This Is the Most Expensive Mistake You Can Make at the Grocery Store

No one can save you from a shockingly high grocery bill. Supermarkets know the right strategies to make you spend your hard-earned cash. So we gathered the most expensive mistakes you can make at the grocery store. Avoid one time-saving thing to save big money at checkout (page 10).

1. Not making a list

Family Discussing Shopping List in Supermarket
A vague list — or no list at all — won’t get you far. | shironosov/iStock/Getty Images
  • Without a list of necessary groceries, you’re far more likely to grab whatever appeals to you.

Benjamin Franklin wasn’t talking about groceries when he said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” However, it still applies to your food budget. You’ll likely shrink your bank account and grow your waistline without a preplanned grocery list.

Next: Free samples come at a cost.

2. Trying the samples

Hand reaching for samples
It’s not worth the calories or extra cash! | Noel Hendrickson/Photodisc/Getty Images
  • At least 25% of shoppers who sample an item will purchase it, whether they need it or not.

Stores know free samples work. (We’re looking at you, Costco.) Research supports the theory of reciprocity. In other words, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains, “If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”

Next: The surprisingly good time for a babysitter

3. Bringing the kids along

Family with children standing in supermarket
We know it’s hard to leave them at home. | JackF/iStock/Getty Images
  • Shopping with kids causes parents to spend up to 40% more, reports Real Simple.

Many people can’t leave their children at home. But if you can manage it, you’ll save money by going solo. Supermarkets target kids by using colorful displays and placing kid-friendly items lower to the ground, where kids will grab them. Plus, shopping with kids is distracting; parents tend to compare prices less.

Next: Just like plates, this grocery necessity has grown over the years.

4. Using a full-size grocery cart

Woman grocery shopping in a supermarket
Woman grocery shopping in a supermarket | Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images
  • One study found that twice-as-big shopping carts encourage shoppers to buy 40% more.

In 1938, the world met the grocery cart: two tiers of wire baskets on wheels. Now, carts are nearly three times the size, with big-box stores even offering flatbed versions for bulk items. Sometimes it’s difficult to fit your groceries in a small basket, but if you can stick with a handbasket or mini-cart, you’ll be richer for it.

Next: A new excuse to snack before you shop

5. Shopping on an empty stomach

Young woman putting goods on counter in supermarket
Your cart will overflow if your stomach is empty. | photobac/iStock/Getty Images
  • New research finds you shouldn’t visit ANY kind of store on an empty stomach.

You’ve likely heard you should avoid grocery shopping while hungry (you’ll indulge cravings). And a University of Minnesota study proves “being hungry amps up your desire to acquire things,” whether those things are food, home goods, or clothing. So, before you shop, eat a satiating snack.

Next: Swaps can save your bank account.

6. Sticking to your recipes

caucasian woman with shopping list
Don’t be too focused. | iStock.com/tanialerro
  • Swap an ingredient or two from your recipes to save money.

Your pasta sauce may call for fresh tomatoes and ground beef, but canned tomatoes and ground turkey may be on sale. Don’t be afraid to change a few ingredients. Other substantial swaps: cabbage for lettuce and frozen berries and veggies for fresh ones.

Next: When bulking up isn’t so bad

7. Not buying staples in bulk

scooping lentils from a bulk container
Making smart food choice cuts costs. | David Silverman/Getty Images
  • You can keep many staples, like pasta, rice, and spices, for years before they go bad.

Everything from honey (a two-year shelf life) to dried beans (at least a one-year shelf life) is worth purchasing in large quantities. The best way to save? Wait for sales and then stock up big-time. Other good bulk buys include lentils, farro, quinoa, sugar, flour, nuts, and oats.

Next: “Ground yourself” at the grocery store.

8. Shopping at eye-level

Latin brunette picking up some food at the grocery store
Aim low, not high. | Antonio_Diaz/iStock/Getty Images
  • Name-brand foods are almost always placed at eye level, encouraging you to grab pricier items and move on.

The next time you face the cereal section or canned goods display, take a knee and consider the more affordable brands near the ground.

Next: Just like life, groceries are all about timing.

9. Timing your shopping all wrong

Customers shop at an Aldi grocery store
A busy grocery store | Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Shopping on certain days of the week could equate to double coupons and special markdowns.

Timing is everything when it comes to groceries. Shop during overcrowded, peak hours and you’ll feel rushed and grab what works (without much thought). Ignore the sales cycle and you’ll pay more for basics (grocery deals usually run in six-week cycles). Shop whenever you need dinner, and you’ll tend to spend more for less.

Next: Don’t take shortcuts.

10. Buying prepared foods

butcher helping customer
Don’t let the butcher convince you. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images
  • Purchasing prepared foods will break your budget faster than you can say “pasta salad.”

Grabbing the deli’s premade chicken kabobs or bacon-wrapped beef is appealing when you face a time-crunch. But you’ll pay a lot more than preparing the food yourself. Another money killer? Prepackaged foods, like washed lettuce, pre-cut fruit, and pre-bagged produce.

Next: It’s okay to have commitment issues with your grocery store.

11. Only shopping at one grocery store

Shopping carts at Aldi
Aldi shopping carts | Matt Cardy/Getty Images
  • You can easily save money by visiting different grocery stores for certain things.

It’s hard to shop elsewhere if you love Trader Joe’s or have shopped the same Aldi for years. But you owe it to your wallet to shop around. Make a list of your groceries, track the costs at a few different grocery chains, and find the lowest prices. Many shoppers are shocked by their findings.

Next: Focus is the key to checking out.

12. Not paying attention at checkout

Male cashier with customers
Distractions will cost you. | Noel Hendrickson/iStock/Getty Images
  • You could miss out on a sale or pay too much for a store or employee error.

It’s easy to get distracted by magazines or a chatty cashier. Don’t let distractions keep you from tracking your groceries on the monitor. Speak up if you see something amiss on the screen — or pay the price.

Next: Trust these store brands and you’ll save.

13. Avoiding store brands

woman buying hair spray and shampoo at the store
Name-brands don’t always cut it. | JackF/iStock/Getty Images
  • You save an average of 25% by buying generic groceries — and you won’t sacrifice taste.

Name-brand labels may look nicer, but you’re only paying for aesthetics. Consumer Reports found consumers were highly satisfied with store brands at grocery stores. Who had the best generic brands? Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Publix, Costco, Raley’s, Whole Foods, and Harris Teeter.

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14. Buying organic

Grocery shop cart in supermarket filled up
Not all produce is organically equal. | CreativeNature_nl/Getty Images
  • If you’re on a tight budget, pick and choose your organic produce to save money.

Have you heard of the “Dirty Dozen“? These 12 foods, including strawberries, spinach, apples, and tomatoes, should be purchased organic. But, other than the most pesticide-filled produce, groceries don’t necessarily need to be organic.

Next: Don’t cut corners with your toiletries and supplies.

15. Buying household goods at the grocery store

pet food
Pet food is better elsewhere. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Most supermarkets overcharge for the conveniences shoppers tend to grab in order to avoid multiple stops.

Grocery stores should truly only be used for groceries. You’re better off buying most other household goods elsewhere. Need pet food or batteries? Go to a big-box store instead. Tools or kitchen supplies? Try a hardware or home goods store. Shampoo? Target may be best.