How to save money when you’re shopping 

One of the best environments in which to save money is while shopping. That makes sense, this is where you are expecting yourself to spend money and where retailers do everything in their power to get you to buy more items.

For that same reason, it is actually where a lot of people blow up their budgets. We have identified over-spending as one of the three main reasons people get into financial trouble. It seems if you are not bridling your spending, it is likely to run wild. 

Of course, the best way to save money when you’re shopping is to not go shopping at all … which is a little like saying the best way to avoid lung cancer is to just stop breathing. We need to shop to survive in the world, so we need to learn how to do it constructively. And, we need to learn how we can save money while also taking care of our needs (and wants!) in life. 

The following are some ideas on how to save money when you’re out shopping:

Buy staple goods in bulk when they are on sale

When candy is on sale, people tend to buy–and eat–more candy. When toilet paper, toothpaste, cleaning supplies, deodorant, and other basic items are on sale, we don’t tend to use them more than we otherwise would. I have yet to meet a person who decided that they were going to brush their teeth three times a day because toothpaste was on sale!

If you wouldn’t consume any more of a product just because it was on sale, that’s the kind of item you should buy in bulk when it is on sale. The only exception to that rule is if you still have a shelf full of the product after the last sale.

Buying consumable products (especially ones that you wouldn’t use more of even if you had more of it lying around) can be a great way to save money when you are shopping.  

Use coupons 

Using coupons is an obvious way to save money when you shop. If you were going to buy that can of beans anyway, might as well get them 30% off! Coupons are especially useful when they are tailored to the purchasing you already do. You might notice that the grocery store prints out coupons for items that you usually buy (what a coincidence!) This, of course, isn’t an accident. They are tracking your purchases through your rewards card and are trying to entice you to purchase the items again.

In many cases, these are manufacturing discounts that the store gets reimbursed for, so making sure you get the discount doesn’t cut into their profits. Offering you the coupons protects their profits by ensuring that you purchase with them again!

There is a potential dark side to coupon cutting, though. One study showed that people who used coupons to control holiday spending were actually 22% more likely than people who didn’t to overspend during the season. This might be because people who were using coupons were actually buying things that they otherwise wouldn’t have without cutting out purchases that they were planning to make. 

Using coupons on products you were already going to buy–or to replace purchases that you were going to make–can be a great way to save money when you’re shopping. 

Use cash

The good news is that it has never been easier in the history of the world to buy things. The bad news is that it has never been easier in the history of the world to buy things. The ability to use credit cards, peer-to-peer payment options, paying with a cell phone, and automatically transferring money out of a bank account. The digital revolution in finance is one of the most remarkable transformations in world history. 

Convenience has a price, though. It has been shown that people spend more when they use credit cards and other digital forms of payment than they do when they strictly use cash. When people can feel the money slip out of their hands, they tend to be a bit more selective about how much they spend. Apparently, swiping for every little thing is too easy. 

If you want to save money, try making all of your day-to-day purchases using cash for a while and see how much less you spend. 

Use Facebook Marketplace and neighborhood groups

Sometimes you don’t need something to be brand new, you just need it to be new to you. One of the best ways to save money shopping is to shop for the items you need through Facebook or other social media affinity groups. 

One billion people are buying and selling things on Facebook Marketplace each month. There’s even a group committed for members to just give stuff away. You can join groups centered on your town or neighborhood, your particular family situation, or your hobbies. These groups are a great way to get the stuff you need at a much lower price than if you were to walk into a store.

Shop with a list

Let’s be honest, shopping is not a fair fight. We walk into a store that has a long history of learning how to get people to buy stuff. They spend millions of dollars on market research and studying traffic patterns and assessing the value of their messaging. It’s little wonder any of us leave a store without having bought more than we do.

So, one of the most important things that we can do in order to save money while we’re shopping is to always shop with a list in our hands. If we don’t need it, don’t buy it. If it wasn’t on our list why would we all of a sudden need something. 

That’s not to say that we’re not going to occasionally buy something that we don’t need on the spur of the moment, but we are far less likely to do that if we are conscientious about how we shop. 

Shopping with a list is one of the most valuable ways of saving money when you shop.

Shop by the unit 

(Not by the item) The recent inflation has drawn attention to a new way in which we are affected by inflation almost invisibly. They call it shrinkflation and it’s when you pay the same price as you’ve been paying for a while but you get less. The primary way to combat shrink inflation, as well as overpaying for the food that you buy, is to make sure to always assess the value of a product based on its price per unit. Don’t be satisfied comparing this jar with that jar, look closely at how much is in each jar and assess the cost of the product that you actually get. 

A related, but much more complicated strategy, is to shop by the actual nutritional content of the product you’re purchasing. In this strategy you’re not just trying to buy the greatest volume of food, but you’re trying to buy the food with the densest nutritional value. Variations on this strategy is to assess grain related products based on their protein content, processed foods based on the limited number of ingredients (especially ones that are hard to pronounce), or packaged foods based on the number of essential nutrients. 

The basic premise here is that you save money when you shop for more calories, nutrients, and quality as opposed to just packaging.

Instead of “saving” when shopping, focus on “not spending”

When we’re trying to save money while shopping it can be intellectually exhausting. It’s not uncommon to go through our shopping exercises constantly doing the calculations in our head based on the value we might get for our money. We’re constantly weighing the value of getting something cheaper versus buying something of a higher quality. We strive to buy the best product for the lowest price. And that whole process can often trip us up. We can be fooled into thinking we’re gaining great value in our trade-off between money and quality. Half the time the quality could be an illusion or it could just be status. 

One of the most effective ways to combat this problem when we’re shopping is to focus on not spending at all as opposed to saving as we spend. That of course works best when we don’t really need the objects that we are considering buying. But if we’re deciding to not make a purchase at all, the decision becomes extremely simple. We no longer have to weigh the quality versus value question or determine whether we’re buying the right color or flavor. If all we have to do is to decide not to buy something, that binary decision can save us a lot of money.

Round up when purchasing

The very act of  shopping is all about money going out of your pocket. Even If all we’re doing is shopping for necessities, it’s still about resources flowing away from us. So, what if you can turn the very act of shopping into a savings strategy as well? If for every purchase we make we round up and take that excess and put it into a savings account, every time we make a purchase we’re training ourselves to also save for the future. In the old days, people would do this by taking the change that they receive from making a purchase and putting it in a jar. 

Digital banking today can make this both more challenging as well as easier. It can be more challenging because every time we make a purchase with a digital form of currency, like a credit card or a debit card, we would have to make the effort to move the rounded up value into a bank account. But, that really can be the easy part since most Americans now do some form of mobile banking. Some checking accounts even do this for you!

We can also decide what we’re going to round up to. Maybe we round up to the nearest $5 or the nearest $10. If we can handle a round-up that is a little bit more than pennies, then our spending account becomes an engine for our savings account. 

Doing some form of rounding-up when we’re shopping can lead to a very literal way to save money.

Don’t impulse shop

Impulse shopping can lead to regrettable purchases and clutter. Retailers thrive on these unexpected buys, but they don’t shoulder the consequences—like a stretched budget or unused items. Saving money involves rejecting impulse shopping entirely.

When encountering a tempting deal, create space to assess its true necessity. Delaying the purchase—by leaving the item and revisiting it later—can reveal whether you genuinely need or want it. Developing a strategy to resist impulse buying is key to substantial savings.

Don’t shun refurbished or used items

The only difference between brand new items and factory refurbished items can often be that the latter had been returned to the store and didn’t have the original packaging. But if a manufacturer is going to guarantee an item that is factory refurbished, then it really shouldn’t be any different than a brand new item that you bought in a gleaming new box. Too often we convince ourselves that we need the brand new boxes somehow as a security against the lack of quality, but the reality is that as soon as you open the box the product isn’t going to feel any more new to you then a factory refurbished product. 

A very similar thing can happen when it comes to used items. Many times a used item wasn’t used all that often. You also have to be really honest with yourself about how rigorously you’re going to use the new item. 

Years ago, I was purchasing some tools and my uncle convinced me to buy the cheaper circular saw. It was not a name brand and I honestly wondered whether it would ultimately be worth the lower price. Many years later that circular saw still works and is still in my garage. I am not a construction worker and would not use that saw on a daily basis. The reality was I didn’t need the top of the line saw because I would not be using it as rigorously as other people. 

Being much more conscientious about what you’re purchasing can help you save a great deal of money when you decide to buy refurbished or used items.

Shun retail therapy

If your impulse is to go out and buy something when you’re not feeling great you might be guilty of seeking retail therapy. This is a form of emotional buying that is a hallmark of an unhealthy relationship with money. If your instinct is to start shopping on your phone to assuage a feeling that you have, it may be a sign that you could use a little financial therapy. 

But even if it’s not as serious as all that, you should be very suspicious if you catch yourself turning to shopping as a hobby, an emotional pick me up, or something that brings you joy independent of the things that you’re buying. Recognizing when you turn to retail therapy or emotional shopping and training yourself to avoid the practice can help you save a great deal of money, especially over the long term.

Don’t chase sales

It might seem unbelievable, but studies have shown that people who chase sales during holiday shopping are actually more likely to overspend during the season. It’s almost as though retailers know what they are doing! Stores have a lot of experience in getting people to open their wallets and spend more. Getting people in the door through great sales will lead to them spending. 

How is that even possible? If I am conscientious about shopping sales, how is it that I am spending more than people who aren’t. Well, the research doesn’t explain it, but there are a couple theories. First, when you chase the good deal, you might actually be buying something that you wouldn’t have otherwise purchased which didn’t actually replace a purchase you were planning to make. Second, when people “save money” on a sale, they often feel justified in spending a little more somewhere else. In some cases, they may spend the amount they “save” at the sale two or three times. 

If you are interested in saving money, don’t chase sales. 

Only purchase an item on sale if it’s on your list

If store sales are a surefire way to blow your budget, is there a safe way to take advantage of store sales? After all, there’s no denying that some store events really are moments to get deep discounts on items you could use. 

If you only buy items that you were planning to buy and were just waiting for them to go on sale, you might actually save money shopping at store sales. You do need to be careful, though, that you don’t congratulate yourself on your shopping prowess and reward yourself with a visit to the food court or “just looking” at the newly arrived spring collection.

The best way to save money while shopping at store sales is to plan the items you need, wait for them to go on sale, buy them, and then get out.

Picture of Jonathan Walker

Jonathan Walker