What is the Frugal Grocery Guide?
As a newly married college student, I was baffled by the concept of the grocery budget. I wasn’t completely clueless about buying groceries; I’d learned a few things at home about which foods were more economical, and how to cook from scratch. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to stay within an allotted grocery budget. For years my family’s grocery budget varied substantially from month to month, and it always seemed to be increasing.
Finally I reached a crisis point. Our family usually lived on our previous month’s income (thank you scholarships and grants), but after graduating from college and experiencing a series of life transitions, our one-month buffer was gone. We truly were living paycheck to paycheck for the first time, and it’s not something I would ever choose to go back to! I added up the numbers and knew that unless I could cut back significantly from the grocery budget, we couldn’t pay our bills. Resignedly, I filled the slow cooker with dry beans, then sat on the floor and cried. (I really like good food, okay?)
I knew that I needed to finally wrap my head around grocery shopping so that I could keep making nutritious, tasty meals for my family, but spend less. (For the record, we didn’t live off of rice and beans those months. I don’t remember precisely how things worked out, but they did.) I read this book, put its principles into action, and continued to glean advice from online sources and more seasoned shoppers.
While I certainly haven’t perfected my grocery shopping and frugal food fixing, I am much more in control, and spending substantially less than I was two years ago. We even eat a greater portion of fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. Now I’m going to share everything I’ve learned with you, in the sincere hope that you need never shed tears over a pot of beans. I don’t know every trick or strategy out there by any stretch of the imagination, but I hope this quick guide will help you if you need a place to start like I did. Look for a new installment each week in the Frugal Grocery Guide! Happy shopping, and more importantly, happy eating! And please, share your own grocery shopping knowledge and experience in the comment section!
Frugal Grocery Guide Part 1: Don’t Pay the Regular Price.
If you want to slash your grocery bill, resolve not to pay the regular price for food. Buy only when it is on sale. This requires the following:
Know your prices.
If you don’t know a sale price for eggs from a regular or high price, you have no buying power. You need to create a catalog, in your mind or on paper, of the prices you see each week. I know that this sounds really tedious, but it forms the foundation for smart shopping. I’m going through this process again because we just moved to a new city in a new state, with new stores. Make a list of the most common items you buy and start tracking the prices you see each time you shop. But first, look at the weekly ad and see who’s got the best price this week…
Shop a variety of stores.
No one store will have all the lowest prices, despite claims to the contrary. Often a store will have consistently low prices on certain goods—for example, I buy almost all of my spices at a store that specializes in bulk dry goods. But the meat there rarely features low prices. Even stores that are typically more expensive or present themselves as “high-end” will run loss leaders or special promotions. Loss leaders are items sold at such a low price that the store isn’t making a profit on them. They’re hoping to bring you through the doors so you’ll be tempted to buy more marked-up groceries. Case lot sales are another opportunity to buy in bulk for extra savings.
You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the common prices and marketing styles of your local stores. Know who usually has the best prices on canned goods, pantry items, meat, and produce, who runs great promotions and case lot sales, and who advertises the sharpest loss leaders.
Stores draw on our love of convenience, and they want you to buy everything you need in one trip. Don’t be fooled by the “it’s not worth the gasoline” myth. While in some cases this may be true, don’t make assumptions. I used to make a 42-mile round trip to a larger city in order to access a wider variety of grocery stores and their lower prices. Each trip cost roughly $7 in gasoline, and I would travel there twice per month for a total of $14. The amount I spent in gasoline was less than I saved on milk and cheese alone over buying from the nearest grocery store! Planning ahead and combining errands in the same area into one trip also minimizes the gasoline impact.
Read the Ads.
You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by reading the weekly ads before setting on your grocery store safari. Most stores have their ads online now. Loss leaders are advertised as well as promotions, seasonal items, and case lot sales. The purpose of the ad is to get you through the door, so the ad will display the best sales of the week. Plan your meals and list around these sale items (more on this topic to come.)
If you want to shop a store that doesn’t run ads, try this strategy. Write down the sale items you are interested in from other stores’ ads. Then go to the ad-less store first and see if it has lower prices on those items. If it does, great, get those groceries there. While you’re there, see if the store has great prices on other items you regularly use. If it doesn’t, move on to the stores you have listed. Loss leaders are advertised as well as promotional or seasonal items.
Become familiar with sales cycles and promotions.
Grocery items tend to be “on sale” every 6-8 weeks. Once you have a grasp of what is a regular versus a sale price, you’ll be able to plan your purchasing around these sale cycles. You’ll want to buy enough of shelf-stable or preserve-able groceries to last until the next sale price. This is called stocking up, and we’ll talk more about that later.
Promotions are typically related to holidays and seasonal events. Groceries that are commonly used during these events will be sold at especially low prices, often even lower than regular sale-cycle prices. For example, baking goods such as pumpkin, canned milk, flour, oil, sugar, and baking chips are typically sold at for the lowest prices of the year around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The week before St. Patrick’s day you’ll find corned beef briskets for far less than their typical price, and Mexican-style foods will be advertised around Cinco de Mayo. In addition to holidays, promotions will center around big game days in the football and basketball seasons. Be aware of grand openings and store-specific promotions as well, which also feature special deals.
Don’t Be Discouraged
If spending less on groceries seems like a lot of work, you are right. It is. Give yourself time. It takes time, preparation, and energy to explore new stores and to learn what prices to expect for different foods. And of course, you have to experience seasonal sales and cycles to know what prices will be, a process of months. Don’t expect yourself to master these skills overnight (I certainly haven’t mastered them)! However, as you make efforts to follow the principles in the Frugal Grocery Guide, you will start to see your grocery bill drop, even if it happens slowly. You can do it!
More from the Frugal Grocery Guide: