Frugal grocery shopping basics
As I’ve started to write up my experiences grocery shopping in Mexico, I’ve realized that in order for the comparisons to make any sense I first need to give them some context.
If you’ve been reading Pocketmint for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I place a lot of emphasis on food. From a purely economic standpoint, it’s the second or third biggest expense in our lives, after housing and vying with health care/insurance. And for me personally, food is a primary source of satisfaction and pleasure.
If you look over at the keyword cloud in the right sidebar, you’ll see that the only topic larger than ‘groceries’ is ‘frugal living’. In many ways, two of my top directives — save money and eat well — are in direct conflict. I’ve spent years refining my methods for doing both at the same time, with maximum efficiency.
The result is that I feed my family — currently two adults, one half-time teenager, plus two cats and a dog — on just over $10 per day, including predominantly local and/or organic produce, sustainably-caught seafood, and top-quality ingredients (from the perspective of both taste and health), as well as consumable supplies like soap and toilet paper. As I discovered when I recently did the math, that’s way below the federal food stamp budget, in a city with higher-than-average food costs.
So … leaving Mexico aside for a moment, let me describe my usual grocery-shopping system.
When you’re standing in the grocery store aisle making a purchase decision, the information you need most is not printed on the label, or written on the little shelf sticker, or in fact available anywhere in the store. The single most important thing to know is price over time: what that item has cost each week, at every store you shop at, for the last several months.
Say you’re looking at a display of tuna cans, on sale 4 for $5. Just because it says SALE doesn’t automatically make it a good deal. Even the fact that the posted regular price is $1.69 doesn’t tell you anything useful.
For all you know, that store never sells tuna at $1.69 per can, because it’s perpetually ‘on sale’. That $1.69 is just there to make you think you’re getting a good deal (in behavioral economics, this is called ‘anchoring’). Or maybe it sold for $1.69 last week, but two weeks ago the same tuna was $.99 per can. Puts that $1.25 in a whole different light.
Or what if you knew that a different store down the street regularly uses tuna as a loss leader at 10 for $10, at least once every eight weeks. Or that buying an 8-can pack at Costco costs $1.47 per can, and their cans are two ounces larger.
If you know all of these things, you can make an informed decision about whether to buy tuna at this store, and this price, today.
The best way to go about this when you’re starting out is to keep a ‘price book’. There are many variations on this system, but here’s mine: I take a little pocket-sized notebook and at the top of each page I write the name of an item that I purchase frequently. Then, each time I am in a store, I add a line on that page containing the date, the store, and the price per quantity. So for example (not real numbers, I’m making this up):
In just a few weeks you will start to get a sense for what the best deals are, and you can start setting your ‘buy prices’. In the above case, I would set $1 per 5oz can as my buy price — any higher than that, and you know the Costco price will match or beat it. When you see a sale at or below your buy price, you know it’s time to stock up.
After several months, you may find that you don’t need the actual price book anymore, because you’ve memorized 90% or more of the relevant buy prices. I don’t carry a book with me in Seattle now — though when we move again, and I’m faced with a different selection of neighborhood stores, I may start up again until I’ve internalized the new data.
Weekly Sale Ads
Price history is critical background knowledge, but it doesn’t determine what I put on my shopping list. That would be the weekly sales.
There are five major grocery stores within reasonable driving distance for me. Each puts out a weekly circular advertising their sale prices. Most of the stores run on a Wednesday to Tuesday cycle, and the ads arrive in Tuesday’s mail. Fred Meyer runs Sunday to Saturday, and since I don’t get a local newspaper I check their circular online.
Combing through five circulars of six to eight full newsprint pages each could be time-consuming, but I’ve got it down to a science.
First, I have learned to ignore Albertsons altogether, despite it being the closest store to our house. Albertsons’ sale prices rarely beat the regular prices of other stores in the area. When they do have a good deal, they often have it only in limited supply, which means they run out of stock early and won’t issue a raincheck. After about the fourth or fifth time I came out empty-handed, pissed off, and feeling like I’d wasted my time, I decided I was done. So the Albertsons ad? Goes directly to recycling.
That leaves paper ads for Safeway, QFC, and Top Foods, plus the online Fred Meyer ad. (For the record, I would happily shop at Trader Joe’s, but there isn’t one close enough to make it worthwhile.)
When I first scan the weekly ads I’m looking for just two things: loss leaders and fresh produce.
The best loss leaders are often on the front or back pages, where they get the most exposure. They’re also invariably the largest items on each page. In my initial scan I just note the highlights — anything large — and ignore the rows and rows of smaller items.
Next, I find the produce section of each ad. For the 20 weeks that our CSA is in effect, we’re already getting plenty of produce delivered, so I rarely need to supplement. But for the other 32 weeks, fresh fruits and vegetables are a priority. So I mentally catalog what vegetables are on sale, and start thinking of meals that I can plan around them.
I also briefly check the seafood section, looking for a sale on wild-caught shrimp or a sustainable variety of fish. (I don’t eat, or cook, meat or poultry; if I did I’d pay similar attention to those sales.) Most weeks I don’t buy seafood, but if a great deal comes along I’ll stock up (if frozen) or plan a special meal around it (if fresh).
Note the order of operations in those last two paragraphs, because this is a critical strategy: I don’t decide what I want to eat, and then look for the lowest price — I first see what fresh food is cheap, and then plan meals based on those ingredients.
Once I know what the loss leaders and produce sales are at each store, I can choose which ones I will actually visit. I never want to go to four different stores in the same week — too time-consuming. Usually I pick two, sometimes just one. Fred Meyer makes the cut more often than not; not only do they often have multiple good deals, but from years of comparisons I have learned that Fred Meyer has the best regular prices for a majority of items, if something I need is not on sale anywhere.
Especially with seasonal produce, the same item will sometimes be on sale at multiple stores — though not always for the same price. However, I will sometimes pay a bit more at one store to save the gas and time of driving to a second or third. Asparagus might be $1.69 per pound this week at Safeway, but if Safeway has nothing else to draw me in, I might instead pay $1.99 at QFC, which has three other really great deals as well.
Time and money, as usual, are a tradeoff, and you have to do your own calculations about where to draw the line. When I’m commuting to a 50-hour job, I will spend a little more money to save time; when I’m primarily homemaking and freelancing, I’ll spend a little more time to save money.
Once I’ve chosen the one or two stores that I intend to visit, I will spend another few minutes scanning the interiors of those ads for nonperishables that meet my buy price points, and make a shopping list for each store.
The final money-saving trick is to stick to those lists once I’m actually in the store. Every once in a while I will pick up something I didn’t plan for — an unadvertised special, for example — but most times I’m in and out with exactly what’s on the list and no more.
Perishable produce has to be restocked once a week or so, but nearly everything else can be bought when cheap and kept until needed. For this, decent storage is necessary. Keeping a stocked pantry means that I’m almost never caught out by having to buy a particular thing right away, regardless of price. Occasionally I do have to buy something not on sale, but at the very least I know that it’s coming up and I can add it to my next trip to Costco or Fred Meyer.
Cabinet space in our current kitchen is minimal, so I repurposed a corner of a tiny closetless bedroom down the hall that we use only for storage. (And currently, as a staging area for Getting Rid of Stuff.) My pantry is two sets of metal shelves, six feet high and about three wide. Everything is organized and clearly visible, so I can see with a quick glance what I have on hand.
Then we have the chest freezer, which is as problematic as it is indispensable. Aside from a couple of wimpy wire drawers, the only available organization method is to pile things on top of other things. If you dig far enough down, you’re bound to uncover some random item from the previous year, freezer-burned and long-forgotten. Worse, because only a fraction of the stash is readily visible, I occasionally purchase a large package of something only to discover later that I already had one. Or two.
I don’t recommend anyone copy the freezer part of my system. I’m trying to both reduce how much frozen food I buy, and cycle through what I do have more frequently. Still, I rely on the freezer space enough that I’m not sure how I’d fare if I were suddenly busted back to only the little fridge freezer.
I don’t use many manufacturer’s coupons. I tried the whole hardcore couponing thing for several months a couple of years ago, and in the end I concluded it wasn’t worthwhile for me in particular. Yes, I did save some money. However, it cost quite a bit in extra time and increased logistical stress. Also, it moved me in the direction of buying more packaged, highly-processed items than I would otherwise have purchased or than I could really feel good about. I decided that I would rather, for example, save money by making my own salad dressings, cookies, and soup from scratch, than spend that time hunting down coupons so I could purchase them already made.
Of course, this would not be possible if no one in our house either wanted to cook or was any good at it. Fortunately, my love for eating good food also extends to cooking. My homemade meals are both tastier and healthier than premade packaged foods and much cheaper than restaurant dinners, and most days I’m happy to make them.
My approach to coupons now is: if a manufacturer’s coupon shows up without any effort on my part (we get a Red Plum insert in the mail each week, plus the occasional unexpected Catalina printout at the register) for one of the few packaged items that I regularly buy anyway, I’ll make a point of using it. This happens maybe all of once a month. Otherwise, I don’t worry about it.
Grocery store coupons, though, are another thing entirely. I use Fred Meyer’s ad coupons more weeks than not, and occasionally Top Foods’ as well. Plus, about once a quarter I get a set of QFC coupons in the mail — targeted based on my purchases in the store — and they always include several coupons for completely free items. Plus I make full use of rainchecks if something is sold out.
That’s my weekly routine, more or less. I’ve left out a few alternate options — Costco and the salvage grocer and the ethnic supermarket — that I utilize often but not every week, for specific kinds of things. And of course there are dozens of other minor strategies that help keep the grocery expenses low; I’ll cover those another time.
But this should give you enough of a sense of how I usually shop — with preplanned lists and meals organized around weekly sales at a couple of stores, buttressed by a stockpile of staples — to give you some context for my next post, about how wildly different an experience buying groceries in Mexico has been.