How a Simple Shopping List Saved Our Budget

Before I married my wife, I would go grocery shopping with my mom. Our cart would quickly fill up with food for the week(s) ahead to feed a family of 6. Usually I would try different tactics to convince her of our need for potato chips, ice cream, or a plethora of other foods and stuff. She usually had a list, whether written in a little notebook or in her head, and I would end up sabotaging all attempts to stick to that list.

Since I’ve been married I realize that overspending on groceries is easy and detrimental to one’s finances. Grocery bills can easily total in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars every month (depending on the size of your family and the price of food). Besides rent, car payments, and insurance, groceries account for a large chunk of our spending money.

My wife and I have only been married for a year so we are by no means experts on anything. During the first several months of marriage we spent a ton of money on groceries, almost double what we’re spending now each week. Our shopping trips were also longer, more stressful and usually resulted in lots of food that we either didn’t eat or that went bad (turns out two people can’t eat that much produce in a week!). We still aren’t perfect, but we have drastically reduced the amount of food we buy, the amount we spend on food and the amount of food that goes to waste.

How did we do it? The biggest change we made was making a shopping list throughout the week and then sticking to that list while shopping. That’s it. A simple list helped us reduce our grocery bill by nearly half and saved a lot of food from going to waste. We didn’t change what we eat. We eat a fairly healthy diet with a good amount of whole grains, vegetables and fruits. We didn’t have to go hungry or buy low quality food. We simply had to change the way we shopped for and bought food.

OK, so it’s not just the shopping list. Let me delve into a few of the specific strategies that we use as we shop for groceries. I think you’ll be surprised how simple yet powerful some of these strategies are.

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Strategy One: Make a list

I already covered this above, but in case you missed it or skipped to this list, here it is again. Plan all of your meals at least a week in advance. Then, during the week, add any items you run out of or might need for the coming week on your list. My wife takes care of keeping our list on her phone. On the day you go shopping, do a quick checkup in your kitchen to see if you’re out of milk or if you need to replenish the fruit bowl. Add any other items to the list. Before you go shopping, review the meal plans and the list with your family to make sure nothing was left off. Tip: we usually have a “quick meal” backup on the list, in case we’re running late or have a busy evening. We always keep the ingredients for a quick and easy meal (like chicken tenders and mashed potatoes) on hand.

Strategy Two: Don’t shop hungry

It’s probably a proven fact (but don’t quote me on this) that people buy more when they shop hungry. It just makes sense. Everything at the store is designed to look desirable and tasty, so if you’re hungry then your stomach starts shopping and convincing the mind that you need that gallon of ice cream or those extra apples. Do yourself (and your wallet) a favor and don’t shop hungry. Eat something before you go, even if it’s just a granola bar.

Strategy Three: Add it up

We started doing this recently and it has helped us save a ton of money. While you’re shopping, keep a running total of what’s in your cart. Add each item’s price on your phone or a calculator to get an estimate of what your total is. Set a goal and try to stick to it. We weigh fruits and veggies and guess on the price based on the weight. If you’re way under your goal/budget, allow yourself to get a treat in celebration (ice cream bars, a candy bar, some raspberries, whatever). This one strategy can help you make tough decisions in the store. Do you really need the name brand sauce if it costs $2 more than the generic? Probably not. Adding up the price will help you be aware of how these affect your total cost.

Strategy Four: Always check ads and prices

Unless you live in a really small town, there are likely several options for grocery stores where you live. We have at least 3 or 4 within 10 minutes of our apartment. We usually get everything from one store, but lately we’ve been getting fresh produce from a different store because they often have better quality food and lower sale prices. We plan some meals around what’s in the weekly ad. A recent example of this: we needed some broccoli crowns and at the store we usually visit they were $1.98/pound. We decided to wait and check at the other store. We went to the other store and found broccoli for only $0.98/pound. We save about $1.50 just by checking a different store.

Another great way to save money is to check the price per ounce or price per each (or whatever other measurements). Most grocery stores provide this convenience in teeny tiny numbers under the large and brightly colored price tag. It’s worth it to check the price per ounce. At our usual grocery store they have lots of bulk foods. The bulk foods are cheaper because there is no expensive packaging, name brands or marketing. This store also has a generic brand of cereal pre-packaged in minimal packaging. The bulk cereal is slightly cheaper per ounce than the bagged cereal. During one shopping trip I watched as a store employee opened the bagged cereal and dumped it into the bulk foods container. It’s the same cereal but the bulk food is slightly cheaper. If you buy food like this often, it can mean huge savings.

Strategy Five: Shop on Multiple Days

I know, I know, this might seem strange. Wouldn’t shopping several times per week give you more opportunity to buy things you don’t need? Well, yes and no. My wife and I found that when we shop for perishable foods (mostly fruits and vegetables) twice a week, we buy less and waste less. Buying food fresh from the store every 3 or 4 days gives us the chance to only buy what we need for those 3 or 4 days, eliminating a lot of food waste from spoiled produce. We do most of our shopping on Friday night (right after dinner), so we only buy what we’ll need for Saturday through Wednesday. Then on Tuesday or Wednesday we go and get the few things we’ll need to finish out the week. This is also great for our area because Tuesday and Wednesday are typically the days when sales start and when stores get new produce. Things that we buy mid-week include soft fruits (peaches, nectarines, berries) and some veggies that don’t last long, like corn, broccoli, avocado, tomatoes, etc.

So there you have it. The humble shopping list, along with some simple shopping strategies, saved our grocery budget and saved us a bunch of money that we’re using to pay off debt. Utilizing these shopping strategies along with practicing some self-control has saved us and will continue to save us hundreds of dollars every year on groceries. I know they can do the same for you. They’re easy to do and simple to start, so start shopping smarter and save time and money.

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