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

Grocery shopping during the pandemic 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 more affected than others, with the virus initially shutting down all restaurants in almost all 50 states. But as we navigate into the third year of the pandemic, grocery shopping and at-home cooking continues – as does the trend of online grocery shopping.

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 surged. According to November 2021 data, 51% of shoppers began buying groceries online after the start of the pandemic. Of those shoppers, nearly one quarter plan to continue shopping online for groceries over the next year (and given the uncertainty surrounding new COVID variants, we might see even more change in the coming weeks and months).

The attractiveness of this shopping method is understandable; it minimizes human contact and is convenient since groceries can be delivered straight to your door. Additionally, there are many options from which to choose – from delivery services offered by grocery stores directly to Amazon Fresh to subscription services and more.

Curbside pickup

Another service that’s gained 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 during the pandemic. “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 and carry-out

For many consumers who are used to eating out and avoiding cooking, delivery and carry-out from restaurants has become the answer.

In fact, an October 2021 report found that 27% of people are ordering carry-out more now compared to before the pandemic. And despite vaccine access, recent trends in COVID cases have led 50% of people to report they intend to fully transition to food delivery and carry-out or completely stop eating out.

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 service fees.

Meal kit subscriptions

During the first months of the pandemic, the popularity of meal kit delivery services dramatically increased – and this is expected to continue even after the pandemic ends. 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

A 2020 Bankrate survey 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 currently does not offer grocery rewards, but its sister card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, offers 3X points on online grocery purchases (excluding Walmart, Target and wholesale clubs).

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 track of what you 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 you can use used for a variety of meals, including casseroles, stews and more, which you can use 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 of 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 the fee seems high, consider shopping in bulk and choose foods that can be frozen or have a longer shelf life.

Safe shopping during COVID

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. 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 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 2020 survey also 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 local stores, it’s a good idea to keep your card clean.

“… 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 the household budget. To keep yourself and your finances safe, be both 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.

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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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