As a quick on-the-go snack, granola bars are pretty efficient. That’s all they are, though, as they have nowhere near the same nutritional value as the cereal they’re meant to replace. Most of the soluble grain fiber is lost in the process and, to keep them low calorie and addictive, they’re filled with sugars like high-fructose corn syrup.
Bottled water in general is something you should try and avoid. Ignoring the insane markup on what is, by definition, just tap water through nicer pipes, marketers will try all sorts to get you to shell out. Alkaline water is a good example, claiming several health benefits that physically can not be true, as stomach acid immediately neutralizes the alkaline anyway.
Grocery store tools will be the cheapest a manufacturer can get away with and are usually sold in sets to increase perceived savings. The knives are dull and rickety, the teflon is low-grade and dangerous – degrading into the food you cook. You’ll get way further with one mid-range chef’s knife than you will with a set of multicolor monstrosities.
“Big Cereal” brands
Cereal tends to be one of the first foods hit by inflation. Part of it is demand side, as economic anxiety makes people worry so they stock up on shelf-stable, simple, and cheap ingredients. The other side is, of course, simple price gouging on essential foods, something cereal brands are notorious for. The ingredients matter much more than the box, it’s all about the grains!
Even for those who struggle with dexterity issues, there are better alternatives to pre-sliced veggies. You could pay up to three times as much per ounce as you would for the fresh ones, and the excess packaging isn’t great for the planet. Invest in a one-time purchase for something like a mini-processor and start meal-prepping – you’ll save money and time.
These are a life essential for parents, who know that impromptu grocery store trips after an accident, or several, absolutely suck. You’re limited on choice and price-gouged through the roof for grocery store packages, which it feels like somebody should be in prison for. Bulk will always be cheaper, but if you lack the funds, search online and search for voucher codes.
It’s rarely worth buying your alcohol from a grocery store. While it is cheaper than an equal volume would be at the bar, you’re still being robbed by the ghosts of prohibition. Buying in bulk will save you about 20% on average for beers and wines, and possibly more for liquors, if that’s your poison.
Anything containing boxed flours, like cakes and waffle mixes, is pretty outstanding quality-wise. The way they hydrogenate the flours and sugars with oil gives you a consistency that home baking just can’t match. For pancake mixes, this all falls apart. It’s not that they’re bad beyond being expensive, but pancakes are a recipe everybody should know!
America is unique among grocery store sandwich-loving countries. The UK, Germany, and Japan all love their ready-sliced snacks because they’re so reliant on public transport! The holy grail of a German bread artist is getting their place set up near or in a train station. The States copied their prices but forgot the goods. Sad!
Salad dressing gets a lot of smack as a concept, beyond the fact that the store bottles are so bad for you. Some people don’t like the taste of lettuce and spinach, and that’s fine! Vegetables can be super mild, and a homemade vinaigrette of good olive oil, lemon, some type of vinegar, and mustard is still a dressing, if healthy and delicious.
This doesn’t mean out of date, those are very different things, one is nature and the other is the store trying to get you to throw away a good cantaloupe. Summer fruits are more expensive out of season and have had to travel across the world to reach the shelf. Freezer fruit picked and flash-frozen at its freshest, is cheaper and extremely versatile.
Alkaline water with lemon
The extra lemon warrants its place on the list aside from “normal” alkaline water. The pH scale is measured logarithmically, where acids are ten times more acidic than a corresponding alkali would be in alkalinity. Any amount of lemon that’s enough to taste would neutralize the solution in the can before your stomach acid ever gets to touch it.
Here’s a guilt-free permission pass to buy snacks while being responsible. Individual candy bars, bags of potato chips, nuts, and whatever snack food you can imagine, are cheaper bought as a multipack. That’s part of the problem, but what you make up for in savings you will have to double up for in willpower to pace yourself.
Spices and seasoning
Dried spices are a kitchen essential, but anything other than blends like herbs de province or Chinese five-spice is probably worth looking elsewhere for. The quality is fine, but the quantities and the fact you’re paying for a glass container most of the time, means they add up. You can sometimes buy great quality spices at 90% lower prices in world food stores.
As a general rule, anything that stacks neatly into a big box will be cheaper to buy in bulk, and pet food is no exception. The fewer the portions, the more expensive the cat food gets, and although they do often deserve a fancy treat in a tin, they aren’t the ones paying the mortgage. Online subscriptions will save you money and effort.
In the age of rechargeable controllers, batteries have been left by the wayside. They’re still essential for a lot of people though, which makes it a tragedy that they have shot up around 60% in price. That’s specific to grocery stores, however. Hardware and home stores are always the best places to go for power and watts.
Nobody likes grating cheese, it’s laborious and graters do not look like something designed to be around fingers. Pre-shredded cheese is not the answer, though. Some additives aren’t good for you, but it’s also coated in potato starch to stop it from sticking together, which means awful melting! What’s the point?
Shampoo and toiletries
Grocery stores seem to be a gateway to an alternate dimension, where a branded bottle costs upwards of $4 and a bottle with a name like shamp-agne is $0.49 and somehow still not worth it. Big-box stores like Walmart and Target offer better names at reasonable prices, and often drug stores carry some of the best deals.
The effects of vitamin supplements are yet to be conclusively proven, but they’re probably not doing you any harm. In terms of your health, that is, grocery stores tend to outprice even the most extortionate online pill sales reps. A vitamin is a vitamin, the branding will have zero effect and far cheaper alternatives are out there.
It’s getting harder to be a savvy consumer, not everybody has the time and money to blow on a marketing degree to keep up with what companies are allowed to get away with. It means different things to different people, and nothing about the product, which is often just perceived as cleaner and better.
Skinny/Fat -Free alternatives
Don’t worry, the scam isn’t that they’re lying about the calorie count. In reality, calories are given far too much importance compared to the other 99% of the product, and, while you’ll pack on a few fewer micrograms, a lot of flavors come from fats. That means they’ll have to make up for it with sugars and additives.
Zero-calorie energy drinks
Again, it’s not that these are necessarily lying to you, they just don’t have to explain the science on the can – there’s no room thanks to all the ingredients! Calories are just a measure of how much energy we receive from digesting something, and artificial sweeteners aren’t digestible. So there’s no sugar but, on balance, sweeteners all come with their own issues.
More science, yay. Part of the reason we don’t know if supplements work is that, when you remove things like antioxidants and vitamins from their natural context, it isn’t clear they behave the same way as it changes the way we digest and absorb them. Some minerals like iron can have a small effect but you’re always better off getting these things from fruit and vegetables.
In an act of psychological warfare that rivals Young Sheldon, baked goods just make you want to spend money. Stores know this, estate agents know this, we all know this. The ingredients involved in cookies are dirt cheap and they’re easy to make, but take the most precious resource of all… time. This means that grocery stores can get away with a huge markup!
Over The Counter medication
When you have the variety and convenient location of most grocery stores, you can get away with pricing up items people buy on a whim that they’ll probably need later. Cough medicines, painkillers, and contraceptives, they stock all the basic necessities at between 15-30% higher prices than drug stores and off-brand labels.
In perhaps the birth of the term “artificial scarcity”, the first lightbulb was capable of burning many times longer than the one that made it to market. It was forced to die early to manufacture a continued need. Younger generations defy this trend by never having spares, which is how grocery stores can justify selling them at a 60% markup.
Almost certainly due to marketing’s influence on the brain, we associate a food’s aesthetics with its quality as a source of fuel. The fact any food can be considered ‘dirty’ when, for millions of years, every bit of nutrition we consumed was dirty, leads to a lot of unnecessary food waste. Often, the slightly out-of-shape produce will be specifically marked down to combat this.
Store-brand honey is cheap enough to produce and popular enough as a product to be a loss leader in many supermarkets. That means they can sell the product for less than they bought it for, knowing they will recover the value through the rest of your cart. All-natural honey is good for you in moderation – anything tacked on to that is a waste.
The value-for-money proposition posed by pre-packaged salads is already a red flag. They often cost around 40% more than one you prepare yourself, and at least then you know what goes into your toppings. Grocery store tuna mayo, croutons, and the aforementioned dressings, will all saturate the salad beyond saving.
While they’re often priced quite affordably, that’s a trap to get you caught in the cheap goods cycle! Make-up brushes are cheap and easy to manufacture at low quality, which is why the rickety handles are present fresh out of the bag. The bristle density means you have to pack on more product for even coverage – what a waste!
Traders sharing a shop floor is a long and noble tradition that takes advantage of concepts still used in business discussions, like industrial inertia. It makes sense to set up a shop inside a shop if you both share customer bases, but grocery stores have sullied their ancestors by charging 50% more for their salty sliced gold versus a dedicated butchery.
Having sung the benefits of the invention of freezer technology, the frozen part isn’t the problem here. You could make a great meal with entirely frozen ingredients, frozen (or TV) dinners are nowhere close to this. To keep everything nice and stable, they’re filled with trans fats, corn syrup, and all sorts of chemicals you’ve probably never heard of.
While Kraft singles are inexpensive and unparalleled in their melting power, the same doesn’t hold for all sliced cheese. Kraft singles aren’t really cheese either, which is how they can be so affordable. For anything north of cheddar, though, buying in slices is throwing money away. Blocks are the most convenient and affordable way to get your fix.
Coffee can be expensive wherever you go, with prices only increasing across its many delicious and awakening forms. Machine and cafe coffee can carry around an 80% markup, because who’s going to turn one down in a moment of grocery store-induced weakness? Instant coffee is cheaper, but great home coffee requires investing in some equipment.
Because Congress refuse to install a giant fishing pole that can reel Alaskan Salmon in from Lincoln, Nebraska, all fresh fish will have been frozen after capture. Unless you’re eating it that day, you’re wasting money on food that’s already starting to expire. Frozen fish, or the fish that remain frozen, is cheaper and longer lasting.
Anything holiday related
This includes greeting cards, heart-shaped balloons, and cuddly bears. Especially the cuddly bears, who can strut their way out for basically any holiday as long as they swap out the text on his rip-off stomach. These are usually so front and center in-store layout they are impossible to miss, but anywhere else will be cheaper.
A basic red pasta sauce is maybe the most substantial and economical meal you can make and requires little to no real skill. A combination of marketing and over-design have made ready pasta sauces around four times more expensive than the ingredients would be. You can also make so much pasta sauce with them that you’ll rarely want to eat it again!
All wine is cooking wine. Chef’s like to say “Only cook with something you would want to drink” but even that’s too far an overcorrection. You know what your wine tastes like, and you know what your food tastes like and what it will need. Specific wines made for cooking, like mirin, are closer to vinegar.
Minced garlic is often quite inexpensive, but is still a lot more than garlic would be per clove. The advantages it offers are also pretty scarce. It has a longer shelf life overall, but once opened won’t outlive a head of garlic. The preserving pickle also dilutes a lot of the flavor and the excellent nutritional value of the garlic.
This is another instance where bulk buys will always save you money, and the fact that it’s true should put somebody in prison. After 2021/22’s formula shortage, mark-ups hovered around 11-20% on baby food. You can make great quality baby food at home with quite simple tools and ingredients, that you also get to enjoy.
Pre-packaged steaks sometimes have a sticker saying “added water” or sometimes saline, which is pumped into the meat to make it big, bright, and more expensive by the pound. The red liquid looks like blood, which implies freshness, but it’s just water mixing with iron from the animal’s myoglobin, a protein that forms muscle. Iron turns red when it oxidizes, hence the color.
Low-cost fruit juice
One of the reasons people don’t get enough vitamins is that we assume we get more than we actually do. Many parents have to rely on low-cost solutions to provide proper nutrition for their children, and fruit is expensive. Fruit juice, logically, should also be expensive, but the costs stay low because you don’t have to declare water content, and sugar is cheap.
Extra-virgin olive oil
This is another “Well technically…” situation that marketers love. True extra-virgin oil is made from the first cold press of olives. It’s delicious and good for you, so how could every bottle of this on Earth have come from a first press? Well, you only need a certain percent of extra-virgin to slap the label on, then it gets cut with other oils.
Anything by the cashier
Unless it’s something top shelf and cherry-oak aged they’re keeping behind that counter, nothing in this area of the store is worth buying and they know that. It’s why they’re so numerous and cheap, you’re already in the horrifying psychological state known as spending money, so these impulse buys are best avoided together to save money.
Making shelf-stable dairy products usually requires some kind of ultra-high temperature processing or UHT, but that does ruin the taste a little. Whipped cream needs to taste fresh and sweet, so it’s stabilized with palm oils, corn syrups, and other sugars, which makes them so much worse for you than home whipped cream. They’re easier on the forearm, though.
This one sits apart from other shredded cheeses as a waste of money. Parmesan crumbles too finely to use potato starch as an anti-clumping agent, instead they use cellulose. That’s the molecule that makes up most plant matter and it’s completely harmless since we don’t even digest it, but it packs on weight so you get even less for your money.
The adage “If it comes from nature, it’s good for you” is a little reductive, earthquakes are completely natural but you don’t get much nutritional benefit from tectonic collision. Nor do you from our familiar friend high fructose corn syrup, which is the main ingredient in most big brand syrups. Real maple syrup has a lot of good minerals, treat yourself.
This is really a case of there just being no benefit to their exorbitant price. Scallops are around 75% water, only 15% more than us, which gets pumped up around 85% to make them plump for display. There have also been cases of fresh display scallops containing less meat than frozen ones. Overall, this is an issue solved by freezing technology.
Anything in a measurement you don’t recognize
It’s possible that every stereotype of America’s aversion to everything un-American is a result of companies just trying to trick a few extra dollars out of you. It’s ridiculous we have to learn the difference between ounces, pints, and quarts, because Big Dairy knows that we don’t want to, and so sell things with different measurements to make deducing the price by weight a chore.
Products at eye-level
Grocery stores can get away with using incredibly basic psychology because people become very predictable when they shop there. It’s a utilitarian activity, you want to get in and out quickly, and so for your convenience all the most expensive products are at eye level. They do the same thing at pet stores, the tubes always go past the hamster snacks.
The big-wigs know that if potato chips reach a certain price point, there will be no containing the civil unrest. To avoid this, the chips stay cheap and the dips skyrocket. This applies to guac too, the ingredients would be much, much cheaper individually, but are the tomatoes and red wine vinegars sat next to the Doritos?
Unless you have nerves of steel, stopping for a tasty morsel of fats, carbs, and sugars while your body is burning energy is going to end with you wasting money. Of course you deserve the treat, cubed foods are all delicious, but the samples are often high-quality goods, and they don’t mind splashing the money because they know how to reel people in.
Carving a whole bird can be daunting if you’ve never tried it before, and as prices keep rising people are only buying the cheaper cuts, instead of the whole bird that’s just outside their price range. Value for money is a different metric, and a whole chicken can feed you for an entire week without repeating a meal. Watch some online tutorials to get you started.
If you’re so luxurious, what are you doing in this Dollar General? Grocery chains know their audiences, and they wouldn’t buy these expensive, “luxury” alternatives to own-brand products if they cost what they imply. If the difference between two products is a dollar, and one has black packaging and gold writing, then you’re paying for a cool box.
“Locally” sourced goods
Somewhere around 25% of consumers have a strong desire to shop locally, and that’s a fantastic attitude. In grocery store terminology, locally sourced just means that something in the product came from the area. It could be a local artisan, or it could be a business that just happen to have a location nearby, so none of that money is trickling down anywhere.
10 for $10 deals
You probably don’t need ten-foot pumps, but you’re throwing away money if you don’t buy and take advantage of those savings right? Well, sort of yes, actually. Many stores use bulk-buy sign discounts when the units themselves are priced down individually. It’s always worth checking, as many people just assume you need ten of them to qualify for the lower rate.
The popularity of cheap, convenient dried meals like instant ramen led to all sorts of other carb-based spin-offs. Ramen noodles are difficult to make at home, It’s a huge process that involves chemical irritants to alkalize the dough, which gives it that delicious bouncy texture. Packet rice is more expensive than instant ramen despite it being much easier and cheaper to make yourself.
Nobody goes out with truffle oil on their shopping list, that’s how they get you. It’s such a luxury-sounding ingredient because traditionally it very much is. Truffles are rare, and native to very specific tree roots across the world. The oil you’ll find in grocery stores is often olive oil saturated with truffle, which is a much less expensive process than the markup suggests.
Nuts of all kinds generally carry a pretty heavy price tag. We’ve gotten good at artificially creating the kinds of conditions that let us grow vegetables where they don’t normally, but trees are much more complex. That scarcity keeps the cost high, but trail mix is sold in such tiny packages that the cost per ingredient becomes beyond unreasonable.
This has become as common in some chains as stock cubes are and does deserve some of its higher price tag. It does have collagen from the animal bones, but often only a small percent you could get elsewhere, and is around four to five times more expensive than even liquid bullion. Just like the other stock market, these numbers don’t make sense.