MONEYWISE: Grocery Hacks (aka How to Shop Like a Ninja)
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Aside from housing, food is the largest bucket of spending any household has, but unlike the fixed price of rent or mortgage, how much you pay for food is very flexible. There's a lot of room to save a lot of money if you know how.
As a kid, my favourite day of the week was Friday because that was the day that my mother would go grocery shopping.
We didn't have a lot of money, so she only ever bought enough food to last until the end of the week. By Friday the cupboards were pretty empty aside from spices, condiments, and old pickle jars filled with dried beans and lentils.
I hated that feeling of opening the fridge or cupboards, and literally seeing nothing there.
Now that I can buy my own groceries, I keep a stocked pantry, fridge, and freezer. There's always enough food in my kitchen so that if disaster strikes (like, oh I don't know, a GLOBAL PANDEMIC) I would be ok not doing groceries for at least two to three weeks.
As a kid, I loved grocery shopping days so much that I would often try to find ways to get out of school so that I could go to the store with my mom. In all those years of doing groceries with her, I learned a lot.
Here are my favourite food shopping hacks that allow me to eat well and keep a well-stocked pantry, all while saving money.
Always Check Flyers and Be Willing to Go to Multiple Stores
What I learned from mama: The new flyers came out on Thursdays. Back then they were delivered via our newspaper subscription where they were neatly tucked into the middle of the bundle.
My mom would sit down with the stack of flyers and a black pen, carefully checking them for the best deals, circling, flipping, circling. She would have a white legal pad beside her with the names of the grocery stores acting as headings, and under each she would write what she intended to buy there.
And then on Fridays, she planned her route and would go from store to store buying only the sale items from each. She averaged three stores every week, sometimes four if there was an exceptional deal somewhere.
That's how she fed a family of four (and a dog) on an extremely tight budget.
I now do the same thing.
Instead of hard copy flyers though, I use an app called Flipp which is available in Canada and the United States. I enter my postal code and the app gives me all the flyers available for my location. I then have the option to favourite certain stores so that I only see those flyers on a separate tab.
Then I do what my mom did; I go through the flyers and by tapping on the images, the app circles the item for me and adds it to my grocery list, which is separated by store.
|Image Credit: Author/Flipp|
Now you might balk at the idea of going to several stores to do your groceries, but it really is the best way to save money. The reality is that each grocery store specializes in its own thing, and as a result can offer better prices than their competitors.
That being said, I usually set a cut-off of three stores (in the same shopping area) and decide which ones to go to based on the best prices for the highest ticket items; usually that means protein or produce.
IMPORTANT TANGENT: Food Storage
Any food that I regularly eat is a food that I will buy if it's on sale, regardless of whether I need it right away or not. But that's why proper food storage is important.
Protein: Ziploc freezer bags (in different sizes) and a black Sharpie are your best friend here. Portion out the meat/poultry in the serving you usually use, then label and date it. (Because I promise, you will forget).
Produce: The point of produce is that you want it fresh, but there are ways to extend its shelf-life which you can do by not keeping ethylene gas producing produce (apples, bananas, tomatoes, avocados, etc.) next to ethylene sensitive produce (carrots, broccoli, greens, cucumbers, etc.)
Ethylene gas is produced by certain fruits in order to trigger their own ripening process, but that's exactly what will cause other produce to go bad more quickly if they're stored next to each other. A waste of food and money.
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Always Stick to Your List (to save MONEY and TIME)
Now you might think that going to separate stores takes a lot of time, but I'll tell you what - not necessarily. Sticking to your list is not only what will save you money, but it's what will save you time in the process of store-hoping.
Here's the thing: the most time-consuming part of doing groceries is making decisions (Do I need this? Will I eat this? What recipe could I use this in?)
If the decisions are already made because you have a well-thought out list, then you can shop like a ninja and be lighting fast. Trust me, as someone who's perfected the art of getting in and out of Costco in 15-minutes on a Saturday, if you have a list and stick to it, grocery shopping can be quick, even if you make multiple stops.
If I avoid being browsy and only go in for the sale items, I can hit three stores and stop to get gas in 90-minutes.
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Always Check Expiry Dates for Pantry Items
Always check the expiry date before putting anything in your cart. Your best bet is to reach to the back or bottom of the display. If the people stocking shelves are doing their job properly, the older items are always at the front. (I also never trust anything at the front of the shelf because it's the item most likely to have been poked, prodded, or dropped.)
This saves you money because for non-perishables, you have more time to use them. And if you're buying an item on sale in order to stock-up (meaning you won't be using the item right away) then you need the extra time.
Also, you specifically need to check the expiry date on reduced pantry items because you need to know if the item is on sale because the store is trying to get customers in with this fantastic deal (yay!), or if it's on sale because the item is expiring tomorrow and the store needs to get rid of it fast (boo!).
OTHER PRO TIPS
Always shop on a full stomach = Less impulse purchases = Save money.
I don't think this one needs explaining; we've all done the opposite and then regretted the amount of food we bought because we were hangry.
Always shop at off peak-times = Less people = Save time.
The absolute worst times to be in a grocery store are Monday to Friday between 4:00-6:00 PM, or Saturday and Sunday between 10:00 AM-12:00 PM or 3:00-5:00 PM. (Think: any two-hour window prior to a meal.)
Always shop within the first three or four days of the new flyers = Items still available = Save money.
If there's a really awesome deal on something, don't expect to find the item on the shelf during the last two to three days of the sale. You'll be left with either the weird flavours that no one wants, or the item will be sold-out altogether.
(Black licorice ice cream??? Why you do me like dat?)
|Image Credit: Red Button Vintage Creamery|
Prices are only going up, and specifically food prices. And things have gone up in dollars, not cents.
Example: in 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, I was able to buy butter on sale here in Canada for $2.88 per pound.
Now three years later, the cheapest I can get butter is $4.69 per pound. That's almost $2 more per pound! And that's the sale price; the regular price is over $7. (I don't know the actual price because I never buy butter unless it's on sale. You know that you can freeze butter, right? That's what ye old Ziploc bags are for.)
The bad news is that those prices aren't going to go back down.
The good news is that - to a certain extent - you can do something about it.
If you want to eat well, but don't want to pay exorbitant prices for food, then shopping flyer deals and going to multiple stores is the best way I've found to do that.
To set-up your own money-saving grocery shopping routine, here's the best way to start:
1 - Decide how you'll access your flyers (hard copy or an app).
2 - Think of the shopping area closest to you and from those stores, pick one that specializes in each of the three main grocery categories: PROTEIN / PRODUCE / PANTRY (oh my!)
3 - Make a grocery list based on the best deals at each of those three stores.
4 - Go Git-R-Done and save that MONEY!
Why I don’t find this tedious: because to me it’s a game where I'm the winner because I'm not overpaying for things I know I can find cheaper elsewhere. It's like chasing Pokémons, only instead of collecting silly cartoons (sorry), I get to save COLD HARD CASH $$$.
In life there are always going to be things that function in a way we don't like but that we have little control over. That can be frustrating unless we learn how the system operates and then use it to our advantage.
So..do you want to play, or do you want to get played?
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