7 Tips for Navigating the Grocery Store, Stocking the Pantry, and Saving Money

Dollars & Sense on 07.23.12
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Photo: Emmanuel Faure/Getty Images

It's pretty hard to avoid going to the grocery store (unless you have a stellar delivery service in town), and once you arrive, it's really easy to get sucked in and distracted by all the flashy signs and delicious looking items that you don't need. But it is possible to get through the grocery store efficiently, without going home with a bunch of items that weren't on your list, and while still saving a bundle of money. These seven tips will make this often costly and time consuming chore a breeze so that you have healthy meals, a well stocked pantry, and a fatter wallet.

1. Read Your Store Circular First

grocery circular

Screenshot: Shaw's

Before you head out to the store check your store's circular (many times it comes in the mail or your newspaper, and it can almost always be found online) for this week's sales, and make a list of the ones that are for items on your list that you want to take advantage of. Consider being flexible on which bands you buy to be able to take advantage of more sales. You can often substitute one brand of juice or pasta for another to take advantage of a weekly sale. This will help you in meal planning and determining which items to stock up on each week so that you've got a well stocked pantry.

2. Stick to the Perimeter Aisles of the Store

produce department
Photo: Katrina Wittkamp/Getty Images

The grocery store is set up with the majority of the healthier foods on the perimeter walls and the processed foods in the center aisles. Try to do the bulk of your shopping in these perimeter sections which feature fresh produce, meat and seafood, and dairy items. If you need to pick up olive oil, coffee, or garbage bags only go down those aisles, and definitely don't wander aimlessly down aisles where you aren't sure if you need anything. You'll save a lot of time and empty calories skipping as many center aisles as possible.

3. Don't Buy Individual Servings of Items

kid eating yogurt
Photo: Peter Gridley/Getty Images

It's so easy to pick up single serve yogurts, cups of apple sauce, or even snack packs of crackers to throw into the kids' lunch boxes, but it's far from cost effective. Consider that my kids' favorite yogurt costs $3.99 for an 8-pack of 2 ounce squeezable tubes, but it costs $4.69 for a 32 ounce tub of the same yogurt. That's twice as much yogurt for only 70 cents more per package and means I'm paying over 10 cents more per ounce of yogurt when I buy it in the tubes. It may not seem like a lot, but when you buy it every week, it really adds up. You don't have to buy in huge bulk, but breaking out the individual serving sizes using your own containers and buying the bigger package will save you a bundle.  

4. Buy Bulk Dry Items

pantry staples
Photo: Tom Grill/Getty Images

You don't want to buy everything in bulk as it's unlikely you'll use 30 tubes of toothpaste in a year, and it's hard to store that much of it. Have you ever seen the extreme couponers with pantry shelves in their bedrooms? You don't need that. However, it really does make sense to buy things like flour, sugar, rice, and grains in bulk to secure better pricing and have plenty of go-to items on hand to prepare a meal or whip up a dessert in a flash. You don't have to buy 20-pound bags of the items, but purchase about as much as you'd use in six months to a year, and keep them in tightly locked containers such as mason jars.

5. Look High and Low

woman grocery shopping
Photo: Emmanuel Faure/Getty Images

There's a reason that the brands you see advertised the most are also the ones that you see at eye level when you walk through the aisles of the grocery store. Companies pay a premium to have their items on the shelf right where you can't miss them. Don't quickly grab the first item you see. Be sure to look for other brands of the same item on the higher and lower shelves to compare prices and sizes so that you can make the most well-informed decision and get the most for your money.

6. Put Blinders on to Special Displays

grocery store sale sign
Photo: Holly Harris/Getty Images

Unless you spot a display for an item that you've already got on your list to buy from the store's circular, ignore the other special displays that occur every few feet in the grocery store. They aren't there by accident. Grocery store managers carefully place them on every end cap, and in bins lining the wider aisles, particularly near the checkout where you're likely to grab those impulse buys just as you're finishing up your trip. You'll be lured with deals like 10 for $10 or 2 for $4, but many times you're only saving a few cents on an item that you weren't planning on buying and don't need.

7. Find Your Store's Liquidation Locations

milk
Photo: Ciaran Griffin/Getty Images

Just like clothing stores, grocery stores need to move their merchandise, and if there is something that isn't selling or something that is nearing its expiration date, they'd rather sell it for less than make nothing at all on the product. Almost every grocery store has an area where they put the day old bread or Halloween candy come November and at deep discounts. Most of these spots are located somewhere along the back wall of the store. My store has one for dry goods and another special area in the dairy department with discounted milk, yogurt, and eggs. I've seen other stores with them in the produce section too. The items are still perfectly good, but some of them need to be used quicker than others, and if you're buying food for dinner tonight, there's no reason you shouldn't buy it for less.

Grocery shopping isn't always fun, but you can still have a well-stocked household without your trips to the store consuming huge amounts of your precious time or hard-earned money. And that means more quality time with the family and more padding in your bank account -- both of which we can all use.

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