Fix Your Grocery List: 15 Ways You’re Wasting Money on Food

The average American family spends $4,000 per year on groceries, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or about $333 per month. Yet for many food eats up even more of the household budget, often due to sloppy shopping mistakes, such as giving in when the kids beg for candy, tossing frozen meals in your cart because you don’t have time to cook, and grabbing containers of single-serve snacks and pre-cut veggies to save time. By the time you get to the checkout, you’re looking at a three-figure total and still don’t seem to have anything to make for dinner.

Bad shopping habits are one reason the average U.S. household throws away $640 worth of food every year, according to a survey by the American Chemistry Council. And that just counts the soured milk that gets poured down the drain or the moldy peaches we toss in the trash. Americans waste even more money by scooping up overpriced items, ignoring sales, not shopping around at different stores, and neglecting to use coupons, according to consumer experts.

Let’s take a closer look at ways you’re probably wasting money at the grocery store, including the worst day of the week to shop and what you’re missing right in front of you.

1. Not making a list

Guy Fieri at the 2016 Food Network & Cooking Channel

Guy Fieri wants you to make a grocery list so you don’t forget important ingredients | Dylan Rives / Stringer/Getty Images

Grocery shopping without a list is one of the biggest money mistakes you can make. “If you go into the grocery store without a plan, you’re more likely to walk out with items you wouldn’t otherwise purchase,” Kendal Perez of Coupon Sherpa told The Cheat Sheet. If a paper list is too much trouble, try apps, such as Out of Milk and Grocery IQ, which make it easier to keep track of what you need and locate local deals. The latter is key to saving even more money at the store.

“Your grocery list should be composed of products featured in the store’s weekly sales ad,” Perez said. “Planning meals around what’s on sale is key to saving money on food and reducing your overall grocery budget.”

Next: This mistake is not only a waste of money, but also a waste of time.

2. Hitting every aisle

grocery shopping

Impulse buys are much more likely if you’re looking down every aisle. | Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

A slow, methodical trek through the grocery store can backfire if you’re not careful.

“Don’t go down an aisle where you don’t need anything — it can only lead to overbuying,” said David Bakke, a consumer expert with Money Crashers.

Instead of swinging through every section, review your shopping list. Then, bypass any part of the supermarket that doesn’t have items you need. You’re less likely to fill your cart with chips or expensive frozen meals if you don’t walk past them in the first place.

Next: Bulk isn’t always cost-effective.

3. Always buying in bulk

flour

Do you really need 25-pounds of flour? | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Buy 10 and save” deals are tempting, but stocking up on large quantities of an item or automatically reaching for the bigger container because it has a lower per-ounce price isn’t always a savvy move.

“Buying in bulk can be a money saver as long as you’ll use the item before it expires. Buying 100 ounces of ketchup at once might backfire on you,” Bakke said. For reference, an opened container of ketchup is good for four to six months, according to Real Simple. After that, it might start to taste a bit off.

Next: Price varies.

4. Only shopping at 1 store

whole foods

Whole Foods Market | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Loyalty to just one store will cost you in most cases,” Perez said. To get the most for your money, it’s best to shop around. For Perez and her husband, that means hitting a warehouse club, such as Costco, which has good deals on usually pricey items, including maple syrup, butter, and avocado oil. Walmart is their go-to for household items, such as toiletries. And Sprouts is where they shop for produce.

“Knowing which stores have the best prices on the items you buy is key to saving money on groceries,” consumer expert Andrea Woroch said. “Personal-care products, for example, are almost always better priced at Walmart or Target compared to grocery stores, while drugstores often have big savings on cereal when you include their loyalty program discounts. By conducting a bit of research on who has the best prices for the products you buy most, you can cut your grocery bill significantly.”

Next: Store brands might be even better — and cheaper — than name brand.

5. Passing on the store brands

jars of jam

Sometimes all you’re paying for is the name with name-brand products. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Only buying name-brand products is a sure-fire way to run up your grocery bill if you’re not careful. “Try the store brands of your favorite items. It’s not like when we were kids and the ‘generic’ brands were all horrible quality,” said Ken Immer, the president and chief culinary officer of Culinary Health Solutions.

“Many name brands are actually packing their same products under store labels with the same quality standards and a lower price,” he added. If a generic product’s packaging looks similar to the national or name-brand, that’s a good sign it’s made by the same manufacturer, Immer said. If you can’t bring yourself to give up your name-brand favorites, keep an eye out for coupons to help you save.

Next: Look up — and down.

6. Only shopping at eye level

cereal

Stores hope you buy the pricier items at eye level. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Grabbing the first package of coffee or box of cereal you see is a mistake, consumer experts say. Stores put the pricier items at eye level in the hopes you’ll grab them without scanning the shelves for a better deal. The same goes for end-caps, or the displays at the end of the aisle.

“The best bargains are closest to the floor, so get your exercise and bend down,” said Jamie Novak, author of Stop Throwing Money Away. “Cheaper items are always farthest right on the shelf, so keep going down the aisle until you get to the end.”

Next: Know when things go on sale.

7. Not shopping the sales cycles

grocery shopping

A woman reads a sales flyer at the grocery store. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

You know canned pumpkin will be on sale in the fall, and chocolate is cheaper around Valentine’s Day. But those aren’t the only seasonal sales to be aware of. “There are a lot of other seasonal items that go on sale during months you may not expect, like oatmeal in January, sodas in July, and peanut butter in September,” said Nedalee Thomas, a frugal-living expert and founder of Princess Power.

Stores also mark down items every six to 12 weeks as they restock the shelves, Thomas explained. Every item has its own cycle. And by tracking the prices of the items you buy most frequently, you can identify the weeks when your favorite foods will be on sale and plan to stock up then. “With some time and practice, you can learn how to keep tabs on the best deals,” Thomas said.

Next: You’re not done once you hit the checkout line.

8. Not paying attention at the register

man paying for groceries with a credit card

Watch what the cashier is doing. | iStock.com

Mistakes can happen when cashiers scan the items in your cart, and these might cost you money. Big-box store Target was recently ordered to pay a $4 million fine after an investigation revealed items sometimes rang up at higher-than-advertised prices.

“Watch as your items are rung up,” Novak said. “Overly sensitive pricing guns can inadvertently scan an item twice. A cashier can accidentally charge you for expensive curly parsley when what’s really in the bag is the less expensive flat leaf parsley.”

Next: Which day is best?

9. Shopping on the wrong day of the week

grocery store ad

Try to plan your shopping trip at the start of your store’s weekly sales. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Time your shopping to coincide with your store’s weekly sales. Often, these kick off on Wednesday and sometimes will overlap with the previous week’s deals, so you can double up on bargains. Shopping on the day the sales starts ensures you can snag any bargains before products sell out. If an item you really want is out of stock, ask for a rain check, Perez advised.

One of the worst days of the week to shop is Sunday, according to an analysis by mobile shopping app Ibotta. Ice cream, snacks, and cleaning products are all more expensive at the start of the week, its analysis found.

Next: Time matters.

10. Shopping at the wrong time of day

clock on a white plate

You’ll find deals toward the end of the day. | iStock.com

Head to the supermarket just before closing, and you could snap up deals on soon-to-be-discarded items. “If you go at the end of the day, you can oftentimes find manager’s specials on meats — buy one get one free, 50% off, et cetera,” Durkin said. Fill your freezer with the discounted meats, and you can eat well for a fraction of what you’d normally pay.

Next: Do you need food now? Don’t go grocery shopping.

11. Shopping while hungry

Hungry woman holding knife and fork over empty plate

You’ll rush and overbuy if you’re hungry while grocery shopping. | iStock.com/beer5020

You probably know shopping when you’re hungry or stressed is a bad idea. Hit the store when your stomach’s rumbling or after a long day at work, and you’re more likely to fill your cart with expensive impulse purchases. Plus, crowded stores can lead to a “get in and get out” attitude, which “leaves little time for comparing prices or checking store apps for digital coupons,” Perez said.

Next: Save those receipts.

12. Throwing away your receipts

Cashier handing receipt

Keep track of your receipt. | iStock.com

You probably just leave your grocery receipt crumpled at the bottom of a bag. It’s rare you return a food purchase, so why bother with the receipt, right? What if it could save you thousands of dollars? Personal finance blogger Karen Cordaway says you can save $2,200 or more per year simply by taping your grocery receipt to the fridge. This trick helps you eat food before it goes bad, and it’s a good reminder that any food you do waste has a price.

“Refer to the receipt when you use the fridge because it will remind you of what you bought, and when you purchased it,” she writes. “That receipt is marked with all of the items you just purchased in a list format — and it’s dated so you’ll know exactly when you purchased everything.”

Next: A little prep works goes a long way toward savings.

13. Not prepping food

A crock pot slow-cooking

A crock pot cooks a week’s worth of meals. | iStock.com/robynmac

Just like preparing a list is essential so is prepping food. Prepping meals, or even just ingredients for meals, translates to savings at the grocery store. You can take advantage of bulk savings, knowing for certain you’ll turn those ingredients into your lunches for the week. Likewise, you can get more out sale items by stocking up. Plus, having meals on hand means less of a chance for impulse food buys later on.

Next: Your fear of new foods could cost you.

14. Getting stuck in a food rut

whole foods produce section

Customers shop for produce at a Whole Foods. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Not an adventurous eater? Is your grocery list pretty much the same from week to week? Then, you’re definitely not always getting your favorite foods at a sale price. Instead of picking up a grapefruit, for instance, every time you visit the store, try to limit yourself to when it’s in season — and cheaper — during the winter months. Branch out to similar foods that are on sale. Your taste buds might not even care, but your wallet will definitely thank you.

Next: Never wonder whether you already have something at home.

15. Stuffing your fridge and pantry

Refrigerator full of food

Could you name everything in your fridge? | iStock.com/fuzzbones0

Most people visit the grocery store on a pretty regular schedule. But what they don’t do is step back and decide whether they even need more food. Instead of coming to a standstill in the middle of a grocery aisle, trying to remember whether you already bought a new bottle of ketchup last week, take inventory of what you have before you go. If it looks like you’re stockpiling food for a zombie apocalypse, take a week off grocery shopping, eat what you have, and save money.

Additional reporting by Mary Daly.

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