9 Painless Ways to Save Money on Groceries

plastic free and zero waste farmers market produce

Follow these nine tricks to save money on your groceries without sacrificing a thing. As I mentioned in a recent post, this past year, global food prices increased by nearly 30 percent, while US food prices have soared 9.4 percent.

Skip the coupons (usually)

Coupons encourage you to buy items you don’t need and may not have thought to buy—until you fell under the spell of the supposed deal. Most coupons offer discounts on consumer products and highly processed food. The longer shelf-life of these kinds of products makes them highly profitable—they don’t rot—providing corporations a financial cushion to absorb the discount while still turning a profit.

And about those products… Lots of the coupons in the Sunday paper offer discounts for cleaning products. If you tidy up with a dozen different bottles of toxic household cleaners, you can save money by switching to more natural ingredients to clean everything. (Dirt is dirt for the most part.) Baking soda and vinegar work wonders.

Of course, if you come across a coupon for something you do buy, grab it!

Buy food that has undergone minimal processing

Highly processed food costs more than home-cooked food—Big Food has to make a profit after all and you don’t, unless you’ve been charging family and friends for dinners you cook them.

Big Food “adds value” to whole foods by processing them into more marketable states. Higher prices accompany these more marketable states. A grocery store can charge only so much for an apple, for example. But take that same apple, process it, package it in a single-use plastic squeezable pouch plastered with bright graphics that appeal to young children and you can charge a premium for the shelf-stable snack.

Cooking a meal does consume more time than opening a can of highly processed food. And time is money. (But you don’t need to cook anything elaborate!) Go here for time-saving kitchen tips.

For the most part, skip the brands

When buying staples—flour or sugar for example—consider opting for the generic store brand. The quality may be not only comparable, that generic brand may actually be the name brand product.

Although neither Trader Joe’s nor Big Food will talk, TJ’s sells several big-name brand products, repackaged and sold under its own name. These cost less because TJ’s doesn’t have a Superbowl-ad-category marketing budget to cover as giant food manufacturers do. In other words, you often pay higher prices for name brands to pay for their marketing. Because food manufacturers have already developed the product and spend nothing on marketing the generic version, any extra money they make on these products is (canned) gravy.

And remember, as with the previous tip, unprocessed foods like carrots don’t tend to have much of a brand (or label).

Avoid highly specialized ingredients you may never use again

Many a refrigerator side door contain jars of condiments or specialty ingredients missing one spoonful that went into one recipe, never to be opened again. If a recipe calls for one of these—let’s say, prickly pear syrup—and you don’t think you’ll use prickly pear syrup again, try to swap it out for something you already have on hand. You’ll also free up space in your refrigerator or cupboards!

Use a basket at the grocery store, not a cart

Carts the size of small SUVs encourage us to buy more food than we can eat. One of the reasons I don’t overbuy at the farmers’ market is that I can’t. My arms give out after I’ve filled a few shopping bags.

Unless you have an extensive shopping list to fill, grab a hand basket the next time you shop. Like our stomachs, only so much food fits into one. In most stores, you won’t find nearly as many hand baskets as carts. They see us coming!

Eat produce in season

Higher oil prices work their way into the supply chain and play a role in higher food prices. The farther food travels, the more oil it burns for transport. Fewer miles mean fewer emissions—and less of our money fills the coffers of fossil fuel companies that knowingly created the climate crisis.

It’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with.

Murray Auchincloss, CFO of oil and gas giant BP, speaking with investors in early 2022

Food in season also tastes better. A cob of corn, for example, loses 25 percent of its sweetness within 24 hours of picking. And according to this paper, “As much as 100% of a nutrient may be lost between the time of harvesting and consumption without detectable changes in other quality characteristics, such as color, flavor, and texture.” (Maybe you’ll also save money on vitamins!)

Summer produce

Eat the Clean Fifteen

You may want to splurge on pricier organic when buying produce found on Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen list—the foods with the highest levels of potentially harmful pesticide residues, such as strawberries at number one. But you can save money by buying the non-organic produce found on EWG’s Clean Fifteen list. These have the lowest amounts of pesticide residues.

My borscht recipe, for example, calls for cabbage (Clean Fifteen list) or kale (Dirty Dozen list). You’d likely save money buying a small, non-organic cabbage rather than organic kale.

Ask your farmer

At our farmers’ markets, some vendors do use organic methods but can’t afford the organic certification. Their produce often costs less. Get to know your farmer and ask lots of questions. They usually love to answer them.

Get discount surplus food

For a substantial discount, participating restaurants, cafés, bakeries, grocery stores and other food service organizations post their surplus food on the Too Good to Go app. Customers then order the food through the app.

According to the website, worldwide, 57.7 million people use the app; 154,471 businesses of all kinds participate; and 139 million meals have been diverted from landfill so far. I don’t know if any participating businesses offer their food in reusable containers or not. That would be fabulous.

Go here for a list of 19 organizations that give away surplus food or allow customers to pay what they feel.

Put off shopping for another day

Shop less frequently and you’ll avoid the siren song of bulk chocolate-covered espresso beans, peanut butter cookies and other impulse buys that tempt you to stray from your shopping list. You may have enough food in your freezer, pantry and refrigerator to whip up a tasty meal and avoid the store a little longer.

Picture of racks of impulse buys at the grocery store: candy, nuts, dried fruit and lots of magazines.
Good thing my Bruce superfan daughter wasn’t with me when I took a picture of this checkout display… shopping alone also saves money

US Cover of my book. Learn more here!

3 Replies to “9 Painless Ways to Save Money on Groceries”

  1. I have been meaning to say this for about 2 years….I love your posts, thank you.

  2. I found your ideas very helpful, although I doubted I had anything more to learn. My attempts to find surplus food or fallen fruit sources were unsuccessful, perhaps because it isn’t available in Sunnyvale now.

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