A family of four — two parents and two children between ages 6 and 11 — will spend between $636.40 and $1,273.40 a month at the grocery store, according to a December 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not surprised by those high numbers? We didn’t think so.
Although prices vary nationwide, food costs represent the third-highest budget item for families after housing and transportation, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in August 2016. But unlike rent or car payments, food is one of the few areas where consumers can exert some control.
But how do you do it, particularly if you’ve got a family with food allergies, dietary needs or specific preferences? We talked with several experts to gather food shopping advice that even the busiest of parents can use.
One thing all the experts agreed on: Organization is key. “If you don’t have a grocery budget, make one,” says Heather Clarke, founder of Queen Bee Coupons, a website that shares rebates, sales and other price-savings information for common grocery items.
“Track your grocery spending for a month or two to get an idea of how much you spend,” Clarke says. “Then, look for ways to cut.”
So, what are you waiting for? Read on for tips on how planning a menu, shopping sales and stocking up on basics can mean lower prices at the register.
Time is money: 4 grocery services to add to your list
Going to the grocery store can feel so 20th century. Skip checkout completely by ordering groceries online and having them delivered right to your door.
- AmazonFresh: Amazon — maybe you’ve heard of ‘em? This Seattle darling changed the grocery game when it introduced AmazonFresh more than a decade ago (fun fact: Mercer Island was the first spot in the world to try the new-fangled product in 2007). Shop online, place your order and choose the delivery time that works best for your family. Only available for Amazon Prime members, who can add Fresh for an additional $14.99 per month. (An annual Prime membership costs $99.) Free 30-day trials available for both Prime and AmazonFresh.
- Instacart: As the name suggests, this delivery service aims to get you your grocery cart instantly. You enter your zip code to find affiliated stores; depending on the products you purchase, you can get groceries delivered in an hour. But note: Instacart has its own type of “surge pricing.” When demand is high for a delivery time, a “Busy Pricing” fee may apply in addition to the delivery cost. Cost of food plus a delivery fee of between $3.99 and $5.99 (there’s an annual membership option, too). Tip: Delivery is free on your first order.
- Envoy: Envoy bills itself as a more hand-curated option for grocery delivery (the same person shops for you every time). This San Francisco-based startup also does more than food; the Envoy concierge service can, among other things, run your errands and do your housekeeping. For the grocery bit, choices are slightly limited with only two stores on the roster: Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. First 30 days are free; membership costs $19 per month. Grocery shopping is an additional hourly rate of $12 to $30 per visit plus 10 percent of your grocery bill.
- Amazon Go: And for those who still want to pick their food but skip checkout, there’s Amazon’s latest wonder: Amazon Go. This store looks like a traditional grocery except without the checkout lines and is currently only open in downtown Seattle to Amazon employees (that should change this year).
Taking the ‘extreme’ out of extreme couponing
When you think of coupons, do you picture extreme couponers trolling store aisles with giant binders, clearing store shelves and holding up checkout lines? Coupons can be a valuable addition to a thrifty shopper’s arsenal without going to extremes, says Clarke of Queen Bee Coupons. She started cutting coupons when she couldn’t cut any more corners, and now regularly saves 20–25 percent on her grocery bill. (Combining coupons with sales gets her even bigger returns — up to 50 percent, says Clarke.)
To start, get organized. “Get a simple coupon organizer from the Dollar Store or use envelopes,” she says. “Set up a system that works for you. The coupon you put on the refrigerator won’t help if you forget it when you go to the store.”
Next, create a menu plan based on sales — information you can get without poring over the newspaper.
“Find a source that does the work for you,” Clarke says. “Go to one of the many free blogs that list sales and matching coupons. Coupons aren’t just from the newspaper insert anymore. There are e-coupons, printable coupons and rebate apps.”
Clarke says it’s a myth that it takes hours of preparation to see significant savings with coupons.
“I find that even if I spend just 15 minutes writing a grocery list and gathering coupons, I save both money and time in the store.” An example: “Last week, I bought ground turkey at Target that was on sale for $5.99 a pound. I had a $2 coupon and saved 15 percent by using the Target Cartwheel app. This brought the price down from $5.99 per pound to $3.39 per pound.” That’s a saving of nearly $3 per pound.
Once you’ve written out your sale-based meal plan and gathered your coupons, get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, Clarke advises. “Studies have shown that the longer you spend in the store, the more you spend,” she says.
She’s right. In a study of 400 supermarket shoppers published in 2015, University of Notre Dame researchers found that people are more likely to spend money on unplanned splurges the longer their shopping trip lasts.
“Basically, buying one thing you weren’t planning on getting makes you remember all of the other things you might have needed but didn’t put on your list, so that first impulse item you pick up opens the floodgates,” according to a June 2015 article in Time magazine about the study. “The likelihood you’ll splurge on an unintended purchase is almost 10 percent higher at the end of a shopping trip.”
Waste not, want not
Another way to shrink your grocery bill is to waste less food. Studies vary, but the average American throws away a lot of food (some research says as much as 16 percent of all purchased edibles, other research indicates 25 percent). Don’t think that sounds like a lot? Consider this: If your monthly food budget is $800, $128 (that’s 16 percent) or $200 (25 percent) is going out with the trash!
Of course, careful meal planning and organization easily reduce some waste, but there’s even more you can do, says Debbie Wright. Wright teaches classes on saving money on groceries, but perhaps more impressively, she regularly feeds her family of five — which includes three teens — for $700 a month.
One recommendation Wright often shares is to try a “pantry challenge” every few months. “This is when you challenge yourself to cook from what you already have in your pantry, fridge and freezer,” she says. “This allows you to use items before they expire. During the challenge, shop only for fresh essentials, such as eggs, produce and milk.” Wright often uses Allrecipes because she can enter the ingredients she has on hand and get relevant recipe suggestions.
“I like Allrecipes because of the reviews,” Wright says. “You can see what people liked about a dish and what tweaks they made to the recipe to improve it.” Of course, this means she sometimes has to get creative. “Last night, I had half of a leftover rotisserie chicken, a package of tortillas, onions and peppers,” says Wright. “I made fajitas.”
Cook once a month
Once-a-month cooking, freezer cooking and bulk cooking are some of the many names used to describe cooking meals ahead of time and freezing the food for later. But Tricia Callahan prefers the term “reality-proof meal planning.” Callahan is the founder of the meal-planning service website Once a Month Meals. She’s also a devotee of reality-proofing her kitchen.
"You might have a meal plan, but then something comes up,” she says of reality-proofing. “You have a late meeting, something comes up with the kids or it’s a rough homework night and the meal doesn’t get cooked. Then your ingredients can spoil.”
For busy parents, this type of cooking can save both time and money. Plus, buying in bulk often means less waste (not to mention more savings) since you’re working from a meal plan for which every ingredient has a purpose. Of course, the downside is you might spend a weekend in the kitchen, but Callahan says it’s worth it. Cooking 30 meals at once can save you up to 30 hours in a month, according to Once a Month Meals.
Not that you have to begin at 30 meals. “Try starting with a smaller menu,” Callahan says. “Our mini-menu [which only takes a couple of hours to make] has five recipes that are doubled to make 10 meals.” Callahan also suggests spacing out the work, perhaps by spending one day doing prep work, such as chopping vegetables, and the next day completing the recipes.
Back to basics
In my home, I have one child with nut allergies and two others who are pescatarian (they eat seafood, dairy and eggs, but no meat).
A pescatarian diet is healthy but expensive — salmon costs more than ground beef — not to mention there’s all the pricy fresh produce. But despite this, I’ve found easy ways to save money at the grocery store. (In fact, I’ve found enough tips to compile them in an e-book titled Save Money on Groceries by Going Back to Basics.) I call my method “back to basics” because techniques such as buying in bulk, cooking from scratch, wasting less and shopping locally are how most of our grandparents shopped and cooked.
The bulk-food aisle — that area in the grocery store lined with bins with scoops attached — should become your new best friend in your quest for a lower grocery bill. For flour, sugar, oatmeal and other dry items, you can buy as much or as little as you need.
Not to mention you save a ton on dried spices. At Fred Meyer, bulk dried basil costs 69 cents per ounce. Packaged basil from the spice section of the store costs $5.59 for a half-ounce container. That means you could buy a jar of basil for $5.59, or get the same amount in the bulk section for 35 cents. So, the next time you run out of a spice? Keep the jar and refill it from the bulk section.
The bulk-food aisle — that area in the grocery store lined with bins with scoops attached — should become your new best friend in your quest for a lower grocery bill.
I also cook from scratch whenever possible. Preparing a dish from raw ingredients is almost always cheaper than using a packaged product or mix. Plus, you control the ingredients, which is helpful for those with dietary restrictions — or if you just want to know what’s in your food!
For canned goods, try store brands for extra savings. According to Consumer Reports, store brands are often at least as good as national brands and cost much less. Try different store brands until you find one you like. To save on fresh produce, shop your local produce stand or consider community-supported agriculture (CSA). One good resource for finding current local listings is Puget Sound Fresh.
Then there’s always the old adage “Use up and make do.” Don’t throw out leftovers. Instead, invest in a good thermos and lunch box and send leftovers to school and work. Or have a weekly “leftover buffet” for dinner by reheating leftovers from the past few days and having family members fill their plates with a bit of this and a dab of that. Add a tossed salad and bread to round out the meal.
But what about organics?
Of course, we all want to feed our families the healthiest possible food, and often, that means organics. Unfortunately, organic products cost, on average, 47 percent more than conventional counterparts, according to 2015 information from Consumer Reports. So, what’s a crunchy mama to do?
Jen Dotson and Sia Hills, owners of Thrifty Northwest Mom, a website that offers money-saving tips for families in the Northwest, like to feed their families organic and less-processed food. Along the way, they’ve learned how to save.
“Our main method . . . is to follow the sales cycles and stockpile [that is, buy enough items for one to two months] when those items are at their lowest prices,” Dotson says. "We also take advantage of any coupons to pair with those sales.”
Of course, to buy at the lowest price, you first need to know what your favorite foods typically cost.
“[For a month or two], think about the foods that your family eats the most and start tracking prices,” Dotson says. “By doing this, you are familiarizing yourself with the prices for the items your family uses the most so that you will be aware to stock up when it goes on sale at its lowest price.”
This advice also applies to higher-priced items, like meat, Dotson says. She recommends a company called Zaycon Fresh. “You buy large quantities of meat at a time,” says Dotson, whose family typically buys 40 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken in one go. She then repackages her order in freezer bags. “Meat is one of your biggest expenses for your grocery budget, so this is a significant savings,” she adds.
Wanna save money? Try these apps
If you want to save at the store but aren’t up for searching sales or clipping coupons, try using what you already have: Your smartphone! Some apps search weekly sales fliers to save you time, some offer in-store savings and many offer cash back. Check out this selection.
Ibotta: This is a good app for people who buy mostly generic grocery items. Almost every week, there are rebates offered on Ibotta for items such as “bread, any brand” or “bananas, any brand.” Over the past year, I’ve received an estimated $150 in rebates, much of which I redeemed as Starbucks gift cards. (You can also have the money deposited into a PayPal account.)
I often find rebates on my favorite brands as well. It takes a few minutes to scan item barcodes and photograph your receipt (with your phone via the app), but I redeemed my first $20 as an Amazon gift card and received it via email within minutes. You can also team up with friends to earn bonuses.
Do note that sometimes in order to get the rebate, you have to watch a short video clip or take a survey (I’ve never had one be more than one question).
Checkout 51: This app works like Ibotta but has mostly brand items. The list of available rebates renews every Thursday. For most, there are only a certain number of rebates available, so you have to act fast. To redeem, you check the item you bought on the list and then photograph your receipt with the app. Once you reach $20, you can request a check, which comes in the mail in from one to two weeks. Pro tip: You can redeem rebates from both Ibotta and Checkout 51 on the same receipt.
Target Cartwheel: This app needs to be used in conjunction with a Facebook account. You can save from 5 to 50 percent on as many as 12 items per shopping trip to Target. There are two ways to find savings: Browse through categories or scan the item on the shelf. If there isn’t a Cartwheel discount available, the app will suggest similar products that are discounted. (Savvy shoppers, note that you can use a Cartwheel discount, manufacturer coupon and a Target coupon on the same purchase.) Once you’ve chosen your discounts, the cashier will scan a code on your phone. Reviewers say to hand over any other coupons before the Cartwheel savings code to ensure that it works.
Favado: This app comes from Savings.com, with some users saying it saves them as much as 70 percent on groceries. Favado searches weekly sales fliers across stores to find the week’s best deals. It also tells you where to find coupons. You can make your food list on the app for extra convenience.
Store loyalty cards and apps
Don’t forget to sign up for savings at your favorite store! Store loyalty cards offer savings to members. Some stores, such as Fred Meyer, even offer quarterly savings that can be applied directly to your next shopping bill. Most stores allow you to sign in via a phone number, so you don’t need to carry a bunch of cards around. Most major grocery chains also have an app by which you can see sales and load in-store coupons to your card.