Mastering the Art of Smart Grocery Shopping

After going grocery shopping on the weekend and not buying a single thing that was on sale – I hope my wife doesn’t read this! – I decided it was time for me to dig into a smarter approach to buying food as one of those important items within the realm of household financial management.


The Challenge

I don’t know if this is the case with every household, but digging around the internet, it seems we lead lives that are so busy that we prefer to eat food that is already prepared to some extent. Food that is already processed or pre-packaged is a big part of our eating. They may save us time, but they are not necessarily helpful when it comes to spending money.


Another issue is a lack of understanding of unit pricing. Certainly, this is not the case for everyone, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. Focusing solely on the total price of a package while ignoring the number of units in, or the weight of, the package will often lead to overspending. On the other hand, a laser focus on unit pricing cannot ignore the possibility that you may buy more than you can consume before it becomes inedible. This may be more of a challenge for a single person or a couple who might find it difficult to buy less expensive bulk items.


This leads to issues of food waste. Canadians, like many other Western nations, are notorious for generating food waste. Canadians have the potential to reduce our food waste by 60%. To compound the issue, if the otherwise edible surplus food had been redirected, approximately 3.8 tonnes of greenhouse gases could have been eliminated for each tonne of food that had gone to waste. Canadians generate approximately 50 million tonnes of food waste per year.


The Solution: What is Smart Grocery Shopping?

Planning Ahead

What kind of financial planner would I be if I didn’t use the word “planning”? It is a practical timesaver to work out a weekly meal plan and then make a grocery list based on the meal plan. However, before you head off to the store, look in your fridge or pantry and see if any of the ingredients you need are already on hand.


Plan using a Calendar, Spreadsheet, or Meal Planning App

The classic approach is to hang a big calendar in your kitchen and write your plans there. Alternatively, if you like using Microsoft Excel, you can find several meal-planning templates. I did not know there were meal-planning apps out there, but of course there are! Go to the app store on your smartphone.


Understand Unit Pricing

I mentioned this earlier. Unit pricing involves paying close attention to the labels on the shelves, where you will often see labels like $0.55 per 100g or $4.00 per 1kg. I was in a Costco store last week and walked through an aisle that had one item with the price listed on a per 100g basis while an item right beside it, which was a legitimate substitute for the first item was listed on a per kg basis. It only takes a very simple calculation of multiplying or dividing by 10 to recognize which one has the better unit price, but that little complication can steer you the wrong way.


Are stores trying to take advantage of financial illiteracy or innumeracy (November is Financial Literacy Month in Canada, by the way)? Perhaps you have heard of the failure of the A&W Third Pounder, a competitor to the Quarter Pounder by McDonald’s. More meat and reportedly better tasting, the Third Pounder was an abject failure because potential diners didn’t understand fractions; 1/4 appeared to be bigger than 1/3 to over 50% of those who were surveyed. They only looked at the denominator and saw that since 4 was larger than 3, the Quarter Pounder had to be better priced. The lesson here: understand unit pricing and compare your options, including the usually cheaper store brands.



Involved in the planning process should involve careful consideration of the nutritional needs of your household. Some households will need to deal with allergies or other restrictions; regardless, the goal is to provide a suitable mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats (yes, there are healthy fats), vitamins, and minerals.


Plan for Leftovers and Do “Batch” Cooking

Consider how today’s suppers can be repurposed for tomorrow’s lunches. The classic example is turkey for Thanksgiving being used for turkey sandwiches for the next few days. However, you can also cook large meals or portions of meals deliberately and freeze them for later.


Be Flexible

Personally, I’m not very good at cooking without a recipe, but over the years, I’ve become more comfortable working with what I’ve got or varying the ingredients based on an available discount or sale. For example, at one of our nearby supermarkets, they often discount 50% on items that are about to expire. This is often the inspiration for a variation on the original plan.


Other Discount Opportunities

It’s not just the expiring items that are a good opportunity for cost-cutting. Sometimes, items will be marked down because there is a surplus and the supermarket needs to make space for the next shipment. In our household’s shopping, we have also found that in the fish section, the store will often package up the “offcuts” of the fish into small containers to sell them at a reduced price.


Coupons may be of interest to some. There are certainly savings to be had but they can be a bit of a hassle to manage.


Loyalty programs, often tied to a store-related credit card or points card, are another option. They provide cost savings, incentives, access to exclusive offers, and even personalized deals or recommendations because they can track your spending.


The downside of loyalty programs lies especially in that last point, though, I think. Privacy issues are involved, although perhaps it could be said that, unless you buy with cash and avoid getting a points card, tracking your spending behaviour is inevitable. For our part, we have chosen to use an affiliated credit card for most of our grocery shopping.


Looking Ahead

Not every suggestion here may be suitable for you or your family. However, implementing some of these suggestions can make a difference. I think everyone would like to find ways to save more or redirect spending for other important purposes. I would love to see readers’ responses and their approaches to smart shopping. Please feel free to share on whichever social media platform you read this.


This is the 222nd blog post for Russ Writes, first published on 2023-11-06


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Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for general information and discussion purposes only. It should not be relied upon for investment, insurance, tax, or legal decisions.


Image: In a store in Japan, one bunch of muscat grapes on the left costs 3,500 yen or $32 in Canadian currency.