We spend a lot on food. In 2018, the average American spent $4,464 per year — or roughly, $372 per month — on groceries alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Factor in takeout, drive thru-runs, and dinners out and that average shoots up to $7,923 per year.
In the COVID-19 environment, grocery shopping isn’t only expensive, it is fraught with health concerns and tricky decisions. Going to the grocery store isn’t just a matter of bringing a list and casually browsing the aisles for the best prices. We’re all trying to get in and out as quickly as we can — or even have our food delivered — so we can stay safe.
It may be more stressful now, but there are still a lot of steps you can take to save money on groceries in the era of COVID-19.
Plan ahead to save money and get in and out quickly so you can stay healthy.
1. Set a budget
Look at how much money you spend on groceries and see where you can cut back. Use a budgeting app or template and this food calculator as a starting point for a low-cost weekly and monthly grocery budget.
Coupons are an easy way to save money on groceries. To minimize your time in store, clip and organize paper coupons before you go, or opt for digital. Sites like coupons.com let you send digital coupons straight to your grocery store loyalty card.
3. Get cash back with rebate apps
Cash back reward apps are an easy way to save money on groceries. Apps like Ibotta and Checkout51 partner with stores and brands to offer customers cash back on everyday items. To get the deals you just need to sign up, select your preferred store, select what items you plan on buying, and then scan either the item or your receipt when you get home.
4. Check the weekly ads
Weekly grocery store circulars are food shopping on a budget 101 for good reason: Sales can save you big. Try to base your meals around what you have at home and what is on sale that week, but keep in mind: temporary food shortages right now may mean some items will be out of stock.
5. Maximize your loyalty card benefits
If you’re only using your grocery store’s membership or loyalty card at check out, you might be missing out on savings. Many stores have upped their loyalty game, offering exclusive deals to members through its website or letting you load exclusive coupons right to your card. Pro tip: Switch to the app for touch-free checkout.
6. Make a meal plan
Writing out a quick weekly meal plan can help you make sure you’ve got it all covered without overbuying and gets you in and out quickly. Once you’re done, you can pop it on the fridge and you’ll always know what to make next, cutting down on food waste.
7. Get your list together
Create a shopping list, using an app or plain old paper, before you head to the store and then stick to it as much as possible. Knowing what you’re buying will keep you away from impulse items.
At the Grocery Store
Once you’re at the store, follow social distance safety measures and employ these tricks to save.
8. Grab a cart, not a basket
Conventional wisdom says carrying a basket will help limit what you buy. That may be true on quick runs, but if you’re doing your weekly shopping, Eat This, Not That says a shopping cart is the way to go. Carrying a basket may push you into making snap decisions, especially as it gets heavier, but a cart will give you time to stop and compare prices, weigh your produce and look for clearance deals. Just don’t forget to wipe the handles down with a disinfectant and use hand sanitizer as soon you put the cart back.
9. Don’t overbuy
There is a lot of temptation to “stock up” on food right now but buying more than you can reasonably use will lead to waste. Instead, buy only what you know your family can handle between shopping trips.
10. Prepare to substitute
That being said, temporary shortages can happen right now, especially in urban areas. Don’t get thrown off course if an ingredient you need is missing. Save time by looking up substitutes before you go.
11. Buy locally produced food
In response to social distancing, many farmers markets are offering curbside pickup and pre-packed boxes of produce. Buying in bulk can save you money, just be sure to call ahead before you pick up as boxes can sell out quickly.
12. Look at the unit price
The largest size may offer the best deal, but not always. Instead, consider the cost per ounce, pound or unit. Often, this calculation is done for you on the shelf price sticker.
13. Buy in bulk
Buy in bulk only when it offers a better deal, whether you’re filling your own bags from the store’s bulk section or just buying the biggest bag of rice you can store at home.
14. Shop high and low
Grocery stores often place the most expensive products right at eye level. When you’re browsing the aisles, look at the top and bottom shelves first.
15. Embrace store brands
Don’t shy away from lower priced store-branded grocery items like cereals and canned goods. Grocery store-brand products account for 25% of all products sold in grocery stores, and some outstanding store brand products have even earned devoted followings.
16. Buy frozen
Frozen produce is healthy, often tastes just as good as fresh in recipes, and can be cheaper than shopping the produce aisle. Stock up when frozen produce is on a sale and you’ll have plenty of food in your freezer to create last minute, easy-to-cook weeknight meals.
17. Skip the prepared section
The supermarket’s prepared food bar or deli counter sandwiches and salads are convenient but can be pricey. Consumer Reports found that some fancy-sounding prepared meals could be made easily at home for less than half the cost. The Fresh Market Lemon Orzo with Pine Nuts, for example, cost $6.99 in store at the time of publication, but researchers were able to make it at home for $3.43.
Many delivery apps offer contactless pickup and drop-off for your groceries. Opting for delivery can be a safer way to get the food you need, but it can be more expensive than shopping in person. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting a good deal:
18. Compare prices
Some apps inflate grocery store prices. Compare at least three identical foods or brands at the same grocery store across multiple delivery apps to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
19. Weigh delivery costs
Delivery fees can vary widely from $5 to $10 or more across different apps. You can save money by opting for a monthly or annual membership but run the numbers to see if it makes sense for you. If, for example, the delivery fee is $10 and you plan to shop weekly, you’ll save in the long run if the monthly membership is less than $40.
20. Don’t forget sales and coupons
Many grocery delivery apps honor grocery store’s weekly circular prices. Some apps, like Instacart and Shipt, also run their own promotion, sales and coupons. See what’s available before you start loading your cart.
21. Sign up for deals
Opt-in for the app’s email newsletter or push notifications to get exclusive deals and other money saving offers. Many apps run big discounts for members who opt-in.
22. Consider curbside pickup
Major box stores like Walmart and Target allow you to place your grocery order online and schedule a contactless pickup. You’ll stay healthy and skip the delivery fee.
23. Don’t forget the tip
Now more than ever, gig workers are relying on customer tips. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of the tip when planning your shopping budget.
Maximize your savings at home by stretching your pantry.
24. Be your own prep cook
Pre-cut veggies and pre-shredded cheeses are convenient, but you’ll pay extra for the labor cost. Buy whole produce and block cheese and save by preparing it yourself (or put the kids to work).
25. Get crocking (or insta-potting)
Not everyone has time to cook, even if work outside the home has slowed down or stopped. If that’s you, consider putting a slow cooker to work. After doing some prep work up front, simply throw the ingredients into the crock and go about your business. Slow cookers are the embodiment of “set it and forget it,” and they’re ideal for cooking up economical and versatile big batches of beans or cheap cuts of meat, not to mention chilis, soups and other leftover-friendly foods.
26. Freezers are frugal
Make foods that freeze well and stock your freezer for a rainy day? That frozen ziti will be just the thing to prevent overspending on prepared food or takeout when you don’t want to cook.
The freezer is also the place to stow meat you find on sale. If the grocery store has in-season berries at a good price, stock up, puree some and freeze for the future.
27. Transform scraps into stock
Save vegetable scraps and chicken bones in the freezer to make your own vegetable stock and chicken stock (this can also be done hands-off in the slow cooker). Stocks are a great addition to homemade sauces, soups and gravies.
28. Eat less meat
Meat is pricy and some experts are worried about meat shortages in the COVID-19 era. Instead, look for ways to sub in beans: they have protein, they’re versatile and they’re cheap.
29. Grow your own
Growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs may not seem possible or practical. But chances are you can grow something at home that you’d normally buy. Some grocery stores sell potted herbs, some garden centers have been allowed to stay open, and you may be able to order some garden plants online.
30. Source your own seeds
Seed sales have surged in the pandemic era, so if you have trouble buying seeds to grow your own food, look in your kitchen. Try using seeds from produce you’re eating at home and from your pantry. Not all will be viable, but some will work. You can also regenerate new produce from the root ends of vegetables such as celery, lettuce, scallions by sticking them in water and watching them grow.
31. Get help
If you’ve lost income and you’re struggling financially right now, look into and apply for food assistance programs like SNAP benefits (food stamps), D-SNAP (assistance after a disaster), programs for children and others.