thoughts on groceries: getting started

After Keith and I got married, my first job was working at a grocery store for six months. It was quite humbling to me at the time, as I felt that I was qualified for several better jobs in our small town. As it turned out, though, working in the Customer Service department at IGA was one of the most mentally challenging positions that I could have taken, as well as one of the most informative.

Looking back on it now, I am convinced that despite the low pay, working at that job has turned out to be a financial asset for us. Tasks like balancing the till sheets for the cashiers, forking out petty cash in return for small wins on lottery tickets, and processing UPS orders taught me quite a few small lessons. These included the futility of buying lottery cards unless you are quite lucky and have a well-tested method, the large profits made from superfluous grocery store items like flowers, and the benefit of sending many packages with UPS rather than the Post Office.

The most useful knowledge, though, came from just being in the grocery store on a daily basis. I suppose this is information that I would have learned eventually, but I’m glad I learned it early on in our married life. Simple as these points may be, just knowing them has made a huge difference in how I shop.

  • Sale flyers come out weekly. Thus, every Wednesday, I learned to check the flyers at both stores in town and compare prices to find the best deals. I usually purchased food from each grocery store once per week.
  • Most items are on a sale rotation. It is typical for items like spaghetti sauce to be on sale every 4-6 weeks. Instead of buying nonperishable items of that sort whenever I felt like it, I learned to wait until it was on sale and then stock up.
  • On the flip side, it’s important to know the standard price of an item. Buying something just because it’s on sale doesn’t necessarily mean getting a good deal. I occasionally discovered the hard way that the sale price at one store may be higher than the normal price at another store.
  • Saving money on one item doesn’t justify spending extra money on another item. I still have to fight the mindset that says “I saved $4 over here, so it’s okay to spend $2 extra over there.” If you want to save money, it’s crucial to view each item as an individual purchase. Doorbuster sales, the types that advertise $2 boxes of cereal for 12 hours only, are specifically designed to get the consumer to spend more on other items – like milk – which may be marked up. Resist the urge to spend more by just getting the good deals and leaving the rest.
  • Buying from discount stores, the kinds that advertise “always low prices” and few sales, may not save a person as much money as would buying only the sale items at certain higher-end stores. The ones with always low prices may have a section in the front with items sold at very low prices, which causes the consumer to assume that the rest of the store will follow suit. Usually, the rest of the store will be normal in pricing, but the very low prices at the front make a person want to stock up on everything else, too.
  • Although it’s great to buy what I want while it’s on sale, it’s not so great to buy something only because it’s on sale. I often refer back to common-sense questions like, “Do I want this? Did I want it before I came in the store? Would I spend this money on it if there weren’t a sale sign in my face telling me what a great deal it is?” If I’m not sure, I can always wait and come back later. If it’s still on my mind when I get to the checkout line or when I go home, it may be worth going back.
  • Knowing the prices of the items I put in my cart can save quite a lot at the cashier’s register. I have made it a habit to watch each item ring up, as it is not infrequent for them to ring up incorrectly. If I don’t get the chance to see each item ring up, I check the register tape and take it to Customer Service if there is a need to point out errors. Some stores are better than others when it comes to having items ring up correctly. The store where I worked typically had a pricing error every time I went through the checkout line.

It’s kind of silly, but something I started in my IGA days and still often do as I leave a grocery store is check to see how many bags I’ve received for the amount I’ve spent. My goal is always to have averaged less than $10 per full grocery bag. So if there are seven bags in my cart and I’ve spent $65, I consider it a successful trip and assume that I have shopped fairly frugally.

These are some of the foundational principles that I bring along on every grocery shopping trip. What about you? What do you bring along?

I’ll start digging into other thoughts on groceries in my next post.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 11:53 pm  Comments (6)  

when pinching pennies isn’t fun

I really should be blogging more. Goodness knows that what with living off a smattering of savings and unemployment checks, we’ve been thinking about finances enough lately to warrant a blog post or two. But somehow it is not much fun to write about finances when you are living quite frugally and still the unemployment checks and savings account balance are not enough to continue covering the bills.

I suppose that being in this kind of situation is the best reason to prepare, though. Expecting our finances to keep getting better, and thus spending money and acquiring debt like we will have a magical way to pay it all off tomorrow, is exactly the kind of mentality that has landed our country and countrymen in so much financial trouble today. Knowing, as our family normally does, exactly what our expenses are and why we have them, along with having a bit of savings to prepare for times when we need it, makes a world of difference. It is nice in so many ways right now that despite our income being greatly reduced, we don’t have to scramble to figure out cheaper ways to do things. We don’t have to regret expensive, extravagant, or unnecessary purchases, because they are already not a part of our life.

That said, I must admit that it’s not as fun to scrimp when it just means coming up less short at the end of the month. It’s much more fun when it means getting to put extra money toward debt.

In one area, though, I seem to be rediscovering how much I love finding bargains. Grocery shopping! I have considered myself a frugal shopper for a long time, but lately I have found myself thinking through a lot of the whats and whys of grocery shopping. The other day I came home with $95 worth of groceries from Fred Meyer and a receipt for $28. I couldn’t help explaining to Keith – in detail! – why I was so proud of myself. There is something about getting the best possible deal for something and then multiplying that by twenty or thirty items that just makes grocery shopping seem like way more of an accomplishment. So, as much as I would love to be blogging about magically paying off all our debt tomorrow, I think I’ll start a little series on groceries. I’ll refrain from burdening you with a list of which items I saved how much money on – there are other blogs for that – but maybe I will just sort through my thoughts and techniques on the subject.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 12:44 am  Comments (2)