How to Beat the Grocery Store Blues

by Murray Baker
Manager, Financial Empowerment at FSGV

With inflation reaching multi-year highs, all of us are feeling the bite of rising costs at the grocery store.  And while we can’t control rising prices, there are plenty of strategies to help you keep within our food budget.

Fill up before you go
Eat a filling meal before you shop to help avoid impulse buys and unhealthy choices on a grocery run.  An empty stomach often leads to a full cart – filled with many items you may not need.

Use the apps
Comparison shopping got a whole lot easier with the introduction of apps that help you compare all the flyers of stores in your area. Two very good free apps are Flipp and Reebee. They allow you to create an entire list along with a watch list alerting you when items go on sale.

Play the match game
Combining apps with price matching is a great way to cut costs on your grocery trip. Compile your list, then rather than running around to multiple stores to get the best prices, take your list to one store that matches competitors’ prices. Show them the sale price and they give you the competitor’s prices on all the lower priced items on your list. It also works for items such as electronics hardware, appliances, and more.

Get down low
You may find cheaper prices on the lower shelves. Brand name companies often pay extra to have the best spots on the shelf at eye level. You may find better priced items down low or higher up.

Is your purchase experiencing deflation?
Ever open a package only to hear a gush of air as your package deflates? More air and less product seems to be a common tactic to fool us into believing we are getting the same amount – when we are really paying the same price for less. Pay attention to the product’s weight rather than size.

It’s all about the units
Ignore the flashy sale signs and big sale displays. Check the unit cost (i.e. price per ounce or price per pound). This is the real measure that is critical in comparing prices and determining how much you are actually paying.

Hurry to the back of the store
Ever wonder why basic staples are at the back of the store?  It’s not to give us a little exercise, but to force us to pass the long aisles of tempting products – all in an attempt to get us to buy more. Keep to the store perimeter to stay on track for the essentials.

Consider no name products
They may be cheaper, and, in many cases, will have even been manufactured at the exact same location as the brand name product next to it. 

Check for deeply discounted items near their expiration date
Grocery chains are sometimes criticized for tossing perfectly good items because they’re nearing their expiration date. In response, many chains have started deeply discounting items by as much as 50-80%. If you do buy these items, it’s important to ask yourself: Can I use it in one or two days? Can it be frozen? Items such as meat, poultry, seafood, bread, or even butter and cream can keep well in the freezer. Freezer bags will also help extend their usable life.

Limit your waste
While some items need to be tossed at, or shortly after their expiration date, other items will last well beyond.  In many cases “best before” refers to the time when a product is at peak freshness. So while you don’t want to be using fresh meat, dairy, and seafood much past their best before date, other items are fine to use. Refrigerated eggs for example will last 1 to 2 weeks past their best before date, while some items such as canned tuna, soups, etc. will last 2 to 5 years past their purchase date. Check the searchable Foodkeeper database or download the app for storage guidelines. 

The big freeze
One of the biggest areas of waste is fresh produce.  A great deal on produce or a warehouse bulk buy may entice us to load up, but we may end up tossing much of it before it’s used. The key question to ask: Can it be frozen and still maintain its taste and freshness? Carrots, peas, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries all freeze well, while produce like lettuce and celery fail here. Check out this frozen food storage chart for more information.

Buy frozen produce in the off season
Buying frozen fruits and vegetables in the off season is often cheaper than buying fresh grown greenhouse or off-shore grown produce. Not only can it be cheaper, it’s often more nutritious since it is usually frozen close to the time it was picked versus produce that’s spent a week in transit from thousands of miles away.

Plan out your meals for the week
This will not only allow you to make sure you have the items on hand, but also help you focus on the things you need to buy rather than impulse purchases.

Label and date your freezer items
When adding items to the freezer, move your older items to the front and use them first. Get into this habit to prevent losing items, only to have them emerge looking like an unidentifiable item from a previous ice age.

Stock up before holidays
Some grocery or produce stores close for the holidays or at the end of the growing season. They often deeply discount their stock before closing, so you may be able to stock up on items for freezing or canning.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Imperfect, bruised, or slightly damaged produce is often discounted or sold as “ugly “or seconds.  Don’t let that fool you, though. It often tastes just as good and is perfect for cooking, smoothies, or even eating raw.

Grow your own
Sure a corn field on your balcony may not be an option, however many fruits and vegetables can be grown in pots on decks and balconies. Peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, blueberries, strawberries, and many herbs can be grown inexpensively from seed or seedlings. If space is an issue you may be able to access a community garden in your neighborhood.  Not only can it be cheaper, but it can be a good source of exercise and a fun family activity if you have kids.

Organic often = expensive
However, if you do want to buy organic, you may cut your costs by buying where organic is most important. Some non-organic produce is grown with little in chemicals and sprays, while other products rely heavily on these methods. Check out the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce  to see which produce it is most important to buy organic.

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