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No matter where you shop, it feels like groceries are more expensive than ever. In July 2023, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released data indicating that the cost of groceries had increased by 4.7 percent over the last twelve months. Even though that’s down from the 12.2 percent increase reported in July 2022, you may still be experiencing a lot of grocery-related financial stress if you’re trying to inflation-proof your finances right now.
To make matters worse, economists polled by Bankrate say there’s a 59 percent chance a recession is coming, which could mean many of us will have less money to spare for everyday spending.
You may be familiar with the classic ways to save money on groceries. Avoid shopping when you’re hungry, for example, and buy generic products instead of brand-name equivalents. But how do these tips apply when inflation is making even the generic products more expensive? And what can we do to save money on groceries if the economy goes from inflation to recession?
We wanted to give you the best expert advice on how to save money at the supermarket, so we asked money-saving expert Andrea Woroch how to grocery shop during a recession. She offered tips on what to buy, what to avoid and how to earn rewards on every purchase.
Order groceries online to avoid impulse purchases
If you want to keep your grocery bill down, you’re going to want to avoid impulse purchases. However, many supermarkets make it difficult to stick to your grocery list. “Tempting food displays lead to unnecessary grocery purchases,” Woroch explains. “People don’t realize how much extra they waste on impulse at the grocery store!”
Some people steer clear of food displays at registers, aisle end-caps and other impulse-purchase traps by making a grocery list before they shop. Other people use meal planning techniques to help them stay on budget — and ensure that everything they bring home is incorporated into a future meal.
If your grocery lists and meal plans already help you avoid impulse buys, that’s great. But not everybody can successfully navigate a supermarket without succumbing to temptation. That’s why Woroch suggests ordering groceries online instead. “Ordering online helps you stick to your list,” she says. “And you will ultimately save a lot more when not wasting money on impulse food items.”
What about grocery delivery fees? In many cases, you’ll still come out ahead. And keep in mind that many coupon apps offer discounts that can help cover the cost of delivery. Woroch recommends sites like Coupon Cabin for deals on Vons, Kroger, Instacart and other brands aimed at grocery shoppers.
Use apps and credit cards to earn cash back
Avoiding impulse purchases is only the first step towards saving money at the grocery store. Savvy supermarket shoppers use cash back apps and credit cards that reward grocery purchases to maximize their rewards — and their savings.
“Figure out which of your credit cards will give you the most money back for food purchases,” says Woroch. She also suggests adding a flat-rate cash back credit card to your wallet, just in case you do your food shopping at a convenience store or big-box retailer that doesn’t earn grocery rewards.
“Most grocery credit cards are limited to food stores and don’t qualify for extra points or cash back at big box retailers,” says Woroch. “Without a flat-rate cash back card, you could miss out on earning rewards if you buy groceries from Walmart or Target.”
What about rewards apps like Ibotta or Fetch Rewards? Apps like these can save you money, but only if you use them on items you were going to buy anyway. “Review the special deals section to see which food brands will earn you more points, and purchase them if the item is already on your shopping list,” Woroch advises. Otherwise, you run the risk of making impulse purchases that could waste both food and money.
Swap overpriced convenience foods for less expensive staples
Here’s one more tip that can help you save money on groceries, especially during a recession when prices might continue to rise. By swapping overpriced convenience foods for less expensive staples — name-brand cereal vs. store-brand oatmeal, for example — you give yourself the opportunity to not only save money, but also get more nutrition per dollar.
Shopping for whole foods and staples instead of prepared foods and convenience items can save you money, but you’ll need to be prepared to spend more time in the kitchen. “Anything that has been chopped, diced, sliced, pre-seasoned will cost more for convenience,” Woroch says. “Buy the whole fruit or vegetable and larger slabs of meat to save 40 to 60 percent.”
If you don’t want to give up your favorite brands or convenience foods, you can always keep an eye out for supermarket markdowns. “Look for foods nearing their expiration date that the store has marked down,” Woroch advises. “You can find deals on fresh foods and meats, chicken, fish, etc. of up to 70 percent off. I just scored nice cheese and a dip my husband loves for 50 percent off that I was planning to buy anyway.”
The bottom line
Grocery shopping has gotten more expensive since 2022 — there’s no getting around that. But smart shoppers can save money by avoiding impulse buys, using credit cards that reward grocery purchases and swapping expensive convenience foods for lower-cost staples. If we end up in a recession, these tips will continue to help you save money every time you shop for food. And you may end up learning a few new cooking skills as a result!