Shopping Smart (and Not Wasting Money) During the Coronavirus Pandemic

young woman shopping for groceries with a mask on

If you’re anything like me, that first trip to the grocery store after the coronavirus pandemic began to ramp up was full of…let’s call them sub-optimal choices. I was going to the store out of an abundance of caution. I didn’t need anything, but I’d heard that people had begun to stockpile key supplies. I figured I’d grab an 8-pack of the good toilet paper and nice, big jar of peanut butter (just because).

Of course, my store didn’t have either of those things. In fact, it was missing quite a few things I suddenly felt I deeply needed.

Under normal circumstances, I suppose I would have left the store empty-handed. But circumstances these days are far from normal and boy did I buy a lot of stuff.

Unfortunately, this is not the best time to be buying things we don’t need, or too much of things we do need. So here are some tips for not letting your panic purchases go to waste, and shopping smart from here on out.

Take a Moment and Take Stock

First thing’s first, crack open all the cabinets, take a flashlight into the pantry, and look behind the Chinese takeout boxes in your refrigerator. Figure out what you have and make note of any perishable items – when do they expire? Write it all down.

When reviewing your food items, can anything be frozen? This might help buy you some time.

Plot Out Your Meals

Front load your meal list with items that are coming up on their expiration date. If you have too many items coming to the end of their natural shelf life at the same time, you may need to cook meals ahead of time, as cooking can help extend the timeline for most foods by a few days. If you were ever interested in trying out the meal prep lifestyle, today’s your lucky day.

Don’t Be Tempted When There’s Still “Real” Food in the House

Depending on where you live, restaurants may still be delivering. Also, Hot Pockets take like 3 minutes to make and even if you’ve never bought a Hot Pocket before there’s definitely one in your freezer right now for some reason. Those are both valid food options for later, but for now avoid the temptation of dipping into your non-perishables and make sure things aren’t going to waste.

Now’s the Time to Be Creative

Panic buying doesn’t usually result in an especially sensible looking pantry. There’s a good chance you’re holding on to an abnormal amount of pickled jalapenos or frozen mangoes, which just means it’s time for you to get creative. Look for ways to incorporate stray food items into meals. Add frozen spinach to your favorite pasta meal. Put sliced salami on top of your frozen pizza (honestly, you should have already been doing this).

Making the most of your extremely random collection of food items may be a challenge, but you’ll be surprised by your hidden reserves of creativity (and tolerance for chickpeas). When in doubt, put it in an omelet. You can put anything in an omelet. It's wild.

Before You Go Shopping

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating: if you’re sick, stay home. If you’re really sick, go to the hospital. COVID-19 can present with a variety of symptoms, including sore throat, fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, but it doesn’t necessarily present the same in every person, so be cautious. Try to limit your exposure by shopping only when necessary. Stay six feet away from others and wash your hands often. You know the drill.

What Should You Buy?

Ideally, you should have a 2-3 week supply of groceries and essentials on hand. But remember that this includes the supplies you already have, so if you’re shopping once a week, you don’t need to purchase a new three week supply every time.

If you don’t have an adequate supply of emergency food already, you’ll want to stock up (again – you only need three weeks’ worth) on things like dried beans, pasta, canned foods, and frozen vegetables. To the best of your ability, pick things that will last, but also things that you’ll eat. It may be difficult to be picky depending on the state of your local grocery store, but if you really hate cream of mushroom soup, don’t buy six cans of it.

Once you have an emergency supply built up, you can focus on fresh produce and the perishable items you would normally be buying. As long as the grocery stores are still open and new deliveries are arriving every day, you don’t have to eat like you’re living in an apocalypse bunker.

Keep in mind, though, that prices have probably shifted on all of your favorites as a result of rising demand, diminishing supplies, or both. If you're able, check prices and comparison shop wherever possible. The priority is your wellbeing, but if you can reduce expenses in the process, all the better. 

Outside of food, you’ll also want a three week supply of essentials and commonly used items. This means cleaning supplies and health and beauty products. Fight your impulse to horde supplies. You don’t need six months’ worth of any of these items. When you load up on an essential good, you’re making it that much harder for your neighbors to find what they need.

Stay Calm and Stay Safe

Financial advice isn’t really the most important thing right now, but to the best of your ability, try to re-establish as much normalcy as you can right now. Kids aren’t in school. Quite a few people are either out of work or working from home. It’s a very different world right now, and lot of our routines are broken, including our financial routines.

The most important thing is that you stay safe and healthy. But if you can do that while also spending your money wisely, you’ll be in better shape when this crisis passes.

Finally, if you need a helping hand with budgeting, managing credit card debt, taking care of a delinquent mortgage, or any other financial challenge, MMI is here for you.

Tagged in Coronavirus, Budget tips, Smart shopping, Food and grocery spending

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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