Manage Your House

Shop ‘Til You Drop No More

How adults with ADHD can avoid impulse buys, save money, and get out of the grocery store in half the time.

woman walking into supermarket after she learned some add-friendly tips to make grocery shopping less of a burden

Quick: What’s your least favorite thing to do? If you’re like my attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) clients, shopping for groceries is right up there, along with paying bills and doing laundry.

Supermarkets seem to be designed to play tricks on the ADHD mind, with their eye-catching displays, seductive product packaging, and food choices too numerous to count. And all those “on sale” signs? They’re rocket fuel for impulsive types.

Other shoppers stroll up and down the aisles, placidly loading their carts and checking items off their lists. Those of us with ADHD stand there, frozen like, well, a box of frozen veggies: Should we go for the chopped or the julienne string beans?

In the end, we give up trying to decide — and buy both. What begins as a quick trip to pick up a few items turns into a half-day excursion that empties our wallets and leaves our pantries overstocked with food that spoils before it gets anywhere near our dinner tables.

[Self-Test: Do I Have Adult Hyperactive and Impulsive ADHD?]

Not long ago, my client Maggie R. stopped by the grocery store on her way home from work. Her intent was to buy detergent, fresh produce, milk, and English muffins. Two hours later, she left the store with a cart overflowing with groceries, plus an hibachi grill, charcoal, and lighter fluid. Oh, yes, all that and a lawn chair, complete with its own umbrella.

At this point, Maggie realized that she needed a better approach — and promptly came up with three rules:

Rule #1: Always eat before leaving the house. Maggie figured that if she weren’t hungry, she would be less tempted to buy snacks (or stock up for an impromptu cookout). Indeed, studies show that, on average, shoppers spend 17 percent less on groceries when they shop on a full stomach.

Rule #2: Shop at a specified time each week — no more random runs to the supermarket.

Rule #3: Shop with a written list, created after checking the contents of her pantry, refrigerator, and linen closet (where she stores cleaning supplies). Taking a pre-shopping inventory, she reasoned, would make it easier to tell what she needed to stock up on.

[Free Guide to Delicious (and ADHD-Friendly!) Eating]

Maggie made a good start. But, as I explained to her, there are many more time-saving, headache-sparing, cost-cutting strategies that have worked wonders for my clients, and for me.

1. Post a shopping list on the fridge, and attach a pencil to it.

Ask everyone in the household to add items to the list, as necessary. An envelope taped beside your list makes it easy to collect coupons.

2. Bring along your shopping list, your coupons, and a pencil to cross things off your list as you go along.

Bring your cell phone, too — in case you need to ask someone at home whether a particular item is needed. Attach the store’s discount card to your key ring.

3. Avoid spur-of-the-moment shopping trips.

Shop once a week, every week. Hate crowds? Shop on a weekday, during the early morning or late evening. Avoid Mondays, since meats, vegetables, and fruits get pretty picked over by weekend shoppers; Tuesdays through Fridays are good shopping days. Perishable items are generally marked down first thing in the morning — so 9 a.m. shoppers are likely to save the most.

4. Shop at the same store each week.

The more familiar you are with a store, the more efficiently you’ll fill your cart. Shopping at a variety of stores might enable you to save a bit of money — but make sure the savings justify the extra time it takes (and the extra gasoline your car will be consuming).

5. Be careful with coupons.

Before devoting lots of time to collecting and sorting through coupons, make sure what you save is worth your effort. Bear in mind that a sale item is generally cheaper than the same item, not on sale, purchased with a coupon.

If you decide coupons are worth the effort, use them only for purchases you would make anyway. (For more on using coupons wisely, see GroceryCouponGuide.com.

6. Stick to outer aisles.

The store’s periphery is where you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, baked goods, meats, and other low-cost “unprepared” foods. (If you slice it, season it, and cook it yourself, you’ll save money.) Costlier items, including frozen foods, snack foods, and non-grocery items, are typically tucked away in the middle aisles.

Stay away from “impulse buy” aisles, such as the book/magazine aisle, the candy/junk food aisle, and the aisle where seasonal merchandise is displayed (remember Maggie’s combo lawn chair/umbrella?).

7. Look high and low.

Special deals and sale items are typically placed on upper and lower shelves. Shelves at eye level are where you’ll find costly, high-margin items.

To make sure you’re getting a good deal, check the unit price; the bigger container usually represents the better deal — but not always.

8. Shop in season.

Whenever possible, buy non-perishable items when they’re cheapest. Baking supplies, turkey, and ham tend to go on sale just before the holiday season, condiments in early summer, ice cream at the end of winter, and soup at the end of summer.

Avoid out-of-season fruits and vegetables. They can cost up to five times more than the same produce bought in season.

9. Ask for help.

If you’re not sure where to find a particular item, ask store personnel or another shopper to direct you. The less time you spend roaming the store, the more likely you will be to stick to your list.

10. Keep an eye on the cash register display.

Scanners make mistakes, and it’s best to catch these errors as they happen. It’s no fun — not to mention time-consuming — to go back to the store to get a refund for a mis-priced item.

11. Pay with a credit card.

Pick a card that offers a rebate, airline miles, or some other perk, and use it for all your supermarket purchases. Do not let the fact that you’re racking up rewards encourage you to buy items you don’t need.

Maggie is doing much better, now that she’s changed her shopping habits. She’s especially pleased that her children not only pitch in to create each weekly shopping list, but that they actually enjoy helping.

And when the kids stand before the open fridge and yell, “Mom, there’s nothing to eat,” she has a ready response: “Then someone must have forgotten to put what we need on the list.” Works every time!

[Grocery Shopping Is the Worst. Here’s How to Make It Better.]

Updated on June 24, 2019

4 Related Links

  1. I am so happy to see that I am not the only person who finds the market totally overwhelming. My friends and family think I am a nut because I dread grocery shopping. In fact, I’m the only female I know who hates all sorts of shopping. I hate the mall too! I’ve had full blown panic attacks at the grocery store. I only go a couple times a month with a list and I only go to one local market close to my home – unlike some people I know who shop for bargains at several grocery stores. That sounds like pure hell to me. I agree with all of your suggestions 100%. I am lucky that the employees at my local store are super friendly and I see the same people – plus I’m a people person so I don’t mind asking where things are. I hate wasting time searching for items. My best suggestion that I didn’t see on your list is a BODY DOUBLE! My 14 year old son gets me through stores so quickly and easily – he keeps me on task by keeping me focused on my list – when I say “oh, what’s this…” he says “mom, the list!” and I snap back into reality. When my older son goes with us we tear the list in half and we say “meet you at the registers” and we each grab the things on our list and get out of the market as quickly as possible. This started as sort of a game with their dad years ago – but I realize now it was a coping mechanism for their dad and I to get back to our real lives because the grocery store is such a time sucking nightmare for me.

  2. I HATE to grocery shop. It’s overwhelming. But now Wal-Mart, Aldi, and Kroger are offering grocery pick-up and/or delivery in my area, I now complete shopping list at home after doing an inventory of my items in my pantry and adding these to a list I keep on the fridge. Then I sit down, order my stuff, pay, and go pick it up/wait for delivery. I only go to the store if I absolutely have to for clothes or other items.

Leave a Reply