Why do I always spend more than I mean to at the grocery store?

By Stephanie BankIllustration of Stephanie Bank

Good question. Groceries are one of the largest line items in any household budget. According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian household spends just over $500 a month on groceries. Does that number seem low or high to you? Whatever our spending patterns, this fact seems to be universal: We always wind up spending more money and buying more unhealthy foods than we intend to at the grocery store. Before you beat yourself up about it, you should know that supermarkets are filled with traps designed to influence you. (Spoiler alert: That mouth-watering aroma of chocolate chip cookies is in the air for a reason.) Luckily for our wallets, and our waistlines, I think I can dispel some of the sneaky tricks and share a few insider tips to equip you with all you need to know for your next trip to the store.

Insider tip No. 1: Eat before you shop

Science has proven this old tip to be true. It’s a real test of self-control to roam through aisles of food with a rumbling stomach, as revealed by a 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Brian Wansink and his colleagues at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab did an experiment demonstrating that shoppers on an empty stomach purchase 19% more food and, more importantly, purchase 45% more calories than those who had scarfed down some crackers before they shopped!

Following this tip will also make you less susceptible to another trick grocery stores have up their sleeves: the aroma of freshly prepared foods. Grocery stores take advantage of our sense of smell by artificially manipulating the aroma in the store. Even if you manage to hightail your cart past the premade pizzas and baked goods at the front of the store, studies have shown the scent of bread baking succeeds in tempting us to buy more than we planned.

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Insider tip No. 2: Bring a playlist

Not only do grocery stores use smell to influence behaviour, they use many other sensory tactics to design a particular environment in favour of generating sales. In the 1970s, business professor Philip Kotler referred to this as “atmospherics.” Kotler believed that the general atmosphere of a retail experience could play a much greater role in the decision to purchase then the products themselves.

You may want to bring your headphones along with your grocery list since most stores intentionally play slow music to make you linger the aisles and in turn purchase more food. A seminal study by Ronald E. Milliman published in the Journal of Marketing found that in comparison to no music and fast music, slow music caused shoppers to stay in the store longer and purchase 39% more food! Plus, just think how much faster you’ll finish your shopping if you bring your gym beats to the store.

Insider tip No. 3: Be wary of promotions

A promotion might seem like a great way to save, but in reality, it’s likely designed to encourage you to spend. In 1998, Wansink and his colleagues conducted four studies of 89 supermarkets with thousands of consumers and found that promotions using multi-unit pricing (“3 for $3”), purchase limits (“12 per person”) and simple suggestive selling (“buy 10 for your freezer”) lead consumers to spend twice as much as planned.

Psychologists refer to this as Anchoring, our tendency to rely on the first piece of information when making decisions. We usually buy one product at a time but when promotions anchor quantities on a higher number, we shift our reference point and end up buying more. Ever been a victim of this scenario? You see a bright colored tag that says “2 for $5” and decide to stock up before catching that the regular price is $2.50. It’s not your fault. The bright colored sign suggested it was a deal and that was all you needed to know. Try countering these tactics by using your smartphone to calculate the per unit price. “Buy one, get the second 50% off” isn’t as great a deal as it sounds — it’s only 25% off each item.

Insider tip No. 4: Stay away from the sample lady

If you follow my first and second tip, you’ll have more success following this one. Offering product samples is a popular promotional strategy used by many companies. They do it because it works. Research has shown that free samples encourage people to buy products they wouldn’t normally purchase, boosting sales by as much as 2,000%. And who among us hasn’t felt guilted into buying a jar of salsa they didn’t need under the piercing gaze of the sample lady?

This can be explained by a behavioural driver known as Reciprocity: We have a very strong biological instinct to give back to those who do something for us, even if it’s just putting a toothpick into a piece of a hotdog. Samples also work by making cravings more salient, which explains why one bite of ice cream on a tiny spoon usually turns into two scoops in a waffle cone. Resist!

Insider tip No. 5: Consider the “cabinet castaways”

This last tip is pretty basic. Before heading to the grocery store, take stock of what’s hiding in the back of your pantry. People usually underestimate what they have at home and end up buying more than they need. Better yet, rotate the things in the back of the pantry to the front. Instead of re-stocking your chickpeas, use up the black beans you keep forgetting about. Research published in the Journal of Family and Consumer Science has shown that most unused products were actually bought for specific recipes that were never made (such as make-your-own-sushi night). They end up “cabinet castaways.”

Dig around in your freezer and cabinets. You may find you’ve got the ingredients for an easy meal or three already in your kitchen. After all, the best way to save at the grocery store is to not step foot in one to begin with.

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