Food prices have risen globally during the pandemic. The 2020 Canada Food Price Report predicted that food prices would rise by 3 to 5 percent in 2021, making already expensive staples like meat and vegetables even pricier. The report found the average family of four will spend almost $700 more on food this year.
Despite rising costs, there are ways to save. Jessica Moorhouse, an independent financial counsellor and finance blogger, and Kathleen Daunt, a finance planner at the New School of Finance based in Toronto, share their tips on how to save on your next shopping trip.
How to set a budget—and stick to it
Before cutting costs, it’s important to know how much you can afford to spend on groceries. To set a budget, Moorhouse recommends looking at old credit card statements or grocery bills to see how much you spend on average per month on groceries. You can then use that as a benchmark to set a monthly limit on grocery spending. How much you spend will vary from month to month—you’re rarely going to spend exactly $500 on groceries each month, for example—but Moorhouse recommends trying to stick to your budget as closely as possible.
Once you have a budget in place, you can work on sticking to it. If you know that you’re likely to overspend at the grocery store, Moorhouse recommends using a prepaid debit card or cash instead of a credit card that allows unlimited spending. She also doesn’t recommend buying things just because they’re on sale or shopping from cheaper food brands just to stretch your budget—especially if you know you’re not going to end up eating that food. Daunt adds that having a grocery budget doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t order takeout. “If you know that you’re always drained on Friday evenings and will probably end up ordering a pizza that night, then budget for that,” she says.
Plan out your meals and groceries for the week
One of the easiest ways to avoid overspending is to plan out your meals for the week and create a grocery list based on what you’ll need to cook. Only buying the ingredients you know you’ll eat during the week will help you cut down on spoiled or wasted food, as well as help curb spontaneous spending on takeout. Moorhouse also recommends looking for recipes that swap expensive foods, like meat, for cheaper and healthier alternatives. If you think you’ll find yourself tempted by the snacks aisle, she recommends ordering your groceries online—even if you have to pay an added fee, you know you’ll stick to a grocery list.
Shop frozen and seasonal produce
Not everything you buy has to be fresh—frozen fruits and vegetables are often cheaper than fresh produce. If you love drinking a morning smoothie, for example, your berries and leafy greens can be bought frozen, which will keep them fresh for longer. Daunt also recommends shopping for fruits and vegetables that are locally sourced and in season because they will often be cheaper than buying imported produce. During the off season of whatever fruit or vegetable you’re looking to buy, she recommends switching back to buying it frozen instead. If you’re looking to find when specific fruits and produce are in season, check out this Food Network guide.
When you should buy in bulk
Free samples aside, Costco is a popular shopping spot because it’s cheaper to buy in bulk. But if you don’t have a large enough family for all the food (and samples) you bring home, then shopping in bulk might not be the best financial choice. “If you’re single, don’t have the room for all these bulk items or never finish all the food that you buy from Costco, then you’re wasting money,” says Moorhouse. Paying for a Costco membership but rarely going shopping there also might be costing you more than it saves. If you do frequently shop at Costco, Daunt recommends investing in storage space and air-tight containers that will keep your bulk food items fresh for longer.
The best ways to shop around
Some grocery stores are pricier than others, like Whole Foods or Loblaws. Moorhouse recommends looking around at what grocery stores are near you and shopping at one that might be cheaper overall, like Freshco. Apps like Flipp also let you compare online flyers and offer coupons from different grocery stores near you. The only thing to consider is whether you’re saving more on groceries than you’re spending on gas to drive to a farther-but-cheaper store. Grocery store chains like FreshCo, No Frills and Real Canadian Supermarket also have price-match policies, meaning that if one of their competitors offers fruit or produce at a lower cost, they will match that price. The only catch is that grocers will often only match the prices of their competitors within a specific geographic region, and you have to bring in a physical or online grocery flyer to show what the discounted price is.
How to get into couponing
If you’re interested in couponing but don’t know where to start, Moorhouse suggests joining Facebook groups dedicated to couponing and following finance and coupon bloggers on social media for tips on where to find coupons and how to best use them to save. You can find coupons on websites like Flipp that let you compare grocery flyers based on your postal code. As couponing expert Aimee Geroux writes on her blog, you can opt for online printable coupons or those mailed to your home from websites like save.ca, Tasty Rewards with coupons on food brands like Quaker and Frito-Lay, or P&G Everyday, with coupons for Procter & Gamble products.
Loyalty rewards programs work—if you stay in budget
While there aren’t any downsides to signing up for free loyalty rewards programs like PC Optimum points, Moorhouse says that shoppers should remember that points programs are designed to keep you shopping at a specific, and possibly pricier, grocery store or chain. And because loyalty rewards programs give you more points as you spend more money, you might be inclined to go over your grocery budget.
Daunt adds that it’s important to be mindful of how much you’re spending with credit cards linked to rewards programs. “What we don’t want to see happen is people getting the credit card because the rewards sound amazing, but they end up spending more and realize they’re paying more in interest charges than the cash-back rewards received,” she says. Loyalty rewards programs can definitely save money if you stick to your budget.