The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we eat—we’re having more meals at home. As a result, we’re spending more food dollars at the supermarket instead of restaurants.

If you do the grocery shopping in your family, you’ve probably noticed that the grocery bills keep going up. Blame the pandemic for pushing up the prices of many staples, including meat and eggs.

“Shoppers are facing a double-whammy because not only are prices going up, but stores are putting fewer items on sale each week due uncertainties in the supply chain," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World.

Phil Lempert, a retail analyst and consumer trendwatcher known as the Supermarket Guru, predicts food prices will continue going up for the rest of the year, so smart shoppers will need to adjust their mindsets.

“When you see products that are on sale, make sure you stock up,” Lempert said. “And be willing to make substitutions when brand doesn’t really matter. If you like a particular kind of ketchup, but there’s another ketchup that’s less expensive, try it.”

These simple tips can help you lower your weekly grocery bills.

Consider lower cost stores

Checkbook regularly compares grocery store options for price and quality. To compare prices, Checkbook’s researchers use a 150+ item list—and lots of energy—to shop area stores. To evaluate stores on quality of products and service, we survey consumers. We also compare prices of local grocery delivery services. We find most families can save $1,200 or more per year by moving their food-shopping business to a low-cost grocer.

Try store brands

Store brands are generally a great value and you might be surprised how good they are.

“Manufacturers have really upped the quality, and the price spread between the national brands and the store brands is getting wider and wider, at least 25 to 30 percent,” Lempert told Checkbook. “Store brands typically come with a money-back guarantee, so you really can’t go wrong.”

In a Consumer Reports survey, two national chains earned top marks for store brands: Costco and Trader Joe’s.

Frozen foods are often cheaper

Yes, fresh is usually best. But frozen can be just as nutritious––sometimes more so––and the price is typically much lower.

Frozen foods often have more vitamins and minerals than fresh, because fresh produce loses vitamins and minerals over time, while freezing preserves them, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“They’re usually frozen at their peak of ripeness, so they’re going to maintain their delicious flavor,” said Kristen Gradney, a spokesperson for the academy. “So they’re really accessible, affordable and usually taste great … you can use them at any time and they won’t go bad.”

Comparison shop

If you have a few supermarkets nearby, check the circulars (you can probably do it online) to see what’s on sale at each store. It may be worth the time and effort to make two stops instead of one.

For example, I found a one-pound package of 85-percent-lean ground beef selling for between $4.78 and $7.49 where I live.

And don’t forget the drugstore. They run some great loss leaders to get you into the door on popular items, such as cereal, toothpaste, salad dressing, toilet paper, and cosmetics.

Just remember to focus on buying the on-sale items and not to be tempted by other often higher-priced items that are not on sale. Retailers have spent years perfecting ways to get consumers to spend more. More on that here.

Go online for discounts or use store apps

Printed coupons have also fallen victim to the pandemic. These days, many of the best deals are digital.

“Some stores now require shoppers to visit their website or use the app to clip virtual coupons tied to their loyalty card or phone number in order to buy the advertised item at the advertised price,” Consumer World’s Dworsky said. “One chain in my area was offering store brand English muffins for an unheard of 28 cents a package this week, but only if you had preloaded the online coupon.”

Do the math

Unit prices make it easy to compare the same item in various sizes from different manufacturers. But this consumer-friendly information is not required in most states.

In that case, you’ll need to do the math. Use the calculator on your phone:  Divide the price by the number of units in each package you’re comparing. Sometimes, the unit of measurement varies from brand to brand.

“If, say, one soda’s price is per fluid ounce and the other’s per liter, ask Google how many ounces are in a liter and do the conversions,” Consumer Reports editor Tobie Stanger suggests in a blog post.

Note: Larger sizes are not always the better buy, especially when another brand is on sale.  

Maximize cash-back rewards

Many families, especially those with rewards credit cards, charge their supermarket purchases. Those points or cash-back rewards can really add up.

Back in the spring, many travel rewards cards gave bonus points for groceries to compensate for lack of travel rewards.

Most of those promotions have ended, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com, so you need to be more selective about which rewards card you use for grocery shopping.

“My favorite grocery card is Amex Blue Cash Preferred,” Rossman told Checkbook. “I’m also really intrigued by a promotion Chase is running on its existing Freedom Unlimited Card and its new Freedom Flex card (coming out Sept. 14). Both offer new cardholders 5 percent cash back at grocery stores in the first year (up to $12,000 in spending which amounts to $600 in rewards), a great return on cards that don’t charge annual fees.”

Note: Rewards cards only make sense if you pay off the balance in full each month to avoid interest, and if you would have spent the money anyway.

If you shop online, use cash-back apps

These free browser extensions—such as Rakuten, Ibotta, and Checkout 51—automatically apply coupons (when applicable) and provide cash back at participating retailers. Checkbook’s staff tested several cash-back portals and, overall, found them useful for saving money. Many supermarkets and drugstores, and some warehouse stores and home-delivery services, participate in these programs.

Any savings you get from these apps is in addition to any coupons or promotional codes you have, the points you get on your credit card, and savings from your supermarket loyalty card.

More shopping strategies

  • Buy in bulk but avoid waste. Checkbook’s comparisons of grocery prices reveal that prices at warehouse clubs Costco and Sam’s Club are typically 30 to 35 percent lower than those at large supermarket chains. But those big savings evaporate if you throw away half of what you buy due to spoilage. So keep track of what you trash.
  • Plan your meals, make a shopping list, and stick to it. If you map out your meals, you’re less likely to waste money on impulse items.
  • Cut down on convenience foods. Wash and cut your own produce, slice and grate your own cheese, make your own sauces, and shun individual serving packets.
  • Avoid stores’ spending traps. It’s no coincidence that impulse items are located at the ends of aisles and dairy items are at the rear—stores know that the more tempting snacks you pass en route to what you need, the more likely you’ll buy stuff you hadn’t intended to get.
  • Don’t shop while hungry. Studies have shown that shoppers tend to buy more groceries when famished.
  • Consider changing your overall eating habits. Eating less meat can save money.
  • Pay attention to nutrition and ingredient labels. They will help you buy brands of processed foods that don’t have excessive fat, water, and other ingredients with little or no nutritional value.
  • Consider your travel patterns. If no lower-priced store is located near you, think about whether you occasionally drive near one and plan to shop there when you do.

     




    Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.