6 Bad Habits That Make You Spend More at the Grocery Store

Shocked by how much you just spent at the grocery checkout? You might want to consider changing some of these risky behaviors.

Young astonished couple checking a long grocery receipt at supermarket.Photo: Shutterstock / Stokkete

1. You shop without a list

If you’re spending too much at the grocery store, The Supermarket Guru, Phil Lempert, bets you’re shopping without a list. “Around 85 percent of what we buy is a duplicate of what we already have,” Lempert tells Taste of Home. And for that, we have no one to blame but ourselves…and our kitchen cupboards, which Lempert says are not designed with our grocery shopping needs in mind. “You can’t see what’s in the back,” he says. (Psst: Take control of your cupboard clutter with these tips.)

So, what’s a good grocery shopper to do? Lempert suggests starting with last week’s supermarket receipt. Now go through your cupboard, fridge and freezer and cross off what you don’t need. At the bottom of the list, draw three horizontal lines. These are for three impulse items you’re allowed to buy based on what looks “great” or what’s on sale. But limit it to those three items because impulse items quickly add up. In fact, Lempert says, they can add up to 40 percent of a typical grocery bill.

2. You start in the produce department

Nutritionists tell us to shop the perimeter of the supermarket and buy a rainbow of colorful items. Supermarket super savers take a different approach, and it’s just as healthy: When you walk into the grocery store, bypass the produce department and head straight to the center aisle.

The produce department is a happy kind of place, Lempert explains. “Its colors, aromas and samples put you in a better mood,” which is going to lead you to spend more time in the store and spend more money.” Don’t fall for it, Lempert urges. Instead, start with the canned goods, which are “unemotional.” Your mood will stay on an even keel, you’ll follow your shopping list, and you won’t forget the produce aisle because produce is most certainly on your shopping list. And once you get to the produce aisle, be sure to squeeze, sniff and tap away to make sure you’re getting the best and ripest pieces.

Bonus: mesh bags from the produce department can be made into a scrubbie.

3. You fall for the “end cap” trick

An end cap is the display at the end of each aisle. It’s usually piled high with colorful, eye-catching and, often, seasonal items, Lempert says. And shoppers frequently believe that translates to “sales.” While some stores do locate sale items in their end cap displays, they’ll also locate lots of non-sale items there, too—particularly items the supermarket is motivated to move in large quantities. In fact, the way manufacturers get their items into the end caps is to pay the supermarket for placement there. Why do they do this? Because they know that shoppers will grab items from the end caps without looking at the price.

The solution? Always look for the savings sign, and check your prices.

4. You bulk up on things you won’t actually use

“Bulk up but be wary,” Lempert advises. “When you’re buying in bulk, only buy what you’re going to use and what you have room to store.” When it comes to the former, consider that many items in the grocery store have expiration dates, even things that come in cans and jars. Even skin care items may have expiration dates, Lempert notes. Look at those dates, and think realistically about whether you’re going to use the items you buy before they expire. When it comes to the latter, consider what you’re going to do with, say 100 rolls of toilet paper. If you don’t have a place to put those rolls, either go shopping with friends and divide up the rolls, or just buy smaller quantities.

5. You’re buying “fresh” fish

Seafood is one of the cheapest, healthiest proteins we can buy, Lempert says, and it doesn’t get cheaper or healthier than when it comes from the frozen food section.

What? Seriously?

Seriously. Here’s how it works, according to Lempert. When you buy fish and seafood that’s marketed as “frozen,” you’re buying fish and seafood that have been frozen from virtually the moment they were hauled out of the water. On the other hand, most of what passes as “fresh” fish and seafood in the grocery store has been previously frozen—and then defrosted—at some point. Some has even been frozen and defrosted multiple times. So, you’re way better off buying “frozen” than “fresh” because whenever you decide to defrost, it is likely the first and only time it’s ever been defrosted.

Use some of that economical frozen shrimp in these yummy shrimp salad recipes.

6. You shun the bagged salads

While it’s true that some produce gets marked up when it’s sold cleaned and chopped, you’re better off buying bagged salads if your goal is to eat an assortment of greens. To get the same assortment, you’d have to buy multiple heads of lettuce of different varieties. Not only does that lead to inevitable waste (for example, you throw out the outer leaves and cut off the base), it’s also likely to lead to your throwing out whole heads of lettuce at the end of the week when you haven’t used them and they’ve gone bad.

Make no mistake, Lempert advises: “Bagged veggies changed the produce department. Eating salad became more adventurous,” and it also became easier and more economical.

Ever wonder why your friendly neighborhood grocery store employee isn’t looking so friendly? It may be because you’re doing one of these things that frustrate grocery store employees.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly in The Huffington Post as well as a variety of other publications since 2008 on such topics as life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. She is also a writer of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.