Grocery Shopping Online: How To Save Money

With social distancing recommended during COVID-19, many people are opting for online grocery shopping. But the convenience of getting your groceries delivered right to your doorstep comes with extra costs including delivery fees and price surges as well as expensive membership charges if you choose that route. To help your wallet out a little, check out these tips to save money on groceries online. It's not all about the price tag — some things are as simple as making a list.

Check your pantry

Just as you would if you were heading out to the store, first go "shopping" in your fridge, pantry and freezer. When you begin shopping without a list or an idea of what you have versus what you don't, you'll end up spending a lot more for items you didn't need. While you're at it, discard anything that's expired to make room for new groceries.

Make a list

After you go through what you already have in your pantry, make a grocery list, and a pretty extensive one at that so you don't have to start a whole new online order for that forgotten jar of pasta sauce. Write the list in these categories: dairy, produce, pantry staples, meat and other non-food related things you might need.  

Choose fresh produce

When you're dropping things into your online basket, opt for fresh, whole produce as opposed to pre-packaged and pre-cut fruits and vegetables, which are generally more expensive and less eco-friendly with all that extra plastic packaging. And because the produce is pre-cut, it's not as fresh as whole melons or apples and will spoil faster. You should be focusing on items that will last the longest.

Stock up on frozen vegetables

If you're going to take a produce shortcut, take this one. Frozen vegetables are one of the best foods to stock up on and are a great meal-prepping hack. If your grocery store has enough to go around, throw a bunch of frozen peas, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and corn into your online basket. Frozen veggies can be made into a number of versatile dishes and they won't run up your bill.

Buy frozen fruits

Just like frozen veggies, frozen fruits are convenient, thrifty and excellent for simple desserts, easy breakfast dishes and more. By having a stash of frozen berries or tropical fruits in the freezer, you can make smoothies and get your vitamins and minerals without having to stock up on fresh produce that may spoil faster.

Test out free trials

Grocery delivery services like Instacart let you shop from local stores online and they send a "personal shopper" to shop your cart and then deliver the goods right to your door. Of course, it comes at a cost, but Instacart and other companies like it may offer free delivery on your first order and you don't even need to be a member. For Target's delivery service, you can start with a free four-week trial. Offers and details may vary so check the promos.

Ask yourself if it’s worth signing up for the services

If you like the grocery delivery service, you should start thinking about how often to use it and what plans may save you money. As of August 2020, if you sign up for Instacart Express, which starts at $99 for the year or $9.99 if you choose to do it by month, you'll get free delivery for all orders over $35. Compare that to your average grocery bill and see if most of your deliveries would qualify. Same-day delivery for nonmembers starts at $3.99 for orders more than $35. So if you have the $100 to spare, it might be worth the service. For Target's delivery service, an annual Shipt plan is $99 for unlimited orders of $35 or more. 

Shop in bulk without a membership

If you can afford to purchase bulk items at once — and you have the space in your kitchen, pantry or areas in your house — consider buying items like toilet paper, coffee, pasta, toothpaste and more in large quantities or in two- or three-packs. Some other items to consider buying in larger packages during coronavirus quarantine include flour, grains, meat and canned soups and beans to make some simple recipes. If you pay a little more upfront, you'll save more money in the long run. And another perk to using a delivery service like Instacart is that you can shop at places like Costco without a store membership.

Shop the sales

Most, if not all, retailers advertise their sales online as well as in-store. If you're using a service like Instacart or even a store's own app, select the grocery store's sales page, where you can scroll through the various deals.

Get a few extra boxes of pasta and jarred sauce

Boxes of dried pasta are the perfect staple for easy weeknight dinners. While you're scrolling through the pasta selection, add a few extra boxes and a few jarred sauces. You can stretch even a single jar of marinara by using it for two meals — use half the jar for spaghetti sauce and save the rest for pizzas or flatbread.

Avoid buying heavy items online

Services like Instacart charge a "heavy fee" to cover operational costs of shopping for and delivering heavy items. So while buying in bulk is helpful when it's lightweight toilet paper, cases of beverages and pet food, among other products, can cost extra to get delivered. Make sure to look up the service or store's policy beforehand, and if you can, reserve the bulky items for when you head out to buy essentials.

Look out for store-specific discounts

Coupons and discounts will depend on which delivery service, grocery store or app you're using. But generally, stores like Target, Walmart, Kroger and more may have special deals going on. Target, for instance, regularly offers things like a "$10 Target gift card when you spend $40 on select household items." If you're running low on laundry detergent, dish soap and other cleaning supplies, take advantage of such deals and get everything in one go to spend enough money to receive that gift card. Even if you're not running completely low, it doesn't hurt to stock up in exchange for a free $10.

Add promo code extensions on your browser

One of the best ways to save money without having to compare sales or scour the internet for coupons is to enable browser extensions that do it for you. Plugins like Honey automatically search the web for working promo codes on the internet as you shop. You'll need to use Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Opera in order to enable the extension, but it's completely free to use. There are plenty of other plugins you can use, including Rakuten (formerly Ebates), which allows shoppers to receive cash-back for online purchases.

Use a credit card that racks up rewards

Since you have to use your credit card anyway, you might as well use one that comes with rewards. Everyone can use some cash-back incentives and reward points, especially when trying to save money. Using and then paying off your credit card bill on everyday purchases is also a great way to build credit.

If free delivery, stock up and take advantage of it

Some stores offer free delivery if you spend a certain amount of money. Say you need to spend $50 to get free delivery at Target — you should aim to meet that minimum requirement each time instead of buying $40 worth of groceries every week on top of paying for delivery. Take your time to figure out what you need so you can fill your cart and save money on delivery.

Get generic over brand names

Some groceries are just as good or better when you buy generic. If you're shopping from a specific grocery store, lean toward the store brand as opposed to a popular brand of the same thing. Generic or store brands are generally cheaper than national-brand items because the retailer can optimize the production to suit consumer demand and reduce advertising costs. It's a misconception that price is indicative of the quality. In some cases, the packaging is the only thing differentiating two items and making the one cheaper than the other.

Avoid busy shopping times

Some delivery services (Instacart included) implement surge pricing during busy hours. So if you don't want to pay extra on top of delivery fees, try not to shop on a Sunday afternoon.

Opt for curbside pickup

Some stores like Target offer curbside pickup at zero cost. Customers pay for the items either online or through the app and Target provides the drive-up convenience for free. It's an easy, effortless way to be socially distant while shopping for essentials. And everyone can use some help — grocery shopping and delivery during coronavirus sure comes with its pain points.

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