Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thrifty Thursday---Grocery Shopping tip

I'm sure we've all noticed the recent hike in grocery prices, and I can only attribute it to the rising cost of gasoline used in transport, which has to be passed on to the consumer.

Well, in light of winter being slow season for landscapers, I set a goal a few months ago to cut down some of our budget line-items, groceries being one of them. I shop once a week, and though my menus vary greatly from week to week (or at least the dinner portion), I always seemed to spend the same amount each time. Within about five dollars, my HEB total was extremely predictable.

So what's a girl to do when she puts herself on a budget that is 25% less than normal per week? Well, I did try to incorporate some inexpensive meals into my menu, but I also tried another trick that I think has been even more helpful than changing menus---using a calculator at the store.

I know this isn't exactly a new idea, but bear with me. I stuck a little calculator in my purse, and pulled it out as soon as I started loading things into my basket. With each item, I just keep a running total of my costs. For the first few weeks, I also scribbled a quick note of the price next to the item on my list. (This was mostly because I was paranoid that I'd push the wrong button along the way and lose my tally. I wanted to be able to enter them again if that happened.)

It became like a game to me. I was in a competition with myself, determined to stay under the predetermined amount. As that amount drew nearer, I was a bit more selective about what went into the cart. Suddenly, things I thought were good buys ended up going back on the shelf. They could wait. I never thought I made impulsive purchases at the grocery store, but apparently I had gotten used to getting some things we didn't absolutely need, just because they were on sale or I thought they'd come in handy.

Just the mere fact that I knew ahead of time what my total was going to be was a huge help in sticking to the budget. I mean, think about it: once your items are being rung up, what are you going to do if your total exceeds your budget? You can't exactly make changes at that point. But if you know your total before getting to the check-out, you can easily go back and unload some things from the cart.

I also found it helpful to see the individual prices of my purchases, some of which had gone up significantly since I'd last really paid attention. That comes in handy when I see, for example, an ad at another store and want to determine if it's really worth that extra stop. It also helps me weed out a few items that have just gotten too expensive to justify.

Disclaimer: I do my grocery shopping alone, at night. So I don't have kids vieing for my attention while I'm trying to make calculations. And I can no longer make my phone-calls to my friends while shopping, because I'm just not capable of talking, shopping, and calculating simultaneously.

But since starting this habit, I've consistently been able to keep our HEB bill 25% lower than it's been for the past year or so, so it's worth it to me to look a bit geekish at the store.


Michelle B. said...

Stephanie, I do this on a regular basis also (although not always). I generally shop at Walmart, but buy milk at HEB and a few other things that I know are cheaper there. Pull up from Sams and diapers there or Costco. It helps to know what I have to have and than how much I can spend on things that are optional or needed but not till later. I have actually had people tell me that they should be doing that too (having a calculator)

the mccann clan said...

I used to travel with calculator in hand to the grocery story regularly when we were living on a tighter budget, and you've just inspired me to begin again, especially during this time of transition! Thanks for the motivation, and at the very least the encouragement to know that I'm not the only one looking like a dork at the grocery store! ;o)

Kristen & Dave said...

I've been given weird looks as I call the price of an item out to Dave to enter into the calculator (you didn't think I'd shop alone did you? I do nothing alone). But it does help! I'm with you, Steph!

Chef Mama said...

Steph, this reminds me of something my mom had when I was little. It was this little red plastic "tool" that had some plastic buttons on it. You would click on the first button for cents, I guess, and it would turn a wheel. When it got to 10 it made the next wheel turn to 1. Not sure I am describing it well, but it was a pre-calculator thing!

I'm proud of you for being able to spend less. Dave would be proud, too! LOL!

I appreciate your disclaimer of being alone. What a difference that makes. If I didn't have to read every label for gluten contents I suspect I'd be more efficient. :)

Grafted Branch@Restoring the Years said...

Hey! That sounds just like me when, 11 years ago, my husband was out of work and trying to start his own business for a good portion of year!

I was never as consistently successful as you, but I remember the thrill of the competition with my calculator.

(For myself, though, I did it backward--starting with my budgeted amount and subtracting item amounts as I went.)

I need to shop at night like you. Because it's then or never, and it's been never for a long, long time.

Chef Mama said...

Steph, have you ever seen the book, "Dinner's in the Freezer" by Jill Bond? I think maybe you borrowed it once, but I may be wrong. It's happened. Anyway, she has a good section on doing a price notebook comparing items in different stores. She buys a lot of bulk, but I've found that bulk doesn't always mean better pricing. I also have a set of 3 books by Amy Dacyzyn (I know I just butchered that!). She is a frugal QUEEN. Then I have others, including one by a friend of mine called Cheap Talk with the Frugal Friends. Let me know if you ever want to borrow one. It could take some time for me to uncover them, but I'd do it for you!

Anonymous said...

I have done this, too. I also found pre-planning my shopping trip online at They have a shopping list feature that also allows you to add items to your cart as you are browsing their in-store and monthly ads. It was super-helpful when I was trying to just figure out what to buy that was on sale at the store.