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How to Save Money at the Grocery Store

December 11, 2023
Woman shops at grocery store with a list

Recently, skyrocketing inflation rates have made it difficult for Ontarians to manage the cost of living. One of the most challenging areas for many to manage is food prices, which continue to be quite high. And so it is more important than ever to find ways to save money at the grocery store. Read on for some tips, apps and other resources to help you lower your monthly grocery bill and find ways to save.

Plan Ahead

Experts agree that the single most effective way to reduce your food costs is to shop with a list. Taking some time to plan will make you less likely to overbuy, help you stick to ‘needs’ instead of ‘wants’ and cut down on expensive food waste. Here’s how plan more successfully:

  • Start in your fridge and pantry. Check what ingredients you already have, take note of anything that should be used quickly or frozen immediately and dispose of expired food. This process will inspire your meal planning and make sure you don’t buy any duplicates. As an added bonus, you’ll have a cleaned out space for your groceries when you get home.
  • Make a list. Once you’ve done that initial inventory, plan one or two meals for the week ahead. Add these items to a list. Include weekly staples for quick breakfasts, lunches and snacks, as well as any pantry basics that need restocking. Don’t go overboard and plan a meal for every night. Start, slowly, use up leftovers, shop your freezer and pantry and increase the amount of meals you plan each week if you’re successful.
  • Keep a running list. Moving forward, keep a list on your fridge to note items that you need as they come up. This will make your planning process easier and help to eliminate extra (and inevitably costly) trips to the store if you forget something.
  • Shop on a full stomach. All of us are more likely to make impulsive purchases—generally expensive, less nourishing packaged food—when we’re hungry. To help you stick to your list, have a meal or snack before heading out.

Create a Food Budget

Whether you’re feeding yourself, you and a partner or an entire family, you need to set a budget in order to start saving money. Food costs should include all groceries, drinks as well as take-out and restaurant visits. To help you set and (and stick to) a budget:

  • Track your spending. Before you can establish a realistic grocery budget, you need to get an idea of what you typically spend. Start tracking for a month through receipts, credit card statements and any cash purchases. This can be done easily on a piece of paper, or through an Excel spreadsheet or budgeting app like Mint. It may take a couple of months to get the full picture.
  • Find your number. Once you know your average costs, you should determine a monthly food budget based on your income. According to experts, food costs should take up no more than 15% of your household’s net income. For example, if you earn $50,000 after taxes and deductions, you should spend a maximum of $7,500 per year at the grocery store. This calculation will of course depend on your family structure and dietary needs.
  • Use cash. If you’re struggling to stay on budget, many people find success using the cash envelope system. Pull out cash at the start of the month that is to be used exclusively for food. By having this money visible, you can physically see how much you’re spending and what is left.

Test Apps and Loyalty Programs

Getting the best available price on groceries used to mean scouring the weekly flyers and shopping at multiple stores. Luckily this process is a lot easier today with money-saving apps and loyalty programs. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Price-matching apps. Several grocery retailers including No Frills, FreshCo and Real Canadian Superstore will match advertised prices at their competitors. Apps, like Flipp and Reebee, allow you to quickly compare the price of specific items at each grocery store. You can also create a watchlist of certain products so you’re notified when an item goes on sale. Use this program to price match at your local store. Websites like ca offer a similar service without having to download a separate app.
  • Food rescue apps. Growing in popularity, apps like Flashfood and Too Good To Go sell meat, produce, baked goods and other perishable items that are nearing their best-before dates. The food is pulled by grocers and restaurants, posted on the app and heavily discounted. This is great for saving you money and reducing food waste. The discounted section in your grocery store also offers produce at a reduced rate.
  • Loyalty programs. Most major grocery retailers and many locally-owned stores now offer loyalty cards for special prices, coupons and points. There are also credit cards that lead to grocery savings based on your spending. Although we can feel inundated with rewards and points programs, grocery stores are one place where they tend to pay off.

Save at the Store

Although you should always shop with a list, you should watch prices closely and adjust as needed. Here are some tips for making budget-friendly choices at the grocery store:

  • Watch for unit cost. Always compare similar items based on their unit price. This means the cost per pound, gram or millilitres. This can be particularly helpful when you’re purchasing packaged items. The price may say $5.99, but in fine print below it will say $0.80/100g. Comparing this unit price will help you find the best deal between different brands, sizes and packaging.
  • Buy in bulk. Investing in a membership to a wholesale store like Costco can be a good way to save money—in moderation. Pasta, nuts, oats, rice, and other pantry items usually have a lower per-unit cost. This will help you keep a well-stocked pantry for easy, budget-friendly meals. For food that needs to be eaten quickly, such as cheese, yogurt and produce, consider splitting it with a friend or family member. Bulk stores can be problematic if you purchase too much of something before it spoils.
  • Stay flexible. Food prices are very vulnerable to factors like fuel costs, natural disasters, and politics. Try not to purchase items, even if they are an everyday staple, if they are suddenly way more expensive. Purchase produce that’s in-season, on sale and consider frozen and canned options. Replacing some meat protein with plant-based options is another way to save at the store.

Saving money in any area of your life takes time, commitment and a lot of trial and error. Not all of these strategies will work for you, but by adopting a few tips and tricks you can start to see your grocery costs go down. Taking 10-15 minutes to plan before you shop and setting a realistic budget is a great place to start.

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