Tuesday, April 2, 2013

March Grocery Challenge Review

Well, March was month one of my grocery challenge. The idea for this first month was that I was gonna try to just shop "frugal/normal" and try to get a baseline of what I normally spend on food in a month.

I fear that by that criteria the month would have to be classified as a miserable failure.

Apparently in grocery shopping, as in quantum mechanics, the mere act of measuring a given phenomenon alters its outcome.

I found that once I got the idea of tracking prices and hunting for deals, I became incapable of simply keeping up my regular "routine" such a it is.

The other problem I ran into was that while I had a general idea of what was and wasn't a good price, "general" really didn't cut it when you're trying to get the best prices possible. So I kept ending up "stocking up" on something, only to find it much cheaper a few days later.

But instead of just making a note of the price for future reference, I kept feeling compelled to buy more at the cheaper price... you know, dollar cost averaging for groceries or something like that.

Anyhow, I sort of ended up purchasing fairly ridiculous quantities of a number of items... 9.5 dozen eggs, 6 pounds of butter, 20 pounds of cheese, 15 grapefruit, 2 dozen oranges, and WAY more bananas than I could possibly eat before they went brown.

I didn't end up wasting anything though, and I sorta spent the month cooking and freezing my "harvest."

All told, I ended up spending $197, which is $60 over my "goal" of $137. But I wasn't really trying to hit the target this month... so I don't really consider that to be a failure. I didn't include the cost of cat food (which would have really blown the budget!) toiletries & other non-food items.

I also chose not to include the cost of seeds and other garden stuff. I suppose this could have gone either way, but the way I look at it gardening is sort of a "hobby with benefits." If I really started looking at it as a food production project, I'm afraid it would become a lot less fun.

So the month ended up being more of a scouting expedition than anything else. I wound up shopping at eight different stores, and there are three or four more that I didn't even hit! The eight I went to were King Soopers/Kroger, Save-A-Lot, Avanza/Lowe's Market, Albertsons, Sprouts Farmer's Market, Costco, The Little Saigon (Asian Market), and The Friday Store (surplus/salvage store.)

I found that each store has a definite "personality" in terms of pricing. Some have great specials, but horrible prices otherwise. Some have very few sale items, but low prices in general, and some are a mixture of both. some have great produce sections (important to me) while others are better at dry goods/staples.

There's also the distance and PITA (pain in the arse) factors to consider. The store with probably the best and cheapest produce section would have to be Sprouts Farmer's Market... and they also have bulk foods and lots of specialty items for MUCH cheaper than you can find them elsewhere, but unfortunately both of their locations require a drive across town to get to. I think I'll have to do some better planning if I'm gonna go there on a regular basis.

Albertsons was the big loser of the bunch. Besides being in a location that's a bit problematic, both times I went there the prices in the store didn't match their advertised specials - which really weren't that cheap to begin with. I don't think I'll be heading back there unless there's some REALLY good deal.

I still haven't made it to Safeway, Whole Foods, Big Lots or the Dollar Store - so there's more explorations to come. There's also Target and WalMart - but I'm not sure I can make myself shop for groceries at either of those places... but hey, I suppose it's worth a look. I actually was at the Dollar Store today to pick up a few toiletries and found that they did have good prices on frozen fruit and veggies.

Unfortunately I was just heading out on a 3-4 hour shopping/errand run and buying a bunch of frozen food seemed like a bad idea. Perhaps I should get organized and keep an ice chest in the car with me... Hmmm...

Anyhow, I tried three different stabs at a "price book" but still haven't found anything that really works for me. I bought a little notebook that was small enough to fit in my pocket - but you're supposed to have one page for every different item, and you can't add extra pages to a spiral notebook - so I thought about a 3-ring binder, but I can't haul that with me to the store. I even knocked out a little database to track it all, but doing all the data entry... umm... well... I kinda pooped out after entering everything from the first few trips.

So I guess my goals for the upcoming month are to see if I can do a better job of recognizing a good deal and steering clear of those that aren't really so good. I also need to be a tad bit (ahem) more reasonable about the quantities of food I'm buying. Seriously... one head of cabbage per person per month is MORE than enough!

That's all the news I have to report at the moment. We'll see how this little experiment progresses...

Any suggestions on a price book strategy for someone as um... "organizationally challenged" as I am?


  1. I guess I have a good memory for prices. I've never used a price book. I keep my info in my head. I don't buy a huge variety of items, so that helps. And what I do buy are very basic items.

    I think sorting out which stores are best for what items is huge. You may find a deal here or there at the different stores, but just knowing what each is best for will help you out a lot. I have one produce stand where I buy about 80% of our veggies and fruit outside of the gardening season, simply because they have the best prices on produce. I buy my large sacks of baking supplies, beans and rice at the restaurant supply, because I know I am getting a great price there. Milk and eggs I buy wherever I can find them on sale, same with meat.

    One thing I do, for the problem of over-buying, if I've had a month of some serious over stocking of items, then the next month I just make a deal with myself to focus on using those items up and only buying the bare needs, like milk. Our pantry and freezers are so well-stocked right now that I'm thinking I could get through the whole month of April only buying milk and one more bag of oranges. Of course, I know that I will probably buy more. But I like to think that I could practically get through the month without stepping into a grocery store.

    Good luck with your continuing challenge. If nothing else, this has been a source of entertainment for you (and your readers)!

    1. I think I definitely need to concentrate on using up some of what I have stockpiled... I bought a HUGE bag of brown rice a few months ago at Costco, only to discover that I still had about a gallon of it in the pantry. Oy! And then there are the pinto beans... I think I could live for a year on the pinto beans in my pantry.

      But I think you're totally right about knowing which stores are good for what. There's one near me (Avanza/Lowe's) that has amazing loss leaders in the produce section... BUT... the stuff that's not on sale can be much more expensive than regular prices at some of the other stores. I guess I'm just gonna have to sort it out as I go.

      So far it's still fun... and that's a fairly important criteria for me. When it stops being fun it would probably make sense for me to put a bit more effort into my web pages and make a bit more money rather than driving myself over the edge trying to stick to a project that makes me grumpy!

      Thanks again for the tips and inspiration!

  2. First let me say that if you get a styrofoam cooler for your car, especially if you have a hatchback rather than an enclosed trunk, be careful what it's next to because it can make a really obnoxious squeaking sound. (I'm afraid of plastic breaking down in our intense summer heat, so I thought styrofoam was genius--not so much anymore.)

    I have a love/hate relationship with price books. I can't remember what my first thing was--some kind of notebook. I learned that HEB had overall better prices, but Albertsons had better sales and often had better dairy prices. That was a couple of decades ago.

    Then I made a spreadsheet on my Revo (Palm Pilot competitor). Loved that thing. But one day a soaking rain ruined it. Then my next one also broke, plus they quit making them, and I couldn't even find them used, and I didn't like the modern equivalents, so I got really sick of electronics and went back to paper for everything--a very sad day.

    My next price book was slips of paper (think index cards cut in half, only cheaper and thinner) held together with a rubber band (between two pieces of cardboard so they'd stay flat). In the upper right-hand corner I would write the category (protein, dairy, produce, grains, dessert, toiletries, supplements, etc.) so I could find the item quicker (did I call it "brown sugar," or "sugar, brown"? Going to the dessert section made the search quicker).

    Then I would put the type of thing (cheddar cheese) as a title. Then for each entry I'd add the brand, size, store, price, date, and whether the price was a sale price. (I never did find a pattern of when things went on sale.) Dates didn't seem important at first, but the past few years, prices have been all over the place. I used a pencil so I could keep things updated, but then I ended up wanting to keep all the old prices until I had updated all the stores with more recent prices so I could still guess how they related. Ugh.

    Now I have an iPod Touch. It's not an iPhone, so I can't count on getting internet access, so I can't use google docs. But it doesn't come with a spreadsheet (or pricebook)--I've been looking for one on and off, but nothing has grabbed me. Or maybe I can put my pricebook online, then open it when I'm at home so it downloads and I can read it at the store even if I can't enter items at the store. I don't really get this device yet.

    In fact, I'm not really using it for anything at all--it sits in my purse until the battery runs down and then I recharge it. Modern devices are all about other people's data, which I really don't care about. They are not designed for keeping track of your own data. (If what I'm saying doesn't make any sense, just look how obnoxious cutting and pasting is.)

    But other people's price book aps--will they let me put in all the data I want? Rumors of just scanning the bar code and having loads of info auto-load sound awesome, though. Well, I'm looking forward to your other comments too.

    1. Ooooo... I LOVE your loose papers pricebook method. I think that could work for me... and maybe I don't have to write it down every single time I buy it... just keep a running list of best prices both on sale and not. That sounds significantly less crazy making...

      I don't have any of those fancy devices, and I sorta can't imagine trying to navigate a spreadsheet in the middle of the grocery store. I did discover that my freebie flip phone that I carry just for emergencies does have a calculator though... and that could come in handy especially when advanced math is required!

      I'm laughing at your styrofoam cooler comments. The idea of toxic fumes gathering in my car doesn't sound terribly appealing! If I get organized enough to do the cooler thing I'll probably just use the regular one that I have in the basement. I'll just have to remember to put it in the car and to put some ice or cooler packs in it before I go shopping...

      Anyhow, thanks for all your thoughts. I think I may be off to try pricebook version 4!

  3. Yea for less crazy making! Definitely no re-writing it every time--most of your staples will be the same many times in a row (except fresh produce).

    I like keeping track of all the prices--then I know which places I've already checked for each thing. But just keeping track of best prices lets you know how whatever store you're in right now compares, which is the most important thing to know. (Heh, right now your best price on beans and rice is--free! At home!)

    Thinking about it, now I just assume that my favorite store generally has the best prices on whatever is available there, and the local food coop is generally cheaper than Whole Foods unless there's a 360 brand item, in which case, no telling. When a new Target opened near me and then expanded their grocery section, I checked a lot of prices. They're not as good as my favorite store, but of course better than the local convenience stores and drug store--so it's good for when I just need a few things that they have and can save some gas. But I still really need to check vitamins. I think Target is best for that, but haven't gotten all the prices I've collected together in one place. One more thing: I recommend bulk spices. (Or ethnic stores for spices.)

    By the way, do you have any favorite beans-and-rice recipes? Right now I have only one I like: chili, with beans (and meat), on top of rice. I was so good for so many years and ate chili on rice instead of on fritos, but I have cracked and now, although I still eat it on rice, I also put a few fritos on top. And lots of cheese.

    Styrofoam oozes toxic fumes? Dang. I knew it didn't break down very well (which I thought would be good for a car cooler). I guess it's just as well that I don't know where that cooler went. Even if you forget the ice, the cooler will still help. I never used ice, but then I also didn't do much between shopping and going home.

    1. I generally buy my vitamins online from Puritan's Pride. Once a year (in the fall, I think) they have an amazing deal where you buy one get 2 free. But they have pretty good prices the rest of the time too.

      I'm not sure about the styrofoam and the fumes... just picturing it baking in a hot car...

      Hmmm... beans and rice... Well, currently I'm eating refritos & spanish rice. I can post the recipes although at the moment I can't find the rice recipe I generally use. Cuban black beans and rice are good too, and cajun red beans and rice, or dal (curried lentils) with rice...

      The thing is, so many of my favorite recipes are off the table for me now because of my allergies. But perhaps I'll try to dig a few up and see how they can be modified.

      Stay tuned...

    2. Hmm, Puritan's Pride. Never heard of it. Yea! Learning!

      Reviews are mixed. Some people list specific things that did not work for them when other versions did. Others list specific things that did work for them.

      Allergy foo? Sucks. I wish you very good look in fixing or replacing your favorite recipes that are now no good for you.

    3. The other one I sometimes order from is Vitamin Shoppe, but their prices aren't usually as good. Costco also has vitamins, but I haven't done a cost comparison.

  4. I kept a price book for about 6 months. It helped me recall what the "normal" and "best" prices were. After a while it all became second nature, like for Lili in a comment above, so I stopped.

    1. Well, me being me, I think it would be a minor miracle if I could keep it up for 6 months! But for the moment I think it will be a useful tool.

  5. huh, I never thought about doing a price book. Our stores are all so far apart that we pick one based on the kinds of things we need. Our Safeway has the best meat, fish and dairy, our Shopper's Food Warehouse has the best deals on pantry foods, and Costco has the best deal on staples like rice, oil, and flour. It would be interesting to write down prices on things we buy a lot though to see how they change.
    Great post!

    1. It's sort of a fun little project. Yesterday I had all my receipts, and a calculator and a bunch of little pieces of paper spread all over the living room floor. If nothing else it was great entertainment for the cats!

  6. I have nothing really useful to offer here because I don't keep a price book. I don't think it's worth my time (and I don't have time to go to lots of different stores.)

    But, I was thinking about your rice and beans -- haha. Awhile back I made a rice and bean dish in my rice cooker/slow cooker with cilantro and coconut milk. Yummo... and a nice deviation from the usual.

    1. Oooo, that sounds interesting - sorta Jamaican? I'm deathly allergic to cilantro, but coconut milk sounds intriguing!

  7. I tried a price book years ago, then realized I was spending more time running to all the different stores and wasting a ton of gas, back when gas was .99 a gallon. It didn't seem worth it to me any more. I just found the store with the best overall prices and stuck with that at the time. Now rather than considering who has the lowest price, I have a choice between a locally owned franchise store or Walmart. Due to how I feel about Walmart I have chosen to buy all my food at the locally owned store when the farmers market is closed and eat from what I can find at the farmer's market and my garden during the summer months thereby, not having to shop the grocery store at all.

    1. I'm so jealous of your farmer's market. I still haven't found one that I can get to without having to drive across town. Maybe this year.

      I know what you mean about Walmart - I've only been in there one or two times and the place was a bit frightening. I'm sorta thinking that I'll probably end up narrowing my stores to just the 3 or 4 that I can easily walk or bike to. If I have to go across town for some other reason I may stop in at one of the other ones, but it's just not worth making myself crazy just to save a few pennies on groceries.

  8. I played around with a pricebook for a while, but with small children, I don't have the time. I wish I did. I do have an idea of what a good price is for most items, and where I'm likely to find it cheapest. What helps me is keeping an eye on my supply of staples, and keeping a running list of what I'm low on. That way, I know whether I need enough from a particular store to make it worth going there for. If I'm not going to go there for a while and need something I normally get there, I'll get it at Winco, which is cheapest for most things anyway.
    A note about Target: I wouldn't buy produce, meat, or dairy at our Target (well, Breyer's ice cream is often cheapest there, but otherwise) unless I just need something when I'm there anyway and not going to the regular grocery store. They do have a brand, Archer Farms that I've been impressed with. I've tried their coffee, cookies, crackers, and chips, and the quality compares favorably to name brands, but prices are typically a little cheaper than the name brand items at the grocery stores around here. There are also a few spices that I don't like to buy in bulk that are worth buying there.

    1. I'm sorta doubting that I'll be keeping up with the pricebook thing long term, but we'll see. I had the same thoughts about food at Target - I was there for something else once and took a peek at the produce section. Everything was pre-packaged in plastic - it didn't exactly look fresh if you know what I mean!


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