A lot of us hate shopping. A lot of us love shopping, perhaps a little too much, and can spend all day long running around stores trying things on or reading nutritional labels (please, someone tell me I'm not the only one who loves shopping that much!) Whichever side we happen to fall on, as a Broke Student, we want to save money, and we want to save time. I mean, who has time to spend 3 hours in the grocery store price comparing? It's tempting to buy the more expensive option just to save time. But there are ways to save both time AND money! In this 2-part series, I will help you shave off valuable time and save precious money on your shopping trips. Part 1, last week, covered clothes shopping . Today, Part 2 will cover trips to the grocery store.
Part 2: Grocery Shopping
Grocery shopping is something that EVERYONE has to do, and thus we all have to spend money on. But there are ways to get more for your money. Read on to find out how to get more food for less money, and also how to use your groceries more efficiently to get the most out of your shopping trips.
1. Never grocery shop when you're hungry. You'll end up buying things that look delicious right then, rather than things that are cost efficient and a better value - and as a result, you'll end up spending more money. As a rule of thumb - never shop for food when you are hungry!
2. More packaging = more expensive. Packaging refers to everything from plastic wrapping, cardboard, images and text, to microwaveable containers. Packaging costs money - and you, the consumer, are the one who pays for it. Thus, the more packaging an item has, the more it will cost. This is a good way to decide between two items - the one that has less packaging will be cheaper 99.9% of the time. This is why things like pre-bagged, pre-cut apple slices are twice the cost of regular apples; or things in bulk or in bins with scoops are cheaper than things that are on the shelves in bags and boxes.
3. Look at price per oz rather than total price. Looking at price per oz tells you how much you are actually getting for the price you are paying. For example, say you are deciding between two bottles of ketchup. They are the same price, but the first bottle contains 8 oz, and the second bottle contains 10 oz. If you choose the 10 oz bottle, you will get more ketchup for the same price - you got a lower price per ounce. You can figure out price per ounce by taking the dollar amount of the product and divide it by the number of ounces in the package. In our example, we will pretend that the ketchup bottle was $2. The 10 oz bottle is $.20/oz - the 8 oz bottle is $.25/oz. Luckily, most grocery stores calculate these prices for you and print it right on the price label (see picture to the left). Closely examine the price per oz of items you are considering buying to get the most food for the money you spend! Remember, every little bit you save will add up.
4. Buy what you will actually eat. Being broke doesn't allow for a whole lot of exploration - and uneaten food is wasted money. If you don't think you'll eat it or aren't sure, don't buy it. To make this easier, make a list of foods you eat frequently and purchase those often. If you find yourself eating, say, baked Lays from the vending machine every day, purchase them from a grocery store instead - it will be much cheaper! Similarly, if you aren't a big fruit/veggie eater, then don't buy fresh fruits/veggies - they will just go bad in your fridge and waste your money! Stick to what you know works. You don't want to have a bunch of stuff in your pantry and still think "I have nothing to eat" every
time you get hungry. All that uneaten food in your pantry is wasted money.
5. Buy in bulk - but only things you eat a LOT of. Walking into Costco can be like walking into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory - HUGE QUANTITIES of the COOLEST STUFF (and free samples! Yay!) If you are lucky enough to have a membership to a bulk warehouse like Costco or Sam's Club (and at $50/year for a family membership, they can be a very smart investment) it can be easy to find something that you like for an incredible price, and purchase it in bulk - only to realize a month later that you can't possibly drink 5 gallons of milk before they all go bad. Remember how uneaten food = wasted money? This is even more true when you buy in bulk. The rule of thumb for buying in bulk is to only buy what you eat a LOT of. For example, if you eat 3 apples a day and are constantly having to buy more from the grocery store, it will be a VERY cost effective idea to buy them in bulk. You can get amazing bulk prices on everything from nuts (ALWAYS buy nuts in bulk, the price is at least 50% cheaper!) to batteries, and everything in between. Do save money by buying in bulk - but only things that you will definitely be able to use up. PRO TIP: You can often find bulk foods sold at international grocery stores, so look for local foreign markets! They can be really fun to explore, and you can get some AWESOME deals there.
6. Buy frozen or canned rather than fresh. This seems counter-intuitive, but fruits and veggies can be very expensive (especially out of season - in-season fruits and veggies can be very cheap. Read more on that here) and they go bad quickly if they are not eaten. Frozen fruits and veggies are simply produce that has been picked at its peak and then frozen (or steamed and then frozen) very shortly after being picked. It is just as nutritious as fresh produce - and usually cheaper! Canned produce is good because it doesn't go bad, ever. A can of tomatoes will sit in your pantry for months, waiting to be used - while a fresh tomato will go bad within a couple of weeks. As a rule, buy out of season produce frozen or canned, rather than fresh.
7. Cook a variety of meals using a few core food products. Yes, it's true - cooking your food will ALWAYS be cheaper than buying it from a restaurant or store, or microwaving a frozen dinner. But don't worry! You don't have to become a gourmet chef to save money by cooking - you just have to learn to cook a few core things. What do I mean by core things? I mean a few ingredients that you really like that can be used to create a variety of recipes. A good example of this is something like pasta, or rice, or chicken. If you can cook pasta, you can cook TONS of different dishes - if you can cook chicken, you can add even more dishes on top of that! Learning to base your meals around a few core products can really help you save money, since you can buy in bulk and use the same items up frequently. This is something that I do. In my kitchen you will ALWAYS find the following:
-Whole grain pasta, quinoa, couscous and brown rice. They are all boiled in water to cook and serve as the basis for most any dish I want to make.
-Onions and potatoes. They keep for a very long time and are very cheap. I throw onions into almost anything to add flavor, and potatoes absorb flavor and add bulk to make the food I'm cooking more filling.
-Olive oil. I cook everything in olive oil. It's super healthy and one bottle lasts me a long time.
-Tomato sauce. If you've ever eaten Israeli or Turkish food, you know that it's good for more than just pasta! I cook a lot of things using tomato sauce - everything from pasta (duh) to pizza to Shakshuka.
-Frozen veggies and canned beans. I toss these into almost everything, or heat them up and eat them with some spices or sauce. They add lots of nutrients and help keep me full no matter what I am eating.
-Spices - lots and lots and lots of spices! I bring my spices with me everywhere I go. I love pre-mixed spices like Cajun spice and poultry spice because they make it super easy to flavor a dish. I also use soy sauce a lot to add flavor to things.
Almost every meal I make is some variety on the following formula: whole grains + veggies + protein + spices. The protein can be anywhere from chicken to beans. I then prepare a lot of food in advance, so I don't have to cook every single day! I have lots of inexpensive, yummy recipes up my sleeve - check back because I will be posting them on the blog!
8. If you eat out every day and don't cook, it IS cheaper to buy frozen meals. I know, I just said that packaging is expensive and cooking food yourself is cheap. But, let's face it - we're not just broke college students, we're BUSY college students, and many of us don't have the time or patience to cook or learn how to cook. In a situation where you eat out almost every single day and don't have time to pack yourself a lunch beforehand, it IS cheaper to buy frozen meals. Frozen meals are quick to grab from the freezer and take with you. As long as you can find a microwave, they are extremely convenient. They won't spill, and usually won't fully thaw out for hours, so they should be fine without refrigeration. However, when I say it's cheaper to buy frozen meals - what I mean is, it's cheaper if you're buying a cheaper frozen meal than what you would be spending eating out. For example, if you buy a $7 burrito for lunch every day, imagine how much you would save if you bought a $2 frozen burrito (or two - or three!) and ate those every day instead. Or how much you would save if you ate a $3 Lean Cuisine for lunch each day instead of buying a $5 salad from McDonald's. Remember, every little bit adds up - and the extra cash in your pocket will thank you. (And as a bonus, you'll probably lose weight! Many frozen options are healthier than their fast food counterparts). The exception to this rule is when you normally eat $2 of Taco Bell, and you go to buy a $5 organic/healthy/ethnic frozen meal (I'm looking at you, Kashi and Amy's!) In this case, you'll be healthier by eating frozen meals, but you won't be saving money. Rule of thumb - if you eat out frequently (and have no time to cook or pack a lunch in advance) buying frozen meals that are cheaper than your usual lunch will save you money!
9. Use coupons as much as possible. You've probably heard of those super couponers who go to the grocery store and get $300 worth of groceries for like $3. Well, I checked out that option, and frankly - it takes a whole lot of time, and a whole lot of math skills - two things I simply do not have much of. If you want to spend hours each day pouring through the newspaper or the internet to calculate coupons that may or may not be useful for things you actually want, go right ahead, I salute you! But for the rest of us, coupons should only be used when applicable. If product is something you actually will use, and the price of the product minus the coupon discount is cheaper than what you would normally spend, then USE A COUPON. Do NOT use a coupon if, say, it is for something you'll never eat, and you have to buy 3 of them to save $1, or something similar. Many stores - like Kroger's, for example - have coupons online that you can "clip," or add directly onto your membership card (like your Kroger Plus Card). These coupons will then automatically apply once you scan your card at checkout, provided you have met the requirements of the coupon. Some stores also print out coupons based on your past purchases, which can be very helpful. You can find loads of coupons online (try a Google search) that you can print out, or look at newspaper inserts. And of course, you can always write companies to get coupons as well.
10. Store brand is just as good as name brand. And in many cases, it's exactly the same thing in different packaging. Store brand will always be cheaper than name brand products, so unless you are a name brand snob for a particular item (when I was little, I was convinced that no store brand cereal would ever be as good as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, for example) buy the store brand with confidence. But remember- always look at the price per ounce no matter what you are buying.
And there you have it. 10 tips and tricks that will help you to save money on groceries and get more use out of what you purchase! Now go forth and shop!