you’re done!
  • Be aware of quality versus price.
    We said earlier that bargain brands could be just as good as name brands. But some items that are inexpensive are inexpensive for a reason. Paper towels, for example. If you find that you wind up having to use twice as many bargain towels than you would brand name towels, you might do better to invest a little more in paper towels that do the job.
  • Make your own baby food.
    Baby food can get very pricey, but you can easily make your own. Just puree some fresh vegetables or fruits down to baby-pleasing mush, and there you go! Homemade baby food can even be more nutritious, since it is made with fresh, unprocessed produce.
  • Make your own household cleaners.
    You can also make your own household cleaners. Baking soda and vinegar are common household items that work great as cleaners. Vinegar mixed with a little water works wonders on windows and other glass surfaces, and baking soda works as a deodorizer and a natural abrasive. And little did you know, ketchup can clean copper or brass!
  • Plan your weekly meals.
    After a long day at work, it can be quite a challenge to get in the kitchen and cook dinner. Resist the temptation to order take-out by planning your meals ahead of time. A well-stocked pantry, a handy collection of quick and easy recipes, and a little pre-planning can make it easy. You can chop vegetables on the weekend to have for the week for cooking and snacking. You can even cook and freeze meals to reheat later in the week. Some basic items, like chicken or beef broth, can be prepared on the weekend and used throughout the week for soups, flavoring, or marinating.

    If you want to make things really easy, write out a schedule. Tuesdays can always be Sloppy Joe Day. That way, even less thought is required when you get home from work. And that makes any dinner taste even more delicious.

  • Don’t turn your nose up at leftovers!
    That leftover roast beef from last night before can make great sandwiches for your kids’ lunches. And some foods, like nine bean soup, taste even better the second day.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on groceries, but you can still enjoy the foods you enjoy. All it takes is a little thought, a little planning, dedication and determination. Think of the pride you will feel when you notice the difference in your grocery bills. The money you save will be money well earned!

Michael Peterson

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.