Tracking Price Trends

 Posted by on July 23, 2009  Add comments  Tagged with:
Jul 232009

A reader, Lizzie, left this question on my “How to Keep a Price Book” post:

“I’m curious how you keep track of price trends. When I’ve done a price book before, I’ve always kept one sheet *per item* (ie, this is a separate whole – half size – binder, LOL) and simply glance back over the previous entries to get an idea of when the item has neared its lowest price. I only write in a new entry when I see the price cheaper than the last one.¬†With just the one entry per item at a time, do you just have an exceptional memory for this kind of thing (though clearly if an entry for hotdogs has a date around July 4th next to it, it would be fair to assume that’s a trend, LOL)?”

Whew! Before I answer this, I have to admit that this question taxes my pregnant brain, which doesn’t seem to work correctly (or at all) most of the time. After 2 months of illness, when I barely even shopped for anything because the grocery store smell made me barf, the frugal part of my brain feels especially rusty!


First, I want to say that there are many, many ways to keep a price book. Some people like to use a small three-ring binder with only one item on each page, and some people only keep track of prices for their most frequently purchased items, instead of every item they buy (like me). There is no one right or wrong way to do it, and you should set yours up in a way that is the most effective and convenient for you to use.

I have kept a price book for 12 years now. I began tracking prices when I was fresh out of college, and low on funds. It was the first major step I took in my frugal life. I started by keeping track of grocery prices only, and I recorded them in an old day planner that I used in college. I got many prices from my sales receipts, and I also investigated each of the sources of food in my area, usually on Saturdays, to fill in the gaps. After I recorded all of their prices, I was quickly able to see which store consistently had the lowest regular prices (at that time it was Aldi, but when Super Wal-Mart came to town, they beat Aldi’s prices on many items).

When I established which stores’ regular prices were consistently the cheapest, I started watching sale flyers for sales that could beat those prices. When I found one I recorded it next to the lowest regular price, along with the date, and the store name. I called this column my “best sale” column, and I routinely updated it as I found better and better sales. I did it this way because I still wanted to have the best regular price recorded, in case I really needed a certain item, but couldn’t find a good sale.

After so many years of tracking prices, I’ve learned that certain items go on sale routinely throughout the year, and what the lowest sale price generally is. I don’t even track prices for those items anymore, because I have a benchmark in my head that I won’t exceed. Bone-in chicken breasts are a good example. They go on sale about every three months for 99 cents a pound (they were 88 cents a pound a few months ago, but that was a rare fluke).

I no longer have to record as much detail as I did when I first started, because I have so many prices committed to memory. I know that chocolate chips are cheapest around Christmas time, and 99 cents is usually the cheapest price I can find. I know that Kraft macaroni and cheese usually goes on sale in the spring for 45 cents a box, and since that’s the only kind we like, I buy a case of it and stockpile it in my basement. I’ve memorized the regular prices of items that rarely go on sale, so if I do come across a really great price, I can buy with confidence.

This system works for me simply because I’ve been a tightwad for so many years. If you’re just starting a price book, you might want to keep yours the way that Lizzie does, with one item on each page, so that you easily record and track price trends in your area.

Just for reference, here is a picture of one page in my price book:

You’ll see that each item on this page has a date of 2/1/09. This is because last winter, grocery prices in my area were rising every two weeks, and most of the sale prices I had recorded could no longer be found anywhere. Also, one of the stores that supplied many of my lowest prices – the Amish scratch and dent – raised their prices sharply last fall when the economy went down the tubes. Because they’re a 45-minute drive from here, they’re no longer a viable source of goods for us. I had to delete all of their prices and gain a new frame of reference. I decided that the best thing to do was to start over again with the lowest regular prices I could find, and begin recording the best sale prices that our troubled economy has to offer.

This brings me to a question that I’m often asked:

“I’d like to keep a price book, but I just don’t have time to record all those prices. Can you e-mail me your price book?”

I’m sorry, but the answer is NO.

I don’t say this to be mean, or heartless, or selfish. I actually have very good reasons for this answer:

1) Prices, brands, and sources of goods vary greatly by geographic area.

2) Everyone has different food likes, dislikes and preferences, and, most importantly,

3) Keeping a price book requires commitment. It takes time and energy to set one up, and even more time to keep it current. A price book is a valuable tool that will change as the economy changes, as my example above illustrates. If you’re serious about getting control of your spending, you need to make a personal investment in the achievement of this goal, and that can’t happen if someone else does all the work for you.

I do understand that time is a factor for everyone, but you can put together a price book simply by keeping your receipts. All of the information you need – item, price, date, store name – is right there, and package size is available on package labels. It will take longer to do it this way, but it’s a place to start.