When to save and when to splurge at the grocery store

A smart consumer spends where it counts and saves where it doesn't. Read on for grocery shopping tips.

Richard Drew/AP/File
A shopper scans the soup aisle in a grocery store in New York. When it comes to groceries, there's a time to spend (organic milk, quality garbage bags) and a time to skimp (baking soda), says Simple Dollar blogger Trent Hamm.

Whenever I go shopping, I find myself with an interesting mix of items in my cart. There’s quite a few generics, quite a few “low cost” name brands, and still some more rather upscale items (like organic fresh foods). Organic baking soda gets tossed in right next to the free range eggs, for example.

Why exactly do I skimp so hard on some items but spend so much more on the others? How is that frugal in any way?

Here’s the thing: it’s all about the value I get from the item, which may or may not be the same as the value you get from the item. And that may be different than the value someone else gets from that item.

Take the generic baking soda. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, whether you buy it with an Arm and Hammer logo or with a generic source. There is no extra value, from my perspective, from buying name-brand baking soda. I’m happy to save $0.25 on a box here.

Then we go to the milk aisle, where I’m likely to pick organic milk that is completely free of artificial hormones. To me, the extra dollar or two per gallon that I pay for this is well worth it, as it greatly reduces my children’s exposure to rBS and rBGH, which can alter their development and trigger puberty earlier (among other effects), and the cows do not consume feed treated with pesticides, which shows up in small amounts in non-organic milk. This has a value to me that’s worth paying extra for. This may or may not be your value.

As we walk down the aisle with the garbage bags, I don’t choose the generic, nor do I choose the expensive one. I choose whatever bag is recommended as a “best buy” from the most recent Consumer Reports rundown of trash bags that I’ve read. Why? Because a ripped garbage bag is a big mess that I don’t want to deal with – and generics often rip – but the expensive bags don’t really add anything extra.

Naturally, with all of these choices, I tend to stock up when they’re on sale or I have a coupon.

What process led me to these choices? It’s a pretty simple one.

First, I make my buying decisions outside of the store. If you’re trying to decide which one to get when you’re standing in the store, the psychology of store marketing is going to be at work. Carefully designed packaging and familiar name brands will play a big role in determining what you buy.

If something’s on my list, I usually know the exact brand I’m going to buy before I walk into the store. That way, I’m not spending time standing there idly trying to decide between several options, because that’s when marketing takes effect.

Second, if I don’t know exactly what I’m going to buy, I research it. Consumer Reports is one of my first stops, but I tend to use a lot of different sources. I want to know the ins and outs of everything that I buy, even down to the $0.99 stuff.

Third, if I can’t explain why I would specifically need a higher-cost version, I buy the generic. With the baking soda, I can’t see a reason to spend extra money to get an Arm and Hammer logo. With the garbage bags, I’m buying the “best buy” bags because I do not want the bags to rip – it’s not a mess I want to deal with. With the milk, I’m buying the organic milk for the family health reasons stated above.

This holds true for every item on my list. If I know what value I want from the item and I’ve done a bit of research, I know what version I’ll be buying. I don’t have to look at nine different kinds of diapers or twenty six boxes of cereal to decide which one I want. I’ve already done much of the shopping outside of the store.

This has another big benefit: this, along with a shopping list, drastically reduces the time spent inside a store. I basically move most of my grocery store time out of the store to my home, where I can make my own list and do my own research without all of the marketing distractions in the store.

The end result? I don’t go into a store until I know exactly what I’m going to buy there. That makes it easy to go through the store very quickly. I fill my cart with the stuff I want that delivers what I want and maximizes the value I get for the money I spend. Even better, my time for impulse buys is almost eliminated.

That’s how we’re rolling through the grocery store this morning. How about you?

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