The convenience of a grocery store can't be beat, but it comes at a price. Grocery stores regular mark up items where some of the work has been done for you — pre-cut fruits and vegetables, snack-sized bags of treats — or are non-food items like diapers and cleaning products. The good news is that by planning ahead, you can save a chunk of cash and not blow up your grocery budget. "Often, the cheapest and best-for-you items aren't prepackaged," says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, and author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked). Consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch recommends always having a list with you to keep you focused and stop impulse buys. So you can reap major health benefits and cost savings if you avoid these major money pits and fill up your cart with the best-value goods.
Of course, you should eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, says London — and if you need to grab some pre-cut fruit when you're on the run for convenience sake, we get that. But if you have the time, it's best to not pay the premium on pre-sliced produce.
Bottled dressing often has more than a dozen ingredients and some have 120 calories per serving. A better idea is to skip the dressing and make a light vinaigrette at home. Many use just three or four ingredients and taste fresher. Another plus: You aren't left with bottles of half-used salad dressing filling up your refrigerator.
Steak kabobs, cubes of meat for a stir fry, and chicken tenders can be marked up by nearly 60%, says Woroch. She recommends picking up larger slabs of meat and untrimmed chicken to save money.
If your drinking water is unsafe, then absolutely you should buy bottled water. But you can also get by with a home-water-filter and a reusable water bottle and save thousands of dollars over time. Bottled water can cost about 1,000 times more than water from a home faucet. Many people buy bottled water for the convenience and portability, but the environmental cost can be steep. A better alternative is to buy stainless steel water bottles and store them in the refrigerator for on-the-go use. "But do whatever you need to do to make sure you're hydrated," says London.
Reduced supply makes off-season produce extra pricey. "Just because strawberries are available in December doesn't mean you should buy them," says Kendel Perez, savings expert for CouponSherpa.com. She recommends either buying only what's in season or opting for frozen produce, which is flash-frozen at peak ripeness.
While they're great for portion control, says London, they're not so great on your wallet. Consumers can save $150 per year by ni individual servings sizes of potato chips, according to clark.com. Those little bags, and lunch-sized portions of produce, are often marked up by 50%.
Consumer Reports ran a blind taste test using pricey name-brand spices versus cheaper generic versions in different recipes, and asked tasters to compare them. For the most part, the tasters couldn't tell them apart. Woroch says local ethnic stores often sell spices and herbs for up to 90% less than the name brands sold at grocery stores. "You may not get a fancy bottle, but you can pick up a few reusable ones from the dollar store that will work just as well," she says. Or go to a health-food store where they're often sold in bulk. Buy just a small amount at a time — it's much cheaper and keeps your spices fresher.
Canned legumes cost upwards of $1 per 14 ounces, but a 2-lb. bag of dried black beans goes for about $1.59 at Aldi, according to clark.com. That's 12 cups of beans (96 oz.) after soaking — a difference of $0.042 per ounce for canned versus $0.016 for dried.
"I find that the pre-made grocery store bouquets are often less fresh," writes Faith Durand on Apartment Therapy. "They seem to wilt faster. Also, they are usually padded with a great deal of unnecessary greenery." This doesn't mean you need to skip grocery store flowers altogether, however. Durand recommends just buying single varieties of flowers, looking for the freshest bunch with buds that aren't fully opened yet.
Woroch says buying pet food in bulk from either a warehouse store or big box store like Walmart and Target will get you the best bang for your buck.
"You'll find the best deals on household cleaners at big box stores," says Woroch. The dollar store can be a good place to pick up these items, too, though it's worth noting that their brands may be more diluted. "Better yet, make your own multipurpose cleaner for less than 50 cents by using pantry staples like vinegar, baking soda, salt and lemon," Woroch adds.
You'll find tools like spatulas, cookie sheets and baking pans on the baking aisle, but you probably shouldn't spring for them unless you have a coupon. These items sell for 30% more than they would at stores like Target, Walmart, TJ Maxx and HomeGoods, according to CouponSherpa.com's Perez.
"Despite the abundance of cards and party supplies at your local grocer, the dollar store is a much better outlet for these items," says Perez. Stock up on cards at the dollar store (usually 50 cents each) so you won't be tempted by the grocery store's $5 cards.
Grocery stores hit batteries with a steep markup and for good reason: When you need batteries, you often need them fast. "You can find better prices on batteries at warehouse club stores or online at sites like Amazon," says Perez.