I Tracked My Grocery Spending for a Week. Here’s What I Learned

September 14, 2016
by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor

It’s really easy to say you’re a careful, savvy grocery shopper.

But it’s also really (really) easy to toss that impulse pint of ice cream or giant bag of pretzels into the cart. Or to buy a bunch of produce with the intention of doing a Pinterest-worthy Sunday meal-prep sesh…

… only to end up with a slimy mess in your crisper drawer by Thursday. No bueno.

The first step in overcoming any problem, penny-pinching or otherwise, is to take a close look at your behaviors as they are.

So let’s get intimate.

I’m going to break down a week’s worth of my own grocery shopping, and show you all the penny-hoarding steps I take to make sure I save as much as possible — and point out what I could do better, too.

Before We Start, Some Caveats

how to save money on groceries
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

A couple quick notes before we get started.

I live alone and am responsible only for myself and my dog, Odin. So if you have a family of multiple humans, your grocery list will differ significantly from what you see here.

Furthermore, you’ll notice my list misses a few key staples you probably have on yours. That’s because I eat kind of weirdly.

I lost a bunch of weight a few years ago, and to maintain that, I follow certain dietary guidelines. Specifically, I don’t eat many carbohydrates. You won’t find cereal, pasta, rice, bread or even much fruit on my grocery list, which is strange, I know. My diet’s pretty much meat and green stuff — an expensive choice.

If you’re curious, it’s basically a modified version of the ketogenic diet; Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories” is a great resource if you want to know more.

As another consequence of my weight loss, I’ve become something of a gym rat. I work out at least an hour a day — usually six days a week — and I particularly like picking up heavy stuff and putting it back down again.

Thus, I consume a lot of protein — and in general, a lot of food for a 5’3”, 135-ish pound woman.

TL;DR: I understand my grocery-buying habits are probably different than most folks’.

But then again, everyone’s lifestyle is different. What’s an “average” grocery list?

The saving techniques I use can be adapted to any diet, budget or life situation. It’s my hope that a complete picture of one particular grocery routine — even if it’s a little peculiar — might help you take a closer look at your own.

Step One: Secure Breakfast

how to save money on groceries
Image from Quest Nutrition/Facebook

My grocery-buying adventures actually start online.

1 box S’mores Quest Bars: $24.99

1 box Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Quest Bars: $24.99

Shipping: $4.95

Total at Quest Nutrition: $54.93

OK, so we’re starting off this Penny Hoarder’s grocery tell-all with a definite splurge item.

But given my active lifestyle and diet restrictions, Quest bars are worth the money to me — and no, the company’s not paying me to tell you this.

(Dear Quest Nutrition: If you want to pay me to say this, please reach out. I spend enough on your products that you’ll basically break even on me alone.)

These protein bars actually taste good incredible, and pair 20 or more grams of protein with a really low net carbohydrate count — pretty much unheard of in fitness nutrition.

They’re also basically the only remaining sweet thing I eat… so yeah, I’m totally gonna spend $50 on a month’s worth of perfect-with-coffee protein bars for breakfast. I’d give up cushy toilet paper first.

I order them straight from the source since they’re already so expensive. If I hit a health food store, I have to face an additional markup.

Even using Ebates’ 5% cash-back portal for GNC online won’t match buying direct — it only brings the $35.99 boxes down to an effective price of $34.19. That’s still almost a full $10 more than Quest’s prices — and I’d still have to pay for shipping.

Step Two: Everything Else

how to save money on groceries
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Let me come clean right now: I break a cardinal rule of grocery shopping like a Penny Hoarder.

I don’t do meal planning.

This is probably because of the same character flaw that makes me a notorious over-packer, despite having done more than enough traveling to know better.

But making commitments ahead of time about what I’m going to eat or wear stresses me out. As I’ve said to travel companions before, “I just have to see what kind of day it is, you know?”

(Cut to me with an open suitcase and literally my entire wardrobe on my bed… one day, I’ll learn. I hope.)

Luckily, a majority of my meals consist of throwing a bunch of vegetables in a bowl or putting some meat with salt, pepper and granulated garlic into the oven. And as I mentioned, I eat a lot, and pretty much never eat out — so food waste isn’t usually a problem for me.

I also don’t coupon. (I know, I know. But what can I say? I’d rather spend my Sundays on the beach.)

This week, I went to Publix — not the cheapest grocery store in my area, but the only one that carries my greyhound Odin’s brand of dog food.

Although I’d normally do my weekly produce shopping at Trader Joe’s, I chose to simplify my life and save time by making only one stop.

Here’s what I got:

1 32-ounce container Chobani whole milk yogurt: $5.69

1 pound tomatoes on the vine: $1.72

1 red onion: $1.62

2 (gigantic) red bell peppers: $5.34

1 yellow bell pepper: $1.76

1 Hass avocado: $2.50

1 cucumber: 67 cents

1 6-ounce package fresh raspberries: $2

1 head broccoli: $2.99

1 10-ounce bag mini San Marzano tomatoes: $2.99 (on sale: $1 off)

2 pounds baby carrots: $2.29

2 bags Fresh Express baby kale mix salad (BOGO): $3.99

2 bags Fresh Express sweet butter lettuce (BOGO): $3.99

2 bags Fresh Express leafy green romaine lettuce (BOGO): $3.39

1 2-ounce package Brad’s raw kale chips: $3.99 (on sale: $1 off)

2 bone-in pork loin chops: $6.78 (on sale: 15% off)

2 pre-packaged Boar’s Head salami and cheese packaged snacks: $10.78 (yikes!)

1 4-count package pet waste bags: $5.99

1 14.5-pound bag Purina Beyond “superfoods” dog food: $25.29

Total, including taxes: $98.75

According to the bottom of my receipt, I saved $20.10 in promotional pricing, the bulk of which came from my bagged lettuce, it seems.

In scanning the receipt, one thing jumps out at me: Those pre-sliced salami-and-cheese packages were $5.39 apiece… for a 360-calorie plate I’d likely eat as a mid-afternoon snack!

Bad move.

They were totally an impulse buy, stocked in a refrigerated case in the checkout aisle — a sneaky sales technique stores purposefully deploy to encourage exactly this kind of spending.

Plus, I already have cheese and salami at my house — and pre-sliced stuff dries out quickly. Ugh.

I also realized I have a $3-off coupon for dog food in my wallet, which I totally forgot to use. At least it doesn’t expire soon, so hopefully I’ll remember next time!

Grocery Haul Takeaways: What I Learned

how to save money on groceries
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

My total grocery expenditure this week was $153.68.

Then, I earned back 50 cents through Ibotta: 25 cents on the red onion, 25 cents on the red bell peppers.

I also paid for my groceries with a rewards credit card that gets me one travel mile per dollar, so I earned 156 frequent flyer miles, a dollar value of about $2.34 (hey, everything helps!).

It’s important to note this week was a little odd: I only buy dog food about once a month, and the same goes for restocking my Quest bars.

That said, I already had meat, cheese, nuts, eggs and half-and-half at my house; I only bought the pork chops because they were on sale.

If I had to purchase any of those, or refresh any of my condiments, my total probably would have gone back up to about $100 — a good guess at my weekly average for grocery expenses — even without the $50 I spent on protein bars and dog food.

I’m doing a number of things really well as far as saving money at the grocery store… but there’s a lot I could improve, too!

What I do well:

  • I use a rewards credit card (and always pay it all the way down each month to avoid paying any interest)
  • I optimize where I’m shopping to some degree, and usually go to the store that has the best prices on items I buy regularly, per my own price comparison
  • I use Ibotta to get rebates on the items I buy
  • I avoid most impulse buys, although I slipped up this week
  • I don’t buy junk food

What I could do better:

  • I could clip coupons before heading to the store — and remember the ones I do have
  • I could check Ibotta first. As it turns out, a brand of deli meat I regularly buy had a $1 rebate available, and if I’d gone with a different brand of kale chips, I could have earned $2 back. Bummer!
  • I could plan my meals
  • I could actually go to different stores to get the best deals, and shop at lower-priced places like Aldi or Asian markets
  • I could stop buying pre-bagged lettuce and baby-cut carrots, which are more expensive than whole vegetables
  • I could stop needing so much darn protein (not happening)
  • I could not have a dog (definitely not happening)

How to Save Money on Groceries — Every Single Time You Shop

shopping site
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Luckily, since it’s just me and Odin — and I have an awesome job — I can get away with my slightly sloppy grocery habits.

But if you’re feeding a family, saving at the grocery store becomes even more important.

Good thing we’ve got lots of resources to help you out!

Start by taking a few tips from this mom, who feeds her family of five for $64 a week — $36 less than I spend just on myself and my dog.

One-up me and start meal planning — it’s not as hard as it seems, I hear!

You can create a coupon binder and fill it with free coupons, so you’ll be organized and prepared.

You can optimize which day of the week you go shopping to get the best deals (hint: It’s not over the weekend!)

And if you’re willing to get a little ridiculous, there are even more ways to save.

Meanwhile, I’m off to go bask in the glory of my full larder, impulse buys and all… and to find a good recipe for those pork chops!

Your Turn: What are your good grocery-buying habits? What could you do better?

Disclosure: You wouldn’t believe how much coffee The Penny Hoarder team goes through. This post contains affiliate links so we can keep the grinds stocked!

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

Share Your Thoughts

Top Articles