Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Grocery challenge update

A number of people have asked about how our strategic shopping is going. Yes, a year later, we're still clipping coupons and shopping as strategically as we can. As I suspected, it required a large investment up front in terms of learning all the ins and outs. Figuring out coupons, which local stores have the best regular prices, which have the best sale items, memorizing what a "good" price is for every item we routinely buy (with my poor eyesight, I used to just grab what we needed off the shelf without considering the price too often) . . . and then working out an efficient system for our particular family all took time, probably about three to five months. Now, a lot of that knowledge and research has become second nature, which really cuts down on the time we've had to invest in this. The other thing that took a long time to ramp up was our stockpile of deeply discounted sale items. That took about four months to top off.

But in the interest of accountability, and also out of curiosity, I decided to do an audit of last month's grocery bill. We kept every single receipt and added them up at the end of the month. In January, we spent $597 on groceries, and saved $42.06 using coupons. That compares to our average grocery bill of $850 when we started this project a year ago, and $567 when I last checked on this in April. Not bad, considering food prices rose by 1.7 percent last year . . . and also considering that I'm investing much less time in strategic shopping these days. Here's what we're doing:

  • I shop at five different stores in order to get the best prices. We use the Holsum/Sara Lee bakery outlet to buy bread (the multigrain type) for $1 - $1.50 a loaf. We go to Rochester Fruit (another discount operation) for our very large fruit purchase. In terms of the "big" grocery shopping, I start at Target, because they are most likely to have the lowest prices on non-sale items -- sometimes dramatically lower than the grocery stores. Unfortunately, we do not have a Super Target in town, or I could probably do all my shopping in one place/ Instead, I head over to Midtown Foods (the local IGA) to pick up a handful of sale items every week. Everyone thinks they have high prices, but their sale items frequently beat Target and HyVee (example: Hormel turkey pepperoni for $2, or 50% off). Then I hit Hyvee, focusing on sale items and whatever stray items we might still need.
  • As far as coupons go, we finally broke down and got a subscription to the StarTribune, because we were consistently finding the value of the coupons to be worth the price of the paper. Of course, I waited until they begged us with a discounted deal. When I began doing this, I started sorting coupons into little baggies according to their type. THAT was too time-consuming, as were several other methods I tried. Now, I sit down and quickly flip through the coupon papers every week, clipping only those coupons I know we will use, or that we might use if the item is also really on sale. All of these go into a big plastic bag along with the store coupons that print out with the receipt and the many coupons Target offers online. Yes, I'm forced to wade through all the coupons to find what I need -- but this also helps me keep on top of weeding out the ones that have expired, and it reminds me of ones that we need to use before they expire (for items we routinely buy anyway). I will be so glad for the day when paper coupons go the way of the paper newspaper -- extinct. Cell phone couponing is going to be so much easier.
  • I still use for weekly matchups between sale items and coupons. It's nice because you can sort by percentage saved. Back when we started this, the Coupon Lady told us that she never even bothered with anything less than 30% off, and I laughed at her. Now I see what she means. We really focus on stocking up on items that are 40 percent off or more.
  • This means that our "pantry" (really the space on top of our cupboards) has exploded. We currently have about 25 bags of shredded cheese (for pizza) -- hey, they were going for 99 cents a piece, which is 67% off, or a savings of about $50. We also had guests over the other day and one said, "Wow, I have never seen so much peanut butter!" We do not buy peanut butter for more than $1.00 a jar (usually Skippy or Peter Pan). We also have a lot of cereal on hand, which we never pay more than $2 a box for.

We have our limits, of course. This family is big on sweets and snacks, and although I limit them as much as possible, that adds up. Also, someone in this family who shall go unnamed consumes an amazing quantity of pop. Also, we try to buy healthy food (multigrain, high-fiber bread and lots of fruits and veggies), and we try to buy responsibly (like cage-free eggs, because who wants eggs from a chicken that has spent its life in a cage that it can't turn around in???). Also, sometimes I am just too darn tired to deal with it all.

It's not "fun." I actually hate grocery shopping (and shopping in general) -- although grocery shopping with little Mudpuppy along is more enjoyable, both for his own sweet self and for all the reactions he gets. But we need that extra $200 - $300 a month, so until theologians start getting paid like lobbyists, we're going to be clipping coupons and stocking up.