The Important Lesson I Learned from a Disastrous Trip to the Grocery Store

by Jessica Sommerfield · 14 comments

I’m an obsessive list maker. This obsession is usually an advantage, because it helps me stay organized and remember things I need to do or buy. The sheer act of writing something down on a list helps me remember (since my memory is visually oriented), so that often I’m able to shop my list from memory — even if I’ve left it at home.

Since I’ve been using a smartphone, list-making is especially practical. I always have my phone with me, so as long as my list is digital, I’m good to go.

And on a recent trip to the store, I learned why — digital or physical — you always need to shop with a list.

3 Reasons Why You Need to Shop with a List

1. They combat mental lapses

The other night, I knew I needed to grab several things from the store. It was a Monday night, so I was especially tired from my first day back at work — and knew I had a lot yet to do when I got home. Instead of grabbing only my listed items and heading home, I fell into the trap of wondering if there was anything else I needed.

Perhaps I’d just take a look around the aisles and mentally go through my pantry at home to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed.

Thirty minutes later, I arrived at the checkout with much more than I’d intended, for which I spent more than I’d intended; even worse, when I got home, I realized I’d made several mistakes. By relying on my mind to remember everything, I’d sent it into overload. My memory is good, but I was expecting too much, and as a result, I endangered my grocery budget.

2. They help you avoid stockpiling unnecessary items

Something happens when you think you might be low on an item, but it’s not on the list: You second-guess yourself about everything else. When I got home from shopping that night, I realized that not only had I purchased an item I already had two full containers of — I’d made an impulse purchase I couldn’t use without an additional item I didn’t have. Because I made the dual mistake of relying on my memory and straying from my list, it was an absolute train wreck!

Stocking up on key items when they’re on sale or when you have coupons is a great idea to save money in the long run — but if you’re not saving money, stockpiling is just costing you money that could have been spent on other things you need now.

3. They help you maintain your budget

I’m sure there are ways I could better follow my grocery budget if I had more time and energy, but in general, I manage to stay within the monthly limit as long as I loosely plan meals and don’t impulse shop. Shopping outside of the all-important list has the potential to upset the budget and send me scrambling to bring it back in line.

Going over a little here and there isn’t a big deal (as long as your budget has some wiggle room), but consistent overspending on budget categories such as groceries and household necessities can indicate the need to either stick more closely to lists and meal planning, or create more room in your budget.

List-making isn’t just for the super-organized or forgetful. It’s a practical way to keep a visual reminder of your budget or spending plan. After my experience the other night, I’m going to be extra careful about sticking to my lists.

Do you shop with a list? Have you ever experienced a shopping disaster like the one above?

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  • Aleta says:

    I am such a list maker. I get talked about because I make list but it helps keep me straight. List help me get the task out of my head so I can come back to it later. I have a pen and a pad of paper in every room of the house. I have started using the Wunderlist app which I love because I can categorize my list. Now that grocery stores have their own apps, online coupons and list helps with grocery shopping too. Thanks for sharing.

  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    Publix Supermarkets in Florida ha items on Sale every week and many Buy 1
    Get 1 Free . I then stock up . Last week when I went shopping I bought 32 items , a few were on sale but 10 items were Buy 1 – get 1 Free . My final cost was $ 71.84 , a savings of $ 30.51 . Without taking advantage of the sale the cost would have been $ 102.35 …….. a 30 % savings

  • Michelle says:

    We will only shop when we are completely empty in our pantry. We also will not step foot into the grocery store unless we have a list.

  • I have the same problem with lists! I used to always forget my list, and usually it went ok. But now that we’ve cracked down on our grocery budget and started using eMeals, shopping has become remarkably simple. Love it!

  • debt debs says:

    I prefer shopping with a list as well. I’m more focused, less stressed about what I’m forgetting and takes less time. And, you know what they say… time is money! 😉

  • MomCents says:

    Been there – done that!
    I’ll go up and down the aisles and when I get home have double (and sometimes) triple items.

    I need to get more disciplined about making a list….find out that it goes hand and hand with meal planning for me. If I can menu plan for 2 weeks, I can make a corresponding shopping list and usually end up spending less than I would have otherwise.

    • David Ning says:

      My wife does most of the grocery shopping and I’m sure she’s like that too. She even said that her therapy is shopping in a grocery store. But the killer is when one of our grocery stores have a 20% off day, because she seriously loads up and brings home all kinds of “everything!”

  • Cindi says:

    I always shop with a list. But guess what? When I get in the store, for some reason my brain goes kooky. I actually forget to buy things that are on my list! I’ve cured this by actually going over my list before I get to the cashier and physically checking off each item in the cart. Takes a bit longer but saves my wallet.

    • David Ning says:

      Ha I’m the same way sometimes when I only have a “mental list”. In fact I thought about buying three things yesterday at Costco and came back with just two!

  • Ricky Willis says:

    I do most of my grocery shopping online but on the occasion I do go into the store, I always take a list. A great tip is to have substitute items on the list. This will prevent you over-spending on the odd chance that something on the list is out of stock and you need to replace it.

    – Ricky Willis

    • David Ning says:

      Do you have a list for online shopping too Ricky?

      I don’t think the “related items” have the same effect as seeing them in person but I wonder how often people would buy that pack of gum, or bag of chips at checkout during an online shopping experience too.

  • I always try and shop with a list, if not I typically over spend buying things I don’t need or as you said I already had at home. I also find I save time when I have my list, because I’m not aimlessly going up and down every aisle just browsing.

    • David Ning says:

      Speaking of walking up and down every aisle, I always wished grocery stores would have a little machine at the front where you can look up where they stock a certain item. This would save me so much time since I never know where anything is, as I don’t often shop at grocery stores!

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