It’s easy to walk past the shoe store if you’re trying to curb your spending. Just don’t buy shoes, right? That’s easy. (Okay, it’s not that easy. But you get the idea.) The grocery store is a different dilemma – you have to go. It’s where they keep the food. And it’s one of the easiest places for your budget to go right into the toilet if you’re not vigilant.
I’m not going to tell you what to buy, I’m going to tell you how to buy what you need. Because you’ve already made a meal plan for the week, right? And checked your local store circular, adjusted your meal plan according to what’s on sale, and made a list to take with you, right? Right? Here’s how to walk out of the store with your budget intact:
- Don’t shop peak times.
When the express lane is fifteen-deep and the regular checkstands have lines backed up to the freezer case, the ‘flight’ instinct is activated in any human in his or her right mind. Which means that the carefully-selected items once destined for the dinner table are now wilting in an abandoned cart on Aisle 5 and you’re about to drop $20 on takeout, and you still have to go to the store. Best times to shop: Early in the morning, during football games or other major broadcast (or local) events, weeknights after about 7 PM.
- Always have a list.
Having a well-written list will help you stay focused on the task at hand. You won’t buy three cans of pumpkin because you checked your pantry while making your list and noted that the three cans you bought last year – when you thought you needed it but weren’t sure and definitely didn’t want to be shopping the day before Thanksgiving – were still there. Leaving unnecessary food on the shelf keeps money in your pocket.
- Respect the list.
We can’t emphasize this enough. It’s not enough to make a list and remember to bring it to the store, you must follow its lead. In addition to eliminating unnecessary doubles (or triples – ask me about the three bags of shredded coconut in my cupboard some time), The List is a gentle reminder to put down the truffle oil, say thanks-but-no-thanks to amazing-looking but Pricey and Expertly Displayed Deliciousness, and get yourself out of there before everyone else stopping to buy groceries on their way home beats you to the checkout line.
- Respect the list.
- Don’t bring your kids.
Shopping with a kid is like shopping with the little devil on your shoulder while the angel that’s supposed to be on the other side takes an extended leave of absence. But this is a difficult edict to follow – sometimes it’s not possible to shop without your kids. If you can, do. You’ll be able to finish the shopping in record time and no one will be whining or begging you to add the aforementioned Deliciousness to your cart. If you have to bring your kids, make sure they’re well fed, rested, and distracted, either by a book or toy (the limit in our household is one item per hand, more than that and the excursion ends in tears all around) or by ‘helping’ you shop. When you have your kids with you, it’s doubly important to have a list – “If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t go in the cart” can short circuit a fair bit of treat-mongering.
- Edit your cart before you leave.
Before you head to the checkout, take a good look in your cart. (Pull over first. Don’t be That Guy.) Is that fleur de sel on your list? What about the half case of Count Chocula? Are you sure you don’t already have coconut at home? And are you really going to be able to cook all those collards before they spoil?
- Don’t shop hungry.
The Golden Rule of Grocery Shopping. Everyone knows it, everyone breaks it. I broke it on Wednesday afternoon and came home with four 8½-ounce packages of mung bean noodles. The good news is that they are spectacular with a little shredded coconut.