Heading Out on Your Own — Day 27: How to Shop for Groceries

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 27, 2012 · 72 comments

in Heading Out On Your Own

This is the one post we didn’t originally have on the schedule for this series, but when we saw it listed several times when we asked for recommendations at the start, we decided to include it.

I can definitely see why it was requested. There are many chores that parents have their children participate in while they’re growing up, but usually mom and dad retain exclusive control over grocery shopping. Thus, when a young man leaves home, he finds himself blinking under the fluorescent lights of the local supermarket, thousands of products stretched out before him. That first outing he may feel a little giddy as he wheels his very own shopping cart around the store, but that thrill quickly turns to dismay when he finds mid-week that even though he dropped some major coin at the register, he now has nothing to eat.

Below we share some basic tips so that you can cruise the aisles of the supermarket with confidence and get the most bang for your buck.

Deciding Where to Shop

Back in the old days you either made your own food or bought what you needed from the single general store in town. Now, we have almost an embarrassment of options when it comes to where to procure our food. It can be hard to sort through all those options, so below we provide their pros/cons along with a little description of each:

Traditional Supermarket (Safeway, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, Kroger)

  • Pros: accepts coupons, plenty of in-store specials, large selection of products, fruits and vegetables out of season, customer loyalty card discounts.
  • Cons: produce is typically trucked in from various parts of the country/world and is not as fresh, more selection can entice you to buy products you don’t need, higher prices than discount stores.

A traditional grocery store offers one-stop convenience – you can pick up bacon, toilet paper, and shampoo in one trip. But you pay for this convenience with higher prices on things that aren’t on sale or you don’t have a coupon for. But if you shop the advertised in-store specials at straight supermarkets, you can save a fair amount.

Warehouse Store (Sam’s Club, Costco)

  • Pros: discounts on groceries, gas, and a wide range of products from suitcases to televisions.
  • Cons: requires a $55 annual membership fee, less product selection, you may not need such huge quantities of something, doesn’t accept coupons other than their own.

Warehouse stores offer discounts to shoppers by selling products in bulk – big pallets of toilet paper or huge jugs of soy sauce. Whether the hassle of this system and the annual membership fee required are worth it is much debated. That you can save a good deal of money on things is not in dispute; bloggers have documented it. But to expand on the “cons” listed above, it’s important to mention a few caveats:

  1. People assume that every item at a warehouse store is the best deal in town, but this isn’t always the case. You can often get much better prices by using a coupon or taking advantage of an advertised special at a grocery store, and this is true even for things like shampoo and toilet paper.
  2. Because of the wide range of products available outside of things like food and paper goods, you can be tempted to buy things you don’t need.
  3. When you buy something in bulk, you may not be able to use it all up before it goes bad. This is an especially important consideration for the young bachelor, as he may not have room to store big pallets of stuff, and won’t be gobbling up groceries like a family of six.

In general, for a young man just heading out on his own, I don’t think a warehouse store membership is beneficial. If you do get one, split it with a friend (you can share a card if you go together), and stick with buying non-perishables.

Ethnic Grocery Stores

  • Pros: unique products and cuts of meat, often cheaper prices on produce/meat/spices, fresher meats and produce.
  • Cons: narrow selection of goods, “American” products (e.g., Oreos) are more expensive.

It can be fun to check out your local Indian, Asian, or Mexican supermarket to see the things they carry that no other store in town does. When I make carne asada, I like to go to the supermercado to get freshly made tortillas and a selection of Mexican pastries.

You may have heard the urban legend that ethnic grocery stores have lower prices on items like meat and produce because they don’t have to follow the same safety standards as other establishments. But this is a misconception. The lower prices are due to the store sourcing the products more directly and cutting out the middleman.

In my experience, ethnic grocery stores aren’t generally as clean as traditional ones, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing!

Outlet Grocery Store (local variations)

  • Pros: big discounts on products
  • Cons: less fresh food, ever-changing selection, questionable items

An outlet grocery store stocks what might be turned “supermarket hand-me-downs”: dented cans, products that are about to hit or have surpassed their “use by” dates, Christmas-themed cereals in July, stuff a traditional store decided not to carry anymore, and so on. You can get some great deals on these “second-rate” items, but you have to shop carefully. Dented cans and expired meat and dairy can make you sick (see below for more information about expiration dates).

For those on the Eastern half of the country, Aldi is a different kind of discount grocery store to check out. While groceries at outlet stores are discounted because they’re “second-rate,” Aldi cuts prices by mainly offering only a small selection of their own decent quality house brand, only accepting cash, debt, or EBT cards (no credit cards or checks), stocking the few aisles with products still in boxes and pallets, and making you bring your own grocery bags and “rent” a shopping cart for 25 cents (you get your quarter back when you return the cart).

Natural/Health/Organic Grocery Stores (Whole Foods, local natural food stores)

  • Pros: big selection of fresh/natural/organic groceries+unique products+specialty health items (gluten-free, vegetarian/vegan, vitamins/supplements), cheaper bulk items like grains and spices.
  • Cons: less selection of products overall, higher prices

While many traditional supermarkets have begun to carry a selection of natural and organic groceries, natural grocery stores have a much wider array of these items and are reliable sources of things like grass-fed beef and free range chicken. At the same time, if you’re looking for Cheetos or cream of mushroom soup, you’re out of luck.

Prices at health grocery stores are higher than traditional grocery stores, but the higher prices do (generally) net you a more natural product. And bulk items, like spices and grains, can be cheaper here.

Farmer’s Market

  • Pros: very fresh and tasty food, a chance to support local farmers.
  • Cons: higher prices, may only be held once a week, what is available changes with the seasons.

Many cities and towns hold weekly farmer’s markets where farmers in the area come and sell their produce, meat, and baked goods. It’s a fun thing to attend (take a date!), the goods are fresh and delicious, and it’s nice to stick it to agribusiness by supporting local farmers. The pitfall is that the prices can be pretty steep.


So there you have a rundown of your main grocery shopping options. And with these choices come more choices: many people decide to do their shopping at more than one store. For example, you might budget money to buy your meats and produce at a natural food store, while buying your staples at a discount store. Or you might shop at different traditional supermarkets each week according to which store has the best deals on what you need that week. These advertised specials can be found online and as inserts in the Sunday newspaper. Some stores like Wal-mart will match the prices of other stores’ advertised specials, and that can save you from running from store to store.

Of course many folks find the convenience of getting everything they need at a one-stop-shop like Wal-Mart outweighs any other factor.

There are other things to consider as well:

  • By driving around to more than one store to score a deal, will I negate the savings with the gas I burn?
  • Is a store’s reputation for how they treat their employees important to me?
  • If I shop at a big discount store, will I be tempted to buy more than I need, negating the savings? I don’t think this is considered enough. I’ve lately been doing most of my grocery shopping at a small natural foods store. Not because I have money to burn, but because I found that I spent about the same shopping there as when I went to Wal-Mart. When shopping at the latter, I’d always end up making unplanned purchases of junk or packaged food (oh cool, PF Changs in a bag) while at the natural food store, the selection is a lot smaller, I buy less packaged food, and I find it easier to stick to my list, so that while the prices are more expensive, I purchase less overall, and the bill comes out about the same.

Tips for Grocery Shopping Like a Pro

Always go with a list. To save time and money, always, always create a shopping list before you head to the store, and stick to it religiously. Studies done by the grocery industry have shown that 60 to 70 percent of purchases at the grocery store are unplanned. That pretty much fits my experience. I remember when I first started shopping for myself, I’d just grab things from displays that looked tasty and interesting. This wasn’t good for either my waistline or my wallet.

Here’s how to create your shopping list:

  1. Begin by planning out your weekly menu and then putting the needed ingredients on your list.
  2. After you’ve written the items for your menu, do a quick check on your staples. How’s the milk/egg/bread supply? Do you need more paper towels or tin foil? How are you doing on TP? If you feel like there’s something you need, but you can’t think of it, run through your daily routine in your mind to jog your memory (first I brush my teeth, then I floss, then I get in the shower, then I wash my hair – oh shampoo! – that’s what I needed.) Add needed items.
  3. Now take your rough list, and create a master list that will make your shopping trip more efficient by grouping items together that are together at the store. Here’s an example:

By grouping items on your list together that are found together at the store, you’ll avoid getting to the far side of the store, and then realizing you forgot something on the other side where you came in. You’ll need to get familiar with the layout of your grocery store to do this, but the effort is well worth it as it saves you time and hassle.

Check the unit price to get the best deal. Instead of simply looking at the overall price when deciding which product to buy, look at the unit price. The unit price tells you the price per pound, ounce, liter, etc. of a product.

Many stores have the unit price right on the shelf label, but it’s usually smaller and more discrete than the total price. Here’s a picture of Wal-Mart’s price labels with the unit price pointed out:

If your store doesn’t display the unit price, you can figure it out yourself by simply dividing the price by the number of pounds/ounces/etc. in the package. For example, the unit price for a 10-pound package of flour costing $5.00 is $.50 a pound ($5/10 lbs = $.50).

Breaking a product’s price down like this allows you to better compare prices of different items. This is especially important when different brands package the same product in different quantities. In an effort to maximize profits, companies will package and price items in such a way that you’ll actually buy the more expensive item on a unit price basis. For example, consumers often intuitively think that if they buy the biggest box on the shelf, they’ll get the lowest unit price. For the most part that’s true, but not always, so it’s worth it to double check.

Some items have what’s called a quantity surcharge. Grocery stores will often jack up the price on products in large-sized packages, driving the unit price up. Buying the single serving or smaller sized package can actually be the better deal if a larger product has a quantity surcharge. This happens a lot with cereals, so make sure to compare before you decide to buy the big-ol’ three-pound box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Go with generic brands when you can. As we discussed in our post on being a savvy consumer, generic products can be hit or miss. Many are manufactured in the same factory as the brand name product and simply given a different label. They’re discounted because they don’t have to spend money on advertising to maintain “brand awareness.” Other times, a generic is cheaper because it’s not made as well. So just do some experimenting. I always buy the generic first, and only switch if I’m dissatisfied with it.

Skip coupons. Now this is just my opinion. Plenty of people are super into couponing and think it’s the bees knees and extremely worthwhile. Personally, I’ve tried couponing, but the payoff was never worth the time and effort. Most of the coupons you’ll find in the Sunday paper are for crap food like Dunk-a-roos and Juicy Juice boxes; it was rarely for stuff I’d buy anyway. We have to remember that coupons aren’t printed because food manufacturers want to help out our budget. Coupons are a marketing strategy to get consumers to purchase something they wouldn’t buy in the first place. I’ve also noticed that coupons get issued for stuff that’s already overpriced to begin with. I can save 15 minutes of my time and save the same amount of money buying the generic brand versus clipping a coupon for the name brand. Or I simply choose the brand that the store is running a special on.

Shoppers gonna shop

Shop on a full stomach. To save money, never shop on an empty stomach. Studies show that when shoppers visit the grocery store hungry, they usually end up spending more money on food. So go shopping after you’ve eaten a meal, when possible. If your schedule doesn’t permit that, at least have a small snack before hitting the supermarket.

Understand the difference between “sell by,” “use by,” and “best by.” It’s easy to notice that most food products come with dates stamped on them. But what’s the difference between “sell by” and “use by”? I honestly didn’t know myself until writing this article! But it’s a good bit of knowledge to file away as it can help you make purchasing decisions, figure out whether a bargain at a grocery outlet store is a good deal or might make you sick, and prevent you from throwing away perfectly good food (and money).

  • Best by. Often found on shelf-stable products, the “best by” stamp is not a safety rating, but indicates the point up until which the product will offer the best quality and flavor. After that date, the texture and taste may change, but it can still be safe to consume.
  • Sell by. Perishables like meat, dairy, and bakery goods are frequently given a “sell by” stamp. This label tells the store how long to display an item on their shelves. You should always buy a “sell by” item before the date given, but it’s not a safety indicator, and the product may still be good for days or weeks after you bring it home and the date has expired, as long as you store it properly.
  • Use by. “Use by” is the only designation that indicates that the product may no longer be safe after that date. It is actually used more often as a “best by” label, but since these products can spoil faster than others, always consume a “use by” product on or before that date to be on the safe side. When buying a “use-by” product, make sure you’ll have time to consume it before the date given.

When it comes to perishables like milk, always reach to the back of a shelf to grab a carton; the store will put products which are closer to reaching their “sell by” date up at the front of a shelf or on the top of a stack while the fresher ones will be in the back or on the bottom.

Once you bring a product home, cook a “use by” product on or before the date given, and store “sell-by” perishables at 40 degrees or below and “best by” items in a cool, dry cabinet.

To figure out how long you can store a “sell by” or “best by” item (or an item without a date), before you have to cook, consume, or freeze it, consult a “keep it or toss it” database. The answers may surprise you — for example, did you know you can keep eggs for 3-5 weeks after the date on the package? Checking dates can prevent you from throwing away a ton of food! (But always look at the appearance of an item and give it a sniff for spoilage, too, before consuming!)

How to Check If Produce Is Ripe

Picking produce is tricky. You don’t want to buy fruits and vegetables that are too ripe (if you buy them and don’t eat them right away, they’ll go to waste), nor do you want them to be so under-ripe that you’ll have to wait a few days before you can eat them.

For the first few years of my adult life, I had no idea how to pick fresh produce. I’d go to the produce section and sort of “ape” what I saw my mom do when I went to the grocery store with her as a boy. I’d pick fruits and vegetables up to squeeze and smell them. The entire time, however, I would be thinking, “I have no clue what I’m doing.”

After several trips of me mindlessly fondling the produce, I finally did some research on what I should actually be looking for when selecting it.

Picking Ripe Fruit

  • See it. For some fruits like apples, bananas, and tomatoes, you can tell it’s ripe simply by looking at its color. If you don’t plan on using the fruit for a while, it’s a good idea to buy it green at the store so it has time to ripen up at home. Avoid fruits with dark spots or bruises, which indicate the fruit has been damaged.
  • Squeeze it. As fruit ripens, the substances that hold the cells together break down and convert to water-soluble pectins, which make the fruit become softer and softer. Thus, a soft squeeze is a good test for ripeness. You want the flesh of the fruit to be firm, but give a little bit to the touch. If it’s rock hard, it’s not ripe; if it’s mushy, it’s over-ripe. The squeeze test is useful on fruits like peaches, pears, plums, avocados, and kiwis. It’s not as helpful on fruits with thick rinds like melons and pineapples. Although if you feel like giving your pineapple a gentle, loving squeeze, that’s your prerogative.
  • Smell it. Chemical changes take place in ripening fruits that produce fruity smells. Sniff the blossom end of the fruit (the end opposite of the stem). You’re looking for a light, sweet smell. If it smells sour or overly fruity, it’s probably over-ripe.
  • Heft it. Juiciness is an important attribute for fruits like watermelons, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. To ensure you get the juiciest piece of fruit, pick it up in your hand and heft it. The heavier the fruit, the juicier it’s likely to be.

 Picking Ripe Vegetables 

  • See it. Look for vegetables that are evenly colored. You want leafy greens that are dark in color. The darker the leaf, the more flavor they have. Some brown spots on lettuce and kale should be expected, but overall they should be nice and green. If a vegetable looks wilted, pass it over.
  • Squeeze it. Unlike fruit, you want vegetables to be as firm as possible. Vegetables that are wilted and soft just aren’t very appetizing. Broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and cauliflower should all be firm to the touch. Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and cabbage should snap with a nice crisp sound.

For more info on selecting vegetables, check out this handy guide.

Where do you like to shop for groceries? What grocery shopping tips do you have for a young man heading out on his own? Share with us in the comments!


{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael August 28, 2012 at 12:12 am

One thing I like to do when I go shopping, is try one new food each time I go. Not a new pre-packaged product, but a new fruit, vegetable, meat, kind of cheese, etc.

It doesn’t fall under the “make a list” advice (unless the list item is “one surprise item”), but it does make cooking more interesting, and i’ve found some good new foods that way.

Once I get home I google recipes for the new ingredient.

2 Marla August 28, 2012 at 12:19 am

What a great, comprehensive post . . . for anyone! Great job.

3 Joe August 28, 2012 at 12:37 am

Great article, I especially enjoyed the bit about the coupons. Most people who have opinion’d on them usually rave, but it was a good take here on the AoM.

4 Taylor August 28, 2012 at 12:43 am

This is a great guide to what I consider to be one of the most unpleasant parts of my week. However, I have a few tips that help me get through it with minimal stress and cost:

Once you’ve chosen a store to do most of your shopping, pay attention to their prices on things you buy often. Then, when you make your list, estimate the price for the items you plan to buy, and round up to the nearest dollar or half dollar (this extra covers any tax and the odd impulse buy of a pint of ice cream or a soda at the checkout lane). That way, you have an amount in mind that you plan to spend, and keep yourself on track while in the store. Making smart shopping choices feels more rewarding when you know you spent less than you planned to.

Also, if you shop a store that has their own house brand, sign up for their deal email or circular. Searching multiple sources for coupons isn’t a very rewarding chore, but some stores offer coupons for their in-house brands (and Target sometimes even has coupons for a certain item from ANY brand), and you can get those coupons sent right to you, to use or not use, depending what’s on your list.

5 Danny Zawacki August 28, 2012 at 12:48 am

Haha, I also used to ‘ape’ my parents when I picked up eggs. They used to open the cartons and look at the eggs before putting them in the cart. I never once saw them put them back. I did it too, not sure what I was looking for.
Then, once while shopping with my parents, I flat out asked them why I was looking at the eggs. “To check for cracks and broken eggs,” my dad said.

6 Lita August 28, 2012 at 12:54 am

Good to see Aldi getting a mention! I do the majority of my food shopping there – they’ve got a wonderful selection, the produce and meats and whatnot are always quite fresh, and the prices are very reasonable. Plus, as you mention above, the “big-box” supermarkets always have a plethora of things you really don’t need, but that you’ll probably end up buying anyway – and as Aldi has much less of a selection of non-food items and the like, I don’t end up buying any of that extraneous gobbledygook simply because it’s not being shoved into my face with demands to buy! buy! buy!

I also try to shop local farmer’s markets in the summertime, living in a farming state means quite a variety of lovely fresh produce that won’t be found anywhere else. Obviously not everyone can do this, but if there’s a farmer’s market nearby, I’d advise taking the time to check it out. Nothing beats fresh fruits and veggies!

7 Stephen C Berry August 28, 2012 at 12:55 am

I always keep quarters in my car for those shopping carts…Aldi is just plain awesome! They have the best grapes I’ve ever had. And everything is priced so well… I can fill up half a cart for may $30… that same amount might buy me maybe 10 things at Target or Wally World…

8 Kelly August 28, 2012 at 1:19 am

There are some really good tips there. This is great for men and women. Thank you! I love this site :)

9 Joe August 28, 2012 at 1:33 am

A few tips I’d like to add:
1) Check the weekly circulars for the store(s) where you shop most often. You may see some good deals on things that you don’t need now, but will save you in the long run. For example, if you invite company over, it’s much better to thaw out that pack of pork chops you bought on sale for $2.99/lb two weeks ago than run to the store that day to buy them for $5.29/lb. As long as you have freezer and pantry space, it doesn’t hurt to stock up on things like meat, canned goods, cereal and pasta. Just don’t overdo it to the point where you have 32 boxes of spaghetti in your cabinets.

2) If there are one or two stores where you do almost all your shopping, sign up for a rewards card if they offer one. Having them track my purchases doesn’t bother me as much when I save 25% or more off the cost of groceries each week.

3) Calculate the “real” cost of ground meat by dividing the cost per pound on the label by the lean percentage of the meat. Very often, the leanest and fattiest mixes cost more per pound when you factor in the meat only and not the fat.

4) If you buy bagged potatoes, smell the bag before buying. You might feel strange, and get some weird looks. But you’ll feel worse when your house is filled with the odor of rotting potatoes a few days later. That one I learned from experience.

5) I’ll second the idea of checking and comparing unit prices. One place where it might make your head explode is in the aisle where they sell toilet paper and paper towels. No two brands, no two packages offer the same amount of sheets. Some of the supposed sale items actually cost more per unit than those not on sale.

5) Never buy the salsa they display with the chips and snacks. Way too expensive. Instead, look where they sell the other condiments or the ethnic food aisles.

10 Andrew August 28, 2012 at 2:37 am

I learned about warehouse shopping when I was in college as a graduate student, and I have enjoyed the use since then.

But I don’t go there for everything. I use it for large bulk items that aren’t perishable or that I’ll use often. So toilet paper, detergent, bleach, cheese and bread I’ll buy almost everytime. I also get it for the cheaper gas, and those merit my subscription.

I would also say, you have to consider your storage options when shopping too. I presently have a mini-fridge for a refrigerator. So I only get gets a half-dozen at a time, and get a quart or milk instead of a gallon. I would have done this when I had my dorm room.

11 CoachT August 28, 2012 at 2:49 am

* Most people spend more on non-food than on food when shopping in a grocery store without a menu list. They also spend more on “junk” food than nutrition. You don’t really need anything displayed at the register, do you?

* With very few exceptions, anything that is already prepared, processed “food in a box” or “food in a bag” can be made from scratch cheaper and healthier not to mention with exact portion control to suit your needs. Some are even a lot of fun to learn to make and an impressive man-skill. Prepackaged foods must be preserved for shelf life with, yep you guessed it, preservatives. Learn to cook!

* Leftovers that go in the trash is money in the trash. Don’t buy or prepare portion sizes larger than you can eat in a sitting unless you’re a voracious eater of leftovers. The unit price on the party size frozen lasagna is much lower than on the single-serving. But, do you want to have lasagna for lunch and dinner every day for the next week? note: see above about making from scratch.

12 Michael Schaap August 28, 2012 at 2:58 am

Thank you for all the posts reffering to living on your own. By friday I’ll be living in Amsterdam and it is great to read all these articles. Love it. Thank you.

13 Nusy August 28, 2012 at 3:51 am

For Westerners, a store similar to Aldi is Winco – if you are willing to put up with a somewhat warehouse-like store appearance, the prices are very low, and for the best part, they’re open 24/7.
On the “rental” shopping carts – this is the norm back home in Hungary, so much so that most grocery stores carry a “reusable” token you can put on your keychain for the carts. (BTW, Aldi is also available throughout Europe.)
And finally, some comments on the list: years ago, I’ve seen a neat little “list tool” at Target. Basically a magnet-backed tearaway pad, with a pre-printed list of grocery items, all grouped by categories, each with a check box to mark whether you need it or not. This should not be hard to make on your own with Word/OpenOffice, then keep with a magnetic clip on your refrigerator door.
Personally, I use a “running list:” as soon as I run out of or start to get low on something, I put it on the list pad I keep on my fridge door. No more “oh snap, forgot the mustard!”

14 Nick Healy August 28, 2012 at 4:09 am

When I started university, other than residence food my diet consisted of pizza when I had money, and cans of tuna and tomato soup when I didn’t. Also, about a ton of instant noodles. Point is, I never knew how to cook and never realized how cheap it would have been if I did.

If I could do it over, I would start with either a big bag of rice or a big bag of potatoes. Both are cheap and both are easy to make. Just follow the boiling directions on the bag. With the potato, throw a bit of tuna or cheese on top and you have a very cheap meal.

15 Francisco Garcia August 28, 2012 at 4:16 am

This article is very informative and useful. Thank you for putting it together.

16 jaklumen August 28, 2012 at 4:24 am

Excellent, thorough article. You’ve covered the vast majority of things I consider when grocery shopping. But here are a few more:

Smaller warehouse store
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got WinCo, a Boise-based chain. They don’t require a membership card, but they do keep prices down with some of the restrictions listed here with Aldi.

- Ethnic stores will vary somewhat depending on your region. Some items will be imported, especially items that the typical groceries don’t carry.

- Farmer’s markets here seem to concentrate on organic produce, which contributes to price.

- Loss leaders are something to consider as far as sales and store coupons (sometimes manufacturer coupons, too). They are designed to draw shoppers in and they may be either for a new consumable product, or basic staples (milk, eggs, cheese, etc.)

- Speaking of staples, it’s not a bad idea to create a master list of what’s purchased regularly– and where prices tend to be best for them.

- Subscribing to the newspaper might be worth it: Wednesday is typically when the stores put out sale advertisements in the local newspaper; Sunday is when most of the manufacturer’s coupons are inserted. And on that, many groceries will discount perishables on Tuesday before sale ads, so if you need a small amount of meat or cheese that will be used right away, that’s something to consider.

17 Evan S August 28, 2012 at 4:40 am

Find a good 24-hour supermarket.

When I go, I know exactly what I want and exactly where it is, so if I go at 11:30 or midnight, the store is empty and I can go tearing through the aisles at top speed.

18 James Savin August 28, 2012 at 4:45 am

It always amazes me how much cheaper butchers are than supermarkets. Maybe this is particular to the UK, but don’t presume the smaller, more specialist shops will be more expensive.

19 Shrike August 28, 2012 at 4:58 am

It should also be mentioned that avocado lovers are in for a rough time. Even when avocados are in season, your typical NZ$2 avocado has a 40% chance of being flat unusable. Avocados belong to a harsh mistress

20 Sammy August 28, 2012 at 5:10 am

This is one article in this series where I consider myself an expert, especially on the saving money side. :-)

I do the coupon thing, and I don’t buy junk because I am on a low-carb diet (Men’s Health Magazine TNT-style). You can also save on household cleaning, personal care (don’t pay much if anything for toothpaste, regular toothbrushes, floss, razors, deodorant, shaving cream, lotion, etc.) and healthier national brand products like nuts, cheese, etc. Occasionally, there will be a coupon for a fresh meat product or produce. Playing the drug store games help a lot with the personal care items.

I am in Florida, so there’s really no such thing as going from store to store. We pretty much only have Publix and Winn-Dixie as traditional grocery stores (which with the coupon method will destroy supercenter and club store prices). CVS and Walgreens are the only chain drug stores. I am in a city, so I can pass three or four locations of these stores on my work commute, so there’s no gas waste either.

It does require work, especially in the beginning stages, but if you’re trying to keep your expenses low, then I believe it’s the best way to shop. There are plenty of blogs out there that do the coupon-sale match ups for you.

21 Sam August 28, 2012 at 6:08 am

I’ve been shopping at Sam’s Club since I left home. I live with just one other person, and we still use the warehouse sized products. At least at my club, price per pound of meat is greatly reduced over Kroger– $1.77 versus $2.67 a pound for chicken breast. Even in my tiny apartment freezer, I still have enough room for bags of individual servings of meat. Just by buying my meat at Sam’s for a year, I recouped my membership almost twice over.

22 Aaron M August 28, 2012 at 6:45 am

Great article; I was really hoping this would make it into the series. After we got married, one of the things my wife and I had to learn to do was shop. Eight years later, the process we use is almost exactly what you describe here. We start with a meal plan for the week, make our list based on what we need to cook, add any staples we’re low on, and then go shop. We have two kids, 4yrs and 6 mos., and we eat well on about 60 bucks a week, and that includes all of our household goods and cleaning supplies.

Couple of things I wanted to add – we don’t do a lot of coupons, but my wife watches a couple of websites that will match up in-store sales with printable online coupons, and she will occasionally find items we would have bought anyway. The price on these items ends up being pennies on the dollar, or sometimes free. That’s right, free stuff.

Also, even though we don’t clip coupons from the paper, we do use the weekly grocery store ads when we make our meal list. The ads come out in the Thursday paper, and if there’s a meat item or certain produce that’s on a deep discount, we’ll find a recipe online that will use it. In order for this to be truely effective, you have to pay attention to the regular store prices of things, so that you can tell if a sale price is really enough of a discount to make it worth buying. When we were first getting started, we took a notebook with us and wrote down the regular price of everything we bought. It took a little work, but after a while we got familiar with what our food actually cost, and now we can make good comparisons out of memory.

I’m glad you mentioned Aldi – if you live anywhere near one, use it! The only thing that we don’t often buy there is produce. The quality of everything else in the store meets or exceeds the quality of American name brands, including the fresh meats. In particular, Aldi sells whole frozen chickens for 88 cents a pound. There’s no cheaper way to buy meat, except eggs.

Learn to love eggs. There’s no cheaper source of high quality protein. I eat three eggs for breakfast nearly every day, usually hard-boiled. I boil them up a dozen at a time on saturday or sunday, stick them back in their carton in the fridge, and it makes grabbing breakfast durring the week fast and easy.

Frozen veggies have almost the same nutritional value as fresh, and they cost a lot less. Plus they’re already cleaned and cut up, so it saves prep time when cooking. Kroger’s store brand frozen veg. regularly goes on huge sales. We have a deep freezer, and we stock up when that happens.

After Aldi we hit up Meijer for produce, best quality for the best price in our area, then we finish up at Kroger. Our Kroger Plus card saves us a bundle, and you get points toward gasoline discounts. Last time I filled the tank of my truck, I paid 60 cents per gallon less than the price on the pump, which came out to about 9 bucks staying in my pocket. And that felt pretty good. :-D

23 boom August 28, 2012 at 7:17 am

this article is just so useful. it’s mundane grocery101 & will save me a bundle in time and cash..

thanks for doing this one!

24 Dorian August 28, 2012 at 7:18 am

My dad picks the hard fruit like watermelon, smacks it and listens for the sound. Im not sure what you are supposed to hear, but it works. xD

25 Scott August 28, 2012 at 7:23 am

I recommend an iPhone app (not sure if it is in Android) called Mealboard. It works well with weekly meal planning, recipes and shopping lists. It has saved me lots of time.

26 Samuel H. Digan August 28, 2012 at 7:35 am

Good points except “shop while full”. Shopping becomes a chore when you are full. Yes, you may save a bit. I have made my best culinary discoveries shopping hungry: mortadella, making my own pimento cheese, and Russian smoked, canned fish. Being moderately hungry introduces spontaneity, creativity and fun to a regular activity. Shop hungry!

27 Michael August 28, 2012 at 7:38 am

Great article as usual! My sugestion is this if you find an advertisement for something cheaper than the price at Walmart, they will match the price. We have a weekly paper that is full of other grocery store advertisements. Before going to Walmart, I go through it and write down what I need and their price. Sometimes Walmart will be cheaper but often not. It adds up quickly and on average we save over $15, sometimes more. It takes less than 15 minutes and works for us. Keep up the great work!

28 Scott August 28, 2012 at 7:41 am

Another good tip for grocery shopping:

In the big chain grocery stores, you can get 90% of the food you need just by staying on the perimeter. That’s where the deli/meat/produce/dairy sections usually are. Only once you venture down the middle aisles will you get enticed by all of the non-fresh food and unnecessary stuff.

Once I learned to stay out of the middle aisles as much as possible, the temptation was gone and my wallet benefited from it.

29 Hannah August 28, 2012 at 8:00 am

I know you have written that you aren’t keen on coupons, but since they are readily available for printing online and from the Sunday paper, it may be good to stock up on coupons for things you buy frequently. For example, I know I always buy yogurt on my shopping trips, so I keep a handful of yogurt coupons so I can combine my coupon savings with the brand that is on sale that week. If you’re loyal to specific brands at the grocery store, subscribing to their email newsletter or “liking” their Facebook page can give you easy access to coupons and promotions that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

If you’re smart and only use coupons on items that you buy anyway, they won’t cause you to buy something just because of the deal.

30 Will August 28, 2012 at 8:00 am

Excellent post. Thanks for the insight and ideas.

I always make it a point to have pasta and sauce in the house. They keep pretty much as long as you need them to, and while they may not be exactly Primal or Paleo (so trendy right now!), it’s cheap food that will keep you nourished enough if times are lean. Not to mention a good way to incorporate a pound of meat or fresh-chopped veggies to get some extra nutrients without much hassle.

31 chris August 28, 2012 at 8:17 am

Perhaps not for the first timer, but with friends joining a csa can be cheaper and healthier depending on where you are. You buy a share of a farm and get all the produce. It’s a lot, so doing it with a few people is better for the single guy.

32 Matt August 28, 2012 at 8:35 am

Simplest and most effective piece of advice I’ve ever received:

At your typical American Supermarket if you’re shopping around the outside edges of the store you’re probably treating your body well, if you’re in the aisles you’re not helping your health.

I dip into the aisles for coffee, frozen fish, and nuts but other than that it’s all the horrid stuff!

33 Anna August 28, 2012 at 8:36 am

Good article. I particularly like the part where you suggest that a young bachelor won’t eat as much as a family of six. ;)
Do tell, though – where do you buy fresh tortillas? I’m very jealous.
Another thing ou might mention, for those who actually do frequent farmers markets – if you want lovely, fresh meat, try a local butcher to go with your local produce. The meat is cheaper than the farmer’s market, and while not usually certified organic, often grass finished. The butcher I buy from has meat even cheaper than WalMart, and so much better.

34 Ara Bedrossian August 28, 2012 at 8:38 am

What a comprehensive list of advice. Two things that have helped me greatly: One is turning to a plant based diet. As a foodie, groceries can get expensive, but as a meat eating foodie, you can spend a lot more. So, for my moral and environmental reasons, I started eliminating almost every animal product, which gave me the benefit of paying a lot less for groceries. Another piece of advice: Take in your own grocery bag. It helps the environment, and it limits what you will impulse buy, as it prioritizes your choices, keeping your wallet fat. Fat wallet, lean shopper. Win-win. Cheers.

35 Mark Ruddick August 28, 2012 at 9:04 am

Good article. I’m starting to teach my son about grocery shopping both for camp and everyday. (He’s 14) One thing that makes my grocery shopping better is I have a local butcher that I buy my meat from. It’s fresh and high quality and well priced. I always get the cut I want. He knows my name and I am supporting a local business.

36 arthur August 28, 2012 at 9:11 am

Don’t discount the coupons.

My wife saved us $30 at Tar-jay yesterday with a handful of coupons. This wasn’t a trip for food items, but other needs; but coupons cut our bill by 30%.

37 Terry August 28, 2012 at 10:32 am

I agree with Joe who recommended checking the store circular(s). This is a great way to stock up on the staples you normally keep on hand and get them at a better price.

I disagree with skipping coupons. If you have a coupon for something you would normally buy anyway, you should absolutely use it (especially if your store does double or triple manufacturer coupons), even better if the items on sale, too. If the coupon is for a different brand of a product you normally buy (say Skippy peanut butter instead of Jif) compare the unit prices after the coupon.

I also agree with those that suggested bringing your own bags — my regular store gives a 5 cent discount for each bag used.

I’m also glad to see the recommendation of organizing your list based on store layout. If I have coupons I’ll also organize them this way.

38 MH August 28, 2012 at 10:34 am

In general I like this, though I think that it’s probably worth qualifying what was said about farmer’s markets. Some can be more expensive, but in general they are actually cheaper sources of produce than supermarkets. (Depending on the market this can be outweighed by less flexibility – especially when the produce is sold by lot not by weight.)

Also it’s worth noting that a lot of common manufactured items are surprisingly easy to make from raw materials. This isn’t true for all of them, and for most it’s only a good idea for people who intend to eat a great deal of that food (e.g., sauerkraut). But for some foods like yogurt the process is simple and quick enough that it’s really no different than buying it at milk prices instead of yogurt ones.

39 Kristoff August 28, 2012 at 10:43 am

If possible, use Google to search for grocery stores in your area and research their prices. At least in my area, prices are based on the store’s surrounding community’s standard of living.

Also, for some items, check stores like Target. I’ve noticed some items like energy bars and Weight Watcher meals are cheaper.

40 Joe W. August 28, 2012 at 10:51 am

Great article! One suggestion I have for your list is to check the stores’ websites. we use the Publix website often, and it has a feature where you can create your shopping list online, select which store you are going to, and it will automatically order the list to make your shopping as efficient as possible.

41 Jared August 28, 2012 at 11:02 am

I’d second the possibility of a CSA. We have a few here where you place your order online and receive your share of farm-fresh veggies every week (or 2 weeks, if you prefer) delivered to your door. It really hit home just how fresh these veggies are when I got a call one morning from the farmer that provided our vegetables saying that he didn’t think some of the fruit I ordered was *quite* ripe yet, and offered to change it out with something else.
It can definitely help encourage you to eat healthier as you get some really tasty and varied vegetables and fruits. If you can find one near you that allows smaller orders, or you can split an order with others in your apartment/dorm, it might be a consideration.

42 R J Vincent August 28, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Great article. I learned how to food shop from my mom and how to check if vegetables are fresh from working in a restaurant. One thing I learned from working in the restaurant is that a good way to check if lettuce is fresh, is to look at the bottom where it was cut from the plant. If it’s white, with no discoloration, it’s definitely fresh. If it has a rusty appearance, it’s not that fresh.

43 Jason August 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I find my local farmers markets to be less expensive than the supermarket. I usually go there to buy what’s in season and walk out with arm loads of the stuff for cheap.

44 Jordan August 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Great ideas! The only suggestion I have is to base your meals for the week on what is on sale in the Sunday circulars. It saves my wife and myself a lot of money. Another thing to consider in this vein is to go research what fruits and vegetables are in season and only buy those and you lessen your exposure to preservatives and junk they add in. Base your food intake on mostly fruits and vegetables and small portions of meat(when on sale, eggs are cheap) and not only will you be healthier but it will be a lesser burden on your wallet.

45 A6 August 28, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I mix and match, and by that I mean I use Whole Foods for the basics: milk, orange juice, snacks, veggies. etc. This ensures that I get the HIGHEST quality, all natural product at a relatively comparable price to regular supermarkets.
As much as I’d like to purchase there I try to stay away from the organic meat section: I can’t justify buying steak at $21 per lb. So I get everything else at a supermarket or local “ethnic” store.
For the life of me, I never understood the whole buying in bulk deal at those warehouse stores. Once you factor in the membership fee, how on earth are you breaking even? I’ve known people with a reasonably high I.Q (Phd’s in the medical field) burn gas, tIme, and resources in order to save a $1 on a 12 pack of tuna. To each their own I guess.

46 PJB863 August 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm

A couple of things:

Milk always has a “Sell By” date, not a “use by” date. It may usually be consumed for a week after that date.

Aldi is generally good, however, I’ve noticed lately that while the price is good, often times, the container is not as full as it should be – cake frosting is the latest example. I’ve reverted to buying some items at the local chain grocery due to quality/price issues.

You really need to keep an eye on prices, as many times the local chain is highly competitive with Aldi, and factors them in when pricing their merchandise. Sometimes the quality is better.

Grocery stores, like other retailers have items which are price-sensitive, milk being a prime example, so they will be competetive with these items, but not others.

47 Bailey S. August 28, 2012 at 3:36 pm

If you go early in the morning, they’ll often have the food that’s close to its sell by or use by date on DEEP discount. Then do a menu around what you find. Who cares if the ricotta is going to go bad next week if you’re going to use it tomorrow? Veggies close to being thrown out make a wonderful soup that can be frozen in single servings or served up in one big pot for everyone in the apartment. Get a bunch of discounted meat and then do a grill-out that evening.

Can’t get everything this way, but it can really help if you’re on a tight college budget.

48 Alexander August 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I also love the farmers market and often go there for produce and what not. Does anyone live in an area where the weather is nice enough to have Farmer’s Markets open year round?

49 Farmer August 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm

“it’s nice to stick it to agribusiness” why would you say something like that? Farmers produced all those groceries you wrote about and modern agriculture is what’s really saving you money. 95% of America’s farms are family owned. Please remember whom you are sticking it to.

50 Stan August 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm

There is no FDA/government regulation of “sell by” dates. Proucers can use whatever dates they choose. However, federal law requires eggs to have the number of the day of the year the eggs were collected on the box. Look for a 3 digit nimber, such as “145″, indicating eggs collected on the 145th day of the year. Buy eggs with the highest number for the freshest eggs. Threre can be as much as 14-20 days difference among various cartons of eggs in a store.

51 Andrew August 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm

It’s strange, but I didn’t like Aldi’s when I was living in Missouri. But I do love Winco, and I think it’s because they don’t stock as much of their own brands or knock-offs as Aldi’s does and they have prepared food that Aldi’s wouldn’t do, and Winco is bigger than Aldi’s so the selection is greater.

Where do you folks stand on Trader’s Joes?

52 GardenStater August 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Overall, a good article, with some valuable advice. I agree with the commenter who recommends a 24-hour market. Mine sadly closed due to Hurricane Irene, but I always loved hitting it at 6AM on a Saturday. Nobody there but the guys stocking shelves and cleaning the floors. In and out in no time!

But I’ve got to vehemently disagree with you about coupons. They’re not just “rarely for stuff I’d buy anyway.” You don’t buy soap? Shampoo? Paper towels? Deodorant? I’ve actually had a supermarket PAY ME to get two bottles of Suave shampoo. The store offered double coupons, the shampoo was on sale, and I ended up with about 25 cents profit, plus two bottles of shampoo.

True, many of the coupons in the Sunday paper are for stuff I don’t want or need. Fine. They go in the recycling bin. But just about everybody has certain name-brand products they are loyal to. So why not save some money the next time you pick up a bottle of Tide detergent, Sure deodorant, or Scott toilet paper? (Especially when many big stores offer double, or even triple coupons.) Not using them is literally throwing money away.

And here’s the best part: Many times, I’ve made a profit buying the Sunday paper. The paper costs two bucks. I get some news, entertainment, comics, and on a good week, coupons that are worth four or five bucks.

One other thing: Sign up for the store’s loyalty club, where you scan in your card when you shop. Not only will you almost always save money, but often the register will print out even MORE coupons for stuff you use and want! Oh, and my local A&P ran a deal a few years ago–for every $300 you spent, you got a coupon for ten percent off a future order. You could collect up to five coupons, and use them all at once. We managed to get four of them. Went back with two shopping carts, filled up with a ton of stuff (mostly paper products, non-perishables, cleaning products, etc, etc). We also used lots of coupons that day. Ended up saving close to $600. And we used everything we bought.

53 Sean Lewis August 28, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I am a Chef for a living. I tend to shop like i would for my Work, My grocery shopping usually consists of refilling my staples like rices, dried beans, flour, sugar, and other similar items. All the ingredients that can be used for multiple dishes. Then I buy main meats and vege’s depending on whats on sale or in season. If i plan things right, leftovers can be used to make other dishes later in the week, for example Roast beef becomes sandwich meat or enchiladas,

54 PJB863 August 28, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Trader Joe’s is a partnership of Aldi and someone else – Aldi being the senior partner.

I just found out tonight that Aldi sells 5 oz. cans of tuna vs. 6 oz cans at other stores. Price is a hair lower, but it’s not the bargain it appears to be to the naked eye, as the cans look to be the same size until you look at them next to each other.

55 Oskar August 28, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Aldi is a Discount Store-Chain founded in germany after the war by two (stingy) brothers.
In Europa they are almost as important that they can dictate market prices for many agricultural ´-foods. has its pro and cons and people working there often get screwed. But the products are almoast all as cheap as flawless. So the consumer can in fact get a lot of good deals.

56 Sean August 28, 2012 at 11:40 pm

A good thing to remember for fruits and vegetables and perishable like milk is that stores will normaly put the fresher produce at the rear of the shelf/fridge and the older stuff at the front, in hopes of selling it faster, so if your going for milk, try reaching to the back of the fridge first

57 ChrisH August 29, 2012 at 2:44 am

“To save money, never shop on an empty stomach”

Similarly, never go to the liquor store sober.

58 Richard August 29, 2012 at 8:18 am

Don’t get frozen foods until the very end of your shopping, and take them straight home. Even if you have one of those insulated grocery bags, you don’t want to give them even the slightest chance of thawing on the way.

59 Damian August 29, 2012 at 11:43 am

This series couldn’t come at a better moment in my life, i was just thinking about moving on my own, thank you for the tips! please do a recapitulation in the end so we don’t miss stuff

60 Kyle August 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I love ethnic grocery stores because not only are they in most cases cheaper, but they also give you the ability to explore a different culture through it’s food. For the same reason I like to try the local cusine when i travel, these grocery stores let me get a taste of somewhere else not too far from home.

61 Kate August 30, 2012 at 1:06 am

Thumbs up on the coupon comment, Brett & Kate! I see so many people blow their grocery budgets because they have a coupon for making things “cheaper.”
.50 off brand name PopTarts doesn’t save you any money if your original plan was to eat oatmeal you bought in the bulk bin that is priced at .60 per pound every day!

That said, I do wish that more grocery stores would offer in-store coupons for things like fresh produce.

62 Dave September 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Where do I get me an “Art of Manliness” notepad?

63 charlie n September 2, 2012 at 5:02 am

In this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for a male not knowing how to cook. My mother started me down that line when I was in grade school and was one of the best gifts she ever gave me.

While in my 30′s I had a best friend who just divorced. He wanted to know if I’d go grocery shopping with him, I replied sure, why not? This is the Gods truth, he purchased a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and 21 TV-dinners! Yeppers he was “hooked up” for the week! Absolutely amazing!

To any of you guys (and females) who have no clue in the kitchen, it’s not rocket science! Watch the Food Network on T.V. It’s a great instructional tool and then you can go online pull up the recipe and walla you’re good to go!

No man can ever be considered a “manly man” if he doesn’t have the capabilities to keep himself alive in the kitchen, no excuse whatsoever!

64 Native Son September 3, 2012 at 10:12 am

I’ve found the “secret” to balancing the warehouse/traditional/specialty grocery shopping is doing some exploring. the warehose clubs do require care in shopping, particularly if you’re buying for just yourself. Thing is, by looking around, and not limiting yourself to Safeway or Lucky because that’s where Mom always shopped, you can often substantially cut your grocery and household goods costs.

65 Bob September 4, 2012 at 8:16 am

Our farmers market prices are a quarter of the cost of the cheapest store in town. People may want to check them out before them write them off.

66 Dillon A. September 11, 2012 at 5:02 pm

I prefer the natural/organic grocery stores, because I think they are healthier and provide a wide range of supplements including vitamins, oils and other natural herbs.

67 David September 11, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Good stuff. If I may add:

If you don’t know how to cook learn or pick up a cookbook or two. You can even borrow them from the library. Cooking by scratch saves a ton compared to packaged foods. I only use packaged food as emergency food supplies getting close to payday. Cooked from scratch is healthier and tastier too.

Buy a few items that can be used for different types of recipes. That way your options stay open but you save money because you don’t need specific food for every single day. This way you can just reduce how much you buy and still feed yourself well. Flexibility is key.

Simple cheap foods you should always keep in mind: Tacos, Spaghetti, Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches, eggs, bacon.

68 abe March 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm

buy a big bag of dried beans let soak overnight and boil them good with a pinch of salt(when they release a green liquid in the pot they are poisonous) when at rapid boil turn off stove and eat. you can mash them with a potato masher too.
simple cheap and they can be eaten with just about anything

69 Tom April 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I couldn’t possibly agree with the Unit Price point more. My roommate always tries to tell me that something is cheaper than something else, but he fails to look at the price per 100g, or whatever unit it’s in. I think this blog post should be required reading for all college students.

70 Laura D April 29, 2013 at 7:04 pm

agree with the article that a lot of the coupons are for junk food that you really shouldn’t be eating anyway. The good coupons, and what most of the coupons in circulars are, are for health and beauty, paper, or cleaning products. Things that aren’t going to go bad for a very long time and that are usually expensive. On those items it pays to use a coupon. Most of my food shopping is done at the farmer’s market and most of my other shopping is done at the grocery store. With coupons matchups to store sales I can save 50% on my grocery store buys.

71 Faith Watson August 12, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Easy meal planning and an eye on what we DON’T need to buy is where we start at Health Grocery List Ideas.com. Also keep an eye on how you can mix and match around the ingredients. If you do buy a larger quantity of something on sale, say more meat than you need for fajitas or more broccoli than you need with your omelet, separate and freeze (cook the broccoli though) for next weeks starter list. One thing I don’t do is go to a lot of stores. One main big one where it’s affordable, and a specialty for higher quality or ethnic items.

72 Tony January 4, 2014 at 1:21 pm

I like to become a regular at my local stores for a couple of reasons: 1. I am familiar with where everything is and can make my rounds really fast. When I group my list (as per the article’s suggestion) I put the groups in order of my fastest walking path through the store saves time looking for things as well as shopping around. 2. being familiar with the staff is always nice makes for an over all nicer experience, especially at the cash register.

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