Save Money on Groceries by Being an Intentional Shopper

Over the weekend I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few things. Since we were set on meats and produce, I found myself wandering the aisles more than usual – seeing what was on sale and checking prices of a few of our favorites.

Before I knew it, my shopping cart was half-full, and I knew my trip to the store to “pick up a couple things” would likely cost much more than the mission name implied. So it goes when shopping without a list.

$38! I spent $38 essentially on junk. Well, it wasn’t all junk, but the very large majority of it was junk. And by junk in this context I mean things that can’t generally be used to make a meal – sodas, chips, a couple dessert items, some frozen items from the “Snack” case, etc. No ingredients, no staples, no meats, no vegetables.

I loaded up the items in my truck and reflected a bit about the grocery trip, wondering how many times I’ve shopped like this in the past and thought nothing of it. I violated nearly every rule in the book of frugal grocery shopping – I didn’t have a list, I had not planned any meals, I was hungry, etc, etc.

I decided from now on I would try to be an “intentional grocery shopper.” That is, I would do a better job of planning before I went to the store. I would seek out only the things I needed to fit my meal plan and nothing more.

How to Become an Intentional Grocery Shopper

1. Plan meals a week (or two) in advance. One of the easiest ways to plan a shopping list is to work backwards. Start by planning a few meals you and your family would like to have over the next several days, then list the required ingredients for those meals. Check your pantry to see what you have on hand and add any missing items to your grocery list.

2. Always shop with a list. I can’t cite any official study, but experience tells me that when I shop with a list I save money. I also forget less things, which requires a return trip to the store which offers more opportunity to spend unintentionally.

3. Shop once a week. The enforcement of this rule alone will make you a more intentional grocery shopper. If you know this is your once-a-week visit to the grocery store you are more likely to plan and make a complete list so as to avoid a trip again later in the week.

4. Use coupons. I am not the best coupon sorter. Some people seem to have it down to a science – it comes naturally to them. Not me. Still, I could probably save $5 – $10 per trip to the grocery store without even trying just by using the coupons in the current Sunday paper. Imagine the damage I could if I actually invested the time to collect and sort them EVERY Sunday.

5. Stay away from the inside of the store. On my most recent trip to the store I did the exact opposite. I avoided produce, meats and dairy and instead wandered the chip and cookie aisles for half an hour. Big mistake – unless I was targeting something very specific. From now on I will stick to the perimeter of the store, for the most part, stocking up on meats and fish, dairy and produce.

What are some tips you use to save money on groceries?


  1. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family. But I estimate shopping with my 8yo son costs me $0.75/minute. My husband, God love him, is even more expensive. Do your grocery budget a favor and fly solo.

  2. #5 is a big one. Sticking to the perimiter of the store will get you the healthiest food, too. Like you said, most of the stuff in the middle is just processed junk food. It isn’t a meal and isn’t very filling either. The only things I get in the aisles is rice, beans, pasta or canned goods. There really isn’t much else there that’s useful.

    Another tip is to know your store. Know where everything is, and know when they’ll have sales etc. For example, I know that on Fridays, my local Stop and Shop has rotisserie chickens on sale for $5. That’s at least 2 meals for my wife and I, and we use the bones to make soup for even more meals. We’ll end up spending something like $8 and have 10 meals from it! That’s a great deal if you’re ok eating chicken soup every day haha.

  3. My family picks a month (often August or September) and we make meals from the pantry.
    We only allow “bread and milk runs” if totally necessary. This makes the pantry easier to clean, rotate and double check on upcoming holiday meals easier(late September starts our birthday spree). We try new combinations, our creativity and family meal planning is not a chore but an adventure.

  4. I plan my meals for the week in conjunction with the store circulars. I focus on sales within the produce, meat, and dairy sections to help determine what kind of meals to put on the menu. I am also sure to check my freezer and pantry to see what I still have stocked up (I buy in “bulk” whenever things like chicken breasts and certain canned goods are on sale). I sometimes have to go over on my budget on a given week in order to do these stock-up times, but I average below my budget every month by watching for the sales.
    And ultimately, I stick to the outer edges of the store; although my fruits and vegetables may be costly at times, I know that I am getting better nutrition and providing towards my families future health.

  5. Great tips, they have all worked for me (and shopping solo).

    Another tip…. make friendly with the managers. By offering a smile and a wave regularly to the hard-working grocer, butcher and clerk managers, I have managed to build a comfort level that has gotten me a few freebies and deep discounts over the years. By being friendly I can mention that something is close to expiry — & instead of just the “thanks I’ll deal with that” from the regular employee — the manager has the power to bring out the magic pen and slash the price (just for you) with a big smile! They’d rather get something for it (even if it’s just a genuinely happy customer) than toss it. I never haggle once the offer has been made, and I really am grateful.

    Also what time of day you shop makes a huge difference on what has been marked down. In my store, 9 am weekdays is the best time to get the freshly marked-down meat. A lot of times it’s what I find there that determines my meal plan for the week (that and the flyer-sale veggies). Late afternoon is the best time for discounted breads at my store, and late saturday is the best time for on-the-edge produce freebies (great for soups/baking).

  6. I go shopping every alternate week- save on gas- use the extra/unplanned items in the alternate week, so the pantry remains wanting and have space- so I can buy the reqd items in bulk in the shopping trip. If I cannott consume the extra items in thne week, I will know what not to buy.

  7. What’s actually saving us BIG is not buying grocery store produce (frozen being the exception). We made a decision this year to try and eat only local (fresh) produce. We get buy on our box from the CSA, and the occasional farmer’s market and base our meals around what we have at the time.

  8. I think being flexible is also key. To get to the grocery store and see, for example, that a different vegetable than you were thinking of for dinner is on sale that week should be something to consider. You may even buy in bulk and create freezer meals. That keeps things less expensive and healthy.

  9. Thanks for the advice! Although I try to be conscious of my spending, it’s so easy to come out of the store with items that you don’t need (I always seem to do that at Wal-Mart). Next time I’ll make a list and see how it works out.

  10. My only contribution to this topic is that I do shop with lists, buy the items only and plan my meals for the week so I do find I have some no problems with this method. Some days I am not in the mood for what I have ready to fix for the main meal. I know, it may seem minor but it is becoming quite irritating to face a plate of spaghetti when maybe you really wanted baked chicken and it is still in the freezer.

  11. This happens to me occasionally and I hate it. But we can’t beat ourselves up too badly. Our culture is all about shopping and spending. We can be pulled in so easily!

    Maybe if we made the effort to keep fresh baked goods at home, to prevent that kind of thing from happening too often? It’s kind of like keeping a stocked pantry – make sure there are some homemade cookies, cakes and brownies!

  12. The best spice is hunger: If you are even slightly hungry, everything in the grocery store will look like a good idea. Unfortunately, you might get the idea of going grocery shopping exactly when you’re hungry.
    I make sure to stop and notice if I am hungry before getting in the car. If I am, I make sure to have a snack before I leave, by the time I get to the store my stomach is digesting already and I can see past the tempting labels and stick to my staples.

  13. I agree with celestialpetunia. I spend SO much more when I take my 3 kids and husband to the store. I have to go alone, and I have to go after I’ve eaten a meal. Otherwise, the grocery store bakery has a hypnotic pull. It CAN be time consuming to clip/print coupons, but if you don’t like to carry print coupons, you can still save coupons to your store loyalty card with services like SavingStar and Cellfire. It takes just a few minutes and can really save you money at checkout. Another thing that makes a huge difference: where you shop. We live in a small town, so there’s no Costco or Sam’s, but I make a WalMart run before I hit the grocery store, so I can buy those items non-food items cheap.

  14. I am the poster child of what not to do!!
    Not only do I make the described $40 junk food run multiple times a week, I only bring a list for the few items I know I need for the next couple of days then fill the cart with items I don’t need 🙁

    The family and I eat out too much too. That is getting to be $40 for a drive thru run 2 or 3 times a week, it ads up!!

    Maybe a New Years resolution?!?

  15. I’d propose you’re meal-planning backwards. 😉 Look at your cupboards/pantry FIRST for, inspiration and savings. Chances are you have some random stuff left over from a different meal, etc. that might work well in another meal (like leftover pasta, bread crumbs, or cans of tomatoes). Then look at your grocers flyer, THEN meal plan. This order insures your meal plan starts off with the most savings!

  16. Another way to save…go meatless once a week for all meals. Not only do you save money, but you reduce your chances of heart disease by 40%. I try to have meatless Mondays and even my boyfriend is on board with it, well at least at dinner time 🙂

  17. I do all of the above except #5. Not consciously for 5 anyway. I plan my menu throughout the week and do my grocery shopping on Sundays. It really does help to keep me on budget. On weekends, I typically eat out with friends and that can sometimes tip the scales, but not by much. I’m usually just at or hovering around $200 per month. (single, no kids)

  18. I actually toyed with the idea of opening a grocery delivery business that would utilize extreme couponing on a very large scale to save multiple households lots of money. It involved the same concepts given in this article, but again, with economies of scale involved. If anyone is adventurous enough or has free time to here about it, email me. I would love to see someone take this idea and run with it.

  19. This is a great and concise way to save money at the grocery store. I was able to parallel and link back to you post via my meal planning quick tips. Thanks!