The supermarket can be a minefield of tempting impulse purchases. Packed with gleaming promotions and delicious power brands, it’s easy to understand why so many of us end of up with a fuller trolley than we’d planned.
Grocery costs can get out of control quickly – to the point where it becomes one of our largest controllable expenses. And as some of these costs are necessities, it’s all too easy to accept our current expense level as a given.
But by paying more attention to our grocery costs and by taking a few specific and simple steps, we can bring this cost back under control, saving colossal sums of money each year in the process.
Here are 11 simple ideas I have personally used to save huge sums of money on grocery costs.
#1: Track your spending and set a budget
To better understand the extent of your grocery spending, it’s important to track and tally up your spending.
Seeing the extent of our spending has the power to shock us into action. As you realise how much you’ve been spending on food every month and how much you can potentially save, it provides initial impetus to get started.
Tracking your spending not only heightens awareness of these costs, but also provides a framework to set a budget for future spend. Setting this goal for spending each month is a useful tool for instilling more psychological discipline when you’re browsing the shelves.
#2: Make a meal plan
While it may sound a bit prescriptive, making a meal plan can yield huge savings on grocery costs. Knowing what you’re going to eat during the week makes shopping more efficient. In other words, because you know what you’re having, you can get in and out of the supermarket quicker.
A meal plan therefore partially mitigates the risk of impulse buying. You’ll no longer be picking up whatever you fancy just to get those fridge shelves filled – and the financial results will surprise you.
#3: Make a list (and stick to it!)
This is shopping 101. Without a list, we’re much more likely to fill our trolley with more expensive groceries and items we don’t need. If you’ve already got a rough meal plan, that will make establishing this list pretty straightforward.
But it’s all very well having a list. What’s important is that we stick to it. Be disciplined as you walk through the supermarket, not deviating from what you need. Some of the subsequent tips will help counteract potential impulsivity in the supermarket.
#4: Pick the smaller trolley
Using a bigger shopping trolley tends to equate to bigger spend. Much like the well-documented effect we see when we use bigger plates for serving meals, our subconscious takes the bigger space as a call to fill it.
According to Martin Lindstrom, by doubling the size of our shopping trolleys, typically we buy up to 40 percent more. That’s a serious chunk of extra cash that can be avoided by picking a smaller trolley. Most supermarkets offer a couple of different sizes, but if you’re left only with the option of the larger trolley, just stick to that list and don’t get drawn into filling it.
#5: Know the consumer psychology tricks
Aside from equipping us with large trolleys to fill, supermarkets employ a range of psychological tricks to get us spending more. Power products are positioned at ‘grab-level’ to capitalise on where our eyes most frequently glance on the shopping journey. Gondola ends light up our attention with ‘unmissable’ offers on products – even if they’re not really discounted at all.
Stores layouts are meticulously mapped out to provide sensory assaults at the right part of our supermarket journey. Flowers, for example, are used as ‘implicit primers’ at the front of the store, and essentials are deliberately separated to extend our time in store.
The first stage to countering their tricks is being aware of them. You can read more about the behavioural science underpinning these tricks here.
#6: Finish your shop in less than 30 minutes
Stores are designed to keep us shopping for as long as possible. And that’s not just because being there longer means we’ll spend more. It’s because as we pass a certain amount of time in the supermarket, our rational brains rapidly tire from all the decision processing.
Research carried out at Bangor University demonstrated exactly this effect using a brain-scanning technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In a mock-up supermarket they found that after around 23 minutes, customers began to make choices with the emotional part of their brain, rather than the cognitive part of the brain. Worse still, after 40 minutes – the time taken for a typical weekly shop – they found that the brain gets tired and effectively shuts down, ceasing to form rational thoughts.
#7: Buy in bulk and make in bulk
Bulk purchases yield financial savings. That’s not rocket science. So if you’ve got ample freezer and storage space, a trip to a wholesaler can be really beneficial for your bank balance.
Going a step further and making batch meals for a few days can also translate these financial savings into productivity. Aside from eating the same main meal for a couple of consecutive days, bulk buying and preparation is a win-win.
#8: Shop at the right time
Think carefully about when you’re going to the supermarket. Stores usually have a particular time of the day (and sometimes day of the week) when they start discounting food in an effort to shift it before it reaches expiry. This is usually at the end of the day, after peak business hours.
If you time your trip to the supermarket well, the savings on big-ticket items like meat can be huge. And of course, these discounted items needn’t be eaten immediately. Buy discounted items that will keep in the freezer so you can get the full benefit of the discounts over a longer period.
#9: Cut down meat and alcohol spend
If you want to take instant chunks out of your grocery costs, focus on big-ticket items. Meat and alcohol are chief contenders on this list. So swapping them out for cheaper alternatives a couple of times a week will add up across a year.
#10: Shop with the seasons
Out-of-season fruits and vegetables can hammer our final grocery bills. Shop in-season to avoid hefty price tags on imported products. Not only will you save money doing so, but you’ll also eat fresher fruit and vegetables that haven’t travelled the length and breadth of the world to arrive in your supermarket.
#11: The golden rule: Never shop hungry!
Perhaps none of the above sound particularly appealing. They are simple steps, but they are not for everyone. There is, however, one golden rule you simply must follow if you’re serious about saving money: eat before you shop.
Taking yourself to a supermarket on an empty stomach is comparable to taking a gambling addict to a casino on pay day. With an empty stomach you’ll find yourself especially susceptible to the psychological tricks our supermarkets play.
Academic studies support this view. Research has shown that our bodies consume more glucose as we confront a series of decisions. If we’re already running on empty when we arrive in the supermarket, the quality of our spending decisions is likely to suffer. So before you head out to go shopping, make sure you’ve eaten a wholesome meal.
These approaches don’t have to be sacrificial. The truth is that with smarter spending and a bit of planning you can save huge sums of money and eat very well doing it. The real challenge is seeing your grocery costs as more controllable than you first thought.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive either. There are many other things we can do to save money on groceries, but I’ve focused here on what I’ve personally found to be feel the easiest and least sacrificial.
And you don’t have to do them all. Smartly adopting just a few of the above steps will in all likelihood yield some improvement in your grocery costs. Try a few and see how you get on!