Want to Pay Off Debt? Change How You Shop for Groceries

by Dana George | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on May 6, 2020

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A father bringing home bags of groceries to his family waiting in the kitchen.

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Paying off debt can take a little imagination. One way to chip away at that burden is saving money on groceries.

If you've decided it's time to pay off debt, the first step is looking at your monthly budget. If you don't have a budget, put one together. It can be as easy as listing your income and expenditures on a piece of paper, or downloading an app and plugging in your numbers.

Once you have a budget in place, look for easy places to cut spending and save money. The usual suspects are expenses like subscription services, cable packages with all the bells and whistles, and rarely-used gym memberships. But how about groceries? Of course, you can't give up eating, and your grocery bill is a necessary part of your budget. No one is suggesting that you give up all indulgences, but cutting back even a bit can make a difference.

It's a little trickier to cut back on groceries than some other expenses. Still, there are ways to control how much you spend there, too. 

Looking for a little inspiration?

Why would you bother cutting back on food costs? Well, let's say you save $100 per month on your grocery bill. If you put that $100 each month into a no-minimum IRA drawing an average of 8%, it will be worth nearly $7,200 in five years. In 10 years, you'll have $17,600, and a whopping $55,380 in 20 years. May be worth the trouble.

If you want to pay debt down faster rather than invest, this is how that would work: Let's assume you're currently carrying a $5,000 balance on a credit card with 17% interest. For the sake of this scenario, we'll say your monthly payment is 3%, or $150 per month.

If you make only the minimum monthly payments, it will take 46 months to pay off the entire $5,000 debt, and you'll pay $1,815 in interest. If you add an extra $100 each month, the debt will be paid off in 24 months, and you will pay $921 in interest. That saves you 22 months and $894.

And it might be easier than you think. 

1. Cut back on snacks

One relatively easy way to cut back is snack foods. According to research by The NPD Group, Americans ate an estimated 386 billion ready-to-eat snack foods last year, the vast majority snuck in between meals. And back in 2014, economists Matthew Harding and Michael Lovenheim found that nearly 16% of the average American grocery budget went to snacks and candy. If you're looking for a starting point, it may be snacks.

2. Create a menu -- and stick with it

You may be surprised how much money and time you save by coming up with a daily menu. Sit down with a cookbook, laptop, or your mother's old recipe book to discover meals you like. Assign each meal to a day, and list all the ingredients you need. Check your pantry and refrigerator, and put a checkmark next to ingredients on hand, so you don't rebuy.

If you don't think you can spare the time to create a menu, consider these three advantages:

  • You will wake up each morning knowing what's on the menu, and that you have all the ingredients. Imagine how good it's going to feel to have the meal situation under control. 
  • The average American family throws out $640 worth of food each year. You can minimize waste by planning for meals you enjoy enough to eat the leftovers.  
  • Creating a menu allows you to make a shopping list, an important step in saving money.

3. Make a list

It's easy to go wild while grocery shopping, particularly if you're hungry. Everything looks fresh and delicious. But you can cut down on impulse buys by using your menu to build a list of only the items you need. Vow to buy only what's on the list, no matter how wonderful those cookie samples tasted.

4. Leave the kiddos at home

Children can become little beggars when surrounded by brightly packaged treats. There are few things more attractive to a child than a cartoon tiger on the front of a cereal box, or an entire aisle of nothing but sweets. Trying to corral them when they're excited by the newest flavor of Oreos can distract you from your shopping list. If possible, leave your kids with someone you trust when you shop for groceries.

5. Consider farmers' markets

If you're fortunate enough to have a farmers' market nearby, check it out for your fruits and vegetables. Not only will they be fresher and potentially healthier (feel free to ask how they are grown), they are often less expensive, too.

6. Don't pay for convenience

You've probably noticed how much more pre-washed spinach costs than unwashed spinach, how much more you pay for pre-cut fruit and vegetables, and how much higher the per-unit price is on a bag of shredded cheese versus a block. Why pay more for something you can easily do yourself? Turn on music or your favorite podcast, and enjoy those few minutes it takes to wash and cut your produce or shred a block of cheese. 

7. Use coupons

A lot of us remember folks who walked around the grocery store with a folder of coupons. Those days are mostly behind us, but today, many grocery stores have online coupons you can organize and access from your phone. Simply check the coupons available at your preferred grocer as you create your shopping list, and upload them to your online account. 

Like most things in life, balance is key. As mentioned, we can't give up food and there's no need to give up all treats. It's about cutting back just enough to save for the future. And that tastes pretty good, too.

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