Grocery Shopping Skills Every Family Needs to Know

by Jamie Simmerman · 18 comments

Family grocery shopping

You never know when financial disaster will strike. If you’re a regular reader of MoneyNing, chances are good that you’re prepared for a setback, but many young families are not. Many 18 to 25 year olds are starting families, and they may still have that invincible mindset that doesn’t lend well to preparing for emergencies. I’ve talked with many young mothers who come in looking for help, often in tears, because they don’t have enough groceries to feed their family every month.

While this is a complex problem with multiple causes, part of the solution is teaching young people how to shop smarter and not overspend at the grocery store. “My sister can feed a family of four on $200 a month,” said one nurse. “That’s the type of skill we need to be teaching these young mothers, so they can survive when times get tough.” While shopping skills may seem like common sense, they aren’t. Young shoppers often feel overwhelmed in a store and lose focus.

Even if you’re not a young parent trying to stretch a dollar to feed your babies, you can use these tips to participate in a one month “grocery fast” to make a little room in your budget, get control of your monthly spending, or challenge yourself to spend less.

How to Shop Smarter in the Grocery Store

4 Things NOT to Buy:

1. Prepared food like frozen entrees and boxed dinners. These items are overpriced — not to mention loaded with sugar, preservatives, fat, and extra calories.

2. Soda pop, drink mixes, and bottled water. When you’re cutting back, drink tap water. An occasional glass of milk or brewed tea isn’t too expensive, but tap water doesn’t add anything to your grocery budget.

3. Prepared sauces like gravy, spaghetti sauce, or alfredo sauce.

4. Individual snack servings like little raisin boxes, packaged snack cakes, pudding cups, or gelatin cups.

7 Frugal Grocery Shopping Tips:

1. Purchase canned tomato sauce. This staple can often be bought on sale and altered for many recipes. Add a little brown sugar and hamburger to make sloppy joes, add a tablespoon of white sugar and some spices to make inexpensive spaghetti sauce, or use as a chili base.

2. Instead of buying lunch meat or frozen meat, purchase fresh meats from the clearance section that are near their expiration date. You can freeze them in separate bags at home, or use them in stews and casseroles.

3. Shop at a grocery store that lets you bag your own groceries. Even if you have to load your purchases in the back of the car in a laundry basket, you’ll be saving money.

4. Learn to calculate the unit price of foods. Compare brands by using this price to get the best deals. For example, 12 ounces of peaches for $1 is a better deal than 16 ounces for $1.45.

5. Buy staples like potatoes, pasta, canned vegetables, and bread, and forgo snacks and easy ready-to-eat meals.

6. Shop locally for vegetables and baked goods. You can often get fresh veggies or baked goods inexpensively by visiting your neighborhood bakery or fruit stand. Many times, these sellers will have reduced price foods that they need to sell quickly.

7. Don’t bother with coupons. The cost of buying a Sunday paper coupled with the higher cost of buying a name brand item is often still more expensive than buying the generic equivalent.

What frugal shopping tips do you have for families that are running out of money at the end of the month?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Kit says:

    The “dollar stores” have a lot of staples to restock the pantry: pastas, sauces, spices, paper plates, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, toiletries, stationery items, etc. They do not typically have high quality or big brand names, but do you really want to spend a lot for dish soap or paper cups? Use the money you save to splurge on the special stuff like fresh meat or fruits at your favorite store.

  • My wife and I try to buy organic only. It’s a bit more expensive but I wonder if it really makes a difference.

  • Tagging on to #6 “Shop Locally” in the frugal tips section, I’d also recommend shopping at non-traditional markets, like local Asian markets. I’ve found that these markets sell fresh produce at 50% or more discounts compares to typical supermarkets like Safeway. For more details check out an article I wrote on my own blog.

  • Tye says:

    Pro Tip: Go after you’ve eaten your meal.

    NEVER go when you want to eat or are hungry.

  • Alex C says:

    When I go shopping, I often like to buy generic brand for the things I do not care about. Often times with name brands, we are paying the extra money just for the name.

  • Jennifer says:

    I can sympathize with Ginger! There should be a “no dogs, bare feet or hungry husbands allowed” sign at the supermarket entrance!

    I try to hit the farmer’s market towards the end of the day. They want to get rid of produce quickly rather than take it back with them. I also go to the bakery early in the morning, since they often have day-old bread for half the price. What’s the difference if it’s been in my breadbox for a day or the shop?
    I also make sure I’ve eaten well before I go shopping, so I don’t get the urge to buy something extra for when I get home. So “perhaps the sign should actually read, “No dogs, bare feet or hungry shoppers allowed.”

    • Jennifer says:

      Sorry, I meant Elisabeth! Forgive me ladies, it must be bedtime here in the old world.

    • @pfinMario says:

      When I go shopping, I don’t even leave myself open to temptation. I know what I’m going to get and have done my research as to what it costs so I know how much to bring and not a dollar more (Usually, it’s very little… $10 or less for the big weekly trip and then $5 or so for the fruit and vegetable runs I do about two times a week).

    • Arminius Aurelius says:

      Oh yes, I would often go to the farmers market at the government center in downtown Boston. It is open Fridays and Saturdays. I would go late Saturday afternoon and was able to get heavily discounted fruits and vegetables. Well worth the effort especially when you consider some items can even be frozen for future use. I also only get the Sunday newspaper and more often than not you can save a ton of money. When they have buy 1 and get 1 free, I load up.

  • @pfinMario says:

    It’s all a matter of how fancy you feel like you need to be. Is meat a necessity? Cooking for myself, my dinners average around $2 per meal by using lentils and tofu instead of meat and buying vegetables and fruit more frequently. The rest goes to savings or paying off debt.

  • Amber says:

    It’s true that there aren’t a lot of coupons for produce, but there are some. Just in the last couple of months, I’ve had coupons for grapefruit and mandarin oranges. I get a lot of my produce from Bountiful Baskets. $16.50/week gets a LOT of fruits and vegetables.

  • KM says:

    I never had luck with coupons. They are almost always for items I never use and those that I do use never have coupons. I guess that’s the curse of buying mostly fresh produce. But I just buy the produce that’s in season and on sale and usually can save a lot just by following sales.

  • Carol says:

    The big grocery store in my area will accept coupons from other competing stores. I get a lot of $5 off a $40-$50 purchase coupons by looking in the weekly ads that get mailed to me usually on Wed. I just tear them out and take to my fav store. Also, the Sunday paper very often will have one of the same type coupons. If I have 2 coupons, I can split my shopping into a couple of purchases and save $10 on a $100 bill.

  • Rachel says:

    Coupons do help me save a lot, you just need to know where to go. As remaining in the list, I do agree with all of them. But if you have toddlers who are addicted to milk, I swear to god if I could hide the it in the most corner of our house, I will. But they’re growing up really healthy and smart.

  • Elisabeth says:

    First: Always have a menu plan and a grocery list before you go into the store, in order to minimize impulse purchases and forgotten items.

    Second: Stick to the outer rims of the grocery store where the real food is at – produce, meats, and dairy. It’s better for your wallet and your waist. I try to only venture into the aisle for staple and canned goods.

    It’s a work in progress. I will manage to buy the week’s food for <$50, but then my husband will add his soda, wine, chips, and frozen dinners – and suddenly the grocery budget doubles!

  • Ginger says:

    I strongly disagree in regards to the coupon statement and buying meat only from the clearance section. You can often find decent meat for cheap at butcher shop, though often you need to buy a large quantity. Also, a whole chicken, though not on clearance is still cheap, and will stretch for many meals in a way some other meat won’t. For the coupons, you don’t need to buy a newspaper to get coupons, you can print them (in black and white) and they can end up being cheaper than store brands, you just need to check.

  • Amber says:

    I agree with all of these except the coupons. I got a deal for just Sunday delivery for $0.50/week. When I combine coupons with sales (especially at Target and Cvs), many name brand items are super cheap or even free.

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