No matter what’s happening in the world economy, stocking up your kitchen pantry to feed yourself (and your family, if you have one) is a necessary weekly ritual. But prices just reached an all-time high due to inflation and supply chain issues. Last week, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which tracks the prices of food staples, reported a shocking 20.7% year-over-year increase in food costs around the globe. And unfortunately, prices are showing no signs of slowing their climb — we may be paying even more before the end of 2023 for everything from produce and meat to vegetables and shelf-stable goods.
And even though we can’t do anything about the rising prices, we can shop strategically for food to keep our costs manageable. We checked in with experts to get their take on exactly how to work the aisles to our advantage.
Set a budget
Yes, this is one you’ve heard before, but it bears repeating. Regardless of what you’re buying — from groceries to clothing— the secret to saving money is deciding how much you want to spend before you go to the store, advises savings coach Krystal Sharp. She says a good baseline is to spend $100 to $125 per person, per month, when grocery shopping. “Then break it down based on weekly or biweekly shopping,” she continues. “That’s your budget to spend on what you need.” (Yes, prices will vary greatly around the country, so you may find that in NYC, for example, you’ll need a budget of closer to $150 per person.)
And if you’ve been tracking your spending for a while (which we recommend!) and you know that you notoriously go over-budget on food, try taking the money you’ll need out in cash, and only spend the amount you have on you. You may find this philosophy forces you to get creative in ways you hadn’t considered.
Meal prep, if you weren’t already
Before you head to the grocery store, make a list of everything you need to satisfy the meals you want to cook for the week — and if you hadn’t given any thought to your meals for the week, then consider this your reminder. When you know exactly what you want to cook, you’ll enjoy less waste, and you’ll be able to maximize your dollars in a new way. As you’re scribbling down your menu ideas, cross-reference what you already have in your pantry and fridge. While this extra step may take time, it helps you to have a firm understanding of what you already have on hand, rather than buying items you don’t need.
Meal-prep has long been a favorite move for those of us trying to stick to a diet or keep our weekly calorie count in line, but it’s also one of the top recommendations for cost-cutting, says Kelli Vilchis, a professional shopper with Dumpling. “I buy veggies, roast them in the oven, and they make a delicious lunch or even side for dinner,” she says. “If I make my lunches, I spend less while I’m out and about during the day. Overnight oats or egg muffin bites are great for having an easy breakfast. Slow cooker dinners are, of course, one of the original meal preps, and we always have leftovers to make it stretch.”
Don’t be a loyalist
What do we mean by that? Well, just because you’ve always gone to Whole Foods doesn’t mean it’s not time to give other stores a shot. Yes, this will require some detective work to figure out exactly what products are the cheapest at which businesses, but we promise it’s well worth it. Perhaps start by trying to fill your list at well-known low-cost stores such as Aldi or Wal-Mart. Whatever you can’t find there you can try to source from another local spot that you know generally has good prices, or check online. If you still have items on your list that have been unfindable at a lower cost, then you can kick things to more expensive grocery spots like Whole Foods. The goal here is to get everything you need while spending the least… And we know that gas prices on the rise aren’t helping matters. (They’re at all-time highs of $4.17 on the date of this article’s publication.) So we get that you don’t want to spend all day and multiple gallons of gas driving around trying to save .30 on a package of pasta… But do take a serious look for products on which you stand to save $3 or more by buying elsewhere. By comparing the prices across the board, you can start to strategize your shopping to purchase the best bang for your buck at each place. For example, maybe you’ll find eggs are significantly less expensive at Target, or the Dollar Store has the best rates on cous-cous. If several of your favorite stores are somewhat close together, it’s worth making a few stops.
Cut down on impulse buys
You’re at the register; you see a magazine you’d like. And then a candy bar. And of course a bottled water for the road… and you know that prepared meal would make dinner so much easier, even if it’s double the price.
Any shopper knows how quickly impulse buying can add up, and the best way to avoid it is to avoid the temptation in the first place, says Lisa Thompson, a savings expert with Coupons.com. “If you purchase the grocery items on your list at home through your retailer’s app or website or a service like Instacart, you’re more likely to just buy the things you need and not be swayed by the things you don’t,” she says.
Yes, you should allow for a bit of room in your budget for an occasional splurge (we all deserve to treat ourselves from time to time!) but if you can get into the habit of cutting most impulse buys, you could save hundreds over the course of a year, she adds.
Get on the list
And by the ‘list’, Thompson means the email “loyalty” list from your favorite retailers or brands. Sbscribe to their emails and engage with them on social — this is where you’ll often find deals and offers that aren’t necessarily shared with the public. “A big part of creating a money-saving habit is to know how and where to save — and when,” she says. “You can always unfollow or unsubscribe if a particular brand feels too spammy or they’re not delivering the value you’re looking for. But for the brands you love, it’s worth it to engage with them and stay informed.”
Be mindful of meat consumption
The costs for beef, pork, fish and chicken costs are on the rise in a major way, due to pandemic disruptions, higher wages, supply chain delays with trucking and the increased demand for meats here and overseas, says Neale Godfrey, a personal finance expert and author. (Not to mention, of course, inflation.) This means you’re going to be forking over more dollars for your go-to proteins.
To cut back on the cost, look to buy meat in bulk, and freeze what you don’t eat. Also, meat is one thing you can keep an eye out for when browsing store circulars and limited-time deals. Also, keep in mind that processed luncheon meat is often costly. “It’s cheaper to buy, for instance, a rump roast and slice it thinly for lots of sandwiches,” she says. “If you want bacon, or cold cuts, for instance, look for the end cuts that will save you lots of money.”
Buy in bulk
If you’re feeding several people in your household (or even if you’re flying solo and you have a lot of closet space!) buying in bulk can make a significant difference to your grocery bottom line, Vilchis says. You can consider joining Sam’s Club or Costco to allow you to shop around for the best unit price. Remember, this only saves you money if you use the products, and you don’t let them go to waste. “Buying large packages that will last a long time will have you spending less over time,” she says. “You can buy paper goods, laundry and cleaning supplies, vitamins, dry pantry ingredients (rice, oil, pasta, etc.) in bulk to save.”
More from HerMoney:
- Pantry Items to Stock up on to Stretch Your Food Budget
- The Foods You Need to Buy in Bulk to Save Money
- How to Cut Out Food Waste and Save Money in the Process
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