5 Ways to Avoid Overspending at the Grocery Store

by David Ning · 41 comments

Think running into the supermarket to get a loaf of bread is easy? Think again. Grocery stores are laden with traps that try to convince you to buy more than you set out to get. Here are some ways you can avoid them and save some money and shelf space.

  1. Make a shopping list and stick to it. This is the easiest and most effective way to avoid overspending at the grocery store as long as you make sure to adhere strictly to the list. If you do this, you don’t even need to worry about following all the other tips.
  2. Bring a calculator with you. All cell phones have a calculator function, so whip those out every time you are trying to decide which item is a better deal. If you are caught between spending $5 for a regular-sized can of coffee grounds or $6 for a slightly bigger one, look at the volume difference between the two and do the math. Although most of the time, the bigger volume will be cheaper ounce-per-ounce, this may not always be the case. Use the calculator to figure out which is the best deal. Also, don’t forget to factor in your consumption. Just because the math works out doesn’t mean you are actually saving money if you aren’t going to finish it before the expiry date.
  3. Avoid the “2 for $5” deals. You need a can of green beans, and you notice that your grocery store is having a “2 for $5” sale. Should you get two cans instead of just one? That depends. Again, do the math and calculate how much each item is selling for with that promotional price. Sometimes, the promotion is not a bargain at all and the merchants do this because a combination of numbers and prices usually sound cheaper than just listing the price. Furthermore, these “bundled bargain” lure customers in buying two or more of the item to get the “special price” when they only needed one.
  4. If you did not originally want to buy anything from the baked goods section, avoid it. Grocery stores purposely let the smell of baking bread waft through their bakery aisles, triggering the cravings of unsuspecting customers. To avoid coming under a sudden hankering for carbs, stay away from the bakery.
  5. Think again before adding that candy bar or gum to your purchase. Grocery store cash registers are flanked with colorful displays or gums and candies. Because those items are usually cheap and eye-catching, customers don’t think twice about adding it to their cart while checking out. The next time you find yourself reaching for that Snickers bar, ask yourself if you would have wanted to buy it if it were not displayed there.

Rose Jensen, the contributor of this post, writes about online degree programs. She welcomes your feedback at Rose.Jensen28 @ yahoo.com

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron September 12, 2009 at 7:49 am

Awesome advice. Groceries are one of the easiest things to “justify” breaking your budget with. My only addition to this list: don’t shop hungry. lol You buy more because everything looks good. :)

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Lee September 12, 2009 at 9:19 am

Totally agree with the “make a list” suggestion.

The only other thing I’d add is make your budget really restrictive when it comes to food. My personal monthly budget for food including eating out (hence I don’t do it too often.) is £50 or about $80 USD. If you need a helping hand to achieve that then use the envelope system or something.

This forces you to dig out the best deals in store, or try something completely different, such as checking your local farmer market. I found vegetables to be much cheaper there than in the big chain stores.

Lee

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Charlie-PayLessForFood.com September 12, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I also agree that making a list is one of the most crucial things you can do to save money at the grocery store.

The problem is that many of us make our list right before we make the run for groceries. As a result we inevitably forget to put items on our list meaning we’ll have to make additional runs to the supermarket.

Another problem is that whoever writes the list may not include something that another family member eats often and has run out of.

One suggestion is to have a pad of paper (with an attached pen) or a wipe board hooked directly to the fridge door. That way you can easily write down items you run out of as you run out of them. It also gives any family member the opportunity to contribute to the list.

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MoneyNing September 12, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I always think about impulse purchases whenever I’m lining up at the cashier and I see all those bubble gums for sale.

They are there because it works. Don’t fall for the scheme.

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MoneyNing September 12, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Oh and I’m still on the cruise everyone :) I will be back soon.

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Heidi September 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm

In the states, supermarkets usually do the math for you and offer the per unit price right below the price. It’s amazing to see that sometimes, even for sale items aren’t such a good deal.

The other thing it’s great at showing is the price difference between different brands. It really shows how much extra you have to pay for the high end brands that you might like.

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slccom March 8, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Yes, but they put them in different units for the same product! One product will be price per ounce and the next one over is price per pound. Keep that calculator handy…

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Jason @ One Money Design September 12, 2009 at 4:34 pm

These are all great tips. I’ve found there is a lot of money to be saved by stock piling items. I buy when items are on sale (at their lowest price) and also with coupons. Coupled together, I can find most things cheaper than food club stores and buy enough to last our family three months or until the next sales cycle. We were introduced to the Grocery Game and this technique a year ago and it continues to allow us to buy more with less every month. I recently wrote a post about it on my blog.

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Financial Samurai September 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm

I only go grocery shopping on a full FULL full stomach. It’s the only way to go.

Hmmm, yumi water.

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Jason September 13, 2009 at 11:03 am

My mom always buy groceries when there are coupons but I sometimes think that she is overspending. Just because there are deals doesn’t mean that you should take advantage, especially if it means that you overstock yourself with useless stuff that you wouldn’t have bought otherwise.

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Peter Luke September 13, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Great article and very practical comments. I couldn’t agree with you guys more. I have been a victim of my grumbling stomach while I do the grocery, and everything I saw looked inviting. So I always make sure my stomach is full before doing the grocery. Another thing is that I buy in cash, but I only bring an amount just enough for my grocery list. This way, I don’t have any reason to purchase anything beyond what is inside my wallet.
My Well Of wealth

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Gift Card Rescue September 13, 2009 at 8:46 pm

I think that the biggest way to avoid overspending at the grocery store is to go there and buy what you need and do not get enticed by any of the “sales” that they have with flashy signs.

Also something you may want to look into is buying a discount gift card and use that at the grocery store to save additional dollars.

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Wilson Pon September 13, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Honestly, Ling. I’m always jot down the goods into my shopping list and bring my calculator with me. As I don’t want my shopping to be a good reason for me to overspending, as I can’t afford to pay off the debt afterward.

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Jen September 14, 2009 at 3:11 am

Before going to the grocery store, check whether you have any coupons that maybe useful on your trip. Coupons do help you save a lot of cash in the long run. And you are right about the baked goods-I almost always succumb to them during my monthly visits to the grocery store.

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Robert September 14, 2009 at 8:24 am

I think the best way to save at the grocery store is to go when you’re full–or at least when you’re not craving Oreos or cheesecake. Also, I go to the same grocery store as often as possible. Why? Because I know where most everything is located and can more easily avoid browsing. That way, I don’t get tempted to get anything that isn’t on my list. I also get store-brand items of things I’m not picky about, like popcorn, paper towels, cereal, etc. But things I AM fussy about, like soda, I get name-brand.

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David@DINKS Finance September 14, 2009 at 9:11 am

Yeah I pretty much always end up spending twice the amount I intended on spending. Might want to work on that…

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Craig September 14, 2009 at 11:35 am

I always have a mental shopping list and because my cooking skills are basic tend to make the same meals every week so I know how much my bill will come to. I do sometimes grab an item or two off impulse but I stick to the store brand items and go for the sales.

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Meaghan September 28, 2009 at 10:49 am

Nice tips. I’ve printed this out and put in on the fridge so I can refresh myself before I go to the store. Thanks for sharing.

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Randi August 19, 2010 at 12:48 am

I work for a major store, the items at the front registers are what we call ‘impulse items’. Meaning that you only want them when you see them and buy them on impulse. You will also see these types of things hanging in aisles that pertain to the things you are buying, like the cute little goldfish container to hold your goldfish snacks. :) AVOID THEM. LOL

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Randi August 19, 2010 at 12:49 am

I meant to add this to my post but forgot. They are ‘Dept. 82= Impulse Merchandise’. Yup…. it has a name.

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David Woodroof September 20, 2010 at 6:59 am

I don’t if it’s the same in the US. But in Europe, stores differ in price on different items.
If the time & fuel are worth it, be very choosy and buy the items where they’re cheaper.
Also, on the bulk buying / sales issue. It’s only a bargain if you would NORMALLY buy the product at the “normal” price, or if you buy it INSTEAD of a product you’d “normally” buy.
It’s taken me a long time to work it out.

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Gina October 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

I actually like to go grocery shopping when I AM hungry. Otherwise I won’t buy much of anything and then I end up with nothing at home to eat when I do get hungry. How’s that for a grocery shopping method?? It works for ME.

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Dogg October 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Add this to the pile of other “no duh” articles.

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T M Lynch November 18, 2010 at 12:03 am

Also, remember to stay on the outside aisle most of the time. That way, you make short trips down the middle aisles. If you walk up and down the aisles, you find plenty of stuff to.

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Leslie December 25, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Hmmm, green beans for $2.50? I would be thinking about not shopping at that particular grocery store in general.

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Ron January 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Although many stores have the price per unit displayed on the shelf, next to the price, be cautious; sometimes one item is broken down into price-per-OUNCE, while a different brand of the same item is listed in price per POUND. Don’t know why they do that, but like the article says, CARRY A CALCULATOR.

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JoAnne January 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Most of the time I will buy the store brand. Those items go on sale from time to time as well as the major brands. I find the quality is not inferior, sometimes better. I don’t buy anything from the bakery section except the stores English muffin bread, it’s round like an English muffin.

I don’t buy anything from the deli, too expensive. I always use a shopping list and try to remember my calculator. It’s just me so I can manage to buy what I need for under $50.00 most shopping trips. I don’t shop at places like Costco because what am I going to do with restaurant size products anyway.

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Everett February 2, 2011 at 9:00 am

I agree with the comment above about using discount gift cards. The hard part is convincing people that it really isn’t too good to be true, that you really can buy a $200 Safeway gift card for $175 sometimes and save $25 over your next couple of grocery shopping trips. Since groceries are something we’re going to have to buy anyway, it makes sense to invest in savings. But I wouldn’t do it just as an “excuse” to buy something I don’t need.

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Mary February 4, 2011 at 3:12 am

The best way to avoid over spending is to shop at 10 am

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The Prudent Scholar March 4, 2011 at 7:17 am

Even if your grocery store doesn’t offer gift cards at a discount, consider getting the dollar-for-dollar one. I do this at the first of every month. I get one and the husband gets one and we stay on our grocery budget. It also encourages a more even distribution of grocery shopping in the household.

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rainy mom April 13, 2011 at 7:41 am

I have found that making a weekly menu and plan the weeks meals. I base my shopping list from my menu.

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Carrie McAfee April 13, 2011 at 7:50 am

The large family perspective in different than all of yours. I’m 52, married, 5 kids, the oldest 26 married with 2 year old twins, 23 year old son in college, 20 year old daughter in college, boy/girl twins 17. We eat out once a month and have the oldest over for dinner once a week. My mom visits and always is invited to stay. I shop every two weeks. I do not go into a grocery store on any other day. I pick up milk at the gas station. It’s by far cheaper. I get 5 carts of food and it really fills my car. I never use a list. It would be to long. I shop in the same store and know the brands our family will eat. The biggest expense is meat. I get everything in the largest packages I can and we of course have to get plastic lunch bags for making serving sizes
easier. The things I have learned in my life is to only take one extra person shopping, to keep in mind all of our issues (diabetes, allergies, weight lose issues,
packing lunch issues). When I am rocking it will take me 3 hours to shop. I check out after one cart is full. Then put it in the car. Of course the frozen food is last. We are not into fancy foods and our meals are very basic. We found that
the more ingredients in a meal the more it costs. I aim for $35.00 a dinner.
For 12 people that’s great. The coupons are not worth my time. The only must
I have is going at 7am when the store opens. When other people are in the isle
I miss things as they are standing in front of them. I also use a store card and then every 3 months I get a store check for 5% of my purchases. That is another
shopping trip for free. I also pay with a debit card to keep track of my purchases. The store manager knows me by sight and always says hi. He gives me a free turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas and he usually hands me a $25.00 gift card in January. I am a valued customer. It’s not worth my time or
energy to go anywhere else.

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M. Reid July 18, 2011 at 11:04 am

Augh! The same hoary food shopping advice warmed over for the bad economy and most of it silly or just plain wrong!

“Make a list and stick to it”: No! Make a list of essentials you know you’ll need, then purchase meat and veggies for upcoming meals according to what’s on sale. Even scrutinizing the sale circular won’t necessarily help you make a list, b/c sales items are often sold out, or those bargain cauliflowers will turn out not to be such a bargain b/c they’re half-rotted. Store and economy brands and sales are your friend for everything else.

“Bring a calculator”: OK, fair enough, but if you’re a careful shopper, you should be able to do the basic math quickly enough in your head that you don’t have to pull it out often, KWIM? Indeed, to the extent that relying on the calculator keeps you from getting nimble enough with math to quickly figure these things out, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

Bundled prices: this is so obvious, I’m not sure it really counts as a tip, but I guess there is someone out there clueless enough to need it.

The bakery aroma trap, also often prescribed as the “don’t go to the grocery store hungry” warning. Yes, you’ll go crazy with impulse shopping if you’re hungry! OK, this has never happened to me and I have never been accused of being a paragon of self-restraint. A better reason is that you’re likely to be too impatient to shop wisely, but better to go to the grocery store hungry than not have enough victuals at home and end up eating an expensive carry-out meal. The candy bars at the grocery store are almost always cheaper than anywhere else, so while it would be better for your health not to, don’t sweat the $.75 Snickers bar.

Ron is right, though, one of the sleaziest things the stores do is use different unit prices for identical products on the “consumer friendly” labeling to make it harder to figure out what the better value is. Then you may really need that calculator.

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Bob September 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

The real #1 tip to avoid overspending is to go to the store with a full stomach, never go hungry!

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Witty Artist October 4, 2011 at 2:05 am

What helps me avoid overspending: making a list; go shopping with a full stomach; paying with cash.

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edsnail February 22, 2012 at 5:52 pm

It isn’t just food, either. When you are stuck in line you see the magazines with eye catching headlines like “10 tips for great sex.”
The, when it is your turn to pay, you are right n the middle of the useless article full of false information and bad advice. But you want to finish it, so you throw it in your cart.

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edsnail February 22, 2012 at 5:52 pm

It isn’t just food, either. When you are stuck in line you see the magazines with eye catching headlines like “10 tips for great sex.”
Then, when it is your turn to pay, you are right in the middle of the useless article full of false information and bad advice. But you want to finish it, so you throw it in your cart.

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Matt March 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Always use the per unit cost signs to get the cheapest deal. Also, ignore the “2 for $5″ deals ; you can get away with the sale most of the time by just buying one. Also, shop the sales. Except for staple items, I try (and am pretty good at) ignoring regular prices and only sticking to sale items. Theres so much variety and competition in the store, a multi branded product (e.g. coke/pepsi etc, yogurt, orange juice, ice cream etc etc etc.) will always have a sale.

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Bill April 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Lame article. Who can blame them for trying to make as much money as possible? They’re in BUSINESS. They do not work all day to protect BOOBS from buying too much.

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Dawn December 2, 2012 at 7:46 am

I am so laughing out loud at the make a list and stick to it. I’m over 50 and half the time I need things I forgot to add to the list. All your points are valid, including the list, just remember that not all of us are good at remembering when we are making out that all important list. I cruise the aisles and if I see something I realize I actually need I get it. I am really quite good at avoiding items I don’t need, but stick to my list…..?

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ROZA October 27, 2013 at 7:48 am

I used to shop once a week when they changed the prices. If the price was wrong they refund me me and I get to keep the product :) Also I buy buy one get one for free but only if the price is good and if I will used it. I don’t make a list cause I don’t choose what I eat the price make me eat a certain product. I also always go shopping first at the dollars store and after at the regular grocery store.

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