The Pandemic Changed the Way We Buy Groceries. Here’s What to Keep in Mind

Two women grocery shop during the coronavirus pandemic.
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You’ve probably been spending less money on gas … and salon visits… and happy hour drinks… and lots of other things as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. 

But one area of increased spending: groceries. 

You’ve been making more meals because your favorite restaurants are closed (or you’re not ready to go out to dinner). You’ve been stocking up on supplies to limit being out in public and be prepared if illness strikes.

That additional spending can be stressful in a time of mass layoffs and scary job security. You’ve got to make changes to adapt to the current situation. Here is some money-savvy advice for adjusting your grocery budget.

Account for Additional Spending

Now is not the time to beat yourself up over dropping $150 at the grocery store when you usually don’t spend over $100. You’ve got enough to worry about.

Still, it’s good to be aware of where your money is going. Creating a bare-bones budget — a spending plan that just includes the necessities — will show you how much money you absolutely need to have for the month and how much extra you’re working with.

If you’ve cut back on making extra debt payments, you can reallocate some of that money to provide more room for grocery spending.

If you choose to have your groceries delivered, you’ll need to factor delivery fees and tipping your shopper. Those are added costs to factor into your budget.

Keep in mind: You may be spending less overall on food by cooking more and eating out less. Count that as a win.

Think About the Bigger Picture

If you’re still trying to minimize trips to the store, be cognizant of getting food and supplies that will last.

Be mindful about things that will go bad quickly. You don’t want to be throwing out moldy strawberries or wilted greens. Canned goods, pasta, rice and other pantry staples have great shelf life. Frozen food — or fresh food that freezes well — may stay good for months. 

When it comes to household goods, consider opting for reusable products rather than disposable ones. Use cloth towels you can wash at home instead of paper towels. Rather than having to restock your stash of disposable razors, try a reusable one. A filtered water pitcher is a one-time purchase that’ll reduce your need to buy cases of bottled water.

Embrace Planning

Having a plan for what groceries and supplies you need will keep your spending in check. This is true all the time — but it’s extra important now when we’re worried about job losses and facing product shortages.

Before you go to the store (or place an order for grocery delivery), take inventory of what you have at home. Think about what meals you’ll be making with those items, what you’re running low on, which ingredients you still need and how many days that food will stretch. 

That planning will help form your shopping list and keep you from impulse buys — like grabbing that bag of chips when you already have enough snacks at home.

Another helpful tip: When making your shopping list, write it according to your store’s layout. If you get to the cereal aisle first, then frozen food and dairy last, put oatmeal at the top of your list, then the frozen pizza and save the gallon of milk for the bottom of the list. 

The extra organization will help you get in and out of the store quickly and efficiently.

Reconsider Bulk Purchases

If you shied away from buying in bulk before because it’s just you at home or you have a small family, you may want to reconsider getting that giant jar of pickles and four-pack of bacon from Costco.

Not only does buying in bulk reduce the amount of shopping trips you’ll need to take, but you’ll generally find larger-sized packages are priced to give you the best deal.

The key to verifying this is to look for a lower price per unit. That is typically found near the cost of the product but written in a smaller font. You can also find price per unit by dividing the cost by the number of ounces, liters or whatever measurement unit you’re working with.

While buying in bulk is a smart money move, you’ll want to make sure it’s something that won’t expire quickly. If you’re worried about something spoiling, consider splitting your purchases with a roommate, family member or friend.

When sharing with someone in a different household, portion out what you want for yourself after you get home from the store and pack up the rest for a contact-free doorstep delivery. Have the recipient send you their share of the money through PayPal, Cash App, Venmo or another mobile payment service.

When it’s time to restock, your friend could do the shopping and split their haul with you. This way you both minimize your time shopping in public.

Keep It Simple

You may have more opportunities to cook at home now, but that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to go through that cookbook you haven’t touched in years to try your hand at creating gourmet meals.

The upside of sticking to simple dishes is that you aren’t spending extra money on pricey ingredients you’ll only use once. You also don’t want to flub a new cooking technique and end up tossing out the dish.

Besides, making (and eating) comfort food you love is perfect in these times of stress.

To save money, limit the number of ingredients in your recipes and make substitutions for what you do have — like using applesauce or mashed banana in your pancake recipe if you’re out of eggs.

If you’re able to swap out a pricey brand-name product for a cheaper store-brand item, that’s another way to stretch your dollars. 

Feeling overwhelmed? Create a budget that works for you with our budgeting bootcamp!

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.