Monday, April 6, 2009

My Grocery Shopping Method

Warning: long post ahead and it may be blah, blah, blog to you if you don't care about this sort of thing. It is in many ways a brain dump of all my tactics for saving on groceries learned over the last several years.

Recently I explained why I became a bargain hunter. My method has evolved to what it is today, though it is not exactly precise or very neat and tidy. I vary quite a bit in how and where I shop from week to week. In thinking this over, I could simplify my life by just choosing one day or evening to go grocery shopping and make a few stops in that one time frame with a very detailed list. Right now this method works for me, though I will be honest that I would sometimes rather just skip the bargain part entirely and go to SuperTarget and buy everything I need for a given week in one fell swoop. But I know if I did this on a regular basis I would have to spend more. So I'll keep to the bargain method for now.

In general, my method goes something like this.

1. Clip coupons from the Sunday paper and keep them organized in my coupon box. We get the Post because it seems to have better coupons and more coupons than the Gazette. We would love to go local, but the Gazette is so much more expensive than the deal we got on the Post for weekends. We get ONE paper only. I know folks who get multiple copies each week, but I feel for us that would not be worth the extra newspaper expense, time for me spent in clipping and organizing the coupons, additional environmental waste and may lead me into buying multiples of things we really need one or two of at a time. I just clip coupons for categories we will use, so I skip the coupons for supplements, hair color and pet food, for example. I know that some subscribe to services like CouponSense or the Grocery Game, but I'm too cheap to pay for these and think I've figured out a system that works for my family. I organize my coupons by category and take the whole box with me to the store whenever I go, because many times I have benefited from this when I found an unexpected markdown. The box I use now is a metal one with a handle that I got from Hobby Lobby and manila dividers I cut down to size to fit the box.

Using coupons, I rarely pay for:
- toothbrushes and toothpaste
- feminine products
- deodorant
- hair care products
- soap and lotion
And since I'm not paying for these items, I have more available to spend on food. Of course I use coupons for all our food categories, too, but the savings usually don't come to 100% for those food products.

2. Watch the grocery ads that come out on Wednesday in our area. Since we do not get the Gazette, I have to find these online which is a little more work, but worth it to me in planning out what I will buy from a particular store that week and matching up coupons to sales for that shopping trip. I then plan out when I will hit each store. I try to consolidate a grocery stop with our other regular outings so I can go to my preferred King Soopers and Alberstons that are near the gym we go to. Safeway is closer to us, so I feel free to make an exclusive trip there.

3. Make a comprehensive and detailed grocery list based on the sale ad and coupon match-ups. So my list may have a section for Safeway, King Soopers, Target, Costco, Alberstons and Walgreens. I just go to half of these stores, or fewer, on any given week. I want to get good deals, but I want to make good use of time and gasoline, too, so I have to have more than a few items on a list for a particular store to make it worth a stop, in my opinion. From this list and what is already stockpiled in my pantry from previous sales, I make a loose menu plan and fill in the ingredient gaps on the grocery list (for example: Maybe I need dried black beans but don't see those advertised anywhere so I just put it on the list and will pick it up somewhere, even at full price. gasp!)

4. Shop with focus, but with my eyes open to the unexpected. If at all possible, except for a when I have a short list for a particular store, I try to shop without children...for all the obvious reasons. I always check out the reduced meat, dairy, produce and general merchandise sections and sometimes these turn out to be amazing savings, when coupled with my coupons. I find that most dairy products, except milk, will last at least 1-2 weeks past their best before dates without a problem.

5. Shop with care at warehouse clubs. We have a membership to Costco that we utilize, but we are quite careful with what we buy there. There are just too many convenience items that are too enticing: prepared entrees, specialty items (that might be great for parties, but don't fit within our normal grocery budget), or volume packaging that doesn't make sense for our family. The list of things I buy from Costco because they are consistently a good value and can't usually be matched with combining coupons and sales is:
- cheese
- honey
- bananas
- flour tortillas
- organic spinach and spring mix salad
- bags of fresh broccoli & cauliflower
- bags of frozen fruits and vegetables (I will generally only pay around $1/lb for frozen vegetables and a bit more for fruits.)
- large cans of tomato products - diced, sauce, ketchup
- large cans of fruit or applesauce
- big bag of tortilla chips
- white flour
- coffee beans - we've found a couple kinds we like there
- butter - if we need it and I can't find a better coupon/sale match-up that week
- Kirkland batteries, though we are thinking of moving to the rechargeable options
- gasoline - not food, but we'll fill up since we are there anyway

On occasion we also splurge on:
- a fresh prepared entree in lieu of going out to eat
- Einstein's bagels - still much cheaper than going to Einstein's to buy them
- a specialty item like pesto, fancier cheese, or fresh salsa
- convenience items that have current coupons in their coupon book that we get in the mail
- clothing that has been marked down (For example, I recently got a little girls velour princess warm-up suit for $6.00...which is being saved for Christmas.) These deals are not marked in any special way, but if you take a minute to look you may find them.
- a meal at the cafe at the front since the prices are quite reasonable for pizza, hot dogs or a huge cup of fat-free frozen yogurt

6. General tips
A. Be willing to try new brands. You may find that for some products you will be very brand loyal. In other areas, it may be worth it to you to go with the one that comes to you at the lowest cost.
B. Watch for coupon blinkie machines at the grocery store. These may have coupons for items you may want to buy anyway, or sweeten the price of the item on sale you were going to buy anyway. Or take a few coupons for another week when the item will be on sale.
C. Watch for coupon books in displays at the store. I have many times found good coupon books in the produce department of King Soopers that have included coupons for organic products.
D. Focus more on what you spent than on what you saved, according to your receipt. The savings number is states is rather relative because most often, I would never buy the items at their full price.
E. This is a personal choice, but I don't shop at Walmart except for a couple times a year, usually in the spring when I need gardening supplies. It is so big and I inevitably forget something on the other end of the store. And I get too enticed by all the things that don't fall into the category of groceries.
F. You will be able to get an even better value when you combine a store coupon and a manufacturers' coupon for the same product. These opportunities most often present themselves at Target or Safeway. Target has online coupons that you can print each week and occasionally mails you coupons in a booklet. Safeway often has coupons in its weekly ad (just pick it up at the front of the store if you don't get the paper) or in a mailer sent to you. I hear there are some mailers sent out by King Soopers, too, but we must live in the wrong zip code. You can't win them all. :)
G. You can also load eCoupons to your King Soopers and Safeway cards via the Proctor & Gamble eSaver and Shortcuts (for King Soopers only). Go to the grocery store websites to load these. Google it for more information on how these can work with manufacturers' coupons to essentially get a double discount on one product.
H. Only print online coupons that you will use for sure. These can be high value coupons, but if you print them and don't use them it is a real waste of ink and paper.
I. Watch for catalina coupons that print from a machine when your receipt is printed. These are often high value and can sweeten the deal on your future purchases.
J. Decide what items are truly a good value for your family and what items are worth the stockpiling space they will require until you use them. For me, having 10 bottles of toilet cleaner on hand taking up space in my closet doesn't make sense, even if they were free. My home is not a store, but a place for the things that make our life function well or add beauty or comfort to our lives! Ah, thrift and simplicity collide!
K. Use those $5 off $50 Safeway coupons in the back of the Entertainment and Gold C books kids sell each fall. In most situations, King Soopers will accept that as a competitor's coupon.
L. When you get a well-stocked pantry, feel free to take a week off and let your husband stop for that jug of milk to get you through until next week.
M. Accept that you will not be able to snatch up every good deal, so let that notion go.
N. Don't tie up your self-worth in how much you can save. If you are working within whatever budget your family has set and you have purchased the items your family needs, accept that as good enough. It is grocery shopping, not a report card on your value as a person or your resourcefulness. Don't compare to others who may have a different budget, different needs or a different situation.

This is all not rocket science, but it does take time and effort to find your groove. And I by no means have "arrived". I read some blogs where people are spending just $40 a week to feed their families, but I honestly don't want to go that low unless I had to. Some weeks I can, but that is not the norm or even my goal. Good food is one of life's simple pleasures, in my opinion. And since we eat at home for almost every meal I don't want to skimp too far.

If you want insight from the real pros, visit Money Saving Mom or Springs Bargains. Money Saving Mom also has a Walgreens tutorial on the right sidebar, entitled Walgreens 101 that may help you in understanding how to make shopping there work to your advantage.

Wishing you many happy returns on your bargain hunting efforts!


Amy Phelps said...

ahhhh. Thank you my friend. You have no idea how your post will bless me and I dissect it further. I agree with your commment about not comparing yourselves to others, however, our grocery bill is an area I really know we can save so much more, and I know it is done without having to buy generic TP. Know what I mean??? So it's encouraging to just "observe" how you do it and I can take it from there. Your no Walmart shopping surprised me. I thought that was the way people REALLY DO IT - since they price match. I however found that the clerks are not so friendly about this, and over all it's not worth the hassle to me, and the temptation towards the buying more clothes for the kids - even if it is a $2 T shirt. Walmart is a very dangerous place for our budget - so that is why I stay away.
Thank you Rachel, I'll keep you posted how I'm doing :)

mer@lifeat7000feet said...

Excellent! Thanks for taking the time to type all this out.

I do things similar to you...though I do shop at Walmart. Do you know about She usually has a weekly list of savings broken down by store.

I agree about the Denver Post being better than the Gazette. I hate that I don't get the weekly (Wednesday) ads, but don't mind looking things up online...just less paper to waste!

(Totally irrelevant to this conversation, but my husband's pic was in the Gazette this week. I'll have to send you the link to the online article!)