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I am living close to a mall with several grocery stores. I would like to save money on the food I buy. I have tried using apps that show me the best prices, ads, and coupons from multiple stores, but have trouble coming up with a strategy.

I have heard of several strategies using such apps:

  1. Find cheapest price on specific item and go to any store that does a price match
  2. Use the "hot deals" feature
  3. Browse the deals of a specific store

The problems with the app I had are:

  1. though I live close to several grocery stores, if I search for the lowest price it still may be at a store not in the area
  2. if I search through weekly flyer it doesn't necessarily mean it's cheap or even something I want
  3. price matches don't usually work due to minor variations in the product and packaging

In theory I would like to know which stores typically have the best prices on certain products in different categories, but I haven't been able to spot such a trend. Are there any other ways I can make use of shopping at multiple grocery stores? Are there any comparisons of what stores are overall generally cheaper to shop at?

Some of the stores in the area are Walmart, Superstore and Save on Foods. There are also small family owned produce stores which don't have listings in the app.

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    Can you include country tag? In some countries many pages do, what is called, basket comparison. Also if you search for the lowest price why would you think it's in the store close to your area? There's a reason why it will be lower there. – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 29 at 13:17
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    @SZCZERZOKŁY my point was it would be counter productive to go to too many stores just to find the cheapest item. – titchseason Aug 29 at 13:30
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    Just a side note that you seem to be assuming that you will buy the same things regardless of what's on sale. If you become more flexible with your eating habits, you can try to buy only what's cheap that week. In particular, if you only buy produce that's in season, you'll get better quality and lower prices. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Aug 29 at 14:48
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    A key point in the calculation that often gets missed is the amount of time you spend hunting a bargain and what value you place on your time. There are much more efficient ways to earn money. – zzzzBov Aug 29 at 21:28
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    This comparison shopping and repeated store visits takes time. What is the value of your time, to you?. Also, is comparison shopping a task you enjoy, or could you get paid for other jobs you enjoy more (TaskRabbit comes to mind)? – Harper Aug 30 at 0:22

10 Answers 10

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I used to do this when I was younger. The process went like this:

  • look through the flyers from the stores near me. Note things that are significantly cheaper this week (eg chicken is on sale)
  • add those items to the shopping list and note the store name
  • add store names to items already on my list that are advertised on sale

then

  • go to the first store. Buy whatever is on sale from my list. (Often, buy more than you need and keep it in the pantry or freezer to last you until it next goes on sale.) Observe the prices of other things in a vague way (I never took notes.) Buy things I can only get at that store.
  • continue at the next store. If anything on my list without a store name is cheaper than at the first store, buy it. Buy things I can only get at that store.
  • at the last store, buy things whether on sale or not unless I can go another week without buying them. Buy things I can only get at that store.

The more often you do this, the more you will learn that X goes on sale every 3 weeks but Y is almost never on sale. That A is always cheaper at Loblaws and B is always cheaper at Metro. And so on.

In my case, the store-specific brands often meant you couldn't buy all your items at any single store. I like a number of President's Choice things and you're not going to get those at Sobey's. These days Metro has some really nice store brand frozen pizzas. My local Loblaws doesn't carry some national brands that others store do. So some items you can only get at one store and it's a matter of waiting for them to come on sale.

I suppose if you were up for it you could open up online ordering tabs for 3 or 4 stores and thus make sure you weren't paying 10 cents too much for the butter or whatever. I never chased those small amounts. Getting the meat half price or stocking up on the paper towels when they were on sale had bigger returns for me.

Also learn which stores price match. It's probably more convenient to go to one store and get everything by making them match the price from the other stores.

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    "Getting the meat half price or stocking up on the paper towels when they were on sale had bigger returns for me." I think this is the core advice - items you can buy in bulk, that are expensive, should be bought on sale when possible. Other items with negligible cost differences between stores, don't bother. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Aug 29 at 14:46
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    I'm past the point of needing to concern myself with saving a few bucks on groceries, but I still scan for good deals on the more expensive items that I can stock up on. I'm pretty confident that buying a chest freezer, vacuum sealer, and stocking up when things go on sale has saved me significantly more than shopping multiple stores every week would. Could do both I'm sure and save more, but stocking up when things are on sale is pretty easy. – Hart CO Aug 29 at 15:16
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    Buying (and cooking) in bulk FTW. I put myself through grad school by buying sale items and making the largest batch meal I could from the ingredients, then eating leftovers. As an added bonus I only had to cook 2-3 nights each week, and I had multiple options for zero-effort meals nearly every day. – Upper_Case Aug 29 at 20:07
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Frame Challenge

There's an "opportunity cost" (spending time doing one thing means that you miss out on the opportunity to do other things, which might be more fruitful) in running around hither and yon looking for the cheapest of everything.

Thus, I would comparison shop to find which grocery store has the overall lowest cost.

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    @BobBaerker it's definitely an opportunity cost to someone who has a job and a family to raise. – RonJohn Aug 29 at 14:31
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    @BobBaerker This probably depends a lot where you live. Ive been in cities where there were 4 grocery stores almost next door, and others where the second nearest was 25 minutes drive. Personally im far more willing to shop around if it doesnt involve significant length drives. (which cost me gas anyway which eats into the savings). Personally I do a monthly warehouse store run to get all the long life goods I want that month (and a week worth of perishables), then go to a local supermarket on the other weeks to restock perishables, which i've found offers a good compromise of money and time. – Vality Aug 29 at 16:19
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    It's also worth considering the cost of gas to travel to multiple stores, and parking costs (if any). The OP describes grocery stores in a smaller area, so it might not be a consideration for this question, but often it's easy to cut into savings through extra travel without realizing it. – Upper_Case Aug 29 at 20:05
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    @BobBaerker Whereas I would argue that if you spend twice the time each week on grocery shopping (realistically more than twice, because if you shop in one place you can quickly put together a shopping basket, but if you go to two you have to price compare every little thing), just to do better than the overall lowest cost that this answer suggests, then, unless you are on the poverty line where every penny counts, this is when you should be rethinking your life. There is more to life than spending it in a grocery store any longer than necessary. – JBentley Aug 29 at 22:55
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    @BobBaerker To put it into perspective, if you spend 30 minutes in a second grocery store once per week, and you have 60 years of shopping (let's say from ages 20 to 80), then that is a little over 2 months of your life you will spend in that grocery store. That definitely involves an opportunity cost. Personally I would rather spend that 2 months with loved ones, travelling, learning, earning money, <insert other worthy goal>, etc. – JBentley Aug 29 at 22:58
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I'm going to relate it to a bit of computer programming: Premature Optimization is the root of all evil. In other words, don't spend your time struggling to optimize some aspect of a situation without actually checking whether the aspect is even a major performance issue.

In this case? Before going too far down this road, I'd actually suggest tracking three things for a few months:

  1. Breakdown of monthly expenses taken from actual spending patterns
  2. Breakdown of grocery receipts that you keep and refer back to.
  3. Written log of everything you throw into the garbage - uneaten portions, unused food, spoiled leftovers, etc.

... because, to be honest, I have doubts that "buying Carrots for $3.49 instead of getting them for $2.99 at another store" is actually where you should be focusing your saving efforts.

Actual Spending. My wife and I were having a tight checkbook last year, and we were trying to figure out how to ease our situation. So I sat down, looked at every expense in our bank statements for 3 months. And I found that: we'd spent nearly $600/month on fast food or restaurants. I never would've guessed the total would've been that high. And there was a decent amount (more than usual) spend on online clothes. The solution was pretty easy for us: stop eating out so much, and scale back a bit on online purchases. I'm sure we could've saved some money by altering our grocery patterns... but not nearly as much as doing some small tweaks in the right areas.

Grocery Cost Breakdowns. Honestly, I suck at grocery shopping (it's kind of why my wife usually does it.) My problem is, I'm way too impulsive. I can go to the store to shop for a meal I'm making that night and come back with the chicken, green pepper, onion, and rice... but I'll also have a candy bar, a jug of apple cider, and a dog toy. Grocery expenses can be a large chunk of a monthly budget... but a lot of the time, there are probably things you could scale back to a lot better effect than simply trying to make sure the chicken/pepper/onion/rice are on sale for $0.20 cheaper.

Grocery Waste. The sad thing is, Americans throw away 40% of the groceries we buy. We buy too much and don't use it before it goes bad. We buy it impulsively and don't end up wanting it. We buy it but then end up going out to eat instead of cooking it. We make too much and never eat all the leftovers. 40% is an awful freaking lot. If you're interested in saving grocery money, that's another huge place to start - it's effectively a universal "Save 40% coupon" on all food you buy.

TL;DR - By all means, work on saving money... but before you get too deep into tactics/details, make sure you're focusing your efforts on the best of places.

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    The dog toy is non-negotiable though. If you have a dog, that is… – pipe Aug 30 at 20:56
  • @pipe but you likely don't need a new one each week? – Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 31 at 18:11
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Where I live there are two major grocery chains and Walmart. Each offers different sale items in its weekly circular. Since my food choices don't vary much, it's not hard to know what products are at a good price in any given week. In terms of price and quality, I have found that Walmart is best for non perishables. One grocery store is the best for meat and fish while the other is better for fresh produce.

A popular loss leader at grocery stores in my area is BOGO deals (buy one, get one free). This is where the real savings occurs and I stock up on non perishables like TP, cleaning supplies and long dated food. Not only does it lower the cost of living but it reduces the number of shopping trips and the time spent shopping.

So what this boils down to is shopping twice a week with an occasional stock up trip to Walmart. I could shop only once a week but since I want fresh produce and fresh fish, twice is my number.

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Double coupons

In the 90s when I didn't care what I ate, I relied heavily on "double coupon" promotions where the store would double the manufacturer coupons.

I would go around and scrounge the recycle trays that people put out - mind you in my town they were low trays that were very easy to pick through. I was after the coupon sections in their Sunday papers.

Back at home, I would sort them by type. Then lay out 5 of the same type, and flip through all 5 together, and snip any coupons for foods I would consider. So I was getting 5 of each coupon.

Then I would hit the stores that offered double coupons, buying (their limit) of that item. This kept me quite well stocked in foods.

Join the club

Part of the problem today is that so many promotions involve "doing an online thing" - they have your email, you get discounts in their app, etc. on top of that you have the membership promotions; where I live you basically have to be a member of the store "club" in order to get any of the sale prices. So effectively grocery stores have turned into members-only clubs, if you want any price that is any kind of fair.

Aldi and Trader Joes (sorry, Canada)

Both stores have a business model of skipping all the marketing and yield manangement games of seriously trying with a straight face to get $5.49 for a box of Cheerios (except Club members, who get $3.99). TJ and Aldi charge the prices that things would be if that didn't exist, so $1.99 at Trader Joes or $1.69 at Aldi's. (Both companies are in the same ownership by the way, but the stores have very diferent personalities and uniqueness of product - Joes has many excentric things like Cookie Butter, and Aldi diligently sticks to all the normal staples, in their house-brands. But of course, they don't stock everything. After I discovered them, the coupon routine stopped entirely. The routine became Aldi/TJ and then the grocery store for everything they don't have. I bought little enough at the grocery store that I no longer cared to comparison shop.

  • When I was in graduate school, double coupons was key to our survival. The Weds paper was full of coupons and if there were good ones for what we consumed, we'd buy 5-10 papers. In order to cut inventory costs, one local grocery ran triple coupons every 3 months. If the tripled coupon exceeded the item's price, the cashier was supposed to adjust the price. Some weren't too swift and you ended up getting paid to take the items home. We really hit it big when my sister-in-law got a Sunday job delivering papers. Lots of free coupons! Ah, the good old days of not having a pot to pee in :-> – Bob Baerker Aug 30 at 16:25
  • ?!? We have never found Trader Joe’s prices to be particularly attractive! – WGroleau Aug 31 at 1:02
  • Some details about "same ownership": There are two kinds of "Aldi" in Germany (where this chain originates from), Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd (spread through Northern and Southern Germany, respectively). Each is owned by one of two brothers. Outside of Germany, they mostly divided the world between each other, with each country only having one of both. The Aldi in the US is Aldi Süd, but Aldi Nord did buy Trader Joe's at some point, so now you actually have both Aldis in one country. (Interestingly, in Germany Aldi Nord is selling stuff under the "Trader Joe's" brand, which is not sold in the US.) – Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 31 at 18:07
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I agree with many of the answers given as viable strategies for saving money. There are a few points that I would add that have saved me money over the years. My wife and I have 7 children, and we have learned that over time our strategy has changed. This is my first point: What once worked may not work in the future. This is because of changes to how stores conduct business, how prices fluctuate, how coupons or sales evolve over time, but it can also change because your family grows (or shrinks in my case), your budget changes, or your time to price compare and drive around town changes.

Time vs Money vs Space

I have learned to be wary when shopping. I own 2 fridges, a full size freezer, and several storage shelves, so I know how to stock up. Stocking up means planning. Don't buy things that you can't use within a reasonable amount of time for your household size. In this equation of savings you have 3 resources to consider. Money is only one of the 3. The other two are time and space. Time is a very valuable resource and how much you have will depend on your circumstances. More time means you can save more money, there is a trade off between the two, but at a certain point there is also a diminishing return, where adding more time to the process doesn't net much cost savings. You will have to gauge this based on what items you like to purchase and your family size. Lastly, storage space is an important commodity, when you use up space in your fridge, freezer or shelves, you have less room for something else to be stored, you have to evaluate how much of any item is worth utilizing the space. Stores do this all the time when allocating how much space and the location of the space is used for any given item, and manufacturers even pay premium prices for more space or more prominent space in a store.

Not all coupons and sales are good

Other areas I am wary in, include coupons and sales themselves, I will not purchase anything, no matter how good the price is, if it isn't something I don't normally consume. I always compare prices based on how much I am getting per ounce when it comes to food. But with perishables, sometimes it is worth the cost to purchase less or to get more expensive items if they are stored in smaller containers that will let them stay fresher longer once opened. Examples of smaller containers include single serve packages of chips and crackers. Along with this is my mantra that buying in bulk sometimes means you eat in bulk, especially with kids in the house. If I have a lot of cereal or snacks, somehow a lot of cereal and snacks will get eaten quickly.

Order Online for Pickup

If your store offers pickup options it saves a lot in the time and money resource categories as well. My wife and I have found that when we don't go into the store proper we save more on our purchases, we simply buy less.

Weigh Store Benefits

I have a few stores that are local to me that have their loyalty cards that have decent benefits. I recently cashed in my points and got several gift cards to Amazon and local restaurants. Another local store allows you to use points to save on fuel costs.

Store Brands

Often store brands have comparable quality to national brands and even when they are not on sale can save you money, even over national brands that are on sale. Be aware that in most cases, things like milk, regardless of the brand, come from the same dairy plants within your region. No need to splurge for national branded produce either. Many of the store brands are packaged in the same facilities that make the national brands. Where I live, the same plant makes yogurts for national brands, McDonald's, Wal-Mart and others, they do the same for other dairy products like cheese.

Compare sizes

I have, on many occasions, noticed that sometimes smaller packaged items of the same brand are more cost effective per ounce than the 'family' or other bulk size items. This is uncommon but it is useful to quickly glance at all the prices and sizes of a product. Useful stores will have the price per ounce printed under the total price.

"You could save..."

When I see these words in an ad or commercial for an item, I tell myself, I can save all my money by not buying that product at all. We are talking about managing on a lot of different levels. One of those levels is just being self aware enough to say, 'I really don't need that product'. Don't buy on emotion or hunger or anything else other than your grocery list/menu/budget. If you want to splurge or do something that is out of the norm, that is fine, just make sure you plan it before you go shopping and it is a part of the grocery list/menu/budget.

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The general term I've seen for what it seems you want is a price book. The Wikipedia article talks mainly about its usage in economics, but it has a place in personal finance as well and functions similarly.

In this case, you would be building a list of prices of various groceries that you shop for regularly at the stores where you regularly shop, or which you regularly pass (and thus are able to shop at).

The principle is simple: along one axis, write the name of the item; along the other, write the name of the store (or more generally, supplier). At the intersection of the two, write the price per some standardized unit ($/lb, €/kg, £/L, ¥/pc.; whatever fits that particular item). This can be done in as low-tech or high-tech manner as you prefer: everything from one or a few sheets of paper, a pencil and an eraser, to a specialized application on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

Then, as you are preparing a shopping list, look in the price book for the lowest price for each item, and review any discount fliers you have received to see if any of the stores offer special deals on items you want. Split your shopping list such that you have one shopping list per store; then go to each store in turn and buy whatever products are cheapest at that store before moving on to the next. To save on transportation time and/or cost, plan your route such that you don't need to backtrack. Save all reciepts, and when you get home, update the price book with current (non-discounted) prices.

The downside of this, of course, is the extra time it takes; but if, as you say, the stores are colocated, that need not necessarily be substantial, especially if you can consolidate your shopping down to two or three stores and shop for a lot of items at each store. Realistically, you will want to account for, at a minimum, time for preparation and follow-up at home, transportation between the stores, and waiting in the check-out line at each store. For example, whether it's worth saving $1/month on groceries if it means spending an extra 30 minutes on travel and in-store checkout for an item you purchase weekly is a very different question than if you can save $200/month by spending an extra 15 minutes once monthly.

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That's the result of shops catching up on bargain hunters. If the shops are in close vicinity to each other they might lower profit on some of the items to attract customers while the other shop lower price on different items. So price of whole shopping cart is similar.
Same with packaging or sizes.

For the strategy I would advise not to look for combined best price (so the lowest price of everything you buy) but for the lowest price of most bought (used) items.

So for example if you buy apples for 5$ a week but 10$ of mangoes every two weeks it would be better to shop for cheaper apples even if it means paying a little extra on mangoes.

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    Your ending example doesn't make sense to me, they're paying $10 every 2 weeks for either fruit, why would it be beneficial to get cheaper apples instead of cheaper mangoes? – Hart CO Aug 29 at 14:33
  • @Hartco Looking for cheaper apples (so let say 4$) and pay 10.50$ on mangoes than to try to look for cheapest occasion on both of them. – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 29 at 14:51
  • I didn't downvote, but I don't follow how frequency of purchases matters, it's all about total cost. – Hart CO Aug 29 at 14:56
  • @Hartco Total cost of all shopping during a month for example. The saving might be lower than trying to buy everything the cheapest but the saving is on time for the shopping, gas used to travel to the "cheapest avocado" and so on. If the saving on total cost of bag of groceries is less than what Op would earn in the time used for that bargain hunting is it really saving? – SZCZERZO KŁY Aug 29 at 15:03
  • Ah, I thought you were saying the opposite 'not to look for combined best price' but you meant combined across stores, not combined across all items to buy. I agree at some point it gets foolish to go to too many stores. I'd just find the one store that generally has the best prices and then for really good sales go elsewhere. – Hart CO Aug 29 at 15:08
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You could always use one of the several apps, such as this one that offers 'packages' that you collect of expired food or food very near expiry, that stores otherwise could not sell.

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The key to saving money when buying groceries is to cycle through different stores with basically two key mindsets:

  1. If there is an exceptional deal on a non-perishable item that is in your staple, you should basically buy an ungodly amount of that item. An easy example is cereal. There is a cereal our house eats that is about $4 a box - we go through at least 2 boxes a week. Every once in awhile Target puts these on sale for $2. We bought 20 last time ($40). People mention shopping Aldi, Walmart, or TJ... those are fine but the biggest savings on one item come from Target or your big-chain supermarket (who might be expensive on 80% of things in comparison). These "cheaper" stores might have an average price that is lower but they don't have the huge sales on items either.
  2. On perishables, be flexible with what you eat. If you go into a grocery store with a list you will pay more for sure. I get marked down meat all the time (usually by 30-50% off), there will be 2-3 veggies on sale dramatically at every big supermarket, and then there is usually at least one brand of bread on sale.
  • Be careful with perishable food on sale -- it may be close to the expiration date, which matters more for some food items than others. – arp Sep 20 at 12:58

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