Grocery Shopping Guidelines

 Posted by on August 3, 2010  Add comments  Tagged with: ,
Aug 032010

A reader asks…

“Do you shop with coupons or just buy store brand items? Also, do you shop at one store each week or multiple stores to get the best deals and do you have set prices you will not go over for the meat that you buy? Where do you get all your great recipes, do you come up with them yourself or use cookbooks or internet resources? I would love any tips you might have for grocery shopping and coming up with new recipes to try! I would love to get my monthly food cost below $250.00.”

There was a time when I used coupons quite a lot, and I did very well, but that was when I had free coupon resources. We don’t subscribe to a newspaper because we can get all the news we need to know online, and our largest area paper raised their yearly subscription cost so high (even for weekends only) that my parents, who were my most reliable source of Sunday coupon inserts, stopped subscribing. I also found that couponing required more time than I wanted to put into it, and I could see how finding and putting together “deals” could (and does) become an obsession.

I still print online coupons, and use them when I can, but my biggest money-saving strategy is still the very simplest one…I know prices. I keep a price book, and can recognize phenomenal sales, and I buy items in bulk when they’re super-cheap. I also don’t shop to make specific meals, but rather to replenish my pantry. We always have a large supply of stored food, so my weekly shopping usually consists of milk, juice, produce, and whatever fantastic bargains I can find in the sale flyers. I typically shop at a bakery thrift store, a grocery store with a fantastic meat counter, another grocery store with terrific weekly sales, and a large retailer, such as Target or Wal-Mart. Whether I venture into these stores depends on what I need to purchase, and what they happen to have on sale.

I plan our meals around what we have to use up, which is why you saw some repetition in our menus. For example, if we have a large supply of chicken, but not much beef, we’ll have several chicken meals in a row (*Note* we do not eat shellfish or pork. We eat beef or chicken sausage and hot dogs, and turkey ham/bacon). We ate a lot of blueberries in the last couple of weeks because berries are in season right now, and I was able to purchase them cheaply. I own two good, basic cookbooks (that’s it!), and I’m very fond of AllRecipes (especially the ingredient search – great for using up leftovers), but I’ve also been cooking for almost 25 years, so I’m able to fly by the seat of my pants, so to speak. For example, I have a basic cake recipe memorized, so I know the typical ingredient proportions, and how to make substitutions and variations that will work. I often read recipes just to get ideas, and then I use them as a springboard for my own creations. I try to cook from scratch as often as possible, and most importantly, I work hard to make sure that no food goes to waste.

I’m often asked to share my price book in its entirety, and I always say no – not to be mean or selfish, but for these very good reasons:

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 (I update mine once a year). A price book is a valuable tool that will change as the economy changes. 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.

However, I will share some general grocery price benchmarks that I follow:

Meat – I will not purchase any meat that costs more than $2 per pound. I won’t pay more than $1 per pound for chicken, because bone-in chicken breasts go on sale pretty regularly for 99 cents/pound.

Produce – Fresh produce must cost $1 per pound or less. This means that we mostly eat what’s in season, and therefore cheap. When we have a vegetable garden (meaning when I’m not pregnant, and do not have a baby to care for), we freeze our own garden produce. When I can’t find good produce bargains, we fall back on our store of frozen vegetables and canned fruits (packed in juice, no sugar added).

Cheese – $2 per pound or less

Cereal – I will never pay more than 11 cents per ounce for cold cereals. This means that if an 18-ounce box costs more than $2, I don’t buy it.

Bread – $1.15 per 16-ounce loaf. This is how much it costs to make a 1-pound loaf of my homemade, honey-wheat bread, so I won’t buy any bread that exceeds this price.

Pasta – 65 cents per pound. This is the maximum I will pay for any pasta, so when Wal-Mart had their store-brand spaghetti and elbow macaroni on sale for 50 cents per 16-ounce box, I bought 15 boxes.

Canned beans – I watch for these to go on sale for 3 for $1 in the fall (chili season) and buy several flats.

Canned soup – 60 cents per 10.5-ounce can. I used to watch for 50-cent soup, but I find that I can very rarely find it at that price anymore.

Frozen veggies – $1 per pound. In the winter, Bird’s Eye veggies usually go on sale for 99 cents per 16-ounce bag, and that’s when I stock up.

Yogurt – 7 cents per ounce. We prefer Yoplait, so I had to set this benchmark a little high.

It’s more difficult to set benchmarks for things like milk and eggs, because prices for these items fluctuate wildly, but I consider $2/gallon for milk to be a great sale, and I try to always pay less than $1 for a dozen eggs (79 cents/dozen is great! But rare).

I only purchase as much as we can neatly and properly store, and what we can consume before expiration. Remember…wasted food is wasted money! The same goes for things like deodorant, medicated shampoos and body washes, and toothpaste. I find that many people don’t realize that these things do expire, and become less effective as time goes on. I try my very best to get the best prices I can for things we need, but I also have three children who need my time and attention so, as in all areas of my life, I work hard to achieve balance.

I hope this helps. For more on this subject, please see these posts:

How to Keep a Price Book

How I Shop and Plan Our Meals
My Favorite Pantry Staples for Frugal Meals
Tracking Price Trends
Tips for Buying in Bulk
The Frugal Pantry
Frugal Food Storage
The Savings Notebook