Although spending a few minutes with the Sunday savings inserts and a pair of scissors is one way to trim your food budget, there are other ways to save money on groceries without coupons.
While the average American spends less of their monthly income on food than their grandparents did — down from 17.5 percent in 1960 to 9.9 percent in 2013 — a family of four is still spending roughly $146 to $289 per week on food. If you’re struggling to save money, or just to make ends meet, one of the easiest ways to “find” extra money in your budget is by reducing your food expenses.
Now, no one is saying you have to rush out and try all of these ideas at the same time. Pick a couple to implement this week and see how they work for you. Next week, add on a couple more. Then sit back and watch as your grocery expenses shrink without clipping one single coupon. (Though, if you want to reap even more savings, you’ll run your purchases through iBotta when you get home to get cash rebates in 24 hours.)
Save Money On Groceries Without Coupons
1. Browse your shelves before you go shopping
Take a few moments to look over the contents of your refrigerator, freezer and pantry. Note what you’re running low on but also, take note of what you already have in stock. Until I got into this habit, I’d find myself buying milk and eggs because I couldn’t remember if we had any. Then I’d get home and realize we had plenty — but not enough room for my new purchases!
This practice ensures you’ll know what you need to use before it goes bad. Keep those foods in mind when you’re getting ready to plan your weekly menu, but first…
2. Check the ads before planning your meals
Shopping the sales is one of the easiest ways to reduce your grocery expenses. Most stores have websites that allow you to browse their weekly flyer and click items to add them to your shopping list. When planning your menu, combine these discounted foods with items you already have on hand and you’ll quickly find yourself spending less.
Of course, you can also increase your savings by shopping the sales at more than one store. Or, if you have a Walmart in your area, you can use their price matching programs to get the benefit of other stores’ sales without having to drive all over town.
3. Always make a list and stick to it
Making a list helps protect your wallet from impulse purchases and whims. If you’ve already reviewed what you have at home and planned your menu around the store’s sales, you don’t need to worry about forgetting anything. Sticking to your list also protects you from grocery store tricks, like filling an end cap with “sale” items that aren’t really on sale at all.
Using a list can also help you save time. If you shop the same store every week, why not organize your list based on the aisle layout? That way you won’t find yourself going from one side of the store to the other, trying to ignore all of those end caps and other temptations.
4. Buy store-brand products if the ingredients match
Store-brand foods have come a long way since the 2008 financial meltdown. In some cases, they’re actually identical to the name brand product minus the snazzy packaging and advertising.
Worried about trying a store brand? Compare the listed ingredients. If they’re substantially the same as the name brand product, rest easy. The more their ingredients differ, the more risk you’re taking, but that’s not always a bad thing: in many cases, taste-testers preferred the store brand!
5. Opt for cheaper cuts of meat and cook slowly
The key to using cheaper cuts of beef is cooking them properly. With marinating, for instance, a pair of $7 USDA Select steaks can rival their Choice counterparts that cost twice as much.
Other ways to save on meat include buying whole chickens and breaking them down yourself and removing bones or skin on other cuts yourself. Or buy larger cuts like Boston Butt or a Chuck Roast and slice them into pork or chuck steaks yourself.
6. Don’t be a brand loyalist
For many of us, reaching for the same brand is such an automatic habit that we don’t even bother to look at whether it’s the best deal. That habit is one we’ve been taught: brands spend millions of dollars annually to train us into preferring them over their competitors.
Coupon-clippers learn quickly to set aside brand preferences for the best prices. But if you’re trying to save money on groceries without clipping coupons you’ll need to make a conscious effort to compare brands (including store brands) to find the best deals.
An easy way to begin doing this is by banishing brand names from your grocery list entirely. Rather than writing down “Crest,” for instance, write “toothpaste” and instead of “Cheerios” write “cereal.” You’ll remind yourself to look beyond your automatic brand preferences and find yourself saving quite a bit, too.
7. Look down for better prices
The arrangement of grocery store shelves isn’t haphazard: there’s a bona fide science behind it, and national brands pay for eye-level placement. That means stores have no incentive to place lower-cost items there. Meanwhile, store managers choose what goes on the top shelves and their choices reflect those which make the stores the most money.
In other words, you’ll find the best deals on the lower shelves. This is where store brands and bulk items are located, along with bulk items that grocery stores sell to compete with Costco or Sam’s Club. Shopping from these shelves will save you the most money in most cases. The exception: the breakfast aisle where pricier stuff is lower so kids can see and beg for it.
8. Don’t pay the store to do work for you
You’d think after all of the bagged lettuce recalls and health scares, people would stop buying the stuff. Apparently, the lure of convenience is just too strong, and that can cost shoppers in more ways than one.
Having the store wash and chop vegetables for you is convenient but it drives the cost up sometimes as much as 40 percent. Spending an hour washing and chopping vegetables on the weekend might not sound like a lot of fun, but when it translates into savings of $20 or more it’s worth it!
The same goes for grated cheese. An 8-oz. package of shredded cheddar costs $2.29 at my Kroger’s but a block of cheddar that weighs twice as much costs only a dollar more. Cheese that’s shredded at home melts better, too, since it isn’t dusted with cellulose powder to keep it from clumping.
9. Shop without kids if you can
There is a reason food companies target kids with their ads for soda and other unhealthy foods: it works. Pressed for time, tired parents often give in to the endless pleas for treats. Even if your kids’ treats are a box of clementine oranges, you’re still spending money you hadn’t planned on, and you’ll see it reflected on your receipt.
Kids will also distract you from comparing prices. Eager to get them home before a meltdown, it’s just too easy to grab the brand you always buy, even if it’s not on sale. If you absolutely can’t leave them with a family member or other caregiver, try to time your trips for the store’s least-busy times and consider getting your kids involved in helping you find the lowest priced items.
10. Making your own mixes is much cheaper
Whether it’s pancake mix or your own Homemade Mrs. Dash, Old Bay and Seasoning Salt, it is far cheaper to make your own.
Don’t have any good recipes for making your own homemade mixes? You can find plenty on my “Make Your Own” Pinterest board, or there are always cookbooks full of them, too.
11. Know the average price and stock up on sales
You don’t have to keep a full-fledged grocery price book to track prices on the items you purchase most often. A list on your smartphone, or even the back of a business card in your wallet, will help you recognize good deals.
Start with a list of the things you use most often: milk, eggs, bread, cereal, chicken, etc. Track their prices for a few weeks to find the average, and then write it down on your list. Stock up when the price drops significantly. Freeze the perishables (yes, even milk) and shelve the other stuff. You’ll save money and time, too, since you’ll be able to shop your own shelves instead of running to the store.
12. Buy more, less often
Going to the store every couple of days can drain your wallet. It’s not just the cost of gas that adds up: every trip risks additional impulse purchases and increases the likelihood you’ll buy things not on your list because you’re hungry or in a bad mood.
Shopping less often also saves money by helping you use the food you already have, even if you have to get creative to do it. Want Stroganoff tonight but you’re out of egg noodles? Serve it on spaghetti noodles, or even on top of rice or mashed potatoes (which has become a family favorite since I had to make do one night).
13. Don’t be fooled by false sales
Those 10 items for $10 sales can seem like a great deal, but often they aren’t. If you keep a price list, you’ll protect yourself from the temptation to buy $1 cans of tuna because you’ll know they often go for $0.69. Those blue boxes of mac and cheese your kids eat, but you don’t tell anyone about? They almost always cost less than a dollar per box, too.
Sometimes the fake sales trick is less obvious. Stores will move a product from the aisle to the end cap where it looks like a sale, but the price hasn’t changed. Or they’ll put two items from different manufacturers next to each other, but list the unit prices differently. A $0.99 package of pasta that breaks down to $0.10 per ounce looks less expensive than a $2 package of pasta that is $1 per pound when, in reality, it’s not.
14. Buy personal care items somewhere else
Shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, razors and other toiletries are convenient to buy at the grocery store, but they’ll often cost you considerably more. Even if you clip coupons and use rebate programs, you’ll probably still spend more than if you’d bought the same items at a drugstore.
In many cases, you can save even more buying your toiletries at the dollar store or even with Amazon’s Subscribe & Save (where clipping a coupon is as easy as clicking the mouse).
15. Choose frozen for most fish and seafood
Next time you’re about to buy fish from the grocery store’s meat department take a minute to note the price. Then ask the person behind the counter if it’s been previously frozen. The answer is almost always yes. Now take a minute to walk over to the freezer section and notice the price for the same fish there. You’ve been getting ripped off for years by this trick!
Price isn’t the only reason to opt for frozen. Since fish is frozen right on board the ship where it’s caught, it often tastes fresher once it’s properly defrosted at home. You won’t have to fix it within 2 days of bringing it home, either.
16. Shop seasonally, or shop the freezer section
Fruits and vegetables are cheaper when they’re in season for your area because they don’t have to be imported from across the country, or even from overseas. Thanks to modern shipping techniques you can satisfy that hankering for strawberries in the middle of a Midwestern winter, but you’ll pay dearly for it. (At my store last week fresh strawberries were going for $4.89 per pint. Four months from now they’ll be $0.99.)
If you’re just looking for fruits for your smoothies, the freezer section is the way to go. You’ll get fruit that was flash-frozen shortly after being picked in season, but you won’t pay the out-of-season price. Ditto for vegetables you plan to toss in soups or casseroles. And, yes, they’re just as nutritious as the non-frozen stuff!
17. Know your store’s markdown days
Store reputations depend on offering the freshest, most aesthetically appealing foods. Since most people don’t understand expiration dates, stores markdown foods that are still safe to eat but approaching or on their “sell by” date.
A 2-minute phone call to your store can get you the dates and times when they mark down the bakery, dairy, and meat items. Be sure to ask where they place the marked down items, too. In Walmart, for instance, you’ll find them all over the store while at Kroger’s there’s often a corner of the meat department and another shelf or two in the back of the store. Hit those places first when you shop for unexpected markdowns, too!
18. Save produce properly so it lasts longer
The average household in the US wastes $640 per year of food. While some of this is due to letting leftovers go bad, and some is due to throwing away kitchen scraps that could be used, a large part of it consists of produce that rotted before it was used.
Knowing how to save produce properly lets you take advantage of sales on your favorite fruits and vegetables while ensuring they last longer, too. The same goes for knowing how to make a salad last all week. Neither task is difficult, but both help you save money on groceries without coupons.
19. Listen to something besides the store’s music
Some of the tricks stores use to drive up your purchases are obvious, like the smell of roast chicken and baked goods that get your mouth watering as soon as you enter. Some are less obvious, and that includes the music the stores quietly play while you shop. You might not give any thought about the music until it’s suddenly interrupted by a call for “Clean up on Aisle 4,” but stores pay companies quite a bit to select the perfect soundtrack.
Next time you’re shopping, listen to the store music for a minute. You’ll notice it’s slow — typically slower than the average human heartbeat — and often nostalgic or sad songs. Why? Because slower tempos lead to more leisurely shopping and that, in turn, leads to more impulse purchases. As for the sad songs? You’re in a store filled with comfort food! Coincidence? I think not.
20. Never, ever shop hungry!
Shopping when you’re hungry makes everything sound good. It also makes you buy more, and not just food. Being hungry puts us in the mood to acquire stuff, so even though you’d planned to only pick up bread and apples on your lunch break, you’ll probably find yourself suddenly “remembering” you need batteries and cat litter, too.
If you can’t pause to have a meal before you head to the store, at least pop a mint or piece of gum into your mouth. You’ll satisfy your brain’s subconscious need to acquire things through impulse purchases, and you’ll probably make healthier food choices while shopping, too.
Of course, while you can save money on groceries without clipping coupons, it doesn’t hurt to use them in addition to these tips.