Most of us are still living in quarantine, which means many things. It means not seeing our friends outside of video calls, not being able to go to the summer concerts we were looking forward to, and not having any sports to watch. However, one of the bonuses of life in a pandemic is having the opportunity to start cooking more.
Of course, it is incredibly important to continue to support the local businesses in our area, especially restaurants. We can do this by ordering takeout, or by purchasing gift cards that we can use later or give as presents. Outside of this important practice, though, many of us are trying to use this extra time we have on our hands to save a bit of money.
It’s common knowledge that making food at home is almost always the cheaper option compared to eating out. By going shopping and cooking for ourselves consistently, it’s possible to build up some serious savings over time. If you make the choice to go out (or take out) less and eat in regularly, you are virtually guaranteed to save money.
Still, it’s possible to end up spending more money than you intended even when you’re making food for yourself. Grocery shopping on a budget is not a skill that comes easily to everyone. If you often find yourself rather horrified at the total when the supermarket cashier rings you up, you’re going to need this guide.
First, we’re going to do a deep dive to figure out what strategies supermarkets employ to make grocery shopping on a budget harder for customers. Then we’ll discuss strategies you can employ to combat these tactics and stay within your means.
How Grocery Stores Get You To Spend More Money
Many of us fail to realize just how much effort goes into the design of grocery stores. They layout of these stores is informed by an immense amount of research into human psychology, specifically regarding consumer behavior. Grocery stores use this information to maximize the amount of money that shoppers spend in each shopping trip they make.
If you were wondering why grocery shopping on a budget is so difficult, these are the reasons why:
The paradox of choice
Enter any supermarket and try to count the number of options for a given product. Whether you’re looking at pastas, pasta sauces, canned beans, peanut butter, or any of the countless different foods that are available, you’re likely going to get tired and give up before you reach the total. Today, supermarkets order from such a large array of companies that the sheer number of choices consumers face is staggering.
There are two results here. The first is that consumers will find it more difficult to stay on target and purchase just the items that were on their grocery list. There are so many products to try that the shopper feels compelled to purchase more simply to avoid missing out. After all, what if you aren’t buying the best product? What if there are better ones you’ve not yet tried?
Psychologists have actually found a strong negative correlation between the number of choices available and the resulting levels of satisfaction. This pattern has been found in a wide variety of contexts, but it is particularly salient when it comes to the experience of the consumer when grocery shopping. The paradox of choice is a phenomenon which writer and Social Theory professor Barry Schwartz first named and described in his book on the matter. He also elaborates on his findings in an enlightening TED Talk which has been viewed by millions.
Thus, the second result is diminished satisfaction from the choices we made during grocery store visits that have overwhelmed us with products. Due to the paradox of choice, our shopping lists have not left us feeling fulfilled, and so we are less likely to stick to them. This is another way in which grocery shopping on a budget can easily get off track.
The power of branding
While this is overabundance of choice is common practice in supermarkets, it is not universal. As Business Insider breaks down in one of their videos, stores such as Trader Joe’s employ different tactics to get their products off the shelves and into your cart. They offer a smaller product line with a less overwhelming diversity of options. Instead, they prioritize their own direct-to-consumer brands, a strategy that supermarkets such as Wegmans have also employed to great effect.
By creating its own versions of many popular products, Trader Joe’s is able to achieve consistent branding throughout its shelves. These products feature colorful, creative designs that stay simple, clean, and appealing. The art on their custom packaging tends to have a hand-drawn, family-run feel to it. This is in sharp contrast to the more sterile digital designs that many mass-market grocery products have.
The resulting savings from sourcing their products directly and cutting out the middleman, as well as streamlining their supply chain by carrying a smaller variety of products, are significant. Trader Joe’s is able to pass on some of these savings to the consumer, thereby increasing brand loyalty. This is why for a long time the store has been well-known for carrying high-quality products at a modest price-point.
Consumers need to be wary of the strategic use of specific terms designed to inflate the perceived benefits of the product and get you to spend more money. For example, there are countless products out there that claim to function as a natural medicine, using buzzwords such as “antioxidants” or “anti-aging.” These products often mention that they contain “superfoods” or use other terms that do not have definitions that are determined by an outside agency.
Yes, research suggests that antioxidants are important their role in helping to combat free radicals in the body. But you can easily get a ton of antioxidants from the polyphenols found in green tea, as well as black, white, and oolong teas, while still grocery shopping on a budget. Throw in some local honey and you have a drink that will also help you to avoid seasonal allergies. You don’t need to buy an exorbitantly expensive acai tincture to stay healthy!
It is perfectly legitimate to prioritize products that align with your values. You may choose to spend a bit more money to get food that is fair-trade certified, food has been grown organically, or food that is locally-sourced. Making an effort to support brands that have a commitment to ethical business practices and a smaller environmental impact is commendable. Just make sure not to fall for manipulative marketing tools.
Key Strategies To Use When Grocery Shopping on a Budget
As you can see, there are many ways in which supermarkets set us up to fail when we try grocery shopping on a budget. Fortunately, there are some tried and true strategies you can employ to help you stay on target and save your money. Use these methods to help you save up both during and after quarantine.
On sale doesn’t necessarily mean good deal
Most of us are guilty of getting items we probably didn’t need just because it looked like a “good deal.” It’s a psychological vulnerability we all share — if something is being offered for less than our perceived base value of that item, we feel compelled to take advantage of the deal and purchase it. However, this vulnerability means that we don’t always shop rationally.
A perfect example would be the deals which require us to purchase more in order to save. Oftentimes, items are offered at a discount provided that we buy three or five of them at a time. This can make for a perfectly reasonable purchase if the item is something we already planned on buying in bulk. However, if the sale is offered for a specialty product that we may not have even purchased without the deal, it is generally best to walk away and keep your hard-earned cash.
Deals which require that we buy more in order to save present a logistical problem as well. Unless your house just so happens to be filled with portable fridge freezers that can handle any overflow you come across, the real estate on our fridge and freezer shelves is valuable. Particularly if you have a large family or multiple roommates, things can get cluttered quickly. Outdoor refrigerators can help, but it’s best to buy only what you need to ensure that you have sufficient space and don’t waste food.
Plan your meals a week in advance
By looking ahead to a whole week’s worth of meals, you can make grocery shopping on a budget a cinch. Just write out your favorite recipes or look up some new ones. If there are overlapping ingredients (and there most likely will be), you have the opportunity to buy in bulk and get some additional savings. You also get to save time, as well as gas or bus fare, by completing your week’s shopping in one trip.
Planning ahead also means that you can easily meal prep to streamline your routine. Dice some veggies or marinate or pre-cook your dishes when you have the time. This way when it comes time to actually make and eat your meal, some of the most time-consuming steps are already finished. This will help to ensure your adherence to your budget and schedule.
Take advantage of leftovers
If you’re cooking for just yourself or for just you and a partner, the odds are good that most of your meals will have food left over. This gives you the chance to save even more time and money by using your leftovers for lunch the next day.
At work, we can’t cook a meal for ourselves when lunchtime arrives. This means that we either have to pack lunch in the morning our opt for eating out, an option with costs that seriously add up over time. While quarantine might mean that we can cook lunch for ourselves each day, this can be difficult if there are a lot of tasks to complete. Utilizing leftovers is quick, easy, and conserves cash.
Avoid excess snacking
During quarantine, when many of us no longer have access to a gym and are finding ourselves sitting around even more than usual, it is harder than ever to stay in shape. The last thing we need is to be snacking constantly, which can be both unhealthy and expensive. Additionally, sugary snacks wreak havoc on our teeth, so eating healthy means better dental care as well.
A great way to avoid buying too many snacks while grocery shopping on a budget is to make sure you eat before going to the store. When we shop while hungry everything looks tempting, making it far more difficult to stick to our plan.
If you want a steady source of cheap, healthy snacks, try growing your own food. While we may not all have access to a greenhouse, you can fill some pots or raised beds with soil and plant some tasty berries or carrots when the growing season arrives. This is a great way to get more produce into your diet without spending too much money.
Virtually everyone understands the importance of healthy eating. A good diet means a longer, healthier life with fewer trips to the emergency care clinic and more trips to your favorite hiking trails. The sooner you start eating healthy, the sooner you start laying the foundational habits for a lifetime of well-being.
For those who thought that a healthy diet was only accessible to those with an abundance of disposable income, hopefully this article has dispelled that myth. With a bit of work planning meals ahead of time, along with a full commitment to grocery shopping on a budget with strict spending limits, anyone can enjoy great nutrition for relatively cheap.
A note: If you or someone you are in close contact with are a member of a population at high risk of complications due to COVID-19, avoid grocery shopping if possible. These days there are a plethora of grocery delivery services available, such as Instacart, Walmart Grocery, FreshDirect, Amazon Fresh, and more. If these services are unavailable in your area or are cost-prohibitive, ask a friend or family member who is at lesser risk and who you don’t live with to shop for you. They can drop the groceries off for you outside your door so you can get your food safely.
Stay safe, and happy cooking!