Sunday, February 28, 2010

Grocery update

Well, since I started on my new strategic shopping program, people have been asking how it's going...and my sister and sister-in-law have hopped on the bandwagon. My sister called me from the parking lot of a store to check in on coupons.... So here's an update, for anyone who is interested.

I've been taking this "grocery shopping as a part-time job" thing pretty seriously. Starling has been raising her eyebrows at all the time I've been investing. One question I get all the time is whether the extra time is worth the effort. I've got the same concern, so last week I sat down and added up all our grocery spending for the months of August, October, and January. It's not completely straightforward, because we do a lot of grocery shopping at Target, and it's possible that there are some non-food/household items (e.g., clothes) in my Target totals. But we don't shop for extras, really, so I don't think that's a big factor. Anyway, our average grocery bill came out to $850, which was a real shocker. I knew we were spending about $120, on average, during our one big grocery shopping each week. I didn't realize how much all those small, in-between shopping trips were adding up, though. Anyway, knowing our average monthly grocery bill is helpful in two ways: first off, it gives me a baseline to start from, so I can measure how effective allour "strategic shopping" is. Second, it is a real motivator to cut down on our regular shopping expenses. Paying that much in groceries is like having a second mortgage.

So during the month of March I am going to keep a running total to see how much I can cut down on that bill. I know I am already saving money. For instance, last week I stocked up on whole wheat spaghetti -- I bought eight packages at 77 cents a package (regularly $1.59), which will save us about $6.40 over the next two months. Same with hot dogs: Julia eats Oscar Meyer turkey hot dogs about every other day for lunch, so I stocked up on them at 50 cents each (regularly $2.99). I also combined a buy one get one free coupon (they call it "BOGO" in strategic shopping circles) with a local store's sale on Purex laundry detergent to get two 50 ounce bottles for $2.88. And I have also begun buying groceries at three different stores, buying stuff at the lowest possible price at each store. I'm only saving a few bucks here, a few bucks there -- but then, "a few bucks here, a few bucks there" on several hundred items is how you end up with a colossal grocery bill. I figure the same principle should work in reverse.

What I don't know is how much all of this work is going to be worth, which is why I am tracking every grocery purchase for the month of March. Depending on how much I save (or, put another way, how much I "earn" per hour of work), I will either continue to invest a few hours a week in this or I will scale back. I will keep you posted.

I am still refining my approach, but here's what I've developed so far:
  • Keep a pricebook. My sister and I have both started to compile a price book. Essentially, you take your receipts and record the price of each item at each store on a chart. In my case, I am recording the prices of everything I buy at five different stores: HyVee, Midtown Foods, Target, Walgreens, and Rochester Wholesale Fruit. I am recording the highest and lowest price for each of the items at Target and HyVee (where most of our shopping happens), and the lowest price at the other stores. Recording the highest price at each of the first two stores will give me a sense of where I can consistently find an item at the lowest price, even if it's not on sale. Recording the lowest sale price (excluding coupons) gives me a sense of what's a really good bargain, so that I can stock up on something if I see it near or below that price. Keeping a pricebook helps me plan a shopping strategy -- but more importantly, it is helping me learn (by heart) what the price range is on every item that we buy regularly. Buying stuff at the lowest possible price and stocking up on stuff when it's fifty percent off or more is where I think we will find our greatest savings. I've already learned: 1) Never buy brand name cereal for more than $2; 2) Never buy meat for more than 99 cents a pound; 3) Never pay for toothpaste (it's "free" at Walgreens every few weeks when you combine sales with coupons and rebates).
  • Planning meals. According to CouponMom, the biggest expense in your grocery bill is impulse items. So I've started planning out every meal for ten days out. It's a hassle, but that makes it possible for me to buy only what we actually need -- plus any staple items that are on sale. I usually do this on Monday and Tuesday, before the grocery sale papers come out on Wednesday. I'll go back and modify the menu if something is deeply discounted, though.
  • Making a grocery list. Once we have a meal plan, I have to go around the house and figure out what we have and what we need. I make a list of everything we need to buy. Then I have to divide that list up across the three or four stores I am shopping at. I divide the list up partially based on the sale prices listed in each store's ads that week. This is where CouponMom.com comes in handy. Rather than sorting through all of the sale papers, then checking the sales against coupons in the Sunday paper, then checking against all the online coupons, I just go to the CouponMom.com website and pull up the weekly listings for HyVee and Target. She lists everything on sale that week -- including, crucially, the percentage you're saving off the regular price -- and then matches the sales up with any available coupons, either referring you to the relevant Sunday circular or the location of the online coupon. So part of my grocery list is divided up based on who has the better sale prices. No one store has the lowest price consistently (not even WalMart). The rest gets divided up based on the price book -- which store has the lowest regular price on a particular item.
  • Couponing. Even though most people focus on the couponing aspect of this, I don't think it's where the most savings will be. I estimate that we've only saved about $80 or so using coupons in the past two weeks (including store rebates at Target and Walgreens). Rather than cutting coupons every week, I save the sale circulars and then go back and clip the relevant coupons when they're matched by a sale in the CouponMom.com database. I'm finding that it pays to save the Sunday circulars for several months in order to combine them with sales, so I now have a box for keeping them. I write the date on the front of each circular in order to find it quickly down the road.
  • Buy only what we need. I have some other "ground rules" in this project. First off, we're not buying anything that we don't normally buy or actually need, no matter how much we might "save" in the process. I'm talking in particular about snack items or discretionary non-food items (body wash, etc.). That's not to say we won't try a new kind of meat if it's on sale, or a different brand of something (bread or yogurt or cereal) -- just that we can't get sucked into buying stuff for the sake of "saving" lots of money.
  • Stay healthy. Second, nutrition and a healthy diet are priorities. We could save bundles by buying sugar cereal or white bread, or by skipping yogurt or fresh fruits and vegetables; we pay a premium for the healthier foods because it's worth it.
  • Stay sane. We could save a lot of money by cutting out discretionary food items, like soda and snacks. But this experiment wouldn't last longer than a week if we did that, so we're not going to go there.
Figuring all this out has been kind of exhausting -- both on the front end, with all the planning, and on the shopping side, since it's meant multiple trips. (It doesn't help that I am totally unfamiliar with our local HyVee and have to learn where everything is.) I'm counting on it getting easier once I have figured out the best use of my time and have a more intuitive sense for where to get the best prices. But if we're able to consistently cut, say, $300 off of that $850 grocery bill, it will be worth it. I'll keep you posted.

p.s. Starling just found a really good program (that my mom told us about) in the Twin Cities called Fare for All. It bills itself as a cooperative food purchasing program. Basically, they purchase groceries at wholesale prices; you buy a subscription to get a package of food every week at 30 - 40 percent off what you'd pay for it in the grocery stores.