Every family could stand to save a little money on food. But that’s especially true now, as many parents have been hit with job loss, income reduction, childcare challenges, and other financial issues related to the pandemic. On top of that, grocery prices have been rising steadily over the past year, and are expected to continue climbing into next year, according to the USDA.
Child checks (those monthly payments from the expanded Child Tax Credit), along with other relief programs, have helped. According to a ParentsTogether survey, 48 percent of families spent their first child check on food. However, those monthly payments are currently only approved from July through December of 2021—even though families will still need to eat in January and beyond.
Hopefully Congress will make the expanded Child Tax Credit and associated monthly child checks permanent. Until then, you can use some of these money-saving tips to make your family’s grocery budget stretch a little farther.
It might sound strange, but that “music” they play in grocery stores was chosen to get you to spend more. The tempo is slower than the human heartbeat, which gets us to slow down (and spend more time shopping). According to Today, listening to upbeat music instead can help you spend 7 to 8 percent less, which really adds up!
Use a rebate app.
Apps and websites such as Ibotta, Rakuten, and Checkout51 provide rebate offers on food and household goods that you can take advantage of after you’re done shopping. Just tap any offer you want to redeem, then scan or snap a pic of your receipt, and the companies send you the cash via PayPal or a check.
Buy foods they’ll actually eat — and be realistic about how much.
You’ve probably heard that buying in bulk is a great way to save money on groceries, and it is—unless it ends up being more than your family can eat before it starts to spoil. Even if you don’t shop in bulk, try holding off on buying large amounts of any foods until you’re certain your kids are going to eat them. Otherwise you might be left with the remaining 23-pack of stale blueberry muffins.
However, it is a good idea to buy in bulk for:
- Foods you know your family will eat before it expires
- Foods that are shelf stable (and never really expire) like honey or dried beans
- Household products like toilet paper, soap, or cleaners
Store foods properly for a longer shelf life.
How many times have you stocked up on salad bags only to find them a wet, wilted mess days later? Learn the best storage conditions for the different types of foods and your groceries will last a lot longer. The Food Network has a list of all the fresh foods and the exact ways to store them to maximize freshness. For example, apples will last up to three months in the fridge crisper drawer, while milk and yogurt should go far in the back, where temps are coldest.
Do a sweep of your fridge and pantry before you shop.
Otherwise, you’ll end up with multiples that are likely to spoil faster from lack of use. Think you’ll forget what you already have? Try snapping a pic of your cupboards and fridge before adding anything to your cart.
Follow your favorite brands.
The best way to score deals on baby food and diapers, for example, is to follow the brands you like. Check out their social media profiles, and even subscribe to their email newsletters. This way, you’ll be the first to know of any deals and sales.
Give generic a try.
In many cases, the only difference between a generic and a name-brand product is the label and the price; in fact, the generic or “store” versions often have the same ingredients and are even made at the same facility as the top-shelf brand! So switching to generic when it doesn’t matter to you offers a great savings opportunity.
Pro tip: Grocery stores generally put the most expensive items at eye-level, where they know you’ll see them. Look at the top and bottom shelves too, to find some of the best deals and store brands.
Go old-school and make a list.
Research shows that shopping on a whim most often yields a higher cost at checkout than if you take the time to list the things you really need and stick to it. Keep in mind, stores will often put sale items in the back of the store so you have to pass by pricier items to get to them, and of course they pack the check-out lanes with tempting impulse buys. Be aware of their tricks so you aren’t fooled into spending more than you intended.
Make 3-ingredient meals.
Entrees, side dishes, salads — multi-course meals and even single dishes with many ingredients tend to cost more, but there are plenty of recipe sources for meals with as few as two or three ingredients (spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?). Consciously choosing those meals a few days per week is an easy way to trim costs, not to mention trimming down the amount of time you spend cooking.
Take advantage of the free school lunches provided by the USDA.
Put down that PB&J and those pricey (but of-so-convenient) pre-packaged chips and snacks. The USDA extended its national free lunch program for K-12 students through the 21-22 school year, so you can save money and time making lunches.
Shop seasonally for the best prices.
Prices are always lower when foods are in season, so keep that in mind when you get the urge to stock up on strawberries in the middle of winter (they peak in the summer). You can consult a guide to help you determine the best times to shop for seasonal foods, and how to select the ones that will last the longest once you get them home. If a favorite is out of season, find a frozen or canned variety, which are often cheaper than fresh anyway and can be stored longer.
Download apps and sign up for notifications from the grocers you shop most.
This way it’s easy to access the most up–to-date deals and stay abreast of special sales and discounts. Walmart, Target, and Kroger are just three national stores that offer this to their customers. Match their sales announcements up with your shopping list to make sure you’re getting all the best deals. Or, better yet, do the reverse—plan your meals based on what’s on sale.
Know the tags.
Want to save even more by knowing your fave stores well? Ask someone at customer service what their pricing procedure is. Some places, like Costco, use prices that end in .99 to indicate an original price, .97 to indicate a sale price, and tags with an asterisk mean that item won’t be restocked. Similarly, Walmart uses prices that end in .97 to note an original price whereas any price ending in five means it’s a markdown. Knowing what the procedure is where you shop can let you know when you’re getting the best possible deal.
Gather your glass containers.
Storing fruits, veggies, and more in mason jars and other glass containers in the fridge or freezer help foods last longer, especially leftovers. This will minimize waste and maximize your money.
Go vegan for a couple of days each week.
Eating vegan (meat- and dairy-free) or even just vegetarian (meat-free) is generally less expensive than eating meat, even if you substitute protein sources like beans and lentils. A new study showed that vegan meals are 40 percent less expensive on average than meals including meat or fish. It’s a simple switch that can save money in a pinch, and even saves time because they’re faster to prepare.
Grow your food.
Herbs and many other foods can even be grown in a windowsill or small balcony space if you don’t have your own yard for planting. You can find plants and seeds at garden centers for just a few dollars, but with a decent green thumb (and in some cases, surprisingly minimal effort), they’ll yield a generous supply of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, saving you cash at checkout every time you shop. And speaking of cash…
Use cash envelopes.
This is a great tip for anyone who tends to be an impulse shopper at the grocery store. Try leaving your debit or credit card at home and shop with a finite amount of cash allotted for groceries tucked away in an envelope, so you’re less likely to indulge in items that could blow your budget. If you must use plastic, try to find a credit card that offers extra cash back on grocery purchases.
A few simple changes like these to your shopping habits can yield big savings each month at the grocery store!
Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.
For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.