The Struggling Student Rants—Grocery Shopping while Hungry

Don't Do It!

The Struggling Student Rants—Grocery Shopping while Hungry

Our family is on a strict budget to make progress with our debt reduction plan—this includes sticking to our grocery budget, of course.  We decide on a set amount to spend for groceries each month, withdraw the cash on the first day of the month, and that is the exact amount we spend for food and household products in our home.  If we don’t control our buying habits throughout the month, we may end up eating KD® and instant noodles for days, and we have done this in the past.

When you have university tuition costs to consider, you have to be firm with how you spend your bucks.  There are many ways to tackle the grocery beast, which can get out of hand without even realizing it if you don’t stay on top of things.  This can include old-fashioned pantry challenges, coupon wars, using apps like Ibotta (the replacement for old-style couponing), and getting cash back on certain items through apps like Ebates and Checkout51.  All of these are topics for discussion on another day.  Last weekend, however, we made the cardinal error of going grocery shopping on an empty stomach.  I had just written an AU exam on Saturday morning, we were both starving, and the only food in the house was the puppy’s dry kibble and a random can of tuna.  I decided to act against my better judgement since I thought we both knew better and could act like adults.  It turns out we can’t; we should have just stopped for a quick bite to eat beforehand.  Halfway through our shopping trip, we were both resisting the urge to split open the hot dog buns in our cart, unwrap the sliced ham we had just picked up from the deli, and go to town in the middle of aisle six.  I could just hear the store manager blasting through the speakers, “Attention all shoppers, use of display microwaves and plastic plates in-store is strictly prohibited.  Violators will be escorted out of the premises.”  If you think I’m being extreme, and reckon you can handle yourself like an adult after a twelve-hour fast, I challenge you.

A 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medic showed some interesting outcomes.  As most of us would expect, the hungry participants in this study chose a higher number of higher-calorie foods.  Also, shoppers at higher-hunger hours (between 4:00-7:00 PM) bought less lower-calorie foods.  This was compared with shopping at lower-hunger hours, such as after lunch (between 1:00-4:00 PM).  In other words, people who shopped when they were hungrier tended to buy less healthy foods compared to overall purchases (Tal & Wansink, 2013).  However, what was more interesting was that hungry shoppers bought more items in general, not just food items – talk about racking up a steep tab at the checkout counter.  While a notice of Retraction was published on this research letter, on September 19, 2018, I still tend to believe the results do have some credence.  My family is a prime example of this.  So, before you do decide to go grocery shopping, even if you don’t have a chance to grab a bite beforehand, you should have a line of attack to defeat the budget beast.

One good habit is to have your week’s menu planned out and the corresponding shopping list in hand.  This way, you can walk in with a strategy and there is much less chance of walking out the proud owner of twenty loaves of bread.  Another way to tackle the problem of being a broke and struggling student is to be prepared when venturing out for groceries.  You may be thinking to yourself that it’s just grocery shopping, but you need to be prepared with patience.

Nevertheless, there’s more to it than that.  Have you ever ran into a grocery store to pick up just one or two items and walked out with a cart full of things?  It’s happened to all of us, and it’s no accident.  In fact, it’s considered a win for the sales and marketing teams; grocery shopping, from start to finish, is deviously orchestrated.  The marketing team has their eye on you, and they’re armed and ready.  The shopping experience is strategized and planned out for every shopper before most consumers even know they will be a shopper.  From the minute we grab the oversized grocery cart (to fill it with more items than we intend to) and walk through the doors, we are greeted by an arrangement of seasonal items.  Things like frosted Christmas tree cookies in December, chocolate hearts and bonbons in February, chocolate bunnies at Easter, S’mores kits in July, are all intended to act as a speed bump.  They make you slow down and think about which dainties you can have as a treat on the way home, as a reward for taking the whole clan with you to get this week’s food items.  Also, I don’t know about you, but I will confess I’ve snacked on something while in-store and then paid for it by scanning the empty wrapper when checking out.

Once you move past all the seasonal treats, more often than not you’ll find yourself in the produce section, filled with fruit, vegetables, and flowers.  All this isn’t first in your path to encourage you to buy more of it.  They place it there to make you feel like a responsible, healthy adult and to stimulate the senses.  Fresh produce will be the first thing you see because the “happy” shapes and colours will put you in a good mood.  The result is a happier shopper, who also tends to spend more cash.  According to Martin Lindström, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, the periodic sprays of fresh water that douse the produce are just for show.  Lindström says, “Those sprinkler-like drops serve as a symbolic, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity” (2012).  When all the fruits, veggies, and good intentions have found their way into your shopping cart, you then proceed to feel good about your choices.  Which means you’re more likely to cave in and buy the less healthy items you will now find throughout the store.

There are multitudes of marketing strategies you may not be aware of, which do affect our buying habits.  Things like strategic shelving and eye-level product placement, sample and display tables, rewards systems, and dozens of others I came across made me feel a bit vulnerable and targeted.  While researching for this article, I realized that I rather enjoyed learning about the various marketing ploys organizations use.  If anything, it made me feel more aware and empowered.  I looked into AU’s Marketing (MKTG) 396 – Introduction to Marketing and Marketing (MKTG) 406 – Consumer Behaviour and added them to my list as potential electives.  I believe courses like these can be both enjoyable and do benefit us in the real world.

You might be the one in the family that is good at keeping your self-control intact and tend to stick to your grocery list.  However, when you go shopping with your kids, or significant other, there’s a better chance you’ll buy items that aren’t on your list.  One option to avoid the pressure significant others and children can put on a grocery budget is to go solo.  It might be less fun, or it might be a blessing.  When I go solo, I end up saving both money and time; I’m in and out carrying exactly what I need.  Another option, which I have yet to try, is online grocery shopping.  I have many friends that swear this method saves both their busy schedules and their sanity.  You choose what you need on your PC or smartphone, and then opt to have your groceries either delivered to your home, or you can drive by and pick them up at a set day and time that you’ve pre-booked.  Using this method, you decide what’s in your cart, period.  There are no temptations to dodge and you can keep track of your total bill throughout the whole process.  If you do go over your budget and don’t realize it until you get to your online shopping cart, you can make the necessary adjustments.  Something many of us hesitate to do at a physical checkout counter.  Your order is then brought to you straight to your car at the arranged time or delivered to your front door and onto your kitchen countertops.  There may be a pickup or delivery fee, which may be approximately five or ten dollars, but that’s pennies compared to the grief you will save from blowing the budget like you would have otherwise.  At the end of the day, when it comes to how you spend your hard-earned dollars, don’t be afraid to spend a buck, if it will save you ten.

Tal, A., & Wansink, B.  (2013).  Fattening Fasting: Hungry Grocery Shoppers Buy More Calories, Not More Food.  JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(12), 1146. /jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1685889
Lindström, M.  (2012).  Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy (1st ed.).  New York: Crown Business.  Retrieved from
%d bloggers like this: