The rising cost of food and groceries is a point of stress many Australians are feeling right now.
If you think you've noticed the price of some of your regular supermarket buys steadily creeping up over the last year, you're not alone – the latest figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that household spending continued to rise towards the end of last year, with a 6.2% increase in our spending on food alone.
As more of us cut out luxuries such as meals in restaurants or expensive takeaways in favour of cooking more dinners or lunches at home to save a little extra cash, it's more important than ever that you get the maximum value out of your grocery shop and make your dollars go as far as possible.
A few simple swaps to your regular routine could save you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on your grocery bills
Shopping for groceries can be time-consuming, boring and stressful, though, so it's no wonder we form regular habits that we stick to, just to get the job done. But shopping on autopilot, perhaps adding the same items to your basket each week because they're the things you always buy, or not taking the time to compare prices, could be seriously costing you.
The good news is that a few simple swaps to your regular routine could save you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on your grocery bills.
Although there may be some items you're willing to pay more for, because it's a product you love or it saves you time or makes your life a little easier, here are our tips for simple budget-savvy swaps you might like to try.
A few simple switches in your grocery basket could save you hundreds a year.
1. Swap packaged produce for loose
Pre-cut or pre-prepared fruits and vegetables – such as bagged salad mixes, pots of cut melon or bags of julienned carrot – are undoubtedly convenient options for when you're time-poor or on the go or if you have physical difficulties.
But you almost always pay a premium for these convenience products, including things such as packaged cheese slices and ham as opposed to buying loose from the deli, not to mention the extra plastic packaging you'll need to dispose of.
We recently compared the supermarket unit prices of 33 different foods that are sold in both loose and pre-packed formats to see which was cheaper, and found that if you swap packaged produce for loose produce, you could save up to $1900 per year. That's a lot of carrots!
We found things such as shortcut rindless bacon, green beans, shaved Champagne ham, Packham pears, snow peas and truss tomatoes were all cheaper in their loose format at both Coles and Woolworths.
Pre-chopped food also tends to spoil faster, so it's more likely to go to waste, which will also hit your hip pocket.
If you still want to opt for prepared fruit and vegetables, we reveal which pre-cut vegies offer the best value.
2. Swap readymade salad dressings for DIY
Sure it's handy to have a ready-to-go dressing waiting in the fridge door, but store-bought dressings can cost anywhere from 60c per 100ml up to around $3 per 100ml.
It may be more economical to make your own as needed based on whatever ingredients you have in the cupboard.
Try mixing 3 tbsp olive oil or any neutral-flavoured oil, 1 tbsp of any vinegar or lemon juice, some salt and pepper and a little mustard or other flavourings such as chopped up herbs, honey, garlic or sugar.
DIY dressings will be free of the preservatives you often find in readymade dressings, you can still make them ahead of time as they keep well in the fridge, and it's one less thing you have to add to your shopping list (plus no packaging to dispose of).
3. Swap your favourite brand for a cheaper alternative
If you regularly buy the same branded product, perhaps it's time for a cheap change.
We regularly compare a wide range of premium household products with their cheaper counterparts to determine which come out on top for taste and value.
Coles and Woolworths stock multiple tiers of house brands (also known as private labels or own brands), while Aldi has famously built its whole business around them.
Not only are house brands usually cheaper, they've also improved in quality – dramatically.
Our food taste tests reveal these once-bottom-shelf brands often score very well and sometimes even win our taste tests, outshining more premium products for a fraction of the price. See which house brands and products come out on top.
4. Swap standard produce for 'ugly' fruit and veg
Did you know that until recently a quarter of all fruit and vegetables grown by our farmers never made it into stores simply because they were a bit misshapen? The good news is that at most major supermarkets you can now buy this imperfect produce for up to half price.
At Harris Farm, this range of produce is called 'Imperfect Picks', Woolworths call it 'The Odd Bunch' and at Coles, look for the 'I'm Perfect' range. If you look past a few little bumps or knobbly bits, you can make significant savings, and what does it matter what your potatoes look like if you're going to mash them up?
A downside of buying produce this way is that it's often bagged in plastic (at Harris Farm, there are specific coloured bags you use when selecting loose 'ugly' veg).
Most of the major supermarkets have a range of 'imperfect' fresh produce they sell at discounted prices.
5. Swap chicken breasts for a whole chicken or drumsticks
It's no secret that some cuts of meat are more expensive than others. Mixing up your recipe repertoire and opting for alternatives every now and again can mean significant savings.
Buy cheaper cuts of meat – osso bucco, beef chuck steak, short ribs and lamb shanks, for example – that you can slow cook (see Best cuts of meat for slow cooking).
Boneless chicken breast fillets are the most expensive cut of chicken so if this is a regular addition to your basket, try alternating with drumsticks, wings or roasting a whole chicken instead (which you make further use of by using the carcass to make a stock).
A current cost comparison at major supermarket shows that drumsticks are around three times cheaper than chicken breasts and whole chickens are around half the price per kilogram.
If your favourite fruits are not in season, it's likely more economical to buy them frozen.
6. Swap scarce fruit and veg for plentiful
Poor conditions such as heavy rainfall, unseasonal weather and supply issues have caused havoc with the availability of Australian fresh produce over the past year, which has hugely affected the price tags we are seeing in the supermarket.
Lettuce became a luxury commodity, people started panic buying potatoes and blueberries are currently the lowest price we've seen in a long time at around $2 a punnet. If you keep on top of what's not only in season but what is plentiful and available, you can stock up on the best-value produce while it's at a low price.
Get intel from your local greengrocer or grower's market, or check out supermarket websites for updates on produce availability, including which fruit and vegetables are currently at their best and likely to be good value. Check out the Woolworths Fresh Market Update, and the weekly update from Harris Farm.
Some fruits and vegetables have small windows for when they're abundantly available, and buying things when they're out of season or suffering a shortage can get very expensive. Remember that frozen or tinned versions of your favourite produce are great-value alternatives to fresh produce and are just as nutritionally beneficial.
7. Swap your supermarket
The CHOICE 2021 supermarket shopping basket price comparison survey, named Aldi as the cheapest supermarket, with our research showing that you could save up to 54% on a shopping basket of 29 regular household items. Aldi was also the cheapest supermarket in our previous surveys in 2015 and 2017.
Our results showed that there is not a huge price difference between Coles, Woolworths and IGA, but that's not to say you can't switch your shop between different supermarkets or shop at multiple supermarkets at once to take advantage of specials on the products you regularly buy.
To keep track of regular specials, download the supermarket shopping apps on your phone and have a browse before you decide where to shop that week. You can also browse weekly catalogues and sign up to emails to be notified of specials on your favourite products.
8. Swap small for big (check unit prices)
If you have the storage space, shopping by unit price at your supermarket and buying the larger products that often cost less per unit can save you hundreds or even thousands on your annual grocery bill.
For example, consider a 2kg packet of rice for $4.80, and a 1kg packet for $3. The first packet has a unit price of 24c per 100g, the second is 30c per 100g – so the product with the higher packet price is the better deal.
The Queensland Consumer Association found at the time of their research that fresh chillies can cost $125 per kg when bought in a 20g package, but only $9 per kg when bought loose. And a national brand of cornflakes can cost $1.13 per 100g in a small pack, but just 38c per 100g in a large pack.
Find out more about how to shop using unit pricing.
Grow your own herbs to save buying plastic-wrapped herbs for up to $3 per bunch.
9. Swap fresh herbs for grown-at-home
A bunch of fresh parsley from major supermarkets costs around $3 or more – and who knows how long it's been sitting on the shelf before you take it home, and therefore how long it's going to last sitting in your crisper drawer.
But the cost of snipping some fresh parsley from a window box or out of the garden? Free, plus no waste and no plastic required!
10. Swap kids' packaged snacks for homemade alternatives
If you have kids or toddlers, chances are you're always on the hunt for snack options for lunchboxes or afternoon munchies. Individually packaged snacks marketed at busy parents are not only often nutritionally poor options but they're pricey, too.
Try popping your own popcorn instead of buying popcorn multipacks, or keep a tub of hummus in the fridge to serve with plain crackers and carrot sticks.
Squeezy yoghurt pouches are handy snack options for kids but can cost up to $2.20 each – a cheaper alternative is to buy large pots of natural yoghurt and blend with fruit yourself (this option is additive-free and likely lower in sugar, too).
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.