We’d all like to think we’re wise and frugal shoppers with a few tricks up our sleeves. Yet somehow we end up with purchases that make us scratch our heads the next day. Sometimes it takes more than a goal budget and a shopping list to outsmart your supermarket.
Before you head out for groceries, read these tips to keep your budget—and those “Why did I buy this?” moments—to a minimum.
01. Steer clear of “free” samples.
You’re shuffling through an aisle, minding your own business. Suddenly, a pleasant person approaches, smiling and swinging a tray of “Free Samples!” at you. No harm in taking a morsel, eh?
Actually, free samples aren’t free (at least, not in the usual sense of the word). They’re a clever marketing tactic playing on your subconscious need to return a favor. They utilize a powerful weapon of influence known as reciprocity.
“Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct,” says Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. “If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”
And that something is, more often than not, buying the product you just sampled. If you’re not in the market for a new favorite cheese, politely say “no, thanks,” and keep walking.
02. Be careful when shopping at “discount” stores and using coupons.
Believe it or not, so-called discount stores and coupons aren’t always a bargain.
For example, Wal-Mart has a mix of marked-down goods and regularly priced goods (contrary to its former tagline “Always the Lowest Price. Always.”). And Amazon Prime, while convenient, doesn’t always cough up the cheapest price for the items you want.
Before you reach for your wallet, the moment you see a slashed price or the words discount and sale in a grocery newsletter, take time to compare at different stores. For non-produce purchases, a quick Google shopping or Amazon search gives you another price point. If you’re not sure about the general prices for produce in your area, start keeping a list on your phone of the per pound or per unit prices at stores for quick reference.
And be wise about cashing in coupons. A store-brand item could cost you less for the same quantity and quality than a name-brand item with a tempting coupon.
03. Take “use by/best before” with a grain of salt.
Best before and use by aren’t the same as the expiration date. Best before refers to the last date when the food will be freshest. The use by date refers to the last day before the food’s quality (but not necessarily safety) will worsen. In fact, the by dates have nothing whatsoever to do with whether that cream cheese will make you sick.
As for the expiration date? Now, that’s the time to say good-bye to spoiled food—and to unwanted bouts of diarrhea.
04. Only bring cash or a prepaid debit card.
This one seems intuitive enough. Because there’s a limit on how much you can spend using the aforementioned items, you’re less likely to go over budget. Simply withdraw only what you plan to spend per week, or request a debit card with a set limit from your bank.
If it’s practical, bring smaller denominations and/or crisp bills instead; that’ll help curb your spending, too. A 2012 study by researchers Fabrizio Di Muro and Theodore J. Noseworthy found that participants spent less when carrying $5 bills versus $20 bills and spent more than twice the average when carrying old versus brand-new bills.
05. Use a price book.
If you’re wondering which item is hitting your budget the hardest, try tracking your expenses with a price book. It can be in the form of paper notes, an Excel spreadsheet, or a mobile tracker. A price book can help you spot trends, such as the best times and shops to buy items you regularly stock up on.
No matter which form you choose, the price book should have information on the per unit price for each item. It should also list other categories such as product category, brand, product, unit, number of units, date purchased, and store purchased.
06. Be aware of a store’s layout and design.
From the moment you enter a store, you’re already being bombarded with “Buy! Buy! Buy!” messages—both loud and subtle. There are the sale racks at the entrance, the unmistakable and overpowering scent of baked bread in the aisles, and the impulse-buy items near the checkout counter. As Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping shows, you can literally fill a book with these tactics.
You might not be able to resist a supermarket’s tricks all the time, but being aware of how those charms work can at least lessen their effect on you.
07. Use a handheld basket instead of a shopping cart.
According to Bruce Dybvad, CEO of Interbrand Design Forum, you spend up to 40 percent more if you use a large shopping cart. Unless you have a ton of things to buy, you’ll save more if you carry your groceries by hand or in one of those plastic baskets. Hey, it’s also a great arm workout!
08. Check the lower shelves.
Because we tend to buy items placed at eye level, that’s where retailers put their more expensive goods. As for the cheaper options, they’re usually on the bottom shelves. Retailers count on buyers not bothering to kneel and check that merchandise. Before grabbing the first can of fruit you see, look down to try and find cheaper alternatives.
09. Avoid precut and precooked items.
Cut and cooked items might save you time, but they definitely won’t save you money. They’re usually priced much higher compared to whole, raw items. Also, because they’re inside glossy plastic packages, it’s more difficult to judge the quality of the ingredients.
10. Eat before you shop.
“Don’t shop hungry” is common advice—and for good reason. If you’re starving by the time you’re done shopping, that chocolate bar at the checkout counter is much more likely to end up in your bag.
If you know of other unconventional ways to keep your budget under control at the supermarket, feel free to share them in the comments. If not, share your shopping experiences anyway!