How to save money on groceries without coupons

I tried the coupon-clipping, carb-bingeing, and Costco-lovin’ tips on how to save money on groceries. More than half of conventional money-saving grocery strategies drive me crazy. If you value your time, learn the 3 strategies we use to save money on our groceries every month. Systems for the win!

A look at our CSA box with many other goodies.Pin

If I only purchased groceries that came with coupons, I would end up with a cart full of breakfast cereal, lactose-free yogurt, and lemon-scented bubble toilet cleaner. 

I love saving money as much as the next cheap frugal person. I used to do inane things like visit 4 supermarkets in one weekend to buy food. My friends made fun of me for driving an extra 40 minutes to get cheaper gas.

But I try to be smarter about saving money today. Because your time is worth something. My time is limited on this planet. Instead of following the trite tips for saving money on groceries (don’t worry, we’ll cover those too), I focus on systematic ways to save money on food.

How can we make 2 to 3 decisions that require 20% effort (or less) and give us 80% of the results? In this article, I’m going to share my 3 strategies for saving money on groceries. With the ultimate goal of saving mental energy. Read to the end to learn how this can work for you.

Trite tips for saving money on groceries

I read the top 10 to 15 posts on the Web that teach you how to save money on groceries. I can summarize the tips into the following list:

  1. Never shop hungry
  2. Don’t bring kids or distractions
  3. Meal plan & meal prep
  4. Clip coupons
  5. Price compare
  6. Food inventory
  7. Shop at many stores
  8. Shop with a list
  9. Buy generic, not brand names
  10. Meatless Monday
  11. Buy seasonally and locally
  12. Buy sales and loss leaders
  13. Shop the outside aisles, not the inner aisles
  14. Look high and low on shelves, not the eye-level
  15. Avoid meals and packaged foods
  16. Grow your food
  17. Frozen foods
  18. Don’t waste food
  19. Buy dried beans, not canned
  20. Buy blocks of cheese, not pre-grated
  21. Bulk buying, unless you’re not going to use it

Holy guacamole! The advice sounds so overwhelming that it feels safer not to leave the house at all. And do these tips move the needle?

Imagine you step into Safeway to check the price of a head of broccoli. You sneak over to the adjacent Target to check if the broccoli is cheaper there. 10 minutes later, you decide to cross the street to check out the price of broccoli at Walmart. For what? To save 50 cents?

How often have you clipped coupons only to realize that the coupons typically don’t offer discounts on fresh fruits and vegetables?

How many times have you spent a lot of time shopping the sales to save a few dollars only to throw out the food a week later because you forget about it and it’s rotten?

RELATED: Read the article on how to make your groceries last a month or longer to avoid this common mistake.

I’m not saying all of these strategies fail. However, following every tip in this list sounds like it takes a century to complete a shopping trip. A real peril considering you don’t want to risk getting coughed on. 

That’s why I gave up and decided to focus on systematic strategies to save money. Read on to learn the 3 strategies we follow and why they work for us.

Vegetables on a wood background with text overlay "How to save on groceries without coupons"Pin

Strategy 1: Pick the optimal store for you

Since I discovered Rao’s pasta sauce, it has dislodged Trader Joe’s marinara sauce as the family favorite. A few months ago, I was in the canned vegetable aisle of Safeway to buy ingredients for the ratatouille recipe. I took a peek at the Rao’s pasta sauce prices. A jar containing 32 oz./0.9 kg of sauce sold for $9.99.

A week later, I checked the price at Costco where two jars (3.5 lbs./1.6 kg) of Rao’s pasta sauce sold for $10.89. Costco’s price offers a 38.6% discount.

Comparison of Raos pasta sauce from Costco (top) and Safeway (bottom)Pin

Long ago, we picked a primary grocery store for our weekly shopping. Same store at the same location every week. This single decision gives us the following benefits:

  • Familiarity with store layout: We get in and out faster because we know where everything is. We don’t get lost down the peanut butter aisle looking for bread and get tempted by impulse buys (except during quarterly display shuffles but reorganization is inevitable in every grocery store)
  • Store brands: We picked a store where many of the items are store-brand only. I like Costco and Trader Joe’s. Some FI friends are big fans of Aldi. You don’t pay a markup for brand names. Yay!
  • Limited selection: Fewer SKUs means avoiding wasting time going “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” Saves mental energy.

Our weekly store is Costco in Superior, Colorado. Thanks to the practice of extending our grocery trips, we go to Costco less frequently. I sprinkle in Trader Joe’s once every 6 to 8 weeks to stock up on the items I can’t get at Costco (for example, Pound Plus 70% dark chocolate and sugar-free soy milk).

Picking one store that’s optimized for our shopping and eating patterns has accounted for the majority of our savings when we started trying to bump up our savings rate.

Strategy 2: Develop a gut feeling for prices

I was walking down the baking aisle when I spotted the slender glass jar labeled organic Herbes de Provence (I needed it for the Tender Instant Pot Vegan Ratatouille recipe.) It was $8.99.

3 brands of Herbes de Provence with the front of package on top and back of package on bottomPin
Is it expensive because it’s organic? Once I stacked all the brands side-by-side, I realized these Provençal herbs are pricey — organic or not.

When you look at the ingredients list, the bulk of herbes de provence is made of rosemary, oregano, and thyme. These are not pricey herbs when sold alone. I concluded it was cheaper to blend the herbs myself rather than buying the pre-assembled herbs (yes, it’s pronounced “hhhhherbs” with emphasis on the ‘h’). Plus, that allows me to customize the flavor proportions to my taste.

RELATED: Learn how to use spice sachets to save you from wasting time fishing out rosemary in your soups and stews.

I can thank my gut intuition. It alerted me about the markup (probably because there’s a fancy French word on the label). How? I’ve been checking prices and developing an instinct for how much things should cost for years.

You develop price intuition by checking your receipts and looking at price tags. After years of shopping at the same grocery store (see strategy #1 above), you will naturally know how much your groceries should cost. It takes 2 seconds. No memorization required so you’re not wasting mental energy on it.

Sometimes, I pull out my phone to calculate the unit price when the price tags use different unit measurements.

This same strategy helps me discover when restaurants accidentally charged me for dishes that never arrived or we never ordered. Or they incorrectly charged corkage fees.

The beauty of this strategy is that you don’t have to spend a lot of effort or energy doing it. Forget to check this week? No worries. Try next week. It builds on itself over time like the magic of compounding. It’s the pattern recognition that matters. When you see that vanilla extract jumped from $8 a bottle to $35 a bottle, you will notice. Eventually.

Strategy 3: Learn to cook food you love to eat

A week ago, I chatted with my friend about his restaurant food addiction. He wants to eat healthier and save more money but he doesn’t want to cook. He worries that he won’t enjoy eating healthy food cooked at home. After all, his taste buds are acclimated to the fat, sugar, and MSG overload you get from restaurant food.

If you’re in the same boat, then why not cook the restaurant foods at home? A Hawaiian pizza, a greasy quarterpounder, or a strip of filet mignon with freshly grated truffles on top. So what? You can learn to make this at home.

The biggest systematic difference in your budget is learning to cook. It’s OK if you make unhealthy food as you adjust to cooking at home.

Here’s how I think about food expenses:

From most to least expensive: Restaurant dining > Takeout > Ready-made meals from the supermarket (e.g. deli food) > Meal kits > Cook from scratch.

This means if you can eat food that’s mostly on the meal kits to cook from scratch end of the spectrum, you’ll save money.

What’s amazing is that the most-to-least expensive food doesn’t correlate with the amount of time required. Restaurant dining takes longer than cooking from scratch (which is OK because it’s an experience) and takeout often takes longer than buying ready-made meals (pick up and delivery can entail a lot of waiting around).

Within the strategy of learning to cook food that you want to eat, I have 3 tips:

  • Learn how to cook unpopular food: Less desirable cuts of meat and boring vegetables are cheaper, and they make mouthwatering dishes if you know the right cooking techniques
  • Learn quick ways to make food delicious: Sauces and condiments with fresh ingredients are an age-old cheat to get dinner on the table in minutes
  • Always have emergency food on hand: Frozen foods or refrigerated meal kits, sandwiches or 5-minute pasta. Always stock up on backup options to avoid caving into food delivery or restaurant dine-in.
Homemade pizza Margherita on a white plate over parchment paperPin
Love eating out? Love pizza? Learn to make pizza at home. Trust me, it’s just as tasty.

There are days when I stand in front of the fridge looking for the cooking muse to inspire me. I see plenty of ingredients but I don’t want to eat any of it.

I have a variety of sauces and condiments to spice up steamed vegetables for days like these.

Learning how to stir fry helps you to see how to create a new dish by combining different proteins, vegetables, and sauces. Knowing how to add garnishes delivers new flavors and appearances to your dishes.

But there are some days when those mind tricks fail. Some days I’m so exhausted that all I can do is heat frozen pizza or frozen falafel balls for dinner. That’s OK because I have frozen foods waiting for me. Or I make fresh popcorn and eat it for dinner with sliced cheese and fruit.

How to start saving today

If you want to start saving money on groceries today, pick 1 or 2 dishes that get you excited!

Enough about coupons. Eating rice and beans every day isn’t going to whip up your enthusiasm. Sooner or later, you’ll break down and go on a rampage at the Cheesecake Factory.

On the other hand, imagine you get excited about cooking one dish that you can’t wait to eat. Picture spending your time figuring out which one store you need to shop at. Isn’t that more encouraging than clipping coupons? When you start seeing a leaner budget by implementing a few strategies, you’ll get enough momentum to corporate all of the timeworn strategies from the gurus.

Either way, if you get excited about cooking at home, you’re well on your way to saving money.

READ NEXT: Learn how to meal plan and get started cooking.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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