The average family in Canada spends over $12,000 on food every year. And with the COVID-19 pandemic changing everything from the way we shop to how global supply chains function, grocery bills are only expected to go up.
Canada’s Food Price Report anticipates food prices will increase by 5% in 2021 (in real dollar terms, that’s up roughly $700 year-over-year for the average household). Meat, baked goods, and vegetables, in particular, are set to experience the largest spikes with increases of up to 6.5%.
Whether you’re on a tight budget or trying to combat higher prices, here are some tips to help you save at the grocery checkout counter.
1. Create a grocery list (and stick to it)
You’re just as likely to fall victim to impulse buying while strolling through aisles at the supermarket as you’re at the mall or while shopping online. Most grocery stores are designed to encourage overspending, and Ivy League research has shown unplanned purchases can account for over 20% of your grocery bill. With that in mind, creating a grocery list can go a long way in helping you save and avoid spending extra on what you don’t need.
Here’s some advice on how to create a budget-friendly grocery list:
- Start by creating a meal plan of what you want to cook for the next week or two, factoring in how many people are in your household, and work backwards from there – listing all the ingredients you need by type (e.g. meats, vegetables, and sides should all be categorized separately)
- Forget about keeping a mental list, commit in writing on paper or in a smartphone app that you can constantly reference
- Raid your fridge and pantry to avoid needlessly adding items on your list that you’re already stocked up on
- Your list should be both comprehensive and realistic. Don’t create an overly-idealized list with only healthy foods you and your family rarely eat. Make room for items you usually purchase – including snacks and soft drinks – while setting strict limits for each. An unrealistic list won’t be adhered to and you’ll likely just end up adding extra snacks into your shopping cart anyway
- Stick to your list no matter what. If you find something that’s not on your grocery list, avoid buying it, even if it’s on a special limited-time offer.
2. Track your grocery spending
To really maximize your budget, you’ll want to track how much you actually spend on groceries in the first place. And the more you track, the better.
As a start, keep tabs of your total bill after each grocery run. From there, you can establish a benchmark of how much you spend on food on average and allocate a maximum weekly or monthly budget.
If you want to get more in-depth, use the calculator app on your smartphone to add the cost of each item as you place them into your cart (rounding up the price of everything to the nearest dollar). Sure, it’s more work, but by putting your spending under the microscope, it’ll be far easier to cut out last-minute impulse purchases. It’ll also be easier to find the willpower to place those overpriced chocolate bars back on the shelf.
3. Try grocery shopping alone (or at least, leave overspenders at home)
Make your grocery list and – if possible – shop for groceries alone. You’ll be less likely to go over budget as you can avoid having your partner or kids sneak unnecessary items into your shopping cart or try to convince you to waiver from your list.
4. Avoid shopping on an empty stomach
If your stomach is grumbling on your way to the grocery store, you could be driven to overspend – particularly on expensive, high-calorie junk foods.
Research from the University of Minnesota and Cornell to the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior have all shown evidence that hungry shoppers are less price-sensitive and likelier to spend more time at the grocery store (in turn, buying more things).
5. Get familiar with your supermarket’s layout
It’s no secret that the layout of grocery stores are designed to encourage extra purchases.
We all know that essentials – like milk and eggs – are located at the back of the store to encourage you to walk between aisles (and add more items to your cart along the way). Even worse, aisle signs intentionally use vague or brief wording to confuse you into spending more time searching (and shopping).
If you frequent the same grocery store, make it a goal to get acquainted with its layout. You can take it a step further and organize your grocery list based on where items are located in your supermarket. That way, you can save time walking back-and-forth between aisles and limit the chances of something that’s not on your list catching your eye.
6. Compare the unit price to get the best deal
When shopping for anything from produce and meat to bags of sugar, don’t just look at the total sticker price but calculate the unit price (the cost per pound or gram). It can make it far easier to comparison shop and spot the best deals between items from different brands or with different sized packaging.
7. Shop with a credit card that’s made for groceries
With the right credit card, you can rack up rewards at the grocery store and stretch your dollar.
Some of the best cash back credit cards for grocery shopping include the CIBC Dividend Visa Infinite and the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite – which both earn 4% on groceries. Meanwhile, the PC Financial World Elite Mastercard racks up 30 PC Points (the equivalent of 3% in store credit) at all Loblaws banner stores (including No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore, and Fortinos) while not charging any annual fee. Another great option is the American Express Cobalt, which earns five times the points at grocery stores.
Remember though, rewards credit cards will only help boost your savings provided you pay off your balance in full each and every month. If you’re on a tight budget or facing a cash crunch, stick with a low interest credit card or debit card instead to avoid racking up high-interest debt.
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8. Avoid expensive snacks and pre-prepared items near the entrance
Just like how groceries make cheaper and essential items harder to get to at the back of the store, they place the priciest items front and centre. Hot prepared meals, expensive brand-name snacks, and pre-cut fruits are usually located near the entrance or right next to the sales counter. Try and avoid these at all cost.
9. Look below (and above) eye level
Shelf space located at eye-level is premium real estate at grocery stores. Items stocked here are most likely to get your attention, and as a result, it’s where you’ll tend to find the priciest brand-name goods. Make it a habit of kneeling down and peering above to spot cheaper, no-name alternatives.
10. Don’t fall for scarcity promotions
“$1.50 each. Only 5 per customer.” These types of promotions, which limits the number of sale items per shopper, exploit our subconscious and encourage us to spend more. We’re suddenly convinced we need to max out the deal and stock up on all five, even if we weren’t looking to buy any in the first place.
11. Double dip with flyers and coupons
By carrying one of Canada’s best credit cards, you can earn up to 4% or 5% in rewards on every dollar you spend at the grocery store. However, you can boost your savings by double-dipping and using a credit card and grocery coupons at the same time.
A number of money-saving apps and websites (such as Flipp, Checkout51, and Drop) offer a mix of coupons, points or cash back that, when used in tandem with a rewards credit card, can help you save faster. You should also sign up for emails and flyers from department stores and grocery chains, which regularly roll out deals.
One of our favourite grocery store rewards programs is PC Optimum, which is linked to the country’s largest grocery brands including Loblaws, No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore, and more.
12. Cook from scratch
The convenience of buying pre-cut vegetables and ready-made food comes at a cost. So, while grocery stores may display a number of appetizing already-cooked hot meals, stick to buying raw ingredients and cooking from scratch at home.
While cooking from scratch is more time-intensive, it can help you save big. Plus, if you organize your kitchen in advance, clean while you prep, use a slow-cooker, and stick to straightforward recipes, the process can be a lot simpler than you think.
13. Eat more greens
A meat dish – whether it’s chicken, salmon, or beef – is usually the centrepiece of every meal – and it’s pound for pound almost always the most expensive. To carve out some extra savings, try elevating your vegetable dishes from sides to mains. Vegetables are always more affordable than protein and research from the Credit Counselling Society estimates Canadians can save around $70 every month ($840 annually) by eating less meat and more greens.
14. Shop for produce that is in season
While you can have your pick of any fruit or vegetable year-round, home-grown produce that isn’t in season usually carry a premium since it’ll need to be imported. In Ontario’s winter, for instance, pears, apples, and beets tend to be in season, meanwhile, cranberries are only in season during the fall.
15. Buy no-name brands and shop at discount stores
You can save a considerable chunk of change on your grocery bills by buying generic – particularly when paying a premium price for a brand has little impact on taste or quality, such as in the case of spices and seasoning, baking supplies, and salad mix. Furthermore, consider hopping into your car to shop at discount grocers.
16. Take advantage of curbside pickup
Not only does curbside pickup promote social distancing, but it can help your bottom line too. By shopping online in advance, you can avoid falling for the tactics supermarket employ to get you to spend more in-store. Plus, you can avoid pricey delivery fees by picking up your groceries yourself as opposed to having them sent straight to your front door. Just be sure to keep an eye out for additional curbside pick up fees.