Skip the paper towels, water bottles. Medical experts on how to stock up for coronavirus—without wasting money

An employee stocks shelves at a Kosher grocery store.
Fabrizio Bensch | Reuters

To slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, nationwide, government officials and health professionals have asked citizens to practice "social distancing."

This recommendation has halted some of America's biggest events in multiple cities including Chicago and New York City. Governors of states including Michigan, Illinois, and New York have shut down bars and restaurants indefinitely, and many districts have canceled school

The sweeping closures and spike in COVID-19 diagnoses has increased the number of consumers panic-buying groceries and supplies. Panic-buying is a form of retail therapy that helps people feel like they are in control during a possibly chaotic situation, such as a pandemic, Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, told CNBC.

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Buying what you don't need and won't use won't actually help you, though, and panic buying may also result in overspending. If you're heading to the grocery store, it's important to buy items that are worth the money and that will adequately prepare you for lots of time spent at home.

Here are expert-approved tips for stocking up without overspending:

What to buy

Foods you like. This sounds simple, but many people are only buying certain foods because they have a long shelf life, says University of Washington epidemiology professor Anne-Marie Gloster. Eventually, though, social distancing will end, and you don't want to be left with a bunch of ingredients you don't like.

"Try to buy foods you know you're going to eat long after this is over," Gloster says. This will save you money in the long run, as you won't need to throw out food you only bought because of COVID-19. 

Try to buy foods you know you're going to eat long after this is over.
Anne-Marie Gloster
University of Washington epidemiology professor

Remember, soap is better than hand sanitizer. There has been an uptick in sales of hand sanitizer, but washing your hands is still the most effective way to disinfect them, says Carolyn McClanahan, a former physician and the director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida.

"People buy hand sanitizer, but plain soap and water is the best," she says. "Don't worry about things like [hand sanitizer], just use basic hygiene. Learn how to wash your hands well: 20 seconds, soap and water." 

At Walmart, a 12.5 ounce bottle of Mrs. Meyer's hand soap is $3.49, while hand sanitizer is totally out of stock. 

What not to buy

Lots of bottled water. The average person needs three gallons of water per day for "proper sanitation and hygiene and personal cleanliness," Gloster says. But the advice to have that much on hand in bottles or jugs is primarily given to those prepping for natural disasters when access to clean, running water may be shut off.

The spread of COVID-19 most likely won't result in a limited water supply, so buying bottled water in bulk might not make sense.

If you are worried about the quality of your drinking water and you do want to get bottles, figure out how much you actually need instead of getting all you can fit in your trunk. The average human should drink about half a gallon of water per day, according to Healthline.com.

Paper towels. While some toilet paper is necessary, paper towels are not, McClanahan says: "I don't know why people are buying so many paper towels." Use a dish rag and wash it instead. 

Zinc. Although it is a mineral that boosts your immune system, it will not make you any healthier, Dr. Amy Edwards, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals who works with the UH Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health, told Grow.

"Most Americans who eat fruits and vegetables are zinc sufficient," she says. Excess zinc will just be flushed out of your body. 

Face masks. Whether your thinking of purchasing the standard surgical mask at a drug store, or the N95 respirator masks used by medical professionals, neither will aid you in keeping germs out, and should be reserved for those who are sick or who are working in hospitals and clinics. 

Shop wisely

To avoid buying things you don't need, make a plan, including back-ups. Take stock of what's in your pantry and then make a shopping list, says Gloster. "When you make your list, sit down and really think about what you like to eat, what the people in your family like to eat, and make a substitution list." 

If your family eats cereal every morning, put that on the list. When you get to the store, however, cereal might be gone, so put back-up foods such as oatmeal or granola on your list as well.

Picking out possible substitutions in advance will keep you from buying random foods you won't end up eating. 

Try alternative stores. If your grocery store is out of toilet paper, you can buy some at restaurant wholesalers such as Webstaurant. Right now, one case of 36-rolls of 2-ply toilet paper is $20.80 (about .58 cents per roll). Home Depot and Lowe's also sell toilet paper, and these large retailers might be less picked over than your grocery store.

But since the coronavirus is not a diuretic disease, Gloster notes, there is no need to buy more than you usually would for a two-week supply. 

How to manage your pantry

Create a 'use first' shelf. While it's always a smart money move to use your groceries before they expire, it's especially important right now when many grocery store shelves are barren.

"I have a designated shelf called a 'use first shelf' and I say, 'We need to eat this before we move on to that,'" Gloster says. This ensures you use the food you already have and nothing goes to waste at a time when ingredients might be scarce. 

Cook in bulk and freeze meals. "One thing I like to do is prepare meals in advance," McClanahan says. "I'll cook a big pan of lasagna and freeze half of it. It makes you live healthier and it ends up being cheaper." 

This will help you use ingredients before they expire, saving you money and another trip to the store. And, if you get sick, she says, you have a ready-made meal you can simply pop into the oven. You can do this with a few dishes and rotate out what you freeze, based on what you want to eat that day.

We tried meal prepping and buying lunch to determine which method is best
We tried meal prepping and buying lunch to determine which method is best

Video by Jason Armesto

If possible, try to help those who are at a higher risk of being severely affected by COVID-19, such as the elderly or those with respiratory problems. "If you can go out and shop for them, so they don't have to, do that," Gloster says.

And don't worry if your store is out of what you want today. Stores will continue to stock up, Gloster says. She lives outside of Seattle, where social distancing has been in progress for about a week. While toilet paper remains scarce, she says, all other food items have returned to the shelves.

So instead of stocking up on ingredients you won't use, wait a week and then return to the store. 

The article How to Stock Up for Coronavirus Without Overspending originally appeared on Grow by Acorns + CNBC.