6 Sneaky Ways to Save at the Grocery Store

Advice & Stories,Featured Article,Living & Spending
November 1, 2013

One recent college grad's tried-and-true methods for curbing your grocery bill—plus cautionary notes on the pitfalls of the upscale grocery experience.

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I love grocery shopping. I consider it one of my favorite hobbies, in fact. And in my estimation, there’s nothing quite as magical as grocery shopping at Whole Foods.

One of the greatest things about Whole Foods is that you feel instantly trendy just by shopping there. You stroll through the store, wheeling your cart filled with hip, bougie (see also: bourgeois) foods like chia seeds and Swiss chard (didn’t you hear? Arugula was so 2010).

And if you want to feel extra trendy while shopping at Whole Foods, don your favorite pair of yoga pants (bonus points if you’re still dripping with post-hot yoga sweat…more street cred). Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring your reusable eco-friendly shopping bag; otherwise, you’ll get that dreaded look o’ shame from the hipster dude bagging your groceries.

Then, of course, there’s the infamous Whole Foods salad bar. Without fail, you always get duped into dropping 15 bucks on kale and sweet potatoes. I’m telling you, that garlicky kale is like crack. Sneaky, sneaky Whole Foods.

Now that I’m cut off, however, I’ve realized how just much Whole Foods really drains your paycheck (thus the nickname, “Whole Paycheck”). As much as I would love to frolic with the Real Housewives of Nashville in Whole Foodsdom for the rest of my days, I don’t have the means to drop $6.00 on a container of cut-up mango. And so, with a slightly heavy heart (and severe withdrawal from garlicky kale), I’ve ended my relationship with Whole Foods, moving on to more budget-friendly supermarket chains.

When grocery shopping, if I’m not careful, I can easily get a little over-excited and drop, like, 80 bucks on food that I don’t need. Thankfully, I’ve discovered a number of shopping strategies that have helped me drastically reduce my grocery store expenses.  No matter whether you’re a wheatgrass-swigging Whole Foods junkie or a Trader Joe’s zealot, here are some tactics for saving at the grocery store:

1.   Buy generic. As much as I would love to stick out my pinky and declare that I only drink Smart Water, fancy designer waters are a total waste of money. Bottled water is bottled water—who really cares if yours is “vapor-distilled?” Buying generic, store-brand water bottles will help you slash a buck or two from your grocery bill. The same applies to other food products—save yourself a few cents, and go with the generic version.  (I do allow one exception to this rule, however: soda. Have you ever noticed that generic sodas always have really fantastically stupid names? Personally, I wouldn’t get caught dead in public drinking something called “Diet Dr. Skipper.”).

2.   Buy frozen. If I buy a carton of fresh raspberries, I know I’ll inevitably inhale those $4.00 suckers in, like, five minutes. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to purchase frozen fruits and vegetables. They’re just as nutritious as fresh, and unlike fresh produce, you don’t have to worry about them going bad. One of my go-to side dishes? I’ll yank out some frozen broccoli from the freezer, brush it with some olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper, and roast it at 350 for 30-40 minutes until they’re nice ‘n crispy.

3.   Buy in season. When shopping for fresh produce, try to buy in-season, when the fruit is generally less expensive. Year-round, apples, oranges and bananas are your best bets for lower-cost fruit—plus, they have a fairly long shelf life, so they won’t go to waste.

4.   Make a shopping list. No, they’re not just for hyperactive housewives: Shopping lists will streamline your grocery shopping experience and ensure that you don’t cave to impulse buys. Be honest, how many times have you gone to the grocery store to “grab a few things” and ended up plucking unnecessary snacks off the shelves (“OMG…Taco Bell flavored Doritos? I gotta try these!”). No, you don’t need to try that. That’s just nasty.

5.   Pay in cash. Leave your credit card behind and tuck some cash into your wallet. Not only does this serve as a built-in credit limit, some studies have found that consumers who pay in cash end up making more thoughtful purchases (read: no Taco Bell-flavored Doritos!).

6.   Join your grocery store’s reward program. Most take only a few minutes to join, giving you access to some awesome deals and price cuts. Many grocery stores (such as Harris Teeter) even have Smartphone apps that you can download, allowing you to keep up with the latest sales and specials.

Thanks to these strategies, I rarely ever spend more than $50 on a week’s worth of groceries (stay tuned for a peek inside my $45 shopping cart!). In spite of my best efforts to escape from the Whole Foods influence, however, there’s a store located just down the street from my office. So from time to time, whenever I find myself missing the company of my kale-eating, yoga-pant-wearing-brethren, I’ll occasionally drive over there and treat myself to a lunch from the hot food bar. A girl’s gotta have her Whole Foods fix once in awhile, after all, right?

Read more of Anna’s adventures in I’m Cut Off: The Series, the chronicles of a bright, yet financially clueless recent college grad as she cuts her teeth on all things financial.