To List or Not to List

Joy’s recent post on saving money grocery shopping sparked an interesting debate in the comments. Erin B. provided some great tips, including this one:

ALWAYS make a list, NEVER buy anything not on the list. Ever… ever… seriously, I know we are all grownups and we think we can walk around Target without a case of the “gimme-gimmes” (a great Berenstein Bears book, by the way!) but we can’t. Make a list with literally EVERYTHING you need and buy off the list and not a single item more. Seriously, it works.

I loved all of her ideas except for that one above, which I hear a lot. Here was my response:

I don’t agree with tip #2! I love grocery shopping and part of that is scouring around for interesting foods and deals. I always thought people wasted tons of money by meal planning first, then shopping off a list. Say they planned to make eggplant parmesan, then bought eggplants, tomatoes, and the cheeses–but none of it was on sale. They would spend a lot on that one meal.

Kate had Erin’s back. She added,

I have to agree with Erin about making a list — and about substitutions. (In fact, I love all of Erin’s suggestions.) Yes, when I try a new recipe exactly as written, I might spend a little more than usual. But I choose new recipes in part based on what’s in season and what I have on hand, and after I make it once I figure out what I can substitute for or leave out.

Now, I stand by my original assertion: making lists and sticking to them wastes money! I spend $175/month on three people (as I may have mentioned once or twice), and I believe this has to do with buying foods only when they’re on sale and then improvising with all those discounted ingredients in the kitchen.

I realize my way of thinking is unconventional, and I will admit it wouldn’t work for everyone. If you find yourself tempted to buy expensive treats at the store, the “stick with the list” rule would probably help curb your temptations. (I have the opposite problem in that I have to almost force myself to buy things that cost too much. I’m still stuck in the “no more than a dollar a pound” mentality I’ve had since the ‘90s!) It also wouldn’t work if you work from recipes and don’t like to just make things up as you go along.

So that’s my wacky tip of the day: Don’t make lists and don’t stick to them! Much like the ol’ “I don’t buy in bulk!” argument, I believe I may be in the minority on this one!


  1. I’m with you. I only make lists of the staples that I am low on and don’t want to forget to pick up, then I wing the rest based on what is on sale, what is in season, and what looks good. I don’t often cook from recipes, so this method works for me. I like to come home with a bag full of produce and see what kind of whacky meal I can come up with. I find it very creative and we never eat the same thing twice! I also am never tempted to spend our hard earned money on junk food- empty calories are not my thing! So the whole stick to the list method has never worked for me. It leaves no room for intuition and creativity!

  2. I’m with you on this one, but I think it requires a certain amount of comfort with improvising in the kitchen. If you cook off recipes, a list is probably the way to go. If you don’t, then shopping the sales is great.

  3. I’m on the other side of the “list fence.” I shop with a list and stick to it fairly closely. In my family the twist is that we shop only every-other week and we have essentially the same meal plan for every two-week cycle. Advantages to this are less decision-making around food and meals, practiced and fast shopping and cooking, and fewer trips to the store, which for us means fewer chances for impulse purchases. The time savings for us is key — most of the time we start dinner about a half-hour before we eat dinner and our cooking takes place in the chaos of post-work and post-daycare time, so we need fast meals that we are really good at.

    We also have a CSA and tend to buy whatever veggies are cheap at the store so we have ways to work in variation in vegetables.

  4. I do take a list – but usually it’s a list of sale items based on what I’ve found on the online ads. Our main grocery we use not only price matches sales from the other area stores -but automatically lowers their price to match (I don’t have to ask or show an ad.) I am always willing to skew from the list though, it is merely a “reminder” and will often buy marked down produce/meat if I know I can use/freeze it while it is still good.

  5. Wow! I am pleasantly surprised to see I am not all alone on this one! Improvisation is the way to go!

  6. Oh I’m with ya! Sale sale sale! I ALWAYS check price per ounce & buy the cheaper. I’m fine with generics too.

    I do make a list about 2% of the time. But when I do it’s generic, like “fruit” or “vegetables” so it leaves me open to pick sale items instead of a specific thing that may be expensive that day.

  7. That’s funny! I go by the “dollar per pound” rule also! I thought it was just me…

  8. I am with you Rebecca. I will make a list of staples that I need to get and sometimes I will scan the sale ads before I go to the store, but I only buy what’s on sale. My mom was the same way – she decided what was for dinner at the grocery store based on what was on sale. But it definitely requires a certain very flexible personality to be comfortable with that. I have always been good at making things up as I go, but I”ve known people who never make substitutions in a recipe and never make up their own recipe so obviously, they would have trouble without a list.

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