Most of us have been there. You ran to the grocery store for one essential item, but as you pushed your shopping cart through the aisles, seeing heaps of fresh produce and rows of appetizing snacks, you added one and then another and yet another extra item to your cart. By the time you checked out, those seemingly small impulse buys added up to a significant portion of the total.
Like anything else you purchase, shopping for food can quickly take over your budget despite your best intentions. But sticking to a few money-saving tactics can help you enjoy nutritious and delicious meals on a budget.
Stick to your budget to save time and money. Look at your food budget before making a trip to the store. If you don't have one yet, figure out your overall budget including food costs with this simple budget worksheet. You could break down the food category even more on a separate sheet, listing out how much you want to spend -- and ended up spending -- per meal, day, week or even month on groceries. This includes fresh produce, meats, baking items, frozen goods, drinks, snacks and whatever else you routinely buy.
With a budget in mind, you can start your meal and grocery planning by deciding on several meals you'll make throughout the week. If you make dishes that rely on the same staples, you can use leftovers to create a new dish, while mixing things up to avoid boredom. One night's leftover chicken dinner could become curry chicken salad for the next day's lunch. It could be served with pasta and sauce the next night or chopped up for a chicken soup later in the week.
Beyond reviewing your budget, make your trip to the grocery store even easier with a shopping list. Sticking to a list can help limit food waste and make it easy to get in and out of the grocery store quickly. If you share food shopping duties with a spouse or partner, you can avoid double purchases by using grocery apps that let you create and sync shopping lists from your computers or smartphones.
Stack different discounts and deals to rack up savings. Once you enter the grocery store, it's time to put your plan into action. Practice discipline and try to stick to your list, but know that you'll likely splurge once in a while. Plan for the occasional indulgence and let yourself make impulse purchases once or twice a month to keep from feeling deprived.
You can also often save money at grocery stores by joining the store's loyalty program, clipping coupons and using cash-back grocery apps.
• Join loyalty programs for exclusive deals. Large grocery store chains often have loyalty programs that are free to join. Members get exclusive discounts, and some programs offer additional savings at partner stores like gas stations. Check your membership account online or with the app before checking out, as some programs have electronic coupons that you need to "clip" to get the savings.
• Earn extra money with cash-back grocery apps. Several apps will give you cash back when you buy groceries. Often you'll need to purchase a particular brand-name product, but sometimes you can earn cash back on general purchases like a loaf of bread, an apple or a gallon of milk. Depending on the app and food, you may need to verify the purchase by scanning the barcode and sending a picture of your receipt.
Deals and cash-back apps may be able to help you save some money, but the store you choose can also significantly impact how much you'll spend.
Strategically plan your shopping route. If you have the time, making several stops can help you save if you stick to your list. Planning your grocery shopping after reviewing your local stores' weekly sales and coupons can help you determine what to buy where. Taking the time to explore your neighborhood stores can pay off as well, as one store may frequently have high-quality yet inexpensive produce while another's butcher department always provides great advice on how to prepare the meat that's on sale that day.
You can save money and time by stocking up on non-perishable or freezable staples at a warehouse club. Warehouse clubs are great if you need to purchase large quantities of something, but if you tend to make small purchases, the cost of membership might not be worth it. Estimate how much money you'd save versus the price of membership before you sign up.
A local food co-op could also be a good option if you have dietary restrictions or prefer buying organic. These are member-owned stores that often have fresh produce and meats from local farms, and you might be able to place and share money-saving bulk orders with other co-op members. Some grocery co-ops are open to anyone; at others you may need to pay a fee to join and sign up for occasional work shifts.
No matter where you shop, be mindful of how the store's design can entice you to make purchases. The outside ring is often where you'll find the fewest processed foods, however you might notice that you need to walk to the back of the store to grab milk or eggs. The store hopes you'll be tempted by something you see along the way. Within an aisle, products are intentionally placed at adults' or children's eye level, and sometimes brands pay for prime placement. Sticking to your list, refraining from walking through an aisle unless you need to and remembering that the eye-level products aren't necessarily the best bang for your buck can help you avoid these traps.
Shop like a chef. Consider choosing store-brand rather than name-brand products as they're often cheaper, but not necessarily lower quality. Even expert shoppers will buy store-brand foods. Economists at the Tilburg University and University of Chicago's Booth School of Business published a paper in 2014, updated in 2015, on the buying habits of professional chefs and doctors. Professional chefs tended to purchase store-brand baking mixes, tea, baking soda and sugars, although they prefer to buy brand-name ice cream, cereal and dried veggies and grains.
If you're making an effort to save money but are still spending more than you want, you may consider changing what you buy. No matter the discount, eating filet mignon each night will be pricey. Cheaper cuts of meat can be a delicious as well, and there's a lot of advice online for how to best prepare them. Many of the staples, such as rice, beans and canned or frozen goods are also a low-cost way to supplement meals.
Bottom line. Buying food is a necessity, but you don't have to overspend to keep a well-stocked fridge and pantry. By planning your meals and grocery trips, using the money-saving tactics above and carefully choosing where you shop, you can save time and money -- and cook up something delicious.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.