Are you overwhelmed by making a grocery list for your growing family when the cost of groceries blows your budget?
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans spent 3.5% more on food for the home in 2021 than in 2020.
If you want to get control of your family’s budget, learning how to make a grocery list on a budget is the first step.
Making a list won’t take as much time as you think once you know the strategies that save my family hundreds of dollars a month on groceries. And, it will save you time later at the grocery store and throughout the week.
You’ll need the weekly sales circular and a little time to review the weekly ads and make grocery lists and meal plans for the week.
Keep reading to learn how to save money on groceries by making a grocery list on a budget with these five simple steps.
Step 1: Start With the Loss Leaders
Loss leaders are the items on the deep discount that are usually advertised on the front page of the weekly sales ad.
Not everything on page one is a great price. Sometimes only a few items on the page are at their lowest cost. Once you’ve reviewed the ads for a few weeks, you’ll recognize the usual sale price vs. the lowest price for your foods.
You should buy the loss leaders when it’s something your family already eats or is willing to try.
Get the maximum quantity if you can use or store the food before it expires. Some promotions only allow you to buy a maximum of one at the sale price. But, a maximum of four of the same item seems to be the most common limit for sale quantities in my area. Always double-check.
Sale cycles are seasonal.
Certain foods are on steep discounts during specific times of the year. A good rule of thumb is when things are in high demand, they’re usually at their lowest price. So for example, baking ingredients go on sale around the winter holidays, and BBQ-related foods, strawberries, watermelon, and some meat are at their lowest price during the summer.
Step 2: Scan Every Page (And Know What to Look For)
The lowest prices are usually on the first page. But, you’ll have to go through each page to stock up on everything you need to stock up your pantry.
Keep a price list for a few stores comparing the cost of food you usually buy. Then, you’ll recognize what’s a substantial markdown vs. what’s primarily an advertisement.
Here are tips and things to look out for as you go through the weekly sales:
- Your family’s favorites
- Sale items at their lowest prices are usually the “loss leaders” on the front page, in-season produce, or holiday/seasonal related foods.
- Healthy options when they’re on sale like lean cuts of meat, organic dairy and produce, whole grain cereals, nut butter, yogurt, frozen vegetables
- Ingredients to re-stock a pantry such as chicken stock, pasta, herbs, and spices. These are ingredients you forget you need until you need them while cooking.
- Make a list of what you’ll need for upcoming parties or holidays, and buy it when you see it on sale over a few weeks before the event.
- Beware of “sales” that are actually advertisements. Sometimes stores feature products and list the price. It’s misleading. Make sure the ad shows a marked-down price.
- Use caution with quantity-dependent sales. For example, you must buy four cereal boxes to pay $6 ($1.50 each). If you purchase three or get the wrong size or variety, the store will charge full price each!
Step 3: Make Two Lists
Keep a running list available in the kitchen so you can add ingredients as you need them.
When you make your list for the week, create two lists, one for “this week” and one for “later.” The foods on this week’s list are foods you absolutely need this week. Then, you can add the items you don’t need right away to the “later” list. That way, you can wait for sales.
Always write the date of the sale cycle on this week’s list so you know the dates when the prices are valid. And note the price, size, and quantity on the list.
For example, if a family-size cereal box is on sale and the promotion is for two boxes, you would write something like this.
Cheerios $2.49/18 oz x 2 (must buy 2)
Step 4: Don’t Forget to Use a Grocery Savings App
Make sure you’re signed up for your grocery store’s savings rewards program.
You’ll need to scan your rewards card to get most of the store’s sale prices. Some stores also have digital coupons. These are an additional sale price on top of the sale. It’s similar to a traditional coupon. One thing to note is that most stores won’t allow you to combine a digital coupon with a manufacturer’s coupon.
The digital coupon sale price isn’t automatic. Instead, you’ll need to download the coupon to your card from your store’s website.
A digital coupon sale would look something like this.
Ibotta is primarily a grocery rebate app. Like coupons, the promotions are for specific foods, and some brands require that you buy a certain amount to get credit.
All you have to do is sign up, check the promotions available and select the foods you plan to buy. Then, scan your receipt and select the eligible items. You’ll receive points you can trade in for gift cards.
Fetch is a rebate program that you can use for a wider variety of stores, not only for food. And, you don’t need to pre-select items, so it doesn’t require planning. This savings app gives you credit for most store receipts. Like Ibotta, you can trade your points in for gift cards.
Step 5: Know When to Shop
There’s nothing worse than spending on a grocery list and meal plan only to show up to the store during the wrong sales cycle (or to forget your list at home!).
Most sales circulars are available the week before the sale, so check the dates before you go. Then, write the sale dates on your grocery list and plan to go shopping within that period.
Not all stores have the same sales cycle. For example, one store I go to has advertised sales from Friday – Thursday. While another store starts its sale week on Sundays and ends on Saturdays.
There are other things to know before you go:
- When the store puts out marked-down meat or bread
- Double coupon day (if your store offers it)
- 2- or 3-day sales. Not all sales are available for the whole week.
- Stores advertise some loss leaders as available “while supplies last,” and these products sell out fast. So, get there early!
- Sale tags on shelves may not be up to date. The first and last day of the weekly sale may not have the current price labels on the shelves. The first day may still have the previous week’s prices up. And the store may have already removed the price labels on the last day of the sale. It depends on the store. You can trust your grocery list if you take the time to add the size and sale price and are sure you’re shopping during the correct sale cycle.
Can You Save on Groceries Without Coupons?
You don’t have to cut coupons to save money if you don’t want to.
Manufacturers and grocery stores have caught on to the “extreme couponing” method, which is when you combine sales with coupons. Unfortunately, in my area, it’s challenging to coordinate the sales cycles with coupons before they expire. And, some stores don’t allow you to combine a manufacturer’s coupons with the store’s digital coupons.
Whether you use a grocery savings app or paper coupon, you only save if it’s for food or household products that your family already likes and buys.
In my experience, buying the store brand or stocking up when my family’s favorite foods go on deep discount saves more money on the foods we want to eat.
Still, all savings add up no matter how small. So it doesn’t hurt to use coupons. Remember that sometimes you spend more money with a coupon than you would with meal planning and grocery savings strategies.
For example, suppose you have a coupon for $0.20 off of brand A. In that case, the total you spend after the discount may actually be more money than the regular cost of brand B. You might think it’s worth it if the coupon is for your favorite brand.
But, you can save a lot of money by making a grocery list from sales and using the store’s discount card without using the manufacturer’s coupons. For example, I save almost $2,000 a year using my grocery store’s savings rewards card. And that doesn’t even include how much money I save from buying store brands or clearance meat, bread, and pantry products.
Grocery Shopping Hacks
- Keep a running grocery hanging in the kitchen for each food store you use
- Make a grocery list labeled “this week” and “later” (for food that can wait). When items on the “later” list go on sale, move them to the “this week” list.
- Focus on the loss leaders on the front page of flyers
- Find a place in the kitchen to keep the circulars and your shopping list, so it’s easily accessible.
- Next week’s sales ad may be available before you shop during the current cycle if you shop at the end of a store’s weekly sale cycle. If possible, compare prices and move things to next week’s list for a better price.
- Save time by putting your grocery list in the same order as the store’s aisles. This helps you avoid walking back and forth for items you forgot.
Wrap It Up
Being a frugal grocery shopper starts with a list-making strategy.
The goal is to buy what you need when it’s on sale. And that takes planning. Until your pantry is stocked, it may take a few weeks before you’re able to wait for deals on food and household products that your family needs.
These grocery list strategies save me thousands of dollars a year. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t need to put much thought or time into it. You only need a little time to make a list and meal plan each week.
Do you have any tips that work for you? Let me know in the comments below!
About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD
I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!