How to save money on groceries? Timing is everything

Everyone has to eat. But not everyone knows how to save money on groceries.

The average American spends $151 per week on food, a figure that includes groceries and restaurant spending. A deep dive into the numbers suggests people are spending less on groceries than they did 20 years ago, when adjusting for inflation.

No wonder, then, that grocery stores are trying even harder to persuade you to spend more. Consider the recent efforts of retailers to mimic casinos — yes, casinos — to entice their customers to buy. They use techniques that include choosing primary colors, bright “sale” signs, engaging music and lighting to steer you in a direction that makes you buy more.

Maybe California State University consumer expert Vassilis Dalakas said it best: “Nothing in grocery stores happens by accident.”

Don’t I know. Until recently, I rarely planned more than a meal ahead and I brought my kids to the store, which made it difficult to avoid impulse shopping decisions. They built this casino for my family.

But then I talked to the experts, and they set me straight. You don’t have to fall for every “sale” sign. The trick is knowing how the system works and then planning your grocery store visits. Technology and a few tips, courtesy of the federal government, can help. But the most important thing may be timing.

Become a frequent shopper to save money on groceries

“Shop often enough to know a good buy when you see one,” says Janet Groene, author of Survival Food Handbook. “Some stores, such as Walmart, tout everyday low prices. Others feature specials and loss leaders.” Expert tip: When you spot a great deal, buy double (assuming you have the storage space). You never know when a particular item might go on sale again.

But not too frequent

Expert shoppers avoid daily visits to the grocery store. Instead, they make lists and go grocery shopping once a week, or sometimes less. It saves on gas and keeps you away from expensive impulse purchases, like chocolate bars and fancy meals. Smart shoppers also avoid the crowds — between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. during the week and midday on weekends. The best times? Either 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. any day. Some grocery stores open earlier. Show up at opening and you probably won’t see any lines.

Leverage technology to save money on groceries

You can comparison shop for groceries virtually by using an app like Basket, a crowdsourced program that helps you find the lowest prices on groceries. “Brick and mortar shopping is still the best way to save money on groceries,” says Andy Ellwood, Basket’s co-founder. Other money saving apps include Grocery Pal and Grocery IQ. They’ll tell you when — and where — to find the lowest price.

Remember the seasons

Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only items whose costs fluctuate by season. So do staples like milk, eggs and bread. Sometimes, market conditions shift, bringing the cost of basic items down. You can adjust your menu to take advantage of those lower prices.

What’s in season? The FDA publishes a useful guide that can help you determine when to buy — and when to avoid — certain foods. For example, you’ll want to buy avocados in winter, apricots in spring and summer, and apples almost anytime.

“Eat what is in season,” advises John Stanton, a grocery expert at Saint Joseph’s University. “For example, asparagus locally produced can be much cheaper than the off-season product. Besides being cheaper they are often fresher and tastier.”

Consider shelf-stable foods


“Fresh is good, but shelf-stable foods are often the wisest choice for nutrition, price and convenience,” says Groene. For example,”fresh”  peaches, may have been in the warehouse and in transit for weeks, while canned peaches are processed within a day or two after picking.

Think outside the grocery store box

New services such as Amazon Fresh and Safeway’s online delivery service may seem pricier than a visit to Safeway or Whole Foods until you factor in the time savings. These services are still in their infancy, and may become formidable competitors to brick-and-mortar grocery shopping.

In some markets, they’re ready for prime time. Ian Atkins orders staples through subscription, which offers even deeper discounts. “By setting up the subscription, you’ll have the items you’re most often running to the supermarket for arriving at your doorstep like clockwork,” says Atkins, the chief financial analyst for the site FitSmallBusiness.com.

Consider coupons, but don’t go overboard

In other words, time your purchases to fit your needs and not those of the grocery store. It’s tempting. The coupon game can be addictive, as I noted in a recent story. Apps like Coupons.com or Retailmenot.com might save you a bundle, but they might also nudge you into buying products you don’t need. Before you jump into the coupon game, make sure you’re playing it — and are not getting played by the grocery store.

Grocery shopping can be a money-draining exercise. The stores are designed by the same people who build casinos, and with one purpose in mind: to persuade you to part with your money. Coupons try to steer you toward purchases you may not need. But with a little discipline, technology and good timing, you can save money on groceries.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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