By Donna Fuscaldo, AARP, April 2023
Food Prices Are Still Soaring. How can I save money on my grocery bill?
Here’s How to Save at the Grocery Store.
Food costs increased 8.5 percent in March despite moderating inflation.
Inflation is starting to moderate, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the cost of food. As of March, the cost of food at home is up 8.5 percent year over year and unchanged from a month ago. (Overall inflation increased 5 percent.) As a result, the grocery bill for you and your family is still getting higher. Just how much higher depends on which state you live in. Food prices tend to be local, driven by supply and demand, which results in price disparities from one city to the next.
Supply chain issues left over from the pandemic, skyrocketing gas prices, increased labor costs and strong consumer demand are all contributing to the surge in prices for everything from produce to poultry, with no end in sight. “The supply chain is not quite smoothed out yet, and the war isn’t helping,” Ilyce Glink, founder and CEO of financial wellness program Best Money Moves, says of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “When it comes to food, there’s not enough to go around, so prices will be a challenge for a while.”
Saving money at the grocery store may require a bit of creativity in this environment, but it isn’t impossible. There are several ways to reduce your grocery bill, including these seven strategies.
1. Cook from scratch
Ready-made meals at the supermarket are quick and easy, but they can get expensive. Cooking from scratch is cheaper and often a healthier alternative, with fewer additives and preservatives. That’s important for older adults who have to watch their sodium intake or have special dietary needs.
When you cook from scratch, you tend to use the same basic ingredients over and over. If you buy them in bulk, you can save more. Often there are leftovers that can be used for additional meals. The key to saving when cooking from scratch is to understand the concept of cross-utilization, says Julien Saunders, author of Cashing Out. That occurs when you have one ingredient that is applied in multiple ways.
Take artichokes, for one example. They can be used in a salad one day, pasta another day and chopped for a sandwich the next. The same goes for fruits. They can be eaten at breakfast, added to a salad and used in a smoothie. “There are tons of ways to use ingredients, aside from restricting them to one meal or one type of cuisine,” says Saunders.
2. Plan meals in advance
Meal planning is a great way to save at the grocery store. If you have a strategy for the week and list the ingredients you need, you aren’t as likely to overspend. “Far too often, people go to the grocery store and treat it like a shopping experience,” Saunders says. “They end up buying a bunch of things they don’t necessarily need. Buying only what you need to make the meal is critical to saving money.”
When meal planning, think about how one ingredient can be used several times during the week. A pound of pasta isn’t going to set you back too much and can be prepared in different ways. Resist the temptation to shop while hungry. You might end up with a cart full of food you won’t eat when you’re not starving.
3. Buy frozen fruits, vegetables and sides
Many older adults live alone and consume less food than their younger counterparts. Appetites and tastes change as we get older. Buying fresh fruits, vegetables and meats is great, so long as you eat them before they go bad. A cheaper alternative is to buy some from the frozen foods section. “Frozen foods can be an effective way to save,” Glink says. “It allows you to take one or two out and do more with less.” Meatballs, fruits and vegetables are just a few examples of nutritious frozen foods that can be consumed piecemeal.
4. Shop during senior hours
Older adults, typically those age 60-plus, can save on their grocery bills by shopping on senior discount days. Available at supermarkets across the country, these special days allow shoppers to get a percentage off their bills. Harris Teeter, a supermarket operator with stores in seven states and Washington, D.C., gives adults 60 and older a 5 percent discount every Thursday. Meanwhile, Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace, which has stores in New York and New Jersey, offers a 5 percent discount for those 65 and older on Wednesdays. Many grocery stores around the country offer this type of discount, but the size and age requirement vary.
5. Tap government programs
Food insecurity is a big problem for older adults in America. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, as of 2019, there were 5.2 million seniors who were food insecure. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and inflation skyrocketed. To combat that, the federal government operates the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as food stamps, the program provides eligible individuals with monthly benefits to purchase groceries at participating supermarkets and farmers markets. To be eligible for SNAP, your monthly income must be less than 130 percent of the poverty line in the U.S.
The Senior Box Program is another federally funded assistance program for adults 60-plus who have incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. With this program, you get a box of food with set items for free. The food is purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which works with local nonprofits to distribute the boxes monthly.
6. Look for discounts and deals
Signing up for your local supermarket’s loyalty program and clipping coupons can also save you money at checkout. Most grocery stores have taken their coupons online, making it easy to print them out before you enter the grocery store. AARP members have access to a bevy of coupons and discounts that can be used at supermarkets across the country. Anyone can use store rewards cards, which let you get cheaper prices for food.
Many supermarkets and retailers also sell store-brand products that offer the same quality as the brand names, but at a cheaper price. In the past, the term “generic” had a stigma to it. But retailers have realized that it’s a big moneymaker, and, as a result, have improved the quality of their generic brands.
7. Use a vacuum sealer
Freezing meats and prepared food in freezer-safe bags can extend its life and shave money off your grocery bill. To make foods last even longer, Saunders suggests investing in a food vacuum sealer. It can set you back anywhere from $25 to $200, but it does mean you can buy bulk meat or produce, cut it up, seal it and have it for the future. Air that’s left in freezer bags is what causes freezer burn. With a vacuum sealer, you remove the excess air. That preserves the flavor and quality of the meat for longer, Saunders explains.
“If you go to the farmers market, an entire tenderloin beef may cost you $60. But you’ll end up with 10 steaks — which is far less expensive,” Saunders adds.