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How to spend smart and avoid stress shopping through COVID-19

The once mundane grocery run has been turned on its head. Empty store shelves, panicked shoppers, countless news stories about people stockpiling a year’s supply of toilet paper – it’s become the new normal in the wake of COVID-19. 

In the midst of it all, it’s important to remember there’s a fine line between sensibly stocking up on essentials for two weeks and overspending and hoarding items. 

Now more than ever is the time to make smart spending decisions, and to help, we’ve listed a few tips to ensure your next shopping run is focused and on budget.

Take inventory of what you already have

Before you rush to your local grocery store or bulk add items to your online shopping cart, take a deep breath and take stock of what you have right now. 

Audit your fridge, freezer, pantry, garage, and storage locker. You might be surprised to find you’ve got some essentials lingering around from a previous shopping run. Also, try and meal prep around items you already have in your kitchen. Got some packets of rice and frozen vegetables? You might be just an ingredient or two away from a few days of full-fledged meals. By planning ahead, your next shopping trip could help you stock up on what you need and fill in the gaps instead of spending on unnecessary extras.

Make a list

In the frenzy of your next shopping run, you might be tempted to fill up your cart with whatever non-perishable items you can grab – just to be safe. Combat that urge by creating a list of all the things you actually need to buy beforehand and diligently stick to it. 

A mental shopping list won’t cut it. Put exactly what you need to buy on paper or on your smartphone to ensure you don’t stray and overspend. It can help to work backwards by planning your meals first then listing out the necessary ingredients. 

Since many groceries are running short on supplies, you’ll also want to include a handful of back-up options on your list to make sure your shopping efforts remain focused even if what you originally wanted isn’t available. If your first-choice is cereal, list oatmeal as a back-up option just in case. Need to buy rice? Have quinoa as your next-best choice. If meat is in short supply, you’ll still need protein. Opt for different sources of protein like chickpeas, tofu, nuts, and lentils. 

The more you prepare before shopping, the less likely you’ll be driven to overspend.

You should also aim to stock up on a reasonable amount of food and essentials that’ll keep you covered for about two or three weeks. Buying a year’s worth of supplies all at once could land you with a giant credit card bill or a huge amount of cash withdrawn out of your chequing account – which isn’t what you want. Set a budget, keep track of your spending, and pace out your purchases.

Buy the right things

  • Purchasing non-perishable items is the sensible thing to do, but make sure you’re still buying food your family enjoys to eat. Canned beans may be the “de facto quarantine food” but there’s no sense in buying it if your kids won’t eat it. 
  • Buy common ingredients – like rice, pasta, and eggs – that you can adapt and incorporate into a wide variety of meals across several days.
  • Embrace canned foods like mushrooms, soup, tuna, tomato sauce, and green beans. For healthier options, try and avoid canned foods with over 3 grams of saturated fat or 300 mg of sodium per serving.
  • It’s easy to find junk food that’ll last – like chips, popcorn, and chocolate bars – but don’t ignore healthy snacks. Frozen fruits, nuts, jerky, and dried fruits and vegetables can be just as effective at curbing your hunger between meals.
  • Not all produce goes bad quickly. Onions, potatoes, broccoli, and garlic have long shelf lives, so make sure to include them in your shopping cart. Even apples in the fridge can last for a while.
  • Paper towels are pricey and hand sanitizers are either hard to find or carry hefty premiums. Stick with your reusable kitchen towel (while making sure to regularly wash it) and opt for good old fashioned soap instead. 
  • Make sure you always have enough condiments and cooking oils. Not only do they have long shelf lives but they’re essential for a whole array of meals.
  • Stick to staple foods and ingredients you’re familiar with. It’s not the time to experiment with new recipes, especially if you’re juggling working from home and taking care of the kids.
  • Consider all your protein options – like chickpeas, beans, tofu, nuts, and lentils.

Grocery deliveries, pickup, and senior hours

Want to practice social distancing while grocery shopping? There are some options.

PC Express – which is run by President’s Choice and linked to Loblaws – is a pickup service that lets you order groceries in advance, wait in the parking lot, and have someone drop it off in your car. Usually, it costs about $3-$5 per pickup but fees are reportedly being waived or reduced at some locations.

There are also a number of grocery delivery services that ship supplies to your home offered by Grocery Gateway, Metro, Loblaws, Instacart and Walmart, and more. Heads up though, many of their websites are facing high volumes right now, so you could experience slow load times among other delays.

If you’re over the age of 65, several groceries and pharmacies are opening doors early with time slots dedicated for seniors. Check up on your local store if and when they’re hosting senior hours.

On the topic of credit cards

Monitor your spending and credit card balance

If panic buying sets in and you end up charging everything to your credit card, you could get stuck with a large balance at the end of the month. Credit card balances that aren’t paid off in full will rack up interest – an extra cost that’ll make your groceries all that more expensive. 

Before you head out, ask yourself: What’s my budget for this grocery run? Will I be using a credit card? If I use credit, can I afford to pay off my balance in full? If the answer to the last question is no, consider forgoing credit and using cash or debit instead.

Remember, while a rewards credit card will earn you points or cash back on every dollar you spend, your rewards will be offset by interest charges if you do end up carrying a balance. If you want to stick with credit but suspect you’ll owe a balance, using a low interest credit card could be the better move. 

Regardless of how you’re paying though, it’s critical you set a budget and impose limits on how much you’ll spend in a single shopping run.

If you have a points credit card, consider non-travel redemptions

If you’re sitting on a giant pile of credit card travel points, odds are, you won’t be redeeming for anything like flights or hotel stays for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, you could consider cashing in your points for rewards that can help you save now – like a gift card to Costco or statement credits to reduce your balance.

Before you go the non-travel redemption route though, you’ll want to be aware of a few things first. 

For one, gift cards can take a while to arrive in the mail (sometimes up to three weeks), so it can definitely help you save but not immediately. Second, non-travel redemptions typically offer you less value out of your points. For instance, while 10,000 TD Points is worth $50 in travel rewards, those same 10,000 points would be worth about $25 in gift cards or cash credits. As someone who has a travel credit card, I’ve decided to hoard my points until the situation settles down and travel is an option again. Whatever your decision, just be aware of all the pros and cons.

Watch out for COVID-19 credit card scam calls

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been reports of phone calls and text messages from scammers posing as health or government agencies with one goal in mind: stealing your credit card information. If you receive calls or messages relating to COVID-19, be suspicious, end the call quickly, avoid clicking any links, and don’t provide any personal information. 

Online shopping

With uncertainties around the economy, now is the time to keep your spending in check and avoid big-ticket purchases. That said, you may occasionally need to shop online for some smaller “lesser-essential items.” Personally, I got a subscription to Disney+ to catch up on shows while I’m hunkered down at home while my partner bought contact lenses. Since I have an Aeroplan credit card, I decided to check the online Aeroplan e-store and found I could get deals on both those purchases, earning five times the normal number of miles per dollar. 

If you have an Aeroplan or Air Miles credit card and plan on shopping online, you may want to check their online e-stores first if there are any relevant offers. Just remember to keep a budget, track your spending, and create a shopping list beforehand to avoid unnecessary splurging. This isn’t about retail therapy but maximizing rewards on purchases you’d be making anyway.

The bottom line

There’s no getting around it, things aren’t normal. Even shopping for essentials has become a challenge. It can all get very stressful. But take a deep breath and approach things day-by-day. Stock up on a reasonable amount of food and essentials for up to two or three weeks at a time, monitor your spending, set aside money into an emergency fund whenever possible, and don’t panic shopp for fear the absolute worst-case apocalyptic scenario comes to fruition (it won’t). 

Of course, make sure to wash your hands, stay indoors as much as possible, and avoid large gatherings. Oh, and occasionally check in with your neighbours and the elderly in your community in case you can help pick them up some essentials while on your next grocery trip.