Did you ever look at the total on your grocery receipt and wonder how it got so high?
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It’s easy to get into a shopping routine in which you purchase the same items, or ones you grew up with, over and over, even if they’re overpriced or unnecessary. However, if you spend a minute with your grocery bill, you can see how expensive some everyday items really are. (Looking at you, paper towels!) You can save a lot of money at the grocery store without using coupons if you watch what you buy and consider using less or substituting lower-priced alternatives.
Here’s our list of items that lots of people buy every day at the grocery store, but that we think are either unnecessary, overused, or easily replaced with a cheaper alternative. Everyone’s list will look a little different, so pull out a few of your recent grocery receipts and see if you can save money by eliminating, cutting back, or swapping some of the items you typically buy.
1. Paper plates, bowls, and cups; plastic forks, knives, and spoons (except if you are having a party)
Disposable items do not equate to disposable income. It may be tempting to buy paper goods and plasticware on a regular basis just for the convenience of it. However, these products are not only unkind to your wallet but also to the environment. (Think Great Pacific Garbage Patch . . . . Is that nasty side-eye worth the plastic straw?)
Using paper goods and plastic utensils for a large party is one thing (make sure they are biodegradable); using them on an everyday basis is another. You can save a lot of money by reusing the real thing instead of reaching for single-use paper or plastic alternatives.
Do the math on everyday paper goods. These costs can really add up over time: 9-inch paper plates, $5.89 for a package of 120; 9-ounce paper cups, $3.79 for a package of 54; plastic forks, knives, and spoons, $6.69 for a package of 300.
If you are having a large party and still want to use disposable plates and utensils, consider going with eco-friendly plates (compostable) and bamboo utensils (biodegradable). You will definitely pay more for these than for paper and plastic, but at least your purchase will be kinder to the environment. Check out Earth’s Natural Eco-Friendly 10” Plates and Bamboodlers Disposable Wooden Cutlery Set. You might also want to look into buying reusable bamboo chopsticks.
And here’s a hot topic: plastic straws. Some restaurants won’t serve them anymore, and others have switched to biodegradable or metal straws. If you love to use straws but are eco-conscious, consider buying reusable straws like these found at Amazon: Reusable Stainless-Steel Eco-friendly Straws.
2. Dryer sheets
I don’t know why people spend money on a box of disposable dryer sheets. What’s so bad about static cling? If a sock clings to a towel, then just lift the sock off the towel. Problem solved. (And why add more chemicals to your laundry anyway?) A box of dryer sheets is about $8.99 for 160 sheets. The savings won’t make you rich, but why spend money if you don’t have to? That $9 could buy you a take-out lunch sometime. Hey, every penny counts.
If you still want to use something to reduce static (sigh), Eric suggests these Trader Joe’s wool dryer balls. His clothes dry faster (saving a bit on the electric bill), and they come out softer (but see next item). Plus there are none of those annoying chemicals because they are 100% New Zealand wool that is unscented and dye-free.
3. Fabric softener
I’m guessing that people use fabric softener because they think it will make their fabric . . . softer? And maybe it will. (I never used fabric softener, and my fabrics seem just fine.) Before you buy another bottle of this stuff, try washing your clothes without it and see if you can tell the difference. (And if you can, ask yourself if that difference is so great that you need to be spending $4.29 on a 32-ounce bottle.)
4. Air freshener
The only way to get real fresh air is to open a window. If you spray chemicals in your home, you will have chemically scented air, but not fresh air. (8-ounce spray can, $1.99)
5. Paper towels
Have you noticed how unbelievably expensive these are? You can pay almost $20 for a multi-pack of paper towels, and that really (really) adds up. (12-count package, giant roll, 2-ply, $19.79). Admittedly, there are times when a mess or spill is so bad that you really could use a paper towel. But if you use them regularly for things like drying your hands after you wash them, try substituting a cloth kitchen towel. Just keep a regular cotton kitchen towel near your kitchen sink, and then throw it into your laundry when you wash bath towels or other towels. This one simple swap can save you hundreds of dollars in paper towels every year (and help the environment).
Another way to cut back on your paper towel usage is to buy the kind of roll that has serrated lines on each single sheet. That way, if you only need a smaller paper towel for a smaller job, you can use half as much. (You just use what you need.) Many brands have this, like Bounty Select-a-Size or Scott Choose-a-Sheet.
6. Laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, and dish soap: Use less
Although water is slightly different from place to place (and different washing machines and dishwashers function differently), you will typically find that you can use a lot less laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, and dish soap than is recommended by the package directions.
Especially today, when many washing machines and dishwashers have low-flow features to save on energy and water, the amount of detergent that you need will be less. (This is even true if you are using the “H/E” [“high efficiency”] laundry detergent that is formulated for lower amounts of water in the rinse cycle.) If you usually fill liquid detergent up to the line in the cap or fill dishwashing soap into a dispenser, experiment with smaller amounts of soap and see how that works. Sometimes, with low-flow machines, using the full amount recommended can even leave soapy residue on the clothes, dishes, and glasses. Using less will save you money and might even work better.
Even if you are washing dishes, skillets, pots, etc. by hand, you can probably use a lot less dish soap than you think you need. Try using half your normal amount and see how it comes out.
7. Shampoo and conditioner: Use less
Why do these products’ instructions say to lather, rinse, and repeat? Try leaving out the repeat, and your costs will be cut in half. (Even at many hairdressing salons, they don’t wash your hair twice.)
8. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables
How much are you willing to pay for convenience? Sure, those containers of cut-up pineapple, mango, papaya, melon, etc. look great and will save you a lot of time (and mess). But did you ever think about how much more fruit you could buy for the same amount of money (or how much less you could pay for the same amount of food)?
A container of cut-up fruit or veggies can cost $5-$10, depending upon the type of produce, the season, the store, and store location. For that same amount of money, you can usually buy at least twice as much fruit or vegetables if you are willing to cut the items yourself. Time is, of course, important, but the amount of time it would actually take you to cut up and slice your own produce is not so great that it would make a meaningful difference.
Another issue with pre-cut fruits and vegetables is whether the person who cut the fresh produce washed the cutting tools properly or washed the fruits or veggies to your liking (or to FDA standards, unless you like salmonella. This is more common than you might think.). There is also the issue of freshness. Cut produce oxidizes and loses nutritional value. If the fruits and vegetables have been cut the day before your purchase and you consume them the day after, you are losing a lot of freshness (and many of the health benefits). Cutting the fruit or vegetables yourself on your own time schedule will provide you with fresher produce, prepared the way you like it, and for much less money.
9. Pre-made bagged salads and salad bars
Buying salads already cut, washed, and bagged (or in plastic containers) is very convenient but will cost you in freshness and price. If you want the freshest salad possible, there is no substitute for buying your own head of lettuce and other vegetables (or growing your own) and preparing the salad yourself.
You will also find that salad in a bag does not last very long once opened. When you make your own salad, vegetables will stay crisp and fresher longer. Another advantage is that you can wash and prepare only the amount you will consume at that time and wrap up the rest for another day. From a cost perspective, when you account for the shorter shelf life of an opened bag of pre-washed salad, you will find that the cost of making your own is a lot less than the cost of the pre-made salads.
Buying from a salad bar is also not the most cost-effective method (although certainly convenient). The salad bar will typically have one price per pound (or ounce), regardless of how expensive the individual items actually are. So if you add heavy cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, or other heavy side dishes like potato salad at a salad bar, the weight of the overall salad can jack up the price enormously. The items might also be “recycled” from the day before. (Have you seen how they often reload trays?) Buyer beware.
Salad bars are not always the freshest or most hygienic places to get your salad either. (You have to know and trust the market.) If you still want to partake in salad bars, try to go to them earlier in the day when the food hasn’t been sitting out for too long.
10. Other prepared foods
Pre-made meals have skyrocketed in popularity due to convenience, time-saving, and maybe also the availability of options that the average person doesn’t usually make at home. It is certainly tempting to pick up a fully prepared dinner meal at a market on your way home from work. Just be “prepared” to pay the price.
Buying pre-made meals from a grocery store or specialty market can sometimes cost you almost as much as eating out in a restaurant. If you want to save money on food, limit your purchases of prepared foods (or at least figure them into your overall budget so that there are no surprises at the end of the month when the bill comes).
If you have a fave recipe, prepare it in bulk and freeze some portions for another day. (You know you’ll be salivating for it later and get it faster than any Postmates could deliver it to you.) You’ll save money, prep time is nada, and the need for take-out will be alleviated.
11. Food that comes in handy individually sized packs
Walk into most grocery stores or food markets in America, and you will find lots of single-serving packs, bags, and pouches of different items: packets of oatmeal; 100-calorie packs of chips, nuts, snack foods, crackers, or cookies; single-serve cereal packs; fruit cups; individually wrapped and portioned cheese snacks, etc. These are easy to carry, easy to consume, but not so easy on your wallet.
As an example, if you compare the cost of a large bag of pretzels to the single-serving bags of the same variety, you will see a huge cost difference. (Snyder’s 100-calorie 10-pack of pretzel minis, 9.2 ounces, $4.29 vs. Snyder’s 16 ounce bag of pretzel minis, $3.69) If you want individual bags for lunchboxes, etc., take the time to bag them yourself using small plastic food storage bags. You will have roughly twice as many pretzels for the same price.
The same principle holds true for items like pre-made burger patties vs. ground beef sold by the pound. You will save money by purchasing the ground meat and making the patties yourself. Another advantage is that you can size them the way you like them.
Buying certain foods in bulk at a warehouse store such as Costco or BJs can also help cut your costs. Just make sure you are able to consume the larger sized packs either by freezing or storing foods until you are ready to use them. (Take a look at the shelf life.)
12. Bottled water and bottled seltzer
This is a big one. Bottled water is convenient but not very good for the planet. (And sometimes you might just be paying for purified tap water.) It’s also expensive, ounce for ounce, compared to tap water or filtered tap water. If you need individual bottles “to-go,” invest in a good reusable bottle that you can bring to the office or anywhere else you would bring a plastic water bottle.
For home use, you might want to invest in a water filter like the Brita. Even after accounting for the cost of the water filter, a person who drinks one liter per day of bottled water can save more than $30/month by switching to filtered tap water. (See “Switch From This to That and Invest the Difference.”)
If you love seltzer or sparkling water, it is definitely worth the money to purchase a device like the SodaStream. (See “10 Things You Need In Your Kitchen.”) You will save money at the grocery store, you won’t have to be lugging heavy bottles of seltzer back home, you will be conserving plastic . . . and the seltzer is amazing. (Much more effervescent than the store-bought seltzer.) You can also buy flavorings to make different flavored sparkling water.
The list of everyday foods and other grocery items to stop buying in order to save money will be different for everyone. The point is to audit your own shopping staples and see if there are any categories or specific items that you purchase often but really don’t need, can cut back on, or can replace with a less expensive alternative.
Food is one of the top three largest household expenses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (housing, transportation, and food—in that order). If you can get a handle on your grocery bill every month by shopping with intention and making wise choices, you can free up some room in your monthly budget.
Some people have an easier time making better choices by shopping with a list and sticking to it. If you are a list-maker, itemizing your shopping list into “needs” (food and hygienic items), “wants” (scented soap over generic), and “nice-to-haves” (do I really need charcoal toothpaste?) can also help. Other people are successful without a list as long as they shop with intention and are not swayed by the many enticing items at today’s markets.
There are ways to save money at the grocery store without using coupons. You just have to know yourself and your own shopping habits. You can optimize your grocery spending by selecting foods and products that you really need and are worth the hard-earned money that you will be spending every month. Keeping an eye on your food budget will go a long way towards keeping your overall budget in good shape.