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.

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

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Question: do you plan your meals for the week prior to going to the grocery store? I find that this helps me buy only what I need (and to reduce waste). However, I definitely need to be planning these meals with the sales flyer in hand!

  2. Courtney, your question pinpoints the big downfall to the way I do my grocery shopping: I don’t meal plan. What I make for dinner depends on what we have on hand. We’ve saved a lot of money this way because there is never a need to buy what isn’t on sale, but I’ve also experienced a lot of frustration when it’s dinner-time and my imagination is lacking (which is usually the case during pregnancy). I’m actually hoping that writing this series about grocery shopping will spur some ideas (and suggestions) about how to incorporate better meal planning without increasing our grocery bill.

  3. Well, you always make me think. I’ve been thinking so much about the way you shop for groceries. I am only one girl and the habits I am getting into buying for one is NOT good!! I really love grocery shopping and I love opening up my fridge when there are tons of veggies inside. But I go to the store usually with a list, and then end up at the check out with things I never imagined I would!! haha. like last week I got some delish candy for 75 percent off so regularly it was 4 bucks and I got it for like 37 cents. holla! not healthy, but tasty! anyways. I really do benefit from your advice. I think of it all the time!

  4. I totally agree with this post! And it is amazing how often their are errors on the receipt, and how exasperating it is to have to wait at customer service w/ the kids if I don’t catch it as they are ringing it up! I do one big shopping trip per month, making the longer drive to the cheapest store very cost effective. I have also found it is easiest to make a month-long menu, and just keep repeating it every month, with our favorites repeated at least once within the month. That way if item A is on sale this week, I can stock up knowing that although I may have already made that this week, it will be coming up on the menu again! Grocery costs are fairly consistent month to month that way, my grocery list is able to be re-used w/ only quantity changes needed, and I know exactly what we’ll be using, so I’m not tempted to buy something just because it’s on sale. Not to mention the peace of mind of always knowing what I’m going to make, how long it will take, and knowing that I have the ingredients on hand. Also, while a little more inconvenient, buying in bulk from the food co-op saves us money while enabling us to support local farmers and eat higher quality foods than we would otherwise. Here are some blog topics I would love to see you cover: couponing, buying/storing and cooking in bulk, and freezer meals.

  5. I should add that I am sure you are saving more money by doing it your way; buying as things are on sale. Or by making a menu depending on what is on sale that week. But with 4 kids, I can’t sanely go to the store every week, and don’t have the time or energy to have an always-changing menu depending on sale prices. So my way isn’t necessarily the best way to do it, just what works for us 🙂

  6. Thanks for the feedback!

    Josie, I really like that idea of having a month-long menu. It still works for me to grocery shop once a week or so, but there is a glaring need for me to develop some kind of meal plan schedule that works for us without drastically increasing our food bill. I think I’ll start experimenting with a month-long meal plan and see if I can make it work for us. Also, I am planning to cover a few of the topics you mentioned, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


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