A reader wants to pay off her debts with money she saves on food, but the grocery store intimidates her.
Question: Last week, you gave a woman advice on saving for retirement, and you listed a bunch of simple ways to save a few dollars here and there (Ask The Expert: How To Save For Retirement?).
You mentioned buying generic brands and using coupons while grocery shopping, but I need specific advice.
When I go to the grocery store, I know I’m doing it wrong. I buy impulsively, I don’t use coupons regularly, and I end up going home and finding I already had cans and jars of the same stuff I just bought. I get very overwhelmed trying to figure out the best deals, and I just hate the whole experience — even though I know food is a big spending category I can save on.
— Chloe in Sacramento
Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…
Not everyone agrees with me when I say this: Groceries are among the most difficult retail items to shop responsibly for.
We don’t always need a new couch or a new pair of shoes, so we can leave the store if we don’t feel right about the price tag, but we need to eat.
In a restaurant, it’s easy to order reasonably priced meals because you have a menu right in front of you, and it has only so may options. Grocery stores are different. You can have a half-dozen options for, say, spaghetti. Each package may be a different price and a different size, with different ingredients and different nutritional information.
So don’t feel bad, Chloe. Instead, do this and feel empowered…
1. Shop when no one else is
For those who are easily overwhelmed in the grocery store, crowds of other shoppers only add to the stress. It’s much easier to take your time and consider prices when someone isn’t bumping into your cart or asking you to move yours aside.
So when should you go? After dinnertime on weekdays. By 7 or 8 p.m., most adults have eaten and gotten comfortable at home. If you shop at this time, you’ll have the benefit of having already eaten yourself — because you already know you’re not supposed to buy groceries on an empty stomach. That’s the top reason for those impulse buys.
2. Split your shopping list
Most of us buy the same items over and over: milk, bread, cereal, and a handful of other foodstuffs (not to mention soaps and cleaners). You can lower your nervousness if you keep those items separate.
Since you’re familiar with these staples, you can attack them first — even if that means doubling back through the aisles a few times. (Hey, it’s also exercise!) Sure, you’ll have to navigate those BOGO sales on a different brand of bread or cookies, but because you know what you like, you can more easily decide to try something new or ignore the offer for the tried and true.
Once you’ve crossed off a big chunk of your list, the rest will look more manageable.
3. Don’t be musically manipulated
Grocery stores are like casinos. They know how to keep you there, and to keep you buying. For instance, even the music that plays in the store has been carefully considered. Scientific papers have been written on the topic, which shows that relaxed beats make you move more slowly through the aisles. Bring your headphones and program a playlist for shopping, with songs that empower you and make you feel comfortable.
This is just a start, Chloe. There are obviously many more ways to save at the grocery store and elsewhere. However, to address your stress, I suggest you master these techniques. Tell me how they work for you!
Have a debt question?
Email your question to email@example.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.