The All-Time Best Technique for Saving Money on Groceries

Want to make it easier to save money on food? This simple three-part shopping technique helps you save money at the grocery store every single time you go:

1) Have a flexible grocery list.
2) Have a collection of favorite recipes in your head (or on your smartphone).
3) Have a "treasure hunt" mindset for genuine screaming bargains.

Let's get into the details:

1) A flexible grocery list
If you bumble into a grocery store with a fixed, rigid grocery list, you're at the mercy of the prices the store offers you on that day. If you "need" ground beef, or butternut squash (or whatever), you're gonna end up paying whatever the store makes you pay. The worst and most costly form of this error is to "need" a totally out-of-season ingredient (e.g., fresh raspberries in the middle of winter), when the quality of the item is lowest and the price is highest.

In these situations you become a lowly price taker--you're stuck paying whatever price they ask, no matter how high. You might as well beg the store to separate you from your money.

Prices for any given product in your grocery store always fluctuate, and often fluctuate dramatically. If you stay flexible and ready to pounce on foods that are attractively priced--and only those foods--you'll be a price maker. In this case, you--not the store--decide the price you'll pay for something by not being rigid about when you buy it.

Next, we'll integrate Step #1 with our next step, Step #2:

2) A handy set of family-favorite recipes in your head (or smartphone)
When you see attractive sale prices on a given food item, the next step is to build recipes around that food. The easiest way to do this is to memorize your family's favorite heavy rotation recipes.

Of course, we live in the smartphone era nowadays, so readers can rely on their smartphones rather than literally carrying the recipes around in their brains. Either way, the goal is the same: structure what you eat that week around whatever foods are on sale.

Let's go over an example employing Steps #1 and #2 using my inside voice:

"Hmmmm... I see potatoes are on sale big time this week. Only $1.00 for a 5lb bag, and buy one get one free! Whoa. Okay what recipes can I build around that? Vegan Potato Peanut Curry? I already have tahini, peanut butter and garlic at home... let's see, spices too, I've got turmeric and cayenne already. I just need a 29-ounce can of diced tomatoes and I can make a huge double batch. It'll last all week!"

A sidenote to smartphone users: your memory isn't totally off the hook. As you can see, you'll also need to have some idea of what's sitting in your pantry back home that you might use to complete these recipes.

Here's the central principle: Build your meals based on what's on sale, rather than walking into the grocery store with a rigid list of ingredients for a rigid meal plan and paying whatever price they ask.

Another quick example, again using my inside voice:

"Stewed and canned tomatoes are 2/3 off this week, and I noticed a good sale on boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Hmmm, okay: I've already got unsweetened chocolate at home, and plenty of spices. This would be a good week to make some Chicken Mole, and it will feed us for a few days, easy!"

And so on. Once again, the idea is to combine your internalized knowledge of a set of basic (and ideally Laughably Cheap) family-favorite recipes, and match it with whatever happens to be on sale at the store. Result? A hilariously low grocery bill and plenty of healthy homemade food.

Now, let's move on to Step #3, which is essentially Steps #1 and #2 on steroids.

3) A "treasure hunt" mentality for genuine screaming bargains
Periodically a grocery store (or for that matter any retailer) will have a ridiculous sale on something. Perhaps it will be a buy one get two free (67% off) sale, or a manager's special on food that is about to pass its sell-by date.

About two months ago, I found a manager's special on Italian-style spicy sausage links, more than three pounds for the hilariously cheap price of $2.17. The meat was a day from its sell-by date, but so what? A sell-by date means nothing if you can freeze the item! I took it home, froze it, and we're still working our way through it, months--and many, many recipes--later.

Likewise, I wrote a post long ago about a pernil I prepared, featured in Daisy Martinez's wonderful cookbook Daisy Cooks. I was wandering through the meat section with my treasure hunt mindset on, and found a pork shoulder for the hilariously cheap price of 49c a pound. Which meant the 4.5lb pork shoulder I bought cost only $2.27.

These are minor and nearly silly examples, really, but they both illustrate the central principle: at some point over the course of a year, practically everything in a given grocery store will be offered at substantial markdowns. Make that the moment you buy.

One caveat: Keep in mind stores often use loss leader or doorbuster pricing in order to draw people into the store, with the condescending but unfortunately all too accurate presumption that once you're there, you'll spend money on other items too. The store therefore makes up its losses on the doorbuster item and then some. You, however, as a sophisticated consumer who knows to play chess, not checkers, with doorbuster pricing, will be way ahead of the game. You'll know to pick up the sale item and only that item, and then walk out, metaphorically (or literally?) rubbing your hands with glee for the legitimately great deal you just got.

Just like any other retailer, your grocery store is subject to various cycles and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes they misjudge demand. Sometimes they (or their suppliers) inadvertently ship excess inventory. Sometimes products simply need to be moved because the sell-by date approaches, and the store wants to make a little cash flow off of soon-to-be-worthless inventory.

A savvy consumer who remains alert to situations like these has a true treasure hunt mindset, and by combining the steps in this post, she can feed a family on a fraction of the cost of a typical, rigidly-structured grocery trip.

When shopping for groceries, knowing many recipes by heart allows one to tailor what's for dinner to whichever loss leaders are on sale, rather than venturing out with a shopping list and having to buy single missing ingredients.
--Early Retirement Extreme, by Jacob Lund Fisker

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