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Grocery shopping and COVID-19: What’s changed and how to save money

Grocery shopping in the COVID-19 era is different, and oftentimes more expensive


Amid product shortages and long lines to enter stores, consumers are adjusting to their new grocery shopping routines. Here’s how to make sure yours keeps you safe – and saves you money.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every layer of American life, from people’s individual routines to entire industries.

The food industry has arguably been affected more than others. The pandemic initially shut down all restaurants in almost all 50 states. While many have since reopened, the restaurant industry as a whole was still down 16% in 2020 compared to 2019.

This has led to an influx of people buying groceries and cooking at home. After rushing to the stores to stock up on essentials amid shortages of products like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and meat, consumers have settled on buying groceries less frequently. Shopping once a week or more has declined 20% since the pandemic began, with 37% of shoppers reporting spending more on each grocery trip, according to research from July 2020.

With all the changes caused by COVID-19, it’s essential for consumers to adjust their grocery shopping habits to stay safe and save money in this rough economic climate.

The evolution of buying groceries

Technology and convenience have changed the way people are shopping for their groceries. Stores are doing what they can to meet shoppers’ needs and keep them safe during the health crisis. Today, it’s possible to shop for groceries without setting foot in a grocery store.

Online shopping

As the pandemic hit, the percentage of people shopping for groceries online has surged. According to a consumer survey conducted by Brick Meets Click, 61% of households purchased groceries online in June 2020. This number was up 34% compared to the pre-pandemic level.

The attractiveness of this shopping method is understandable. It minimizes human contact, making it a socially-distanced option. It’s convenient since groceries get delivered straight to your door. Finally, there are many options to choose from, from delivery services offered by stores to Amazon Fresh to subscription services.

Curbside pickup

Another service that’s been gaining momentum is curbside pickup. While you still have to drive to the store to pick up your groceries, you don’t need to walk inside, which minimizes contact. Not to mention, it’s a good way to save on delivery fees.

“Curbside pickup and delivery have become increasingly popular, and it is the solution we’ve chosen every week for the last few months,” says financial coach Jonathan Hess, discussing how his family has handled grocery shopping amid COVID-19. “We don’t have to worry about being in contact with anyone who might unknowingly have contracted the virus, and we’re able to save some time traveling and walking through the aisles that can be better spent elsewhere.”

Food delivery

For many consumers who are used to eating out and avoiding cooking, delivery has become an answer. A Bankrate survey conducted in April 2020 found 28% of respondents had prepared food delivered.

While this is a convenient way to get food that minimizes both human contact and time spent in the kitchen, it might be wise to consider the costs that come with it. These include not only the price of the meal itself, but delivery fees, tips and often service fees.

Meal kit subscriptions

During the first months of the pandemic, the popularity of meal kit delivery services dramatically increased. This is expected to continue long after coronavirus-induced social distancing subsides. Grand View Research speculates that this industry will grow to $19.9 billion by 2027.

Meal kits are almost always more expensive than purchasing the ingredients at the grocery store, but the right card can help you save.

How to save on grocery purchases

The same survey by Bankrate found 46% of in-person grocery shoppers paid with a credit card, 39% paid with a debit card and 15% with cash. This indicates that consumers may be struggling with covering grocery purchases.

If you’ve noticed your grocery spending has gone up and would like to bring it down, here are some helpful tips.

Use the right credit cards

Paying for your groceries with a credit card can be rewarding – if you’re using the right card.

Many rewards credit cards earn cash back or points for every transaction, but there are a few cards that offer outstanding value when you use them for grocery purchases.

See related: Best credit cards for grocery shopping

“We have been utilizing our Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express to maximize our points and saving from grocery shopping,” Hess said. “The Sapphire Reserve periodically was giving 5% cash back on groceries, redeemable for a 50% bonus, and the Amex gives 6% year-round.”

The Sapphire Reserve is currently offering 3% back on groceries through April 30, 2021.

See related: Chase Sapphire cards offering rewards, statement credits for groceries

Be strategic about your groceries

Celebrity professional chef Aaron Sanchez  appeared on a 2020 Chase Chats webcast, discussing “quarantine cuisine” – cooking tasty, but not pricey, meals.

Here are a few tips Sanchez suggested to achieve just that:

  • Budgeting best practices: With food shortages across the nation, you may need to opt for alternative items during your trip to the grocery store. For example, don’t be afraid to pick up the generic over the name brand.
  • Pantry prep: Avoiding any unnecessary trips is key, even when it comes to food shopping. Keep a careful watch on what you may already have and focus on only buying essentials, like non-perishables, with longer shelf lives.
  • Limit waste: While you may be used to buying a specific cut of meat for just one dish, consider investing in larger amounts and different cuts that can be used for a variety of meals, including casseroles, stews and more, that can be made into larger quantities for multiple meals.
  • Frozen over fresh: While you may assume that fresh ingredients are always best, frozen versions can offer the same nutrients for a reduced cost and a longer shelf life.

Find new ways to save

Saving money often requires a degree of creativity and resourcefulness.

Make sure you’re looking for savings wherever you can. For instance, take advantage of apps from stores like Target and Walmart. Such apps often have sections with discounts on grocery purchases.

See related: Guide to Ibotta

Keep an eye out for sales. Subscribe to your store ads to receive them via email and be on the lookout for deals and coupons.

If you have your groceries delivered, be mindful about delivery fees, as they can add up quickly. Stores and websites often offer a required minimum for free delivery which you can take advantage of. If it seems high, shop for a few weeks ahead to meet it, choosing foods that can be frozen or have a longer shelf life.

Safe shopping during COVID-19

If you prefer to shop for your food at a grocery store, it’s important to keep your store visits as safe as possible.

Here are a few tips that can help you with that:

  • Make a list. Making a list ahead of time can reduce the amount of time you need to be in the store. And knowing what you’re getting also makes it easier to stick to your budget.
  • Shop during non-peak hours. If possible, try to go to the store during less busy hours. This will help with social distancing and allow you to avoid long lines.
  • Wear your mask. The CDC recommends wearing masks as they may help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.
  • Follow the aisle markers. Some stores have started marking their aisles as a way to keep shoppers safe.

Keeping your credit card clean

Bankrate’s April 2020 survey found that only 10% of in-person grocery shoppers paid with a contactless method, which would be a more hygienic option. If it’s not accessible at your store, it’s a good idea to keep your card clean.

“Just this week, we launched a new study highlighting very specific trends as it relates to grocery purchases and how to shop safely,” a Visa spokesperson said. “Chief among them is credit card cleanliness.”

According to the study, consumers making card payments are not letting their guard down about the transmission of the virus. Among those who use a credit or debit card, two-thirds (67%) are taking measures to keep their card clean, including using a disinfectant on it (33%), wearing gloves while using it (23%) and wiping it off with a cloth or shirt after use (22%).

Ways to further ensure safety include:

  • Use antibacterial wipes to clean both sides of the card.
  • Don’t use harsh chemicals or abrasive materials to clean.
  • Don’t submerge the card.
  • Don’t use isopropyl alcohol, as this could compromise elements on your card.

Bottom line

The pandemic has changed the way people shop for groceries, and for many it can put a strain on a household budget. To keep yourself – and your finances – safe, be mindful and strategic about your grocery shopping. Old habits die hard, but creating new positive ones will help you spend less on the foods you love and keep yourself and your family safe from the virus.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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