Overspending on Food? Watch Out for These 9 Grocery Shopping Mistakes

A woman looks shocked at her grocery bill.
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The cost of visiting grocery stores just keeps on rising.

Food costs rose nearly 8% from April 2022 and April 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.

Fresh strawberries and ripe avocados just don’t taste the same when they cost $1.50 more than they used to.

Even though prices are on the rise, grocery shoppers still have options. There are many ways you can protect your bank account from the weight of more expensive food.

9 Grocery Shopping Mistakes That Add Up

Don’t let rising food prices tank your budget. Here are some ways you can better manage your food expenses.

1.Going Without a List

It’s 2023. There’s no excuse for not making a list anymore!

You don’t even need paper. You can make it right on your phone.

It’s simple. A list helps you stay focused on what you need during this visit to the store. You’ll cut down on the time you spend crisscrossing the store trying to remember everything — and seeing things you don’t need.

By sticking to only what you need, a list helps you stay on budget as well. If the fancy olive bar isn’t on the list, then avoid impulse purchases and don’t visit the fancy olive bar.

2. Ignoring Unit Price

Bigger may be better, but it’s not always cheaper.

Paying attention to the unit price will help you make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

What exactly is unit price, you ask? It simply tells you how much you’re paying per pound, ounce, liter, etc. — whatever measure the product uses.

For example, if a 2-liter carton of milk sells for $3.80, its unit price would be $1.90 per liter. If an 8-ounce package of cream cheese sells for $3, its unit price would be 37.5 cents per ounce.

The unit price also helps you compare prices on different-sized products. If a 16-ounce package of cream cheese costs $5, then its unit price would be 31.25 cents per ounce. Overall, that’s a better deal than the 8-ounce package.

If the unit price isn’t listed, divide the price of the item by the number of ounces or other unit of measurement. This is especially helpful because of shrinkflation over the last few years — the growing trend of reducing quantity while keeping the price the same.

3. Skipping the Store Brand

In most cases, and especially with certain products, the store brand will save you money over name brand items.

In our own store brand vs. name brand test, we researched the prices on a wide variety of items at Publix and Walmart, then compared them to the same name brand items. From peanut butter to cereal to pain relief medicine, the store brand was cheaper every time. (And our taste tester couldn’t tell the difference.)

A common assumption is the store brand is of lesser quality, but that’s not always the case. Compare the ingredients and often you’ll find they are very similar, if not exactly the same.

Even if you loathe a store brand’s “diet cola” (gotta have that Diet Coke!), that doesn’t mean its boxed pasta, peanut butter or body wash is inferior.

4. Forgetting to Check What You Already Have

There you are, on the condiment aisle, scratching your head: Don’t we have ketchup? I think I bought a bottle last time, but maybe I didn’t?

Torn over this condiment conundrum, you go ahead and purchase a bottle of ketchup. When you get home, you discover a three-quarters-full bottle in the fridge, as well as an unopened bottle in the pantry. Do you collect ketchup like old coins, or are you just forgetful?

The truth is you simply forgot to take a look around the kitchen to see what you already had!

One easy way to fix this universal grocery shopper problem is to make your list first, then mark off everything you already have in stock. Shop your own pantry first!

5. Not Getting the Store Membership

You probably already know you can save a good deal of money with a Costco membership or at warehouse stores. Costco cards cost as low as $60 per year, or $5 a month.

But almost every grocery store chain also has a membership offering and most are free. Whether it’s Publix, Kroger, Wegmans or Winn-Dixie, you can save a decent chunk on your grocery budget.

Most of them will send you coupons and special deals for items you typically purchase. You can usually pay with the store app and track your receipts. You might even receive perks on special days, like your birthday.

Signing up is quick and easy, and costs nothing, so it’s a no-brainer way to start saving on your groceries instantly.

6. Not Scheduling a Splurge

Even when you’re on a tight budget, there’s nothing wrong with letting yourself live a little.

Don’t get carried away, but allow yourself a “fun” purchase every now and then — and plan ahead for it. Either give yourself a dollar limit or plan on purchasing one item you’d like to splurge on.

At the grocery store, this might mean buying the real Diet Coke instead of the store brand during this week’s visit. Next week, you might choose the New York strip over the sirloin steak.

These small splurges can help keep you motivated when you’re really tight on money. And by allowing yourself just one per week or month, you’ll keep yourself from buying an entire aisle of ice cream while also keeping your grocery budget on track.

7. Shopping for Groceries Yourself

Over the last few years, many consumers are increasingly switching to online grocery shopping. Statista says the online grocery customer base is roughly 150 million shoppers, almost half the U.S. population. It’s forecasted to grow even more in the coming years.

The benefits of skipping the grocery trip, ordering online and picking up your groceries are many. You’ll automatically have to make a list (see No. 1), which allows you to plan and budget ahead of time, and you see a running total as you shop. You’re also less likely to overspend or fall for a bunch of BOGO deals you didn’t plan for.

Even if you’d rather have your groceries delivered, what you save on impulse purchase may outweigh any delivery fees. We’ve come a long way since scribbled lists on the back of an envelope.

8. Not Paying Attention to Sales Cycles

Every grocery store has a sales cycle.

This is simply the time of year when certain products go on sale. Generally speaking, in January, it’s diet foods, cold remedies and snacks and drinks you might want to buy for that annual big football game.

In June, you might notice discounts on dairy products and food for the grill to celebrate Father’s Day, graduations and summer. In October, you may see a lot of discounted seafood for National Seafood month, plus deals on Halloween candy and baking items, such as canned pumpkin, pie crusts and flour.

If you’re not quite sure what’s being offered in the current sales cycle, simply look up your grocery store’s weekly ad flier. It’s usually easy to find online.

After a few years of taking advantage of these annual discounts, you’ll be a pro at saving on groceries because you’ll know exactly what to look for every month.

9. Always Buying Pre-Cut Produce

Sure, it might save you a little time — and time is money. But if you have a few extra minutes to spare before dinner, you can easily save money by chopping your own fruits, vegetables and proteins.

Pre-packaged, pre-cut food is always going to be more expensive. For comparison, Vice studied the cost of pre-cut versus whole fruits and vegetables. In some cases, the differences were eye-popping.

Vice found that a whole red onion costs 49 cents per pound at Walmart. Chopped onions came out to $4 a pound. You could buy a whole head of romaine lettuce from PeaPod for $1.99, while a 22-ounce bag of chopped romaine hearts went for $3.99. These are older prices but the point stands.

Pre-cut food will always factor labor into the costs, so you’re always going to save money by sharpening your chef’s knife and doing it yourself.

Robert Bruce is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering earning, saving and managing money. He has written about personal finance for more than a decade.