Why are groceries so expensive? We asked our money-saving expert Joel Gibson for his Top 20 ways to save on your grocery bills.
Supermarkets in Australia make over $100 billion a year, according to IBIS World. That’s because for most families, this is our second-biggest expense after the mortgage or rent. Back in 2016, when the government last measured it, we were spending $240 a week or over $12,000 a year on average. No doubt it would be even more than that now and there was a bigger-than-usual jump in the cost of groceries from 2021-2022.
Prices always rise over time. That’s called inflation. But from 2021 to 2022, the official government figures said food prices went up by 4%, which is about an extra $500 a year for the average family. Even that’s under-estimating it, I think. I believe groceries have gone up by more - much more - and there have even been comparisons such as this investigation by the Daily Telegraph newspaper in June 2022 that found a 12% increase in a typical shopping basket - that adds up to an extra $1400 a year!
How can you save hundreds or even over $1000 a year on groceries?
Some of these are obvious but some are not. Do them all and you’ll be amazed how much you can save. Do some of them and you’ll still save a packet.
Make a list. Don’t leave home without it.
This one seems obvious, but going to the supermarket with a plan will save you big bucks over time. Wandering the aisles without a list, on the other hand, makes you an easy target for impulse buys, food wastage and it takes longer. If you know what you want, you can get in and out much quicker.
It’s Monday 5pm! Check the weekly specials!
The weekly specials go live at Coles, Woolworths and Aldi every Wednesday, but they start to release the information in their catalogues from 5pm Monday. So you can jump online and check the websites, apps or emails before you do your weekly shop, and add the best deals to your list.
Which supermarket is cheapest?
Aldi. There’s no two ways about it - they’re cheaper. I’ve found my own weekly shop was about 10% less at Aldi, while Aldi’s own research undertaken by Pricewaterhousecoopers found the difference depends on whether you compare them to name brands at the big supermarkets (around 25% more or $2468) or home brands (about 15% more or $1555). And some of their products, such as tea bags, olive oil, dishwasher tablets, cleaning products and coffee, are significantly cheaper.
But… Don’t give all your love to one supermarket
Grocery shopping is not like marriage or a football team - you don’t have to be loyal. In fact, if you ARE loyal to one supermarket, you’ll end up spending more. That’s because supermarkets will try to get you in the door with half-price specials or cheap milk or convenience, then they’ll aim to “increase your basket size” by enticing you to buy more while you’re there - ideally your entire list, and ideally as many high-margin items in highly visible spots as possible. But if you only buy the cheap stuff at one supermarket, then head next door to buy their cheap stuff too, you can beat them at their game and save thousands of dollars over time.
#1: Go to Aldi too
Go to Coles OR Woolies, and then go to Aldi too. Make the most of that week’s big discounts at the big supermarket, then cash in on Aldi’s ‘everyday low prices’ which can be unbelievably low. For example, they sell a Litre of olive oil for just $8-$10, and their premium dishwasher tablets are rated the best by consumer group CHOICE despite the fact they cost less than half what the name brands in Coles and Woolworths do. In one experiment, I calculated that I can save around $1600 a year on my family’s grocery bill if I do this every week, compared to just shopping at Coles.
#2: Buy in bulk
The occasional visit to a bulk-buy warehouse such as Costco or Campbells Wholesale (formerly known as ‘Campbell’s Cash & Carry’) allows you to buy non-perishables at cheap prices in large quantities and store them, saving hundreds in a year.
They usually have an annual membership fee (Costco’s is $60, for example) but it won’t take you long to make that back. Costco also has the cheapest petrol in town, for example, so fill up the car while you’re there and you’ll save around $15 a tank, then buy 160 dishwasher tablets for around half the price per tablet they’ll cost you at Coles. You could also go with a friend or family member and split the big-box items between you (and why not split the cost of the membership while you’re at it!).
#3: Hit the farmers markets
The fruit and vegetable markets are known to be cheaper, so if there’s one near you then it could save you some serious money. The Daily Mail bought a list of 19 fruits and vegetables at a market and a Woolworths on the same Friday and found the markets were about half the price - $109.50 as opposed to $59.75. Produce at the markets can also be fresher and longer-lasting than supermarkets. Did you know that some supermarket apples have been in storage for almost a year?!
Pick a shopping centre with multiple supermarkets, too.
There is stiffer price competition at these shopping centres, which means you win. Coles says that:
“Store managers . . . have the discretion to lower prices on individual items to compete in local markets, which means prices sometimes vary slightly on individual items between stores”.
Shop smart and avoid the biggest price rises
Which groceries should you avoid? Unfortunately, meat and fruit and vegetables are some of the biggest price hikes - so they’re hard to avoid. But some are worse than others. Meat and seafoods were 6.2% more expensive than a year ago in March 2022, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but choice cuts such as fillets and cutlets have gone up by more than cheap cuts so try cooking more slow-cooked lamb shanks or casseroles to dodge the worst prices.
Fruit and veg is 6.7% more expensive than a year ago on average, but while lettuces and broccoli are up by around 100% and tomatoes are up by over 40%, it’s not across the board - a Deakin University study found banana prices actually dropped by 28% and oranges by 17% compared to a year ago, while apples, carrots, eggs, red onions and sweet corn cost about the same. So buy more of those!
The other trolley item that has really skyrocketed in 2022 is soft drinks and instant coffee - some brands went up by more than 50% since a year ago. A 2L bottle of Fanta even went up by 94%! If you love your softies, why not get a Soda Stream and make your own? It also has the added benefit of not chucking out plastic bottles by the truckload.
Get 10% off a shop at Woolies every month with this handy hack
Woolworths rewards customers who take up its other products such as insurance policies by giving them 10% off one shop each month. That can be pretty generous if you do a big grocery shop of say $150 or $300 and stock up on pantry items and items that are on special.
The other way to access this discount is by joining their ‘Everyday Extra’ rewards program for $59/year, which also includes 10% off a Big W shop each month. So if you normally spend around $600 or more at those two stores each year, it’s a no-brainer.
Make the most of the ‘unit pricing’
You know all that info on the price tags, where it says what the item costs per 100g or per kg or per Litre? That’s called ‘unit pricing’ and it’s awesome. Consumer groups fought hard to make grocery retailers do it and it means that manufacturers can’t trick you by filling half a bag of chips with air or making their packet size slightly smaller than their competitor.
Eyes up! Eyes down!
Supermarkets put the high-margin products - or the ones whose manufacturers have paid extra for the best placement - at eye-level. If you’re hunting for bargains, they’re most likely to be up high and down low. Look at the unit pricing and you’ll see what I mean - the best value is usually at the top and the bottom.
Avoid packaging & don’t be superficial!
Convenience doesn’t come cheap. It costs money to put stuff in packets and that cost gets passed onto you when you buy it. See the grated cheese example above, for starters. A kilo of loose apples will often cost less than a kilo of apples in plastic. Plus, they’re in plastic! Which sucks.
The same goes for pretty fruit and veg versus “imperfect” produce. Most supermarkets now offer cheaper fruit and vegetables under labels such as “imperfect picks” or “the odd bunch” because they have a cosmetic flaw - but they taste just as good. So why not take pity on them and save yourself a few bucks at the same time?
Stop throwing money in the bin
Did you know we waste $1000 of food a year? That’s what the NSW government’s ‘Food Waste Avoidance Benchmark Study’ estimated. So declare a ‘war on waste’ by making a rough meal plan each week, basing your shopping list on that plan, and trying to use up what you already have in the fridge and pantry. If fruit and veg does go off, put it in a compost bin so it will at least serve another purpose - growing your own super-cheap veggies maybe!
Don’t shop when you’re hungry (or hangry)
The hungrier you are, the more likely you are to make impulse buys - and impulse buys cause grocery bills to blow out. If you get “hangry” when you get hungry, like I do, you’ll also be a lousy shopper. You won’t be able to calmly assess what’s good value and what’s a rip-off.
Don’t shop with kids (if possible) and NEVER shop with hungry kids
Leave the little darlings at home, if you can. Leave them at school. Leave them at daycare or with family - leave them anywhere you can that is not the supermarket trolley. Some of us don’t have a choice, of course, but shopping with kids is a form of torture. It takes you longer, you get ground down by ‘pester power’, and you end up spending more.
Don’t shop at the checkout
You’ve done your shopping by now. You’re just lining up to pay for it. So no - you don’t need that magazine or that packet of chewing gum or that Mars Bar (how good are Mars Bars, by the way?) You need to look straight ahead and avoid impulse buys. Because we’re here to slash our grocery bills, remember?
Joel Gibson is amaysim’s “Money-Saver in Residence” for 2022. He’s a money-saving expert who wrote the book KILL BILLS! He shares his best tips and hacks regularly at the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Today Show, 2GB, 4BC and ABC Radio.