Grocery Shopping the Smart Way

When I was growing up I would grocery shop with my mom every week. I always really enjoyed grocery shopping because I was able to pick out the foods that I wanted (within reason). To this day, I still enjoy grocery shopping, largely for the same reason (although today my mom isn’t there to tell me I can only buy one kind of cookies).

I also like grocery shopping because it is the one kind of shopping that I get to do every week, no matter what. I always need to eat. I might be trying not to buy new clothes or spend money on other non-necessities, but the grocery store is one place where I can get my shopping fix without splurging.

That said, it is all too easy to splurge even at the grocery store. Yes, we all need to eat, but we do not all need to eat organic, grass fed filet mignon topped with truffle butter every night.  Because I grocery shop every week, without fail, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to be smart about grocery spending. If you’re not paying attention it is easy to bust your budget with regular trips to the grocery store.

The fine line between health and wealth

The tricky thing about trying to curb grocery spending is that, unlike when you buy clothes or electronics or other consumer goods, when you buy less expensive food you run the risk of buying lower-quality, less healthy food. Health is your greatest asset and isn’t worth risking over a few dollars here or there. This becomes especially true when you consider the lifetime cost of conditions such as diabetes, which can be caused by poor eating habits.

So how do you balance buying healthy food with watching your budget? Here are a few ideas about how to buy quality food the smart way.

Pick your store carefully

In the Cambridge area, there are a LOT of grocery store options. We have our local chains, like Star Market and Stop & Shop. We also have more specialty stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Last but certainly not least, we have the one and only Market Basket. Market Basket is a discount grocery chain that does not provide a glamorous shopping experience but does offer the lowest prices, period. At Market Basket, I pay $2 for the box of granola bars (the EXACT same box!) that costs $3.50 at Stop & Shop. If I buy those granola bars every week, I’m saving $78 over the course of a year just by shopping at Market Basket for that ONE item. Imagine when you multiply that over the cost of your whole grocery cart! And I’m not even considering what the Whole Foods version of those granola bars might cost.

My beloved Market Basket. Source: Market Basket

My beloved Market Basket. Source: Market Basket

What I really mean to say here is that each store offers certain benefits: Whole Foods offers lots of organics, Trader Joe’s has items you can’t find elsewhere, and Star Market provides the basics with a nice shopping experience. Be cognizant of these things when you chose which store to shop at and shop somewhere that aligns with the value you’re looking for. For me, I don’t mind fighting the crowds at Market Basket to get the same food for a lower price.

Shop only once a week

I grew up in the suburbs, and my family shopped once a week because the grocery store was a 10 minute drive out of the way. Now that I live in the city, there are about 10 different places I could stop to pick up food on my way home from work. But I’ve learned that this is very dangerous. When I shop every night, I forget what I have in the house, I succumb to my pre-dinner urges and buy some extra cookies, and I’m more likely to pick up prepared or frozen food that can be made quickly.

A great way to save money and become more intentional about grocery shopping is to plan to shop only once a week. This will force you to look ahead at what you need for the week. It will give you time to consider what you have in your house already and therefore help you avoid duplicates. It will also limit some of the impulse buys, especially if you follow common advice and avoid shopping hungry. All of these things are good for both your health and your budget. After all, when is the last time you impulse-purchased carrot sticks? Ice cream on the other hand….

Plan meals around sales

If you’re going to grocery shop every week, it pays to be organized about what you’ll have for each meal during the week. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with all snacks and no food (that’s not just me, right?). Meal planning is a great way to make sure you have healthy options for each breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like to buy basic foods to make breakfasts and lunches from and then plan specific meals for dinner. I select the menu for the week, write down all the ingredients I need, compare that to what I already have in the house, and write the remaining ingredients on my grocery list. Simple.

But how do I know what meals to make? I’ve started planning my menu around the weekly sales at my local Market Basket. Each week they send around a flyer, which is also available online, advertising the weekly specials. The front page usually has a few meat and fish options that are substantially discounted. Since I’m often at a loss for what exactly I want to eat, I just let the weekly flier chose for me and go with whatever is on sale! This has several benefits – I don’t have to make up my own mind about what to eat, I save money without sacrificing on quality, and I get to eat a diverse array of foods. That is a lot of birds to kill with one really tiny stone.

Check unit prices

The other tips I’ve shared have all centered on decisions you make before even stepping foot in a grocery store. Once you’re there, there are still decisions you can make that will help you spend smartly. You may have noticed that most items in your grocery store have two prices. One is the price that you pay at the register, and the other is the unit price. The unit prices does just what its name implies: it tells you the price per unit of that item. Units are usually either ounces or pounds.

A great sale on an essential item. Note the unit price in orange.

A great sale on an essential item. Note the unit price in the orange box.

Unit prices come in handy when you’re looking at several different sizes or brands of the same product. For example, when I buy honey I can buy an 8 oz. jar of Market Basket brand honey for $2.49, or $0.31 per ounce, or I can buy a 12 oz. jar of Market Basket brand honey for $3.39, or $0.28 per ounce. I also have other brand options, but I’ve never noticed a difference between store brand and name brand honey, so I go with the less expensive store brand option. (Note that I don’t do this for everything – it’s worth experimenting to find out what you can get away with buying store brand for and what you can’t.) Since the larger jar of honey is cheaper on a per ounce basis, I go with that option.

Buying based on unit price works well for something like honey that keeps well and is used frequently. Make sure to think through the non-financial aspects of foods before buying a larger package just to save a few cents per ounce. For example, you’re better off paying more per ounce for a smaller package of lettuce that you will actually use up than a larger package that will go partially to waste. Similarly, there are some things that you just don’t want to have a giant size of in the house. For example, when I splurge (health-wise, not money-wise) and buy my favorite snack of Cheetos, I always buy the smallest bag I can regardless of unit price. Big bag = big belly ache. However when I buy oatmeal, I buy the largest size to get the best unit price. After all, nobody binges on oatmeal.

How do you save money at the grocery store?


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16 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping the Smart Way

  1. Unit prices are a huge help for me. It saves me trying to do math in my head. The biggest time it helps? Toilet paper. Some companies tell you how many sheets, others how many feet. The unit price is based on just square footage, so you know what’s the best bang for the buck.

    And yes, there are definitely times I chose to pay a little more per ounce on junk food because I knew I’d eat all of the bigger bag… and not slowly. Past tense because I’m currently on a no-dessert campaign. I can’t imagine how much money that’s saved us.

    • It is so nice that the store does the math for us with unit prices!

      Your no dessert campaign sounds like a great money saver! I find that eating real food (not prepared/processed food) is a great way to save money. And of course be healthier!

  2. My store of choice is Hannaford. Price Chopper is more popular here, but that’s because they lure people in with coupons and sales, and then jack up the prices on everything else. Year after year, a given basket of goods costs less at Hannaford than Price Chopper. At Hannaford, I know what prices to expect because there’s not much change from week to week.

    Our discount store is Save-A-Lot. A hugely fun store to shop in (the off-brand “brands” are very creative) they specialize in junk food and not great produce. You can still find good buys, but so many items actually cost more than our Hannaford, that I never go there anymore. Comparing prices and driving between stores just isn’t worth the time investment to me.

    The absolute cheapest place to get groceries is WalMart, but I don’t set foot in there.

    • Sounds like you’ve done your research! I agree that driving between stores is a hassle. If you’ve found the store that works best for you, go with it!

  3. Not like I pay a small amount of money for groceries (really, the idea is laughable at best), but the one saving grace for my food-wallet relationship is that I buy mostly raw ingredients and indulge in very few to no processed foods.

  4. Our food budget is always the one section of the budget that I want to work on the most, and always the one that goes over… My big thing when shopping is trying to shop locally as much as I can. I always find that the local produce is better, but more expensive, and the local meat is always the organic, grain-fed kind that is super expensive. It’s hard to find a balance between healthy and socially responsible and low cost.

    • It is tricky to find that balance. I find that buying more ingredients and cooking myself (as opposed to prepared foods) helps a lot.

  5. Bart A. says:

    I find that Trader Joe’s for a lot of items is priced less than Market Basket for the given quality grocery items; or offers comparable prices for a better quality.
    That being said, there’s still merit to shopping at Stop & Shop at times. For those of us who live outside of Cambridge/Boston and don’t rely 100% on public transit, gas points become of great value to us. When lining up multiple cars and/or gas cans, you can get to the 35 gallon limit very easily.

    To extend your granola bar example a little more, the same box of granola bars you’d buy at Market Basket for $2 a box is sold in a better quality version (according to Fooducate and this is comparing TJ’s oats and honey bars against Shaw’s Essential Everyday and Nature Valley since MB granola bars isn’t in there) at the exact same price at Trader Joe’s. However, if you stock up on Nature Valley bars on the week they are on gas points sale at Stop & Shop they are $2.50 at the register but you get 300 points per 7 you buy which is a net $10.50 savings at the pump meaning they can be technically $1 per box. And btw, Nature Valley protein bars do regular sell at the same $3.49 at MB and Stop & Shop in the suburbs; not sure about the others. Want organic? Same sale applied for Cascadian Farms bars but they cost $.50 more per box meaning they were $1.50 per box at Stop & Shop (regularly the regular ones are $3.99 per box). They are also $3.99/box at Market Basket but never go on sale.

    A few other twists:
    Shaw’s also does have Mymixx and doubled coupons; so I’ve had stuff like NV’s protein bars down to $.34 ($3.49 – $.11 sale savings – $.75 off doubled manufacturer coupon – $.75 off savingstar promotion – $.75 off mymixx savings)
    Same box of granola bars would be $2.25 at MB if it’s on sale; or $2.74 at regular price b/c the nondoubled $.75 off coupon would be your only savings.
    Those looking for better quality product are oftentimes better off at Wegmans or Trader Joe’s. For example, both sell mint chocolate chip ice cream in quarts at $3.79 and $4.49 respectively. To get a similar product at MB, I’d have to buy Haagen Dazs at $3.49 per 14 oz… which is virtually double the price.

    I also went into Price Rite for the first time today and I was unduly impressed. Grapes and peaches on sale for $.99/lb. Ground arabica store brand coffee at $2.99 for 12 oz. Watermelon at regular price for $3.99 each. And here’s the best: 6 oz store brand greek yogurt: $.79 each; keep in mind Stop & Shop and MB are both at $.89 for 5.3 oz… it’s the same exact yogurt no matter where you buy it.

    • Wow – you are really on top of things! Thanks for sharing all of your insights. I completely agree that some stores are cheaper than MB for certain items, and certainly that is true when you factor in sales. I try to think of the simplest, most consistent way to get the most for my grocery money, and I think that is where MB consistently wins.

  6. Karen says:

    As a previous MB shopper who lives in Winchester, I was ecstatic that Wegmans in Burlington opened up. Although I agree with your findings, I find that Wegmans offers quality, service, selection, and price much superior to Market Basket and my food bill has dropped a good 20% over when I stopped shopping Market Basket last October when you include the $5 off $25 coupons and 2 $1 off coupons off specific dept purchases.

    Many items are indeed lower at Wegmans over Market Basket, especially if you buy the value packs. Just on meat, there’s non-broth added chicken at $1.99/lb; 90% ground beef at $3.69/lb; 94% ground turkey at $2.99/lb; and sirloin steak at $6.99/lb every day when you purchase value packs. Now, on stuff like meat, I’m only going to visit the grocery store once per week regardless of which store I choose so I will rotate which meats I am buying and will freeze when I will not use by the end of the next day so logistically speaking value packs work for me throughout the store even though I just live with one other person. I am a big fan of Skinny Pop popcorn… it’s usually $3.29 for 4.4 oz at MB or very occasionally $2.50 when on sale… but at Wegmans they carry a 10 oz bag for $4.99 which beats MB’s sale price (I go through 1 of the 10 oz bag easily each week anyway). Same thing with almonds… the regular sized bag (10.25 oz for $5.29) at Wegmans which is slightly pricier over MB’s offering (12 oz for $5.99) but I save $1.33/lb over MB’s price by buying the value pack (36 oz for $14.99)… you have a while before it expires and the value pack lasts about 4 weeks in my house anyway.
    I do also buy the value pack of Nature’s valley granola bars at Wegmans… not only I still get to use a coupon if one is available the box is the size of 5 regular sized packs for $6.99 everyday… which beats any store brand deal I have ever seen.

    • I have been to Wegmans once and I was also really impressed with their quality, variety and prices. I would love to shop there more, unfortunately it is quite out of the way for me. Good to hear that their prices can even beat MB. Fingers crossed that one opens near me soon!

  7. Bill says:

    I find that a combination of Costco and Trader Joe’s is the best way to go; and both stores work together to get me a bill way cheaper than MB any day…. I estimate by 40%. Costco has rock bottom pricing on all of the basics. For example, natural deli ham is $6.49/lb (albeit bought in 2 lbs at a time but it lasts the 2 weeks it takes me to use it) at Costco; $3.99 for 8 oz at Traders; and $9.99/lb at MB. And organic hummus at Costco? That’s $3/lb; cheaper than nonorganic hummus elsewhere. Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry everything but carries a lot of natural foods I would never be able to afford at MB (an 18 oz box of Barbara’s Puffins cereal for the same price as MB charges for a 10 oz box is a classic example many all natural shoppers know of). I fill in all the gaps that Trader Joe’s leaves with trips to Costco every other week. Thanks to these companies, I can eat almost on the level of a Whole Foods shopper on a peasant’s budget.

    • Wow – that is impressive that you’re able to shop at Trader Joe’s for so much less than MB! I go to Trader Joe’s on occasion, and I always get distracted by the fun treats that they have and end up spending much more than usual. I guess I just need to find some discipline and give it another try!

  8. My joy this week was small but wonderful. We soptted tiny freckles starting to show on my 4 year old daughter’s nose. Turns out she’s going to be freckly, just like her mama. And I’m thrilled about it. She is too. I LOVE golden raspberries. Delicious. I haven’t had any this year though

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