25 Things You Shouldn't Buy at the Grocery Store

by Aaron Crowe on 10 October 2012 26 comments
Photo: George Kelly

We've all done it — grabbed a candy bar or gossip magazine while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. Without realizing it, we've just thrown our meticulous shopping out the window for the sake of convenience and a last-minute treat. Such quick spending decisions can add up over time.

There are plenty of purchases at the grocery store that can be avoided with a little forethought. They can be found cheaper elsewhere, which I admit is a hassle if you want to finish your shopping trip at one store and get it over with. But with some planning and the strength to avoid last-minute shopping for things you forgot, you can save money by buying these 25 things elsewhere. (See also: 8 Overpriced Grocery Items to Skip)

1. Magazines

Let's start with the common item that catches your eye while waiting in line. The headlines and photos are meant to grab your attention, and while a quick glance through may be worth a minute or two, don't give in and buy them. You'll pay the full cover price at the grocery store, and even if they give a 10% discount, it's still a ripoff. If you're only going to read that particular magazine once, go to the library, borrow an issue from a friend, or go to the magazine's website to read a few articles. If you want every issue (or even just a few) it's a lot cheaper to subscribe.

2. Organic Fruits and Vegetables

Compare supermarket prices of organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables, and all of the organic ones will likely be higher — much higher. If it's in-season (apples in the fall, watermelon in summer), find your local farmers market. You should find cheaper prices there for organic fruit and vegs that should taste a lot better than something trucked to your store.

3. Batteries

You can save 70% by buying in bulk at Costco, or better yet, buy rechargeable batteries for a higher upfront cost that will save you a lot of cash over the year. Department stores such as CVS often have much better sales on rechargeable batteries than grocery stores do.

4. Cakes

This goes for many things that are pre-made at a grocery store, but cakes are one of the top ones. You're paying for a baker's time and expertise in making a cake for you. For a lot less money, you can make one at home. Then again, your time may be worth enough that it makes sense to pay someone to bake the cake for you.

5. Cut-Up Stew Meat

This is another instance where paying for convenience doesn't make sense. Stew meat is comprised of some of the cheapest cuts of meat, so paying for it to be cut up into chunks just adds profit back to something that should be inexpensive to begin with. Grab a knife when you get home. If you can't do that, then buy a big piece of meat at the grocey store and ask the butcher to cut it up for you for free.

6. Pre-Cut Vegetables

You're not saving as much time as you think you are by buying pre-cut vegetables. Get to know your meal by washing and cutting veggies yourself, and don't pay a supermarket employee to do it for you. Same goes for fruit. You can slice a watermelon at home for free.

7. Anything Cooked or Made at the Store

Like buying cakes, buying friend chicken or going to the deli department and paying someone to make you a sandwich carries a hefty price for the convenience of not doing it yourself. That may be worth it to you. But if you want to save money, do it at home. Think ahead and buy everything you need to make sandwiches for the week, and make them at home for at least half the cost of what the store charges.

8. Canned Goods Not on Sale

Grocery stores mark up canned goods a lot — 50% is common — because they're often staples that people use a lot. Canned soup, for example, is a big seller in the fall and winter, and eventually a sale will lower the price. When you see a sale for something you buy often, stock up.

9. Deli Cheese

Many things in the deli section are more expensive than they are elsewhere in the grocery store, so it's a good area to avoid. Fancy cheeses can be found in the dairy section for a lot less money.

10. Spices

Name-brand spices especially are more expensive at a grocery store than at a natural food store. Instead of paying a few dollars for a spice you use regularly, you'll pay pennies at a health food store.

11. Fruit With a Short Shelf Life

Berries are notorious for getting moldy within a few days of purchase, and grocery stores charge more for such fruit because they have to cover their cost for the spoiled fruit that doesn't sell and they have to throw away. Either buy it fresh at the farmers market, where it's more likely to be freshly picked and won't go bad as quickly, or pay up and eat it soon.

12. Bottled Water

You probably already know that bottled water is a waste of money and that free tap water at home is just as safe. But if you're going to buy bottled water, buy it in bulk at Costco or another discount store, or at least buy generic brands that cost less. While water is a staple of life, bottled water at a grocery store is overpriced and should be avoided.

13. Cereal

The markup is too high to make a box of cereal worthwhile. Either wait for a sale or buy a two-pack box at a warehouse store. I'm not trying to say that bulk stores are the answer to all of your grocery-shopping problems, but this is another area where they make a lot of financial sense.

14. Detergent

Warehouse stores beat supermarkets in this area too, and online stores such as Target have better prices. If it's something you use a lot of, you might as well stock up.

15. Toothbrushes

If you can't get these free from your dentist, get another dentist. A regular pharmacy should be able to sell you a toothbrush or dental floss for a cheaper price than a grocery store can.

16. Greeting Cards

I have yet to see these sold at anything but full price at a grocery store. $2.99 for a paper card with printed thoughts from someone else? No thanks. Buy them in bulk online, make one yourself, or even better, have your kid make cards and pay them half of what you'd pay a grocery store.

17. Party Supplies

Candles, birthday hats, and paper plates are some of the party supplies that supermarkets stock for shoppers' convenience. Go to a dollar store or party supply store for lower prices.

18. Light Bulbs

Like any hardware item you'll find in a grocery store, it's probably a lot cheaper at a hardware store that specializes in such things. Again, you're paying for the convenience of having many things on your shopping list for sale at a grocery store, but don't let a darkened light bulb at home make you buy one immediately.

19. Bakeware

This is another item that's at the grocery store for your convenience, but the high price of a baking pan, cooking utensils, or similar kitchen products is often so high that you're better off shopping elsewhere. Baking cookies may be a spur-of-the-moment decision, but a good baking sheet should be a staple of every home.

20. Cosmetics

Like toothbrushes and other such products, most skin-care items can be bought cheaper at a drugstore.

21. Swiffer Cloths

These popular dusters are great for cleaning, but the replacement cloths can be bought a lot cheaper at a dollar store. Or tie an old rag to the device and sweep away.

22. Beer

Like many things at a grocery store, unless beer is on sale, skip it and go to a discount liquor store. You'll find the same brands at cheaper prices.

23. Diapers

Not that they go together with beer, but unless they're on sale, diapers can be found cheaper at department stores.

24. Rotisserie Chicken

Rotisserie chickens look good under the hot bulbs at the supermarket, but you'll likely find them cheaper at warehouse stores. And you'll get a bigger bird for your money elsewhere — giving you more leftovers to enjoy.

25. Milk

Yes, it's a staple at most houses and is needed so often that a quick trip to the grocery store is worth it as far as saving time. But a gallon of milk is usually half the cost at a warehouse store, so if you don't mind the crowds and are there for other purchases, grab some cheaper milk.

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Guest's picture
Olivia

One of the best things we've done is start a price book. We keep track of commonly purchased items at every available venue. Dollar stores, warehouse clubs, bump and dent places, farmer's markets, roadside stands, CSA's, farmers (they may advertize in your local penny savers), pick your own farms, vo techs (those with culinary departments), chain drugs stores with loyalty programs. It may be worth it to grow your own, or barter with neighbors. There are benefits to combining sales with coupons at local grocery stores and it doesn't have to be complex.

We've found for our own shopping style, warehouse clubs aren't worth it. We do better using coupons locally. Dollar tree is our go to place for birthday cards, jack mackeral, bar soap and hair products. We stockpile peanut butter and pasta from our local bump and dent place. We keep a small garden and can. Recently a friend hooked me up with For the Mommas, a site that tracks sales and coupons in our local area. We've benefitted greatly from the CVS loyalty program as a result. We get our eggs from a farm lady near my husband's twice monthly travels at $1 a flat. It all adds up.

Guest's picture
Nancy

About #5, stew meat. I no longer buy ground beef either. At today's prices, it's cheaper to buy chuck roast when it's on sale for $2.99 or less and grind it myself. I bought discounted gift card and used it to buy a grinder attachment for my stand mixer. Now I grind all my ground beef for less, plus I know exactly what goes into it.

About #13. I do buy cereal at the grocery store. I buy the store brand and take advantage of the "buy more, pay less" price by buying 5 boxes at a time.

About #16, greeting cards. I gave up greeting cards years ago. Instead of spending 15 minutes picking out a card, I use the time to pen a handwritten note, which is more personal and appreciated.

About #21, swiffer cloths. The consumables drive me crazy. Instead of swiffer, I bought a duster/mop with a refillable bottle and some washable, reusable pads. Vinegar and water does just as well as more expensive brand-name floor cleaners.

About #25, milk. It's not always convenient to get to the warehouse store when milk is needed. Plus my need for milk is less now that the kids are grown. However because milk freezes well, I often stock up when at Costco. Just remember to pour off a small amount because the liquid expands when it freezes.

Guest's picture

I usually buy fresh fruits and vegetables from the local market. There I can find variety and cheap prices as well.
I prefer not to enter in small grocery shops because they are more costly than superstores.

Guest's picture

This article was very insightful. I definitely would say one of the key points that stuck out to me was the magazines. Every time I am at the checkout line, I am drawn in by the front cover. I can just read and read and read. Next minute I realize I am at the cash register. Now what?? I can do two things, purchase or leave it. I usually leave it because I always think to myself …when I get home am I really going to finish the magazine? So I’ve learned to not make decisions off of impulse but on the importance of the item.

Guest's picture

Wow, that is absolutely different from where I live (Europe). Most of those things are cheaper at the hypermaket (basically the big boxes). Cosmetics can cost up to 70% more in a drug store, so I always buy them from the store (unless I'm looking for really fancy once, which the stores don't sell).

Guest's picture
Guest

I was also going to comment on the cosmetics tip. I have compared prices between the pharmacies and Wal-Mart / Target and W-M/Target are MUCH cheaper (in the US).

Guest's picture
Raf

Same in Italy. Some supermarkets, for example, have their own organic products and can be quite cheap. Even though local fruit and vegs can be even cheaper if you have access to a "real" farmers' market. On the other hand, deli cheese at a farmers' market is more expensive (though incredibly better).

Guest's picture
Guest

Do you work for wharehouse store. There was an article recently that shows that wharehouse stores are not as good a deal as many people think. Whgen you buy things from a wharehouse store, you are paying premium prices for brand items. The best thing to do is to shop at several grocery stores, discount stores and wharehouse stores. Yoou will find that the right price on any item can be found if you look hard enough. I promise you that if you wnet shopping at a wharehouse store and I went shopping at a variety of stroes and used coupons, I could get the same amount of food at a mch lower price. It is all about knowinghow much things should cost before you buy.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is not entirely true. You have to price compare. The warehouse clubs (at least Sam's Club) do have their own generic brand of items and those are good deals. If you are buying brand name items at the grocery store anyway, most of the time that same brand name item will be cheaper at a warehouse club. We get FANTASTIC deals on produce (cherry tomatoes, spring mix, etc) at Sam's Club and that alone is worth our membership. The produce is not brand specific (I don't look for brands on produce at either the warehouse club or the grocery store) so that is one example of a better price. That and the fact that I find it very hard to get good deals on produce at a regular grocery store without buying about to expire items (I find it hard to get coupons on produce as well).

Guest's picture
Sue

While I agree with the this article on many points, there are a few things that it doesn't address......many of us do not live close to a Costco or Sam's Club and have to buy these items at our local grocery....items such as detergent, batteries, cereal, etc. If I'm driving 1 1/2 hours to get to one of these warehouse stores, I'm definitely not saving......especially with gas prices hovering around $4! Second...buying canned goods in bulk when they're on sale can save a lot of money, but unless you have an area where you can STORE these items, it doesn't make sense either. Also, generally you should replace your toothbrush more than twice a year! Minimum should be every 3 to 4 months. And sure, if you're buying ready-made foods from the deli regularly, it's definitely not saving money.....but there is nothing wrong with the occasional use of deli foods or pre-made cakes!

I do what I can to save.....buy on sale, use coupons when I can, buy seasonal foods and use the local farm markets. But to say that we shouldn't buy these items at the local grocery isn't always the best answer to keeping our costs down!

Guest's picture
April

Simplest way I've found to save money is to shop at Sprouts rather than a regular grocery store. I spend about half what I do on the rare occasions I go to a regular grocery store and eat much better. Why? Much fewer processed foods and nonfood goods so less temptation and lots and lots of fresh produce, ads for last AND coming week apply on Wednesdays and always great deals on something.

Guest's picture

It surprised me how much grocery stores mark up cheese that are pre-cut. I love eating cheddar cheese and crackers. For the convenience of having it already cubed for me is over $1 more than just buying the block and doing it myself.

I agree with the batteries as well. I usually buy mine at CVS. They regularly run BOGO sales on their batteries. I buy two packs for $5. I haven't noticed them not lasting as long as name brand versions, so I keep buying them.

Guest's picture

If you have a Walgreens, check there sometime. Our local Walgreens usually has a large bin full of 2-pack AA batteries, for $0.99 each.

Guest's picture

Buying most of these things at drug stores is definitely the cheaper option, especially with weekly coupons from circulars. Although I do agree that you can get SO much more fresh veggies and fruit at a farmers market for a lower price, theres no packaged sliced cheese that compares to deli slices.

Guest's picture
jsreilly

Just to follow up on the cookware, check online for discontinued lines from name brands. My wife and I just bought a 12 piece set for $40.00, the same price as one pan at our local store. Why? Because they were discontinuing the line and getting rid of their stock. I was happy to help.

Guest's picture
Gwen

Milk is also cheaper at gas stations and at rite-aid.

Guest's picture
TustinTim

It's no wonder that "big box" stores; Costco, Wal-Mart, etc. have such a huge effect on local businesses. The information in this article is quite good. One thing you ndidn't mention was pet food. I've found the low end pet foods to be a sale frequently but still higher than the big box stores. But usually lower priced than Petco or PetSmart.

Guest's picture
Walt

No. 4 – Cake: My usually bake cake at home, because it is cheaper that what we find in the store. She is improving her baking skill while we are savings money from buying commercial cake.
No. 12 - Bottled Water: Yeah Tap water is safe and that is why we bought a water filter. We used to filter water from the faucet then transfer it to clean container as simple as that we have our drinking water.
No. 17 – Party Supplies: Actually we buy local brand and the price is lower than the branded one.
We usually buy fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat in the local markets and the price is lower than we found it the grocery store.

Guest's picture
Pat

The only problem with buying at Bulk Stores is you usually have to have a membership card and those can be expensive. And in certain areas they have restrictions on who can apply. Another place to get creal cheap is dollar stores or even Aldi's if you have one near you.
And I found you can buy spices at Goodwill really cheap. That works if you don't have a health food store near you.

Guest's picture
deniseinark

I sure wish we could save at our local farmer's markets. The prices in the Tulsa area are equal to the grocery store prices but just a bit lower than Whole Foods. I'd love to buy produce in bulk to freeze/can. Warehouse stores: We have Sam's here, and the membership is $40/year. We save that much at the gas pumps, and we drive right by the store every day. Even if we didn't, we'd be in there every payday because there is a list of everyday basics that I can't get cheaper anywhere with any kind of coupons or by buying the store brand: dark Starbuck's $18.98, Da Vinci flavored syrup for our coffee $4.28 for the liter bottle, quart half and half $1.98, sharp cheddar 2lbs $4.78, 48 cans of cat food under $20, 3#bacon under $7, and 4lb real butter usually , well under $8. Produce can go either way, although bag salad is usually cheaper as long as we use it up. 10# russet potatoes are generally a good buy unless they're on a good sale at the regular grocery, and it takes a GREAT sale at the grocery to beat the 10# onion price. I generally share the bags of onion/garlic with a neighbor who also goes through them pretty quickly. OTC meds like store brand naproxin or ibuprofen are ALWAYS bought at Sam's. A large pizza, cooked there or ready to take home and cook and LOADED with toppings, is only $8. If we go in around lunch time, we usually get a pizza slice combo for $2.50, which you can't beat anywhere for eating out. I'd say that, if you're careful (we tend to go in with blinders on) I save a good $20 every other week on those things than if I purchased them elsewhere. Again, since the gas prices are about .04/gal cheaper, it's well worth the annual membership price. But if you walk the aisles and get everything that *seems* like a good idea, you'll come out of there spending big big bucks every time.

Guest's picture
Guest

Bountifulbaskets.org is a great way to get fresh fruits and veggies at very low prices. They are a co-op and not available everywhere. You pre-order a basket, then go pick it up on delivery day, which in my part of the USA is on Saturday AM.

Guest's picture
Guest

I buy greeting cards at Half Price Books. Most are 99 cents. At my store they include Christian cards.

Guest's picture
Christine

It is just my husband and I now and he is retired and we are living on a fixed income. We have a BJ's membership with my daughter that my daughter paid for this year and we use it for Gas mostly. We do get some good deals in that store but not as good as Aldi's or Wegmans. Wegmans has priced items that everyone uses everyday at a low price...lower than Toips until the end of the year. We also go to the Farmers Market for some things too. In our old age we can not drink as much milk as before and it seems not to last as long or taste as good as it once did so we switched to Horizion Organic 1% milk and we are enjoying it again....yes it is much more expensive but it lasts longer and tastes so much better. Bagged salad...we like the butter lettuce and Wegmans has it for 2 bags for $5 but you do not have to buy 2 to get the price and it seems so much fresher than the name brand bags.....ready made pie crust....I get Wegmans or Surfine or even Tops over the name brand....they are cheaper and roll out so much better....we like International Delight coffee creamer and it is the large bottle for $2.99 at Wegmans....Tops and even WalMart are much more expensive. I always look for the "use today or freeze" meat and that saves me money as well. So yes I do shop around and not just go to one store for everything. I usually go to Walgreens for Rx and some beauty items when those are on sale and using your AARP card gets you coupons back. Some stores will give discounts for military, AARP or AAA members and those discounts can add up to some sweet savings too.

Guest's picture
Gerald Moran

Quite interesting lists. Though we cannot deny the fact that there are times or most of the time, these are the common things we will buy in a grocery store. As for me, before I will buy anything, I will look at the price and also see if it is on sale or promotion is on going. Nothing wrong is we think of our budget, of course we don't like to spend many money, we still need money for emergency purposes. Also, we should be aware in ordering online, as we all know, scams are everywhere.

Guest's picture
Alicia

this is honestly the worst list i've ever seen of what not to buy from the store. all of these things i DO buy from the store and have served me well when it is needed. now, if you're wanting to look up a list of things you shouldn't buy unless you want to save money, then this is not a good list. cause many of these things i'm sure people buy on a daily basis.

Guest's picture
Guest

I buy spices, toothbrushes, greeting cards, and party supplies from the Dollar Tree or 99cent store. I buy milk at the gas station or at CVS. It is always cheaper at those places for better tasting milk.