Food Shopping: The Jarring Truth

Why is it that the odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with ONLY a loaf of bread are about three billion to one?

Food prices in the U.S. have climbed so dramatically in recent months, a stroll through the aisles of a typical supermarket is enough to kill your appetite. If that were the only place we spent our food dollars that would be one thing. But most families these days spend as much eating out as they do for food to prepare at home.

indecisive woman standing in grocery aisle holding an empty red grocery baske

It’s no secret that supermarkets and grocery stores purposely design their layouts to entice us to buy lots more than we’d planned to purchase when we walked through the door, but shoppers are not victims. It all boils down to the choices we make—not just for what we buy but when we buy it.

There must be dozens of ways to shop for groceries, and I’m certain I’ve tried them all. But when it comes right down to it, every possible method falls into one of two categories—needs shopping or reserve shopping.

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The Top 12 Shopping Triggers and How to Outsmart Them

I blame my suspicious nature on my neighborhood grocery store. The store used to be a logically arranged market with bright lights and clean floors—a basic, friendly, functional place to shop.

grocery sore with bright lights and clean floor

Then the bulldozers morphed it into a big fancy schmancy supermarket complete with shopping triggers of mood lighting, Starbucks, Panda Express, and lots of comfy chairs.

I have nothing against beautiful spaces and modern conveniences, but I’m no fool. I knew all of this effort was to one end—to get me to spend more of my hard-earned money. It was evident the moment I entered the all new, super modern, tripled-in-size, mega supermarket. Everything from the music to the colors, to the placement of the busy bakery seemed ultra contrived. 

Take the “3 for $6!” special of the week. Why not just say $2 each and drop the exclamation mark, I muttered to myself as I placed one jar of spaghetti sauce in the cart. 

Before I could wheel away I had my answer: I saw several customers dutifully place three jars in their carts. Not two, not four, but three jars. 

Educate yourself

That response was no accident. In fact, that’s a simple example of how retailers use tricks to persuade—dare I say manipulate—customers to buy more. Retailers hire experts like Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, and his company, Envirosell, to follow thousands of shoppers a year in person, on video, and online observing their every move. Underhill’s book is a fascinating read.

Using this information, the stores find ways to get people to shop longer, spend more, and return often. Underhill and his crew are so good at what they do, they can tell retailers what will entice people to enter the store, which way they’ll look once they’re inside, and a lot more. 

How important is consumer persuasion to the marketplace? “If we went into stores only when we needed to buy something,” Underhill to me in one of my favorite interviews of all time, “and if once there we bought only what we needed, the economy would collapse. Boom.” 

No one wants the economy to get any worse, but we don’t want to overspend either. And while much of our shopping has moved to online rather than in-store, the science of persuasion and the tricks retailers play to improve their bottom line have not changed—they’ve simply taken on a new appearance.

Our defense as consumers is to educate ourselves about shopping triggers. Here are the 12 tricks we need to know about. 

1. Inviting atmosphere

Retailers know that as much as 70 percent of all purchases are unplanned! They want you to linger as long as possible, so they create an atmosphere that’s inviting to the store’s target audience. The music, the lighting, the displays are all designed to pull us in. 

Take Costco, for example. It’s not due to lack of space that so many things you’ve not seen before are stacked at the entrance. That tactic is so strategic, management has even given it a name: Treasure Alley. It’s where the most impulsive decisions are made and if you don’t believe that, next time you’re in Costco—even Sam’s and BJ’s for that matter—and observe as people pour through the doors and stop short about 10 feet in, as they start loading their carts.

Outsmart it!

Don’t browse. Just get in, get what you need, and leave. Know before you go. True needs are not discovered while standing in a store aisle.  

2. Strategic colors

Stores use certain colors according to the audience they’re trying to reach: Younger people tend to like bold colors; older people prefer softer hues. Those colors may be on the walls of the brick and mortar store, or the online retailer’s website. It’s subtle. You may not be aware of how you’re being played to prompt a sale.

“Universally, a soft shade of blue creates a sense of calm, which makes people want to stay longer,” says Underhill. Meanwhile, most fast-food restaurants are decorated in vivid reds and oranges, which encourage us to eat quickly and leave—exactly what the fast-food operator wants us to do. 

Outsmart it!

Take note of a store’s colors or website, then smile knowingly. Just being aware of them helps you take control. 

3. Carpeting

Have you noticed more stores using carpeting? That’s because it can help influence patterns of travel around a store, starting just inside the shop entrance. Carpeting, used as a subtle shopping trigger, directs you deeper into the store by creating a defined path for you to follow. 

Outsmart it!

Create your own path. Step off the carpet and shop for the items you came to buy. Don’t fall for pop-ups on a website that want to guide you around to show you all the cool stuff you should add to your cart.

4. Strategically placed merchandise

“Some retailers insist on displaying their most expensive items in the front. It makes everything else seem inexpensive afterward,” warns Robert Cialdini, PhD, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. 

With sale items, it’s a kind of double trick. We get pulled in by the promise of a sale, but once we’re inside, those sale items often aren’t clearly displayed or as desirable as we thought. But, because we’ve already mentally decided to buy, we often buy something else. 

Outsmart it!

If the “buy” you thought you wanted turns out not to be what you were led to believe, take a moment to think about it. Don’t feel compelled to buy something else to make up for it.  

5. Easy access 

Research shows that if you touch something, you’re more likely to buy it. That’s why products like stuffed animals and candy are placed within easy reach of children at the grocery checkout, and soft blankets or cozy sweaters are positioned strategically on low tables at a store’s entrance. 

Outsmart it!

Hands off. Don’t touch the merchandise even to look at the price tag unless it’s something you’ve planned to buy. Don’t put it in your online cart with the plan to delete it later, before you check out.

6. Spacious shopping carts

A cart frees you to touch more things. “Stores that offer baskets or carts sell more than ones that don’t,” says Underhill. “And when stores increase the size of the baskets, they often find that shoppers purchase more items.” 

Outsmart it!

Forget the cart. Or at least opt for the smallest one. 

7. Shrinking products

This one often goes unnoticed. A “3-pound” can of coffee is now 28 ounces but still costs the same amount. And how about that “half-gallon” of ice cream that’s now 1.5 quarts? Though it’s not limited to food products, this trick is prevalent in supermarkets. 

Outsmart it!

Know your weights and measures as well as your prices. Pay attention to the unit price listed on the shelf (the cost per ounce, for example). 

If the item has shrunk, try a different brand or wait for a sale.  

8. Food court 

Of course, it’s convenient, but it also keeps you at the mall or big box store. Just think about how many stores like Walmart and Target have added a food type court to their stores. Yes, food courts are great shopping triggers. 

Outsmart it!

Leave the place once you have what you need. If you do eat at the food court, leave right after. 

Home Chef box with all of its contents on the counter demonstrating how complete it isHow We Use Meal Kits to Cut Food Costs

Home Chef is like having your own personal shopper and sous chef. The meals are wonderful, so easy to prepare—and versatile. I have enjoyed your feedback, the ways you are figuring out how to enjoy Home Chef while at the same time make the service work to cut overall food costs …

9. Milk in the back 

This trick is as old as they come, yet it will get you every time if you’re not mentally prepared.

Supermarkets typically put the quick pickup items of milk and eggs way at the back of the store. This forces you to go through the store, exposing you to all kinds of other items that might grab your attention.

What was supposed to be a quick stop for milk turns out to be bags filled with other stuff you couldn’t resist. 

Outsmart it!

Make a beeline for what you want and leave. Or bring only enough cash for what you know you need. 

10. Cosmetics near shoes 

These are the two top purchase areas for female mall shoppers. Retailers know that while you’re waiting for the clerk to bring shoes to try on, your eyes will wander. Those two minutes are highly profitable, Underhill told me because many women will wander over to cosmetics afterward. And the more mirrors on the counter, the more likely you’ll be to buy. Why? 

Simply catching your image in a mirror reminds you just how much you need new lipstick, he says.

Outsmart it!

Buy the shoes and get out of there. Or the makeup. Rarely will you arrive needing both. 

11. Helpful salespeople

Who doesn’t like a helpful sales clerk or invitation to “live chat?” But just know that because, according to Underhill, “The more shopper-employee contact, the greater the average sale.” 

Outsmart it!

Seek help only if you really need it. 

12. Clever wording

Stores count on the fact that most people assume words like “Special!” or “Hot Deal!” mean the same as “On Sale!” Don’t believe it. A big display of picnic food items with a sign announcing, “Summer Blowout!” is not necessarily filled with great bargains. 

Outsmart it!

Keep track of the regular prices of the items you buy most often; you’ll know right away if it’s really a sale. 

If you’re not sure, check the shelf label for the regular price or ask a store employee. 

There you have it—12 shopping triggers you need to know and then keep at the front of your mind no matter where your shopping may be. Remember these are guiding principles—tactics you can easily translate to stores like Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, Walmart, and Target.

Once you cross the threshold into that store or make the first click on the website, you’re being targeted for persuasion. Get smart, stay fully aware!

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How to Roast a Cheap Cut of Beef

No matter how relatively inexpensive a chuck or round roast may appear, if it turns out so tough and flavorless it’s passed to the dog, that purchase was no bargain.  That’s why everyone on a food budget needs to know how to roast cheaper cuts of beef.  

And, finally, thanks to very extensive research and experimentation by Christopher Kimball, as reported in Cooks Illustrated magazine*, we can confidently purchase those cheaper cuts and expect perfect results every time.

Roast beef on cutting board with saltcellar and meat fork

These days, with beef prices hitting all-time highs, buying the cheaper cuts of beef is one way to make our food dollars stretch as far as possible. Just know that what follows is for those of us with more time than money.

When looking for inexpensive cuts keep these three words in mind: chuck, sirloin and round.  The chuck is fattier and more tender, the round is lean and relatively tough.  The sirloin falls somewhere between the two. Read more

Cheapskate Gourmet: Salad Dressings

If you think eating well means eating out—home delivery, pick-up, or dining-in—you may be feeling the effects of restaurant dining in your wallet as the cost of restaurant meals is now soaring in ways we’ve not seen before.

Yesterday, I was shocked to read the new (disposable) menu at a small local hamburger joint in our town. The same classic hamburger that was $7.95 pre-virus, is now $11.95. Will prices decline as this thing settles down? I wouldn’t bet on it.

It’s time for us to change our thinking and start digging in to find every realistic way imaginable that we can save time and money every day.


If I can make the leap from being a diner-in-debt to making irresistible meals at home that often taste even better than those from a restaurant—at a fraction of the cost of eating out—you can, too.  One way to do this is to learn how to make gourmet salad dressings at home.

For many years ( before there was a Food Channel), I was uniquely privileged to sit under the personal tutelage of world-famous gourmet cooks the likes of Julia Child, Christopher Kimball, Martha Stewart, Martin Yan, and Jacques Pepin.

Every weekend I had standing appointments with one or more of them. They came right into my home and demonstrated unique techniques while I assumed a prone position, curled up in my favorite blanket, first-row-center in front of the television. They sparked confidence in me. From that start, my love for making great meals economically has grown.

Today, I want to share my basic recipes for what I consider to be gourmet salad dressings. So fresh and easy. Tasty, too.

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Smart Saving Tastes Like Chicken

With the price of beef skyrocketing, now more than ever, chicken is becoming the backbone of the frugal kitchen. And why not? Chicken is much less expensive than beef or pork and useful down to and including the bones. 

whole roasted chicken on wooden kitchen table

Don’t pay full-price

Chicken is always on sale somewhere. If you don’t want to store-hop, you can always find some cut of meat, fish, and poultry on sale in your favorite market. Eat what’s on sale and if it’s a loss-leader (that means priced dirt-cheap to entice people through the door), stock up for the coming weeks.

Buy whole chickens

The most frugal way to use chickens is to buy them whole and cut them up yourself. You’ll not only save money, but chicken tastes much better when cooked with the skin and bones. A whole, organic bird usually costs less per pound than precut, skinned, and boned parts—and it tastes so much better. It is not difficult to cut up a chicken once you understand the simple steps. Here is a video tutorial or if you prefer written instructions with pictures.  Read more

Frugal Food and Grocery Shopping 101

As food costs continue to soar, it’s a good time to revisit the basics of frugal food shopping. Grocery bills and eating out can wreck a budget. Follow these tips and you will rein in those costs. Start discovering your own ways to eat on less.

Now more than ever it’s time to slash expenses in order to preserve cash.

view of grocery store from grocery cart with oranges and bananas in the top section

Stop the take out, delivery

I get it. It feels as though we are in some kind of temporary, horrific season when it’s our right to do whatever it takes to just get through one more day until we never have to think about this again. At least you can get no-contact delivery of the food you’re used to. Right?

Please, stop those thoughts. We don’t know. Life is never certain, but more uncertain now than ever. The decisions you are making right now—such as paying for all these meals, delivery fees plus overly generous gratuities with credit—are going to come back to bite you hard. You cannot continue to opt for that feeling of entitlement even if you know for certain your job is coming back and things will be back to normal soon. You can’t know any of that. Life is uncertain.

Paying $20, $35 or more to take-out or to have your favorite restaurant bring it out to you, so you can get you through one more meal is about as unwise a decision as you can make right now.

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6 Easy Ways to Give New Life to Leftover Rice

Instead of pitching the leftover cooked rice from tonight’s dinner, try using it in different ways in your next meal. Just don’t make the fatal mistake of calling it “leftovers.”

bowl of beautiful rice salad

Provided you think of leftover cooked rice as an ingredient in a future meal, you’re home free and all your picky eaters will be none the wiser.

Make sure you handle cooked rice safely:

  • Refrigerate the rice as soon as possible after cooking and consuming, ideally within 1-2 hours.
  • When reheating, make sure it’s steaming hot all the way through and avoid reheating more than once.
  • Keep leftover rice in the refrigerator for no longer than 24 hours before re-use or freeze in a freezer bag.

Fried rice

Toss some garlic, chopped onions, soy sauce, and sesame oil in your frying pan. Stir in two or three beaten eggs, stirring until lightly scrambled.

Add the leftover cooked rice (white or brown) and whatever veggies and chicken, beef, or pork you have on hand. Voila! You have a new meal of Chinese Fried Rice.

15 Minute Chinese Fried Rice

15-Minute Chinese Fried Rice

Instead of pitching the last few cups of cooked rice from tonight’s dinner, try using it in different ways in your next meal. Here's a great recipe for leftover rice.
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: Chinese
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 4 minutes
Servings: 6
Calories: 371kcal
Author: Mary
Cost: $3


  • 3 chicken breasts skinless and boneless
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 4 eggs slightly beaten
  • 1 16-ounce peas and carrots bag of frozen
  • 7 cups rice cooked jasmine or basmati
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce to taste
  • 5 scallions chopped
  • 1 tsp black pepper


  • Cut chicken in small cubes and place in bowl.
  • Season generously with salt, pepper and onion powder. Add oyster sauce and stir well to coat chicken.
  • Heat butter and oil in large skillet or wok over high heat. 
  • Add garlic and chicken. Stir constantly and cook until no longer pink, 2 to 3 minutes. 
  • Add beaten eggs to the meat. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly until eggs are scrambled. 
  • Add frozen peas and carrots and stir to incorporate. Add cold rice (must be cold).
  • Add soy sauce and stir until light golden brown. Stir in chopped green onions just before serving.


Serving: 1.25cup | Calories: 371kcal
Tried this recipe?Mention @EverydayCheapskate or tag #EverydayCheapskate!

Rice salad

Another great way to use up your leftover rice is to toss it with your favorite vinaigrette or other salad dressing, fresh herbs or spices, and your favorite diced vegetables.

Rice and bean burritos

Heat up a can of refried beans, add some hot sauce and your leftover rice, and you’ve got yourself a quick bean and rice burrito. Add in whatever burrito toppings you happen to have on hand, such as salsa, sour cream, guacamole, or maybe even some leftover cooked veggies.

Rice soup

Use your leftover rice to make rice soup. Pop open a can of soup and heat it over the stove, stirring in your leftover rice and some extra spices for a quick homecooked meal suitable for the whole family. Or add cooked rice to your favorite soup recipes.

Rice quiche

You can use your leftover rice to make a bottom “crust” for a breakfast quiche by pressing the cooked rice on the bottom and sides of a pie pan. Or just toss the leftover rice in with the eggs and other ingredients before baking. Use about one cup of pre-cooked rice in your quiche.

Rice pudding

Rice pudding is a great way to use up lots of leftover rice all at once. You can add some cinnamon and nutmeg, or some raisins and dried fruit for a breakfast rice pudding. Or, check out this recipe:

Rice Pudding with cinnamon and raisins preparation: Ready served sweet rice pudding

Caramel Rice Pudding

Rice pudding is a great way to use up lots of leftover rice all at once. You can add some cinnamon and nutmeg, or some raisins and dried fruit for a breakfast rice pudding.
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Slowcooker: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 5 minutes
Servings: 6
Calories: 456kcal
Author: Mary


  • Slow cooker


  • 3 cups cooked rice white or brown
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 can sweetened condense milk 14-ounce size
  • 1 can evaporated milk 12-ounce size
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar or white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


  • Spray inside of 2- to 3 1/2-quart slowcooker with cooking spray.
  • Add cooked rice, raisins, vanilla, condensed and evaporated milks to the slow cooker.
  • Cover and cook on Low 3 to 4 hours or until liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally.
  • Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Serve warm.


Calories: 456kcal
Tried this recipe?Mention @EverydayCheapskate or tag #EverydayCheapskate!

First published: 2-27-14; Republished adding new photos and recipes 5-03-20

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Lablascovegmenu

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Turn Leftovers into Soup

How to Slash a Family’s Food Budget without Causing a Revolt

The year was 1992. We’d just come through 10 long years of repaying more than $100,000 of credit card debt I’d stupidly amassed. I’d come this close to losing my marriage, my family, our home and basically blowing up my life. Debt has a way of doing that.

woman with debt worried about bills to pay

After ten years, we’d brought that awful balance down to just $12,000. I could not wait to get it paid to $0. I got this wild idea to write a newsletter about our journey (back then, no Internet, no email, only an IBM Selectric typewriter … yep, that long ago!) hoping that enough people might pay $12 a year to subscribe. They did, oh boy did they. And Cheapskate Monthly was born—during a recession.

Long story short, The Los Angeles Times called, Oprah called, Dr. James Dobson called and the rest is history. The world has changed incalculably in those 28 years. There have been economic highs and lows. We’ve endured the recession of 1992, the horror of 9/11; the Great Recession of 2008. We’ve come through and each time, been better for what we’ve learned. And some things never change.

What you are about to read is from Cheapskate Monthly, Issue No. 2, February 1992, which I found in a neatly preserved file my dear mother-in-law left with my name on it. She’d typed out the contents of each of those early newsletters, together with a note that I might like them one day in the future.

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