Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grocery Shopping on a Budget - Part 1

Many people would like to save money on their grocery bill, but have a hard time figuring out exactly how to do that.  There is a developing industry out there of websites which promise to save you hundreds while they do all the planning and tell you when to buy (ex. The Grocery Game).  Other people swear by coupons.  Others buy in bulk.

I've tried a couple of different strategies to grocery shopping before I finally settled on what works best for my family.  I like to spend around $50-75 a week on groceries and I do it without spending hours cutting out coupons or paying for a subscription service.  So I thought I would do a series that featured some tips that I've picked up along the way.  Please feel free to chime in with your own tips in the comments section.

First let me go back to how it used to be when I went grocery shopping.  I'd basically notice that we didn't have any food and go to the store and pick out stuff.  I didn't consider myself that great of a cook, so a lot of it was prepared, frozen and quick meals.  It was costing us a fortune.  So I decided to try menu planning.  I would go through my cookbooks and come up with a menu for the week and then use that to shop from.  I was doing a lot more cooking and felt better about what I was feeding my family, but the cost kept going up.

The first thing you have to re-evaluate is whether or not you are shopping for convenience of shopping to save.  Whatever grocery store I lived by was the one that I went to (I live in Texas so it's always been H.E.B., despite moving 3 times).  Every once in a while, I might have branched out to a Wal-Mart if I needed to pick up non-grocery items as well.  And I was paying dearly for the convenience.

Living in a city has its perks - there are plenty of grocery stores to choose from.  But even if you live in a smaller town, there are usually several options if you're willing to go to the next small town.  A lot of websites recommend that you come up with a price journal - visit several stores and price items that you usually buy over the course of a couple of weeks.  Then compare and you'll figure out which one is usually cheaper (this is also a way to get a good idea of the going price vs the sale price so you know when to buy).  But who has the time?

Instead, compare the sales flyers.  I get these in the mail now, but when I first did this I didn't.  Almost all big stores have their sale flyers online.  Ignore everything but meat and produce.  These are the big ticket items.  After a couple of weeks it will become obvious to you which store has the better, and more consistent deals.  I recommend comparing a couple of weeks because every store will have a great sale, but you want a store that will have good sales all of the time.

Austinites are lucky because there are a plethora of cheap Whole Foods knock-off stores popping up around town.  My favorite is Newflower Farmer's Market, which is known outside of Texas as Sunflower Farmers Market.  I like these stores because they feature a lot of local produce (like you would find at a farmer's market - only without getting up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday) and additive-free meats.  And they're cheap.  Cheap!  Last week the deal was whole chicken fryers for 67 cents/lb. and this week they have 93% lean ground meat for $1.97/lb.

How do you know if it's a good deal or not?  My formula is that I like to keep it $2/lb. and under for chicken and ground meat.  $3-4/lb. for steaks and seafood.   $1/lb. or less for fresh produce.  This will vary by region (oh, how I miss living in Louisiana with the cheap seafood!).

Now, once you've found a place to buy your meat and produce, it might not be the same place to buy the rest of your groceries.  Most people do better by going to 2 or 3 different stores.  I know that sounds like a lot - but you don't have to do it all in one day or even in one week.  For example, the cheapest place to buy milk near my house is a gas station.  That sounds weird, but it's $1 less a gallon than at H.E.B. - and we go through 4 gallons of milk a week - so that's $16 a month in savings.  And it's a gas station, so I can actually run in and run out, which you can't do at a grocery store since the milk is in the back.

I also get most of our toiletries at CVS.  There are plenty of places online to learn about using CVS Extra Care Bucks (or Walgreen's and Rite Aid's programs), so I won't be going into those right now.  There are people out there making $2800 a year from garage sales where they sale the extra toiletries they get for free from CVS.  This sounds nice, but I don't like having stockpiles of stuff that my family won't use.  Instead, I CVS for a couple of weeks once a year and get all of our stuff for the rest of the year.  I spent about $50 back in February and haven't spent a dime since on toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, floss, mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, etc. 

The rest of our groceries are still purchased at H.E.B.  They have good deals, in-store coupons, and are open 24 hours a day.  I will pick up meat and produce there if it is on sale, but most of the stuff I buy there are dry goods, so I only have to go there twice a month.  This is key when you shop at multiple stores.  Even if you are great at staying on a list, chances are if you go in a store you're going to spend a couple of dollars more than planned.  So it's much better to limit your visits.

So the main thing to take from today (if you haven't already stopped reading from utter and complete boredom), is to re-evaluate where you shop.  You want to buy your meat and produce at the store that consistently has the best sales on those items.  Be open to go to multiple stores to get the best combination of deals.

Tomorrow I'll talk about menu planning.

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