15 Supermarket Buys That Are a Huge Waste of Money
Supermarkets offer great savings—unless you're putting these items in your cart!
Skip the sky-high prices
Inflation may have slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped. In fact, prices are still on the rise, and groceries are at the top of the list. “Just like shrinkflation appears to be here to stay, these higher prices might never go back to normal,” says Jade Warshaw, a money expert with Ramsey Solutions. Just how high have things gotten? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at-home food prices increased 3.7% between August 2022 and September 2023 alone.
While there are ways to slash your grocery bill—like using coupons, creating a budget grocery list and using a budget app to stay on track—those techniques will go only so far. If you’re buying everything at the grocery store, you’re making a big mistake. We know, it’s convenient … and that’s exactly how they get you. They also lure you in with other promises of fast cooking and healthy pre-portioned snacks.
The key? Being strong, being smart and knowing which items to leave out of your grocery cart. Lucky for you, we have the definitive list of things you should skip.
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Buying an assortment of pre-cut veggies will definitely save you time when you’re whipping up your favorite winter soups and stews, but that convenience doesn’t come cheap. In fact, you could be paying up to three times more for it, according to Warshaw. The same goes for those bowls of pre-cut fruit, which could cost you more than $6.50 per pound. If the tub weighs 3 pounds, that’s almost $20! A 3-pound bag of apples is just as convenient and healthy, and it will only cost around $5. Or, if you have your heart set on your favorite fruits and veggies, buy the non-cut versions and dedicate some time to peeling and chopping what you’ll need for the week. A little meal planning (or snack planning) will go a long way!
Buying summer fruits like strawberries, blueberries and melons in the winter will cost you a pretty penny since they’re being shipped from farther away. For example, at my local grocery store, a pint of strawberries cost me $1.99 over the summer, but it jumped to $4.99 in October. To counteract that price hike, only purchase items that are in season, suggests Courtney Alev, a consumer financial advocate for Credit Karma. Translation: Ditch the strawberries in fall in favor of seasonal fruits like apples and pears. In the winter, it will be time to switch to oranges and pineapples.
Alev also recommends heading to your local farmers market whenever possible. “You may be surprised to find that you can save on certain items when you buy directly from local farmers,” she says.
Chances are, you go through significant amounts of salt, cinnamon and oregano. At the grocery store, each little bottle will run you anywhere from $3 to $5. But if you head to a discount grocery store like Aldi, you can get them for as little as 49 cents each, with most costing less than $2. At those prices, you could get at least three or four bottles of spices for one bottle at the supermarket! Specialty stores, like your local Asian market, could also yield higher savings for products they keep in stock regularly and possibly offer in larger quantities.
Just keep in mind that spices do have a shelf life, so you may not want to buy them all in bulk. According to the USDA, you can store ground spices for only two to three years before they start losing their flavor and aroma, so only stock up on spices you know you’ll use within that time frame.
We’re all about portion control, but those handy snack packs really pad your grocery bill. “Unfortunately, you’re paying a huge premium for the convenience and cuteness factor,” says Emily Guy Birken, author of End Financial Stress Now: Immediate Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Financial Outlook. For example, a 12.4-ounce box of Cheez-Its costs around $4.79 at my local Stop & Shop and Price Chopper, but a 12-pack of Cheez-Its at nearly the same weight is $9.79. “Invest in reusable baggies or a pre-molded lunch box, and package your own snacks for a much healthier body and wallet,” suggests Birken.
Similar to snack packs, Warshaw recommends leaving those individual serving packs of rice, quinoa and macaroni and cheese on the shelf. “These individual servings can be six times more expensive,” Warshaw points out. And sure enough, an 8.8-ounce package of two individual rice cups costs $2.79, while a 14-ounce box of rice (that has eight servings) costs just 50 cents more at $3.29. Instead of individual servings, purchase the box and divvy it up—or make enough to have leftovers for the entire week.
Unless you happen to catch a great sale or have a coupon, a six-pack of microwave popcorn at the supermarket can run upwards of $6. A 30-ounce bag of popcorn kernels by the same brand, on the other hand? It will cost around $7. To put it in perspective, that six-pack box makes about 15 servings, while the 30-ounce bag of kernels makes 30. Plus, the latter is the healthier option, since you can control the toppings and how it’s made.
You will, however, have to invest in a popcorn maker. Whether you want a microwave popper or a countertop air popper, you’ll probably spend anywhere from $25 to $30 on it. But if your family is anything like mine and you’re making around three servings every Friday night, you’ll save at least $27 a year.
Sure, the Cheerios honeybee is goofy and adorable, but $5.99 for a 15-ounce box? Ouch. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of cereals and other bakery products jumped 6% in the past year, which is why you should buy generic cereal brands instead. For example, a 15-ounce box of Trader Joe’s O’s will set you back only $1.99. Those savings will add up quickly at the register!
And don’t worry—you’re still getting good quality. “Generic brands can offer high-quality ingredients while helping you cut back on a few dollars here and there,” Alev explains. In fact, many big, national brands also produce and package store brands (though manufacturers tend to be pretty tight-lipped about which ones). While you’ll have to engage in a little trial and error to figure out which generic brands you like best, consumers tend to rave about Costco and H-E-B’s store-brand cereals.
Diapers and wipes
As a mom of four, I know that sometimes you have no choice but to run into the nearest store and grab a pack of diapers because, well, stuff happens. But you shouldn’t make this a regular practice. If you do, you could be paying as much as 50 cents per diaper! A better option? Stock up at Costco for as little as 18 cents per diaper. That works out to $33 for a 66-count box of diapers at the supermarket vs. $35 for a 192-count box at Costco. You can earmark the money for Junior’s college fund (or a night out for you!).
If you don’t have a membership to a warehouse club but still want a great deal, Amazon Prime members can sign up for Amazon Family and get 15% off diapers, plus free shipping. With this money-saving Amazon trick, you’ll likely end up paying around 30 cents per diaper, or $41 for a box of 136 diapers … delivered right to your door.
Seasonal non-food items
All those delightful seasonal products placed near the cash register are there to separate you from your hard-earned cash. “Seasonal items are generally not a good buy at grocery stores,” says Birken. “For one, the supermarket is not the place to go for good-quality patio furniture or pool toys. These items might look nice in the store, but they’ll probably be pretty battered before the season is over.” In other words, you’ll find yourself paying premium prices for low-end products. You’re better off investing in higher-quality pieces from reputable stores. Get an even better deal by knowing the best time to buy everything throughout the year.
After fighting the crowds and unloading the groceries, you may feel your trip to the supermarket has earned you a long soak in the tub. That’s fine, but don’t buy your bubble bath (or other personal products) there. A bottle of Dr. Teal’s Bubble Bath is around $7 at the supermarket but only $5 for the same size bottle at Walmart.
You can also get a good deal online. “You can save on your toiletries by setting up a subscription for the ones you use most through something like Amazon’s Subscribe and Save, which can cut as much as 15% off the regular price,” says Birken.
When it comes to over-the-counter painkillers, allergy tablets, antacids and the like, Warshaw says that grocery-store markups could be as high as 70%. Take a look at Tylenol. A 100-count package of Tylenol Extra Strength caplets costs $12.59 at my supermarket, or about 13 cents per caplet. At Target or Walmart, the same package of Tylenol costs $10.97, or about 11 cents per caplet. That’s a 13% markup at the grocery store. If you want even bigger savings, head to Costco, where a 325-count package of Tylenol will cost you $20.49, or just 6 cents per pill.
But if you’re in a pinch and really need something for that headache, Warshaw recommends buying generic. A box of 100 store-brand acetaminophen caplets costs $4.79 at the supermarket. Both the brand name and the generic contain the same active ingredient—500 mg of acetaminophen—but you’ll save 62% by buying generic.
“Just because you can pick up antifreeze or other automotive supplies at the grocery store, it doesn’t mean you should,” says Birken. Besides paying too much, you could compromise quality with a brand you don’t recognize or get the wrong formula for your car. Curious about how much you’re actually overpaying? A 30-count package of Armor All cleaning wipes costs $7.50 at the supermarket, which is what you’d pay for two-pack of the same item at Walmart.
“If you’re already picking up food for the party, it may feel natural to grab paper plates, cups, plastic ware and a tablecloth at the supermarket while you’re there,” says Birken. “But you’ll spend much less on the same items at the dollar store.” Warshaw agrees and points out that you’ll likely end up paying double at the supermarket for those plastic tablecloths, mylar balloons, plastic utensils and birthday candles.
Gift giving is super easy and convenient when you can toss a gift card on the conveyor belt with your milk and eggs—but those cards are much cheaper with a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, especially when you buy them in a bundle. For example, Sam’s Club members can get two $25 P.F. Chang’s gift cards for $45.98. That’s a savings of $4.02. Costco members have similar deals, such as four $25 Domino’s gift cards for $79.99. That’s a savings of $20!
Any item that’s not on your shopping list
It might be tempting to add a few extra snacks or a seasonal candle to your shopping cart, but don’t do it. According to one Credit Karma survey, 30% of respondents admit to venturing off their grocery lists to buy unnecessary items, leading them to overspend while shopping. That’s why Alev insists on shopping with purpose. “Take a few minutes before you head out the door to jot down what you need based on what you plan to cook that week,” she says. “And look at what you already have in your fridge and your pantry, so you don’t buy double of anything.”
And if you really have your heart set on shopping for everything at the grocery store, be strategic. Personal finance expert Kimberly Palmer recommends taking advantage of your local store’s loyalty programs, checking your local grocery stores for weekly deals via an app like Flipp, and using both manufacturer and store-specific coupons to layer on the savings. Also check out this list of the most affordable grocery stores for the best value near you.
About the experts
- Jade Warshaw is a debt elimination expert, financial coach and co-host of The Ramsey Show. She’s also a professional vocalist who has performed in 92 countries and a foodie who helps people pay off debt by teaching them to shift their mindset and actions around money—without sacrificing good meals.
- Courtney Alev is a consumer financial advocate for Credit Karma who brings more than a decade of experience in personal finance to the table to help consumers maximize their wealth.
- Emily Guy Birken is a money expert and coach, as well as the author of End Financial Stress Now: Immediate Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Financial Outlook.
- Kimberly Palmer is a personal finance expert at NerdWallet. She is also the author of Smart Mom, Rich Mom, The Economy of You and Generation Earn.
- Ramsey Solutions: “The State of Personal Finance in America Q1 2023”
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Consumer Price Index Summary”
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “12-month percentage change, Consumer Price Index, selected categories”
- USDA: “Will spices used beyond their expiration date be safe?”
- Credit Karma: “Inflation may be pricing many Americans out of household staples – namely groceries.”