7 ways you’re throwing money away at the grocery store

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Want to trim some fat from your grocery bill?

On average, Americans spend $151 a week on groceries. Well, at least that’s how much we were spending in 2012, the last time Gallup took a poll on the topic. The price of groceries typically increases 2.5 percent each year, but actually decreased by 0.5 percent in 2016.

Before we get into the mistakes you might be making at the grocery store though, we owe you a pat on the back. If you’re routinely grocery shopping and making meals at home, you’re saving money. (And in 2015, Americans started spending more at restaurants than at grocery stores.) You’d be hard-pressed to nail down a study to show just how much, but anecdotally, we can point to a family that was spending about $300 a week on fast food and took a TV show challenge showing it’s way quicker and cheaper to make fresh food at home.

So, if you’re cooking most meals at home, you’re halfway there, but there might be more you could be doing to save on those groceries. Here are seven common mistakes you might be making at the grocery store—and some easy fixes that could save you money.

1. You Assume Healthy Equals Expensive

Your mind could be playing a trick on you at the grocery store. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that our subconscious often associates healthy with expensive, which causes shoppers to not just spend more but also make some uninformed decisions when it comes to which foods are actually healthy. Scientists refer to it as the “healthy = expensive intuition” and you might have fallen for this if you have ever scooped up a box of granola bars because they were dubbed the “the healthiest bars.” Do some comparison shopping by checking the nutrition labels and comparing like products and their prices. Apps like ShopWell will scan groceries and give them nutrition scores.

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2. You Think Coupons Are Old-School

If you loathe the idea of clipping coupons on a sunny Saturday morning, know this: Most grocery stores now have digital coupons that you can easily load on your phone. Still hate the idea of couponing? Do a little “reverse couponing.” When you get those grocery fliers in the mail, meal plan around what’s on sale. This is one of my favorite hacks. Say there’s a great sale on pork or strawberries, I’ll do a search on my favorite recipe sites (I’m a huge fan of Skinnytaste) to pull up recipe ideas that I can make with the sale items.

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3. You’re Shopping Out Of Season

When you shop for foods that are in season locally, you’ll save a huge amount of money. (Translated: You’re not paying for that food to be shipped in from afar—so, this is a win for Mother Earth, too!) Plus, in-season food is the tastiest because it’s at peak flavor. To find out what’s in season each week in your location, check out EatTheSeasons.com.

Flickr | christine592

4. You’re Buying Those Little Cartons of Herbs

Fresh herbs can make over a meal and add a punch of flavor. But if there’s one thing that can add a quick $5 to your bill, it’s that package of basil or mint leaves in the produce section—a total bummer if you just need a couple tablespoons of the herb. This will require a little time upfront but can be a huge money-saver down the line: Buy yourself a few herb plants. Every spring, I buy at least a basil plant for $4 at Trader Joe’s and I snip from it almost every night when I’m making dinner, adding a garnish to a tomato soup or giving extra flavor to a chicken-and-veggie sheet-pan meal. I also usually have a thyme and mint plant on hand so that I can make pestos and chimichurri throughout the summer. In the winter, you can freeze your herbs in ice cube trays and defrost the cubes one at a time for dinner.

Flickr | Alice Henneman

5. You’re Buying Spices Wrong

That new recipe you’re trying out calls for a teaspoon of rosemary or some other spice that’s not on you rack and that you don’t routinely use. Instead of buying a whole bottle of it, hit up the bulk bin and buy just what you need.

Flickr | TinyTall

6. You’re Shopping While Hungry

Yup, you’ve heard this one before. But there’s actually some science behind it. A 2008 study that was published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when people are hungry, they tend to spend more at the grocery store, even if they’re on a tight budget. Another study shows hungry shoppers buy more high-calorie foods.

Getty Images | Spencer Platt

7. You’re Using the Regular Checkout Line

The checkout line at the grocery store is like a final exam. It’s loaded with sweets that probably aren’t on your grocery list. We’re talking candy bars, gum and single-serving bottles of soda. You’re better off steering your cart to the self-checkout line. Using the self checkout lowered impulse buys by 32 percent among women and 17 percent among men, according to a study from IHL Group, a research firm.

Getty Images | David McNew


About the Author

Brittany Anas

Hi, I'm Brittany Anas (pronounced like the spice, anise ... see, that wasn't too embarrassing to say, now was it?) My professional writing career started when I was in elementary school and my grandma paid me $1 for each story I wrote for her. I'm a former newspaper reporter, with more than a decade of experience Hula-hooping at planning meetings and covering just about every beat from higher-education to crime to science for the Boulder Daily Camera and The Denver Post. Now, I'm a freelance writer, specializing in travel, health, food and adventure. I've contributed to publications including Men's Journal, Forbes, Women's Health, American Way, TripSavvy, Eat This, Not That!, Apartment Therapy, Denver Life Magazine, 5280, Livability, The Denver Post, Simplemost, USA Today Travel Tips, Make it Better, AAA publications, Reader's Digest, Discover Life and more. Learn More.