Grocery shopping: How to save money at the supermarket

Ways to save on your weekly supermarket bill

No-one in their right mind buys a new car without shopping around first. And hands up those who wait for a sale before buying a new fridge or TV?

We’re all more than familiar with the concept of stretching our dollar to its maximum when shopping for big-ticket items. But when it comes to the small stuff, such as groceries, many people accept the prices on the shelves without a second thought.

Let’s face it – grocery shopping is tediously dull. It is for me, so to save my sanity I set about trying to inject some sort of excitement into the process. For me that is competition. Food is one of my family’s biggest expenditures. What if I could save us, say, $50 a week on our usual shop without compromising on healthy eating? Wow – that would add up to $2,600 over a year. Well worth the effort and, better still, the money saved could be put away for a holiday or special-occasion spending like birthdays and Christmas.

I recognise levels of motivation in people make the difference between saving and hard-core saving on groceries. Some people find saving money fun, and some find it to be a necessity. Either way, the secret to saving is creativity. With a big splash of planning thrown in.

We all know the basics of good shopping but here’s a reminder:

  • Make a list and stick to it. I actually have a friend who sits down with a glass of wine (no, it’s not me) and makes a list from her weekly specials catalogue. She is incredulous that others don’t do this. I secretly think the wine has taken over the exercise!
  • Don’t shop hungry. You will buy more food if you shop when you are hungry, and you will buy food that appeals to your appetite at the time rather than what works for the weekly grocery budget. I have another friend (no, not the one above) who doesn’t let starvation stop him shopping – he simply heads to the nearest product demonstrator and eats as many free samples (of anything) as he can to quell the stomach grumbling before he continues on his way. Some people have no shame.
    • Try to shop alone. Shopping with kids can add to your grocery bill and supermarkets know this. All grocery items that are geared towards kids are placed at eye level. Shopping with your spouse can also add to your grocery bill if your spouse tends to go for impulse buys and other things that aren’t on your grocery list.
    • Get to know the food prices. Write down the regular prices of food you buy often. This will help you work out which stores have the best prices and if you are getting a good deal on sale items.
    • Look for reductions on produce and meats. If you intend to eat the fruit or vegetables the day you buy them, it often works out for the better because they are ripe and ready to eat. Fruit that is marked down is also great for baking, such as bruised apples or overripe bananas. Meat is often marked down the day prior to its ‘Best Before’ date. Eat it the night you buy or freeze it right away to eat later. Personally, I look out for meat and fish that is marked down to buy as an occasional treat for my dogs and cats who, unlike my husband, are completely unfazed by ‘Use By’ dates.
    • Look out for clearance/discontinued product. Most supermarkets have bins, tables or labels indicating products are being cleared out. Make sure to look for expiry dates. Most products are still good, it is just that the store will no longer be carrying that product or the labels are changing or a promotion on the package may be nearly over (or over), or that it is nearing its expiry date. The savings here can be substantial for the frugal shopper.

I’ve found there are two rules to pretty much everything in life. Nothing will happen without a plan and even less will happen if that plan is not enacted. So planning is essential to successful food shopping. Here’s my 10-step strategy that I try to stick by:

1. Make meals from scratch

Making your own meals from scratch is one of the biggest ways that you can save money. The more prepared the food is, the more it usually costs. The nice thing is that home-made food is usually better for you too. So making your own meals from scratch can save your wallet and your health.

2. Plan a menu

Decide which recipes you will make for lunch and dinner. There are plenty of recipe ideas online. When you have a plan, you will be less likely to spend money on fast food or convenience meals.

3. Always cook too much

Always try to cook more food than you need and then freeze the leftovers or take them to work for lunch the next day (if you can avoid buying a lunch at work you can save a heap). I think about how I can use leftovers. If I’m cooking roast chicken with rice and vegetables for Sunday night’s dinner, I will then make chicken sandwiches for Monday’s lunch. On Tuesday, I will use the bones to make a chicken soup and toss in any leftover vegetables and rice. Freezing meals saves me a lot of time and makes preparing those meals from scratch more rewarding since you can make multiple meals in one go.

4. Plan your meals around foods that are on sale

Check supermarket catalogues, newspaper inserts and sites online. You may be surprised at the good buys available. One tip: just be sure to buy and plan for foods that you will actually use so that the ingredients don’t go to waste.

5. Plan at least one meatless meal a week

This is easy for us because the majority of our diet is vegetarian, preferred because of health and digestive benefits. Legumes (beans, lentils, dried peas), eggs, tofu, peanut butter and canned fish offer great tasting protein at a good price.

6. Check your pantry, refrigerator and freezer

I keep a tab on the expiry dates of the foods and ingredients I already have on hand. Then I know which ones I need to use up and I search out recipes that use those foods and ingredients.

7. Enjoy grains more often

Grains such as rice, pasta, barley and couscous are inexpensive and can be used in many different recipes. Try them in soups, stews and salads.

8. Avoid recipes that need a special ingredient

Some recipes call for a special ingredient that you may not have. How much does that ingredient cost? Does it come in a small or big package? Can you use it in other recipes before it goes bad? It may not be worth the money to buy an ingredient if you are only going to use it once.  Leave the ingredient out or try the recipe with an ingredient that you already have at home. It’s fun to experiment while cooking and you may surprise yourself with the finished dish.

9. Look for seasonal recipes

Vegetables and fruit are cheaper when they’re in season. Online recipes will give you clues about the most delicious ways to use produce that’s in season.

10. Know what your family likes to eat

Encourage your family to share their favourites and help with menu planning. That way you can look for favourite ingredients and foods when they go on sale.


Another tip is to take advantage of shopping list apps on your smartphone. They can help keep you focussed when it counts.

The last word?

It’s not all about supermarkets and their shareholders. I am a great believer in supporting our local producers when and where I can. Markets, discount stores such as specialty meat and fish markets and farm gate produce offer great prices for those looking for quality food. Why not take the family on an outing to pick apples or berries at a farm? There are countless activities you can build into your family’s lifestyle that will kickstart the food fun and help the bottom line at the same time.

I have also had great success with growing my own vegies and herbs in the backyard. I am, by no means, a prolific grower and I’m certainly not a slave to the vegie garden but I have discovered through trial and error that some things are less fussy to grow than others. For instance summer baby lettuce leaves, tomatoes, spring onions, basil, rosemary, thyme etc are easy-growing crops that have never failed me. They also make you look good, as you nip down into the garden for a handful of fresh ingredients to ‘plate up’ a lovely luncheon salad for friends. Add some backyard chooks for fresh, free-range eggs (sell the surplus eggs to pay for the chook feed) and your culinary creativity will soar to a new level.

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