How to save money at the grocery store, despite food price inflation
Here’s what you can do to ensure that rising food prices don’t break your bank.
American consumers are facing rising inflation across the economy due to supply chain problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While inflated prices for non-essential goods are one thing, inflated food prices have been and will continue to be a significant problem for many Americans. Higher prices can contribute to food insecurity for the poorest Americans, and force middle-class families to make cuts elsewhere. In the long term, we need to win policies that will ensure all Americans can access enough nutritious food to thrive. But in the short term, here’s what you can do to ensure that rising food prices don’t break your bank.
- The best way to save money on food is to not waste the food you already have. According to the EPA, the average family of four wastes $1,500 per year on food that gets thrown away. So while inflation is driving up food prices, driving down your food waste could help you from spending more on food this year. Learn how to reduce your food waste here.
- Dip into your food savings. You may have far more food in your home, in the form of dry and canned goods, than you realize. These items are often ignored when we’re in a hurry to figure out what we can make for dinner that night, or they’re treated as a backup for when we really need them. If your grocery budget is tight in a given week, it might be the right time to use them. It’s okay to dip into those food savings every once in a while – they’re there for a reason.
- Eat at home. Food prices overall are expected to rise by 4.5 to 5.5% in 2022, but at-home food prices are expected to rise only 3 to 4%. You’ll save relatively more money if you prepare meals at home, rather than purchasing your meals at restaurants.
- Cook with less oil. The price of oils and fats increased by 11.7% for urban consumers from February 2021 to February 2022. A simple way to save in this category is to use less. The cheapest way is to make friends with water and broth. If you’ve been using the scrap-saving tips from our guide to preventing food waste, you can easily make your own veggie or bone broth at no additional cost. If you don’t have broth, water is a great option. Try steaming veggies or sauteing them in broth or water. If you still want to use a little oil, try spritzing your veggies with a small amount or using oil to start, then adding water to the pan as you saute to keep the veggies from drying out.
- Buy frozen. The cost of fresh fruit has risen by 10.6% for urban consumers from February 2021 to February 2022, while canned and frozen fruits have seen less of an increase. (Canned fruit has increased by 6.8%; frozen fruit has increased by a bit more.) The good news for consumers is that frozen fruits can be fresher and more nutritious than fresh fruit. That’s because they are preserved soon after being harvested, preserving their freshness at the time they are frozen. By contrast, fresh fruit may be less fresh by the time it reaches you, and it will go bad faster than frozen or canned fruit, so you run the risk of wasting food (see point 1).
- Buy ugly food. Check if your local grocery store has an “ugly foods” section – it may only be one small shelf, so ask a manager if you can’t find it. “Ugly foods” are often marked down by as much as 30% to 50% because they don’t meet the same aesthetic standards as their fellow fruits and vegetables, even though they taste just as good. You can save on a lot of basic produce this way.
- If necessary, be discerning about which foods you purchase organic. Many of us would love to be able to purchase only organic food, but when food prices are especially high, that might not be in the cards. To help you figure out which foods to prioritize getting organic, consult the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists from our friends at the Environmental Working Group. Note that these lists are updated annually as growing practices change, so make sure to find the latest list as you continue to use these resources into the future. You can also try talking with farmers at your local farmers market – many of them use all organic practices but can’t afford the organic certification process or don’t want to pass along that cost to their consumers. As a result, their food may be more affordable.
- Eat less meat. The price of bacon increased by 18.8%, beef increased by 16.2%, and chicken increased by 13.2% for urban consumers from February 2021 to February 2022. Having meat every day could have an enormous impact on your total grocery bill. Fortunately, there are tons of good meal options out there that you probably already eat that are naturally meat-free. Try swapping your go-to meat for some plant-based options. For example, swap out your morning bacon for oatmeal. Oats are one of the cheapest options on the market and their high protein and fiber content help you feel full until lunchtime.
- Incorporate more beans and legumes. One of the best options for replacing meat in your meals is consuming more beans and legumes. Like oats, their high protein and fiber content leave you feeling full, so you won’t need to reach for more food, further driving up your grocery bills. And as a bonus, they’re generally sold as shelf-stable dry or canned goods, so you can trust that you’re purchasing food that you won’t end up wasting. You can incorporate beans in everything from soups and stews to salads, tacos and more. Your grocery bill will thank you.
- Shop midweek instead of over the weekend. According to the savings app Ibotta, the weekend is the most expensive time to shop. However, Ibotta warns that specific days of the week tend to correspond with specific item markdowns, so try shopping on different days to see when your go-to items tend to be marked down.
- Let prices be your guide. As food prices fluctuate, it can be too difficult to keep track of what’s out of your price range at the moment. If you’ve invested in the time to put together a meal plan only to find that one of the key ingredients is twice as expensive as you expected, you may need to change course. Look for sale stickers and foods that are more in your price range, then build your meal plan around those more affordable ingredients.
- Compare prices at different stores. The Basket app for Apple and Google allows you to compile a grocery list, then shows you how much it would cost at stores in your area. Try it out before heading to the store to save yourself some money.
- Look for coupons. Many grocery delivery services offer lots of savings opportunities on the things you’re already purchasing – if you look for them. If you use one of these services, keep an eye out for coupons and promo codes, as they may not be visible on the homepage and may not be automatically added at checkout. According to Good Housekeeping, a brand representative for Instacart reported that in-app deals and coupons saved customers upwards of $500 million in 2021.
Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.