How to use a shopping list to save money


Last week while I was at the grocery store, I noticed (not for the first time—but it never ceases to amaze me) that many people do not use a shopping list. One guy was on his cell phone saying, “Can you just look in the refrigerator, and tell me if

use a shopping list to save money

If you use a shopping list correctly it will save you money.

we have any?” What if nobody had been home? There was a 50/50 chance he’d spend money on something he wouldn’t need for awhile or set himself up to make an “emergency” run. Neither scenario fits the frugal lifestyle. We need to know how to use a shopping list.
Generating a shopping list is the first thing to do.
How to create a shopping list

I’ve written an article on how I do my weekly shopping. In it I explain how I make my shopping list. Before I go shopping, I

do an inventory and generate a list of stock items that I need to replenish. Then, I add anything I want but don’t usually keep on hand. Take a look at my article save money on groceries for a detailed explanation.

There are other ways…
Some people like to keep a running list—weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly—to fit their shopping schedule. As they run short on staples they make notes. A dedicated notebook or whiteboard works well for this. When they’re ready to shop, (hopefully) they organize a list to carry along and add any “extras” they intend to pick up.
If you have a regular menu, either of the above work well. (Touch point: regular menu)

Regular menu

A regular menu is vital to keeping your cost of living under control. The very fact that it is regular allows you to gauge the cost of your food.

In a previous post I’ve said my menus tend to repeat about every three weeks—with some seasonal changes. With that constancy and since I only shop a couple of grocery stores (and am familiar with their pricing trends), I generally know which will give me the best prices on the items I’m after. The regular cycle of my menus also keeps the number of items I purchase to a minimum.

People who shop without a regular menu can’t really be sure of what they need or don’t need. If you don’t know what you’ll have for dinner on any given day, you really can’t be prepared to cook. If you decide on a whim what you’d like to eat, chances are you won’t have all the ingredients. And, if you’re prone to searching the fridge or cabinets for “something,” it’s easy to feel like you’ve got “nothing” that suits. Either way, you’ll probably make an extra grocery (or restaurant) run and very likely go over budget. A regular menu and shopping list are musts.

Here’s an example: Bouillon. In my household we eat a lot of (homemade) soup. Even when not included in a recipe, we often use bouillon. We think it contributes a meaty flavor to the broth. (It also contributes to the salt content, but that’s another issue.) Quite a few people use bouillon or something similar occasionally; most don’t consider it a main ingredient. It’s something you might use the last bit of and think, “I’ll have to pick up some more soon,” but it doesn’t cross your mind again until you’re searching the pantry, and it’s not there. Will you make a special trip to the grocery—spending time and gas—just to get a $2 item? If you don’t use it, will the taste of the dish be spoiled? (No. Maybe??? Yes!—That’s a decision you have to make.)

And, that’s where a shopping list comes in.

You can’t remember everything—and you shouldn’t have to. Use a shopping list as an extension of your memory. Have a running list, or do an inventory before you shop. Keep staples in stock. Avoid emergency trips or culinary disasters.
Irregular menu

Special days and events: Christmas, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, company picnics, power outages, and unexpected guests. The list could be endless. There are times when your regular menu will not suffice. A shopping list can be a great aid in preparing for chance and change (and remaining frugal).
Let’s divide this into two categories, (1) the planned and (2) the unplanned.


I’m talking about events like Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving, anniversaries, birthdays, etc. Special events that you know are coming and require special menus. There are likely to be items/ingredients in these menus that will appear infrequently (at best) during the rest of the year.

(A frugal mindset requires that even in the face of tradition, you carefully consider the cost/benefit ratio of these items. If no one really enjoys a particular dish—evidenced by most of it always being leftover, and eventually, going bad—it’s best to cut it from the menu. For example, when I was growing up my parents and some other older relatives enjoyed mincemeat pie at Christmas. I, however, have never liked it, and it’s been years since I celebrated with anyone who does. In my household we used to include it “for tradition’s sake.” Maybe one piece would be eaten. The rest slowly turned into a rock in the refrigerator. So, mincemeat pie no longer appears on the dessert table. Also, when ingredients with a short shelf life only come in quantities greater than your recipes require, think about going in with a neighbor or friend for the purchase, or see if you can use the excess in place of something in one of your regular recipes. Almost anything is better than what amounts to throwing money away.)

Ok, now I’ll get back to how to use a shopping list for special events. The solution is simple. With as much lead time as possible, mark the date on your calendar or scheduler, e.g. Nov 7th—Mom’s Birthday. Then, on a 3X5 card write out the menu and list any ingredients you don’t usually stock.

irregular shopping list

irregular shopping list

Save the 3X5 card in a place you’ll remember. I have a 3X5 cardholder. I keep the cards in order by date. That way I don’t have to spend a lot of time retrieving needed information.

Each week before I make my shopping list, I look at the calendar to see if there are upcoming events that may require special attention. If there is a planned event, I retrieve the information from my 3X5 cardholder and add whatever items I need to my shopping list. This works well for something like a birthday dinner—I might only need to pick up a cake mix and a can of frosting (Probably, candles).

For really big events like the Christmas season, or Easter Dinner I go a step further. Over time I’ve figured out what I use in terms of staples that have long term shelf life, especially pricy items. I review those menus weeks (sometimes months) ahead of time and week by week start stockpiling as sales come up. This helps me stay in budget.


We’ve all had kids bring home a starving friend (or three). Or the doorbell rings, and “Oh-my-goodness! Honey, it’s Aunt Sue and Uncle Leo; they were in town today, and thought they’d surprise us.”

Part of “life happens” is the unexpected relative or friend who drops in around mealtime. Of course, we have enough food for our meal, but we weren’t planning on company.
You can guess … I have a plan for this.

Actually, I have two plans:

1) I keep three frozen pizzas in my freezer. (We usually plan to eat one once as part of our three week menu cycle, and then replace on the next shopping trip.) So, there was always a good chance we could have fed a couple of extra kids.
Since my kids are now grown, this scenario should tell you I’ve been using this practice as part of my frugal lifestyle for quite awhile, and I still need to raid the pizza stock occasionally. I mean, if I’m working with a buddy on Saturday morning and lunchtime rolls around, popping a pizza in the oven beats wasting the time and money making a pizza run. A decent frozen pizza is less expensive than buying a one from most good pizza places and much more tasty than buying one from a cheap place. By the way, I usually buy a basic sausage or pepperoni pizza and give it a boost with shredded cheese, mushrooms, or some other tasty thing I have on hand.

2) If the event calls for something more than pizza, I have couple of alternative meals—and I admit I usually have to make a special shopping trip for the supplies: I have a shopping list (on a trusty 3X5 card) for everything I don’t regularly stock to make a meal of grilled hot dogs or hamburgers, along with a salad, soda, and dessert (usually ice cream).

I don’t need a shopping list for the other meal. For it, I run to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken and pick up a bucket and sides along with iced tea and dessert.

That’s it. If you don’t like one menu, I hope you like the other, because those are choices. The KFC meal is more expensive than the grilled meal, but I keep a category in my budget funded with about $35 for coincidental entertaining. I don’t have to tap it very often and when I do, I always remind myself that being frugal does not exclude hospitality: Frugal ≠ Miserly.

At the store

Have your list with you when you shop. Stick to it; it’s your contract with yourself to cover what you need. (That includes “wants” that have become needs after some consideration.) If it’s not on the list don’t buy it. Impulse buying is very expensive and counterproductive (Read: Not profitable, not frugal).

Note: If you’ve been following me, you know that any shopping list I make is tailored to fit my budget.
My shopping list tells me the purchases I need to make to replenish my food stocks as well as the perishables for the week and the special things I’m gathering to prepare for upcoming events. I usually consolidate my list on Wednesday or Thursday—after I’ve seen the weekly grocery ads (in the paper and on line).With that in mind, as I shop I compare brands so I can get the best price per serving.

I shop once a week

I favor Thursday evenings or Friday mornings for grocery shopping. I avoid the crush of people who shop Friday after work (payday) or on Saturday morning. Also, since the stores I shop tend to do a major restock on Thursday, I usually get first pick of the fresh fruit and vegetables. On the other hand, by Thursday evening a lot of products store managers need to discount have been marked down. If I find any of the things on my list marked down, I can take advantage of the cut in price and save money.


Knowing how to use shopping list begins with the planning ahead and ends as you follow thru with good shopping habits. A shopping list tells us what we need to purchase. Without a shopping list we’re prone to forget things we need, or buy what we don’t need—wasting time and money. That’s not frugal. We need to know how to use a shopping list.

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Douglas Antrim

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