How to Save Money on Groceries: 9 Sustainable Tips

These tips can keep your hard-earned cash in hand while preventing food waste.

Woman checking the bill when paying at a supermarket

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Consumers continue to feel the pain of increasing grocery prices. Food cost nearly 11% more in the summer of 2022 than it did in the summer of 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sadly, the people who earn the least spend the greatest percentage of their income—upwards of 25%—on food alone.

Consider that alongside the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 30% to 40% of all food winds up in landfills where it will off-gas methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Food waste happens at all levels of the food chain; for consumers, the top contributors are dairy (17%); vegetables (19%); and meat, poultry, and fish (30%). Consuming instead of discarding that food could save a household of four $1,500 a year.

Here, we explain ways to make your money go further while treading gently on the planet.

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Plan What You’re Going to Eat

Young Asian woman coming home from grocery shopping and taking out fresh fruits and vegetables from a reusable shopping bag on the kitchen counter. She is planning to prepare a healthy meal with fresh produces

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Environmental scientist, activist, and author of "One Green Thing" Heather White told Treehugger the No. 1 way to save money on groceries is to meal plan. Knowing which foods you want to prepare can ensure you have the ingredients you need to make meals you love and use what you’ve already bought before it spoils.

Meal planning may be, as White admitted, the “least sexy climate solution,” but it’s also the best way to keep food and single-use plastics out of landfills. Planning meals also allows you to spend less time in the kitchen and makes it easier to resist chowing down on pre-packaged foods or hitting up a drive-thru.

Meet Our Expert: Heather White

Dubbed by Erin Brockovich “the Brené Brown of the environmental movement," Heather White is an environmental scientist, activist, and author. Her mission is to provide the perfect balance of science-backed info with actionable tips for how we can all contribute to the climate movement.

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Take Stock Before You Buy

Father in wheelchair looking in refrigerator in kitchen while daughter stands on chair watching

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First things first: Survey what you already have at home. No need to snag more spinach if you find it lurking in the back of your crisper drawer. Create your meal plan using foods that could go bad before bringing in more of the same. 

Set yourself up for future success by playing a game of Tetris with your pantry and fridge. “Keep your perishables at eye level so you can’t ignore your commitment,” recommended White. Save even more by learning which vegetables don’t belong in the fridge.

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Make a List and Stick to It

Hand holding shopping list in market
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Now that you know which foods you have to work with, fill in the gaps with a grocery list. Shopping this way reduces the urge for impulse purchases that might not fit into your plan and wind up (right alongside your money) in the dump. Consider making the list accessible to everyone in your household, either shared digitally or manually with a whiteboard or chalkboard.

For an even more intentional food shopping experience, hit the market after eating an excellent home-cooked meal as a reminder of how much this practice pays off.

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Go to an Actual Store

Close-up shot of female hand putting a red bell pepper into a mesh grocery bag. Shopping with eco-friendly shopping bag for a sustainable lifestyle.

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Sure, it’s convenient to have your groceries delivered, but shopping in person allows you to take advantage of sales and highly underrated discount sections. Buying fruits and veggies (bonus points for ugly produce), baked goods, and shelved foods off the clearance rack keeps that edible goodness out of the landfill and saves you money. Don't forget to bring your reusable bags!

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Buy in Bulk

Young african-american female grabbing trail mix of citrus with tongs from glass jar in eco store

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Shopping in bulk can not only reduce your plastic waste, it can also lower your transportation costs by requiring fewer trips to the store. Bulk foods are great for making snacks, smoothies, sweets, and more. Whatever you do buy in bulk, know what you use and how often you use it so that nothing is wasted.

Best Foods to Buy in Bulk

Cereals, grains, beans, and spices often top the list of best bulk purchases, but the best bulk foods for you are the ones that fit into your meal plan. Unfortunately, not all bulk items are less expensive than their packaged counterparts. Still, White told Treehugger, a splurge in the bulk section may actually save you money in the long run—if it’s part of your plan.

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Shop Local

Family examining organic tomatoes while shopping at farmers market

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The rising price of fuel has made food transportation more expensive. Since locally grown food doesn’t have to travel as far, it’s often priced competitively to commercial grocers. Most farmers’ markets now accept WIC, EBT, and SNAP benefits so people of all income levels can access locally grown foods. 

Local produce is usually fresher because it’s been harvested more recently, which may mean longer-lasting food. Shopping local also gives you an opportunity to eat seasonally—you’ll be a locavore before you know it.

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Get the Most Out of Your Groceries

Upcycling vegetable leftovers as a delicious broth.

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Bring more mindfulness to your food consumption by lunching on leftovers and turning trash into treasure. Instead of lopping off the tops of fruits and veggies and tossing them, remove only the core. Any scraps you do have can become more food, especially broth—just add a favorite soup or stew to your meal plan.

Lastly, dispose of your remaining food scraps in the compost to give them yet another life.

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Make Friends With Your Freezer

Frozen food in the freezer. Frozen vegetables, soup, ready meals

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Storing ready-to-eat meals from food you’ve already prepared in your freezer makes it easier to avoid the expense and trash accumulated when eating out or consuming store-bought frozen meals. Your freezer can also house foods that might otherwise go bad. Use an ice cube tray to freeze lemon juice, wilting herbs, and even red wine, all of which are perfect additions to your home cooking.

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Ignore “Best By” Dates

Overhead shot of a Tin Can of Tuna with Expiration date.

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If your purchases include a food quality date (ex., "best if used before," "freeze by," "expires"), that date indicates only the optimal taste and quality of the food, not its safety, according to White. “Use by” dates, however, do indicate that a food is no longer safe to eat, and they only apply to infant formula.

For everything else past its quality date, use common sense to determine whether your food is still edible. You might just save hundreds of dollars a year.

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