Put It Back…and Other Strategies for Saving Money While Grocery Shopping

Groceries can be one big hole in your budget. If you are leaking money, this is one place to look…and maybe triage. Believe it or not, this is easier than it sounds if you treat it as an organizing project. Considering that we are in between the big food holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, now might be a good time to check in on how to save money while grocery shopping.

If you think overspending at the grocery store is emotional (I had a hard week, so I DESERVE the donuts!), itor you suspect it might be, that can be completely valid. But you can also shortcut directly to the money angle, and see what happens. It works for some people, and can take a lot less planning you think. Let’s face it, it takes a lot of brainpower to create meal plans, clip coupons, and shop only when the fridge is empty. Let’s try something a little less…organized to organize your grocery shopping.

Put It Back...and Other Strategies for Saving Money While Grocery Shopping

The oldest version of this is, of course, the envelope system. Decide what the “right” amount is per week or month. Pull that cash out of your paycheck, and have carry the cash in an envelope marked “Groceries.”. To use round numbers as an example, perhaps you decide that $100/week should be enough, then actually shop with that. When you get to the end of the cash in the envelope, you stop spending and get really creative with what’s in the freezer and pantry.

Your brain actually acts differently when it is shopping with cash, versus when it is shopping on plastic. Credit cards and debit tend to both have the same effect on the neurosystems. We tend to spend at least 20% more when we shop with plastic, and some people spend a lot more than that! The science backs up the fact that just shopping with cash can change our habits, so you can look at it as “brain training” rather than deprivation.

Also, to avoid deprivation backlash, pad your “budget” number just a bit. So instead of the $100 “budget” figure, give yourself a little cushion and call it $120, for example.

Above all, avoid the “what the hell” effect (that’s a research term, not something I made up), which is where you go over budget a little and say to yourself, “what the hell, I may as well blow the budget and start again next month.” Every tweak to your financial plan is a chance to adjust, not a punishment or admission of failure!

One of my clients decided that she wasn’t comfortable carrying that much cash, so she opened a separate bank account with an associated debit card, and she transfers her budgeted grocery money into that account once a month. She ONLY uses that card for groceries. She’s been afraid that she won’t have enough when needed, but when she realized that she could pay for the additional out of her regular credit or debit account if she goes over, she decided that she could trust herself. She’s doing better now, and seeing her savings balance grow again.

Using plastic can be a little tricky, especially if all the cards look similar. One client was having trouble remembering which plastic card was for groceries, so we actually wrote “GROCERIES” on it with a Sharpie. She was THRILLED to have it be that easy.

It seems positively old fashioned now to shop for groceries or almost anything else with cash, but it’s an excellent behavior modifier. The first time she has to stand at the checkout line and put something back because it isn’t in her budget, it will make an impression on her. It can be a very good experience, rather than a shameful one, if she has prepared for this possibility and has a lot of support and perhaps even a script of how to handle it. I suspect that everyone has had to make that decision at a checkout line at some point in their lives, but those who don’t experience it until they are adults can really feel like a failure. When we reframe from “I don’t have enough to buy this and so must be a failure” to “I am choosing to make better decisions so I can reach my other financial goals and be successful long term,” adults tend to do better.

Other tips below come from various NAPO colleagues:

  • Don’t shop hungry. Always eat before grocery shopping.
  • Have a meal plan, even if it’s loose plan.
  • Write a grocery list based on your meal plan.
  • Create a grocery list template that you can copy and use over and over again, reducing planning time.
  • Write your grocery list in the order that the aisles run in your favorite store.
  • Shop at smaller grocery stores, to reduce the distractions and impulse buys.
  • Organize the fridge and freezer before going shopping.
  • Stay out of the stores completely! Use an online grocery delivery service, such as Instacart or Peapod.
  • See if your grocery store has a handheld scanner that you can use while shopping. By seeing your purchases total up in the aisles, you might make different choices in real time, instead of feeling like you’ve already bought the item by the time you get to the checkout line.

Are grocery expenses sabotaging your best intentions for healthy finances? Would any of these strategies work for you?

I’m pinnable!