Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hot to Buy Groceries-Part IV Making the Lists and Using Coupons

Now we're down to the last of the pre-shopping work: making our shopping lists.  How many lists you have depends upon your determination to save, time limitations and what is feasible (notice I didn't say convenient, because this is work not play) for you to drive in distance.   We live in a rural area.  I have one dollar store and one grocery in my local town.  I drive about 30-35 miles distance from my home to do my shopping in an area where I have access to two drugstores and two major grocers within a half mile of each other.  I do use the local grocery and the dollar store and yes, that means I make at least 6 stops almost every time I do a Big Shop.  I'll explain why in a moment.

First though let's discuss the points I made about determination to save, time limitations and distance.  I am a stay at home wife and full-time homemaker.  My determination to save is strong for two reasons.  As I stated in Part I, my budget consistently lands between 'Low Cost' and 'Thrifty'.  We eat very well on that budget, too and anyone can do it with a smidgen of cooking skill and I mean that sincerely.  We've never had a very high income and my determination to be at home means that I must do all I can to save money.  The grocery budget can get out of hand pretty quickly.  Believe me I know this firsthand. 

It occurred to me that my home is a business and that meant I had to cut the costs  in order to generate a profit or at least to break even each month.  I knew from my past work experience that if you used items over and over again from month to month and you bought those items on sale in quantities large enough to last until the next sales cycle, then you could effectively lower the costs of operation.  I apply the same principles to my grocery shopping.

Now as a side note I must mention price books and explain why I don't use one:  I have a very good memory for prices on the products I buy over and over again.  I know what the rock bottom sales price on an items is going to be and about how often that price is going to recur in a season.  Not everyone has this ability and truly I have no clue where I got it from but for some reason numbers stick where names and other details fade.  I know many people do prefer a price book and there are many resources on how to set one up.    Amy Dacyczyn's The Complete Tightwad Gazette  has a detailed account of her price book.  The Dollar Stretcher has many articles to help build a price book as well:   http://www.stretcher.com/index.cfm   Do not, however, postpone trying to save money until you can build a price book.  Price books are built over time.  They are not set up in moments or even a week! Even without a price book some good savings may be made, so do not delay in trimming your costs.

Time is not an issue for me.  I plan to spend one full day every two weeks doing nothing but the shopping.  This allows me to take the time I need to drive to the stores, do the shopping (and that is more detailed than you'd think) and unload and put away.  In making out my lists, gathering my coupons, and shopping, I spend easily 10- 12 hours almost every single pay period.  Remember that I try to not only keep costs low but I also try to keep my pantry and freezer stocked.  When I shop for groceries, I am also shopping for personal care items, cleaning and pet items as well as food.

Distance is not an issue.  I have a car at my disposal and living as we do in a rural area, I must drive the same distance to purchase clothing, home furnishings, etc.  If you live in a suburban area you will not necessarily have to drive anywhere near as far as I do.  I mention distance mostly as another portion of the consideration of how much time it will take to shop.   I drive this distance because I am limited in choice here in my local area.  The local store is a little high in price, has a wonderful meat department and very iffy produce department.  Since I tend to use the perimeter of the store for the majority of my shopping (produce, deli, meats, dairy, bread) it is necessary to go the distance in order to get the best possible produce at the lowest cost.  I do this willingly.  Again time is not a consideration for me. If I worked full time and had only limited time in order to meet the needs of my household I would certainly trim both distance and the number of stores at which I shop!

So let's start with our list.   I have one sheet on which I put headers by category of foods bought: Dairy, produce, meat, beverage, personal care, staples, snacks, cleaning and household needs.  I do this list this way because those categories are also how I file my coupons.  I can easily look through each envelope to see what coupons I have that might correspond...but that comes a bit later.  First I list those items I know I must buy under the appropriate category.  I am not yet touching the sales papers, simply listing those items I've noted over the preceding days I was out of  or down to the last one of.   Now I take the menu sheet and list those items I need to complete the menu (special ingredients needed for the recipe, produce etc) under the appropriate category.

Once that primary list is complete, I take a second sheet of paper and the first store's sales ad and list every item that appears to be a good buy whether or not it is on my primary list.  I add a second header for the next store and do the same.  I do this for all six stores at which I routinely shop, three grocers, two drugstores, one dollar store.  I may not buy every single item on these lists. I may not even find a single item at one or more stores that I consider worthwhile to go on my list.  I do look over each set of sales sheets thoroughly, because good sales are sometimes not the largest or the most conspicuously placed.  

When shopping I will most likely buy every item on that primary list that is divided by category.  The second list is an elimination tool at the moment.  When I look at the meats on sale, I have a personal high of nothing over $3 a pound (because we eat beef and poultry only).  I'll explain tomorrow how steak might fit into that per pound price limit and other strategies I use to buy premium cuts and grinds.

I do not limit myself to only personal care items at the drugstore nor only food at the grocer.  I look for the best overall price on each item I need or know I could use to stock my pantry and freezer and I'll use whatever source has the absolute best price.  Over the past 8 months I've bought coffee and olive oil more often at the drugstore than I have at the grocery because the drugstore offered the best overall price.  By the same token, I've bought vitamins and pain relievers more frequently at the grocery where my coupons are doubled and they often offer up a buy one get one free sale on a routine basis. 

Once the stores are listed and each item that is a good buy is noted, I return to my primary list. I compare the prices from store to store, then I put the initial of the store where an item I MUST have is on sale next to that item on my primary list.   I compare prices amongst stores in such a way on that second list and determine where I will buy each item.  This week both my local store and a major grocer had beef roasts and broccoli on sale.  The beef roast was a better buy at the local grocer, the broccoli a better buy at the major grocer.  I marked roast off the major grocer's list and broccoli off the local grocer's list.

Now I take each list in turn and guesstimate approximately how much money I shall spend, starting with the primary list.  Often I find that if I buy every item on all lists (except those I've already eliminated) I will be over budget.  This is where I begin to trim in earnest.  I know what my budgeted amount to spend is...and I try purposely to come in under that amount by about $30 under (about 10% of my planned budget for the month) and if I'm not I make sure to note that fact because this affects what I will buy and in what quantity.  You'll see why I try to come in $30 less in a few minutes. 

Here's where that pantry inventory list comes in handy.  Perhaps I noted that diced tomatoes were on sale at grocery#1 and I planned to buy a dozen cans...but I have a dozen already in the pantry.  I might determine to buy half as many (canned tomatoes are one of those permanent items I keep on hand and use frequently) or,  because canned tomatoes go on sale about every six weeks from mid summer through mid winter, I might determine I can wait until next sales cycle and remove that item from my list.

Next I go through my coupons and pull each that relates to an item either on sale on or my primary list. If mayonnaise is not on sale and I have coupons for four different brands, I pull all four brands so I will compare prices once I'm at the grocery and buy the one that allows me the largest amount of savings.

If I have a coupon for an item on either of my lists, I note the value and how many of the coupons I have. I usually use a star to indicate a coupon next to the item, so I know to pay especial attention to this item when I'm shopping.  Say I notice that brownies are on sale for $1 a box and I have three coupons good for $1 off two boxes.  I will plan to buy six boxes, knowing that I will spend only $3 once I turn over the coupons to the cashier. Next to the item on my list I will put a star X3 $1/2.  I know at a glance that I have 3 coupons good for $1 off two boxes.

If I have a coupon for an item that will make an item FREE or cost just pennies over the original price, I note this next to the item.  I am willing to go a few dollars over my budget (I reserve that first $10-$15 of my budget for stocking upon these items).

I also like to reserve $10-$15 each shopping trip for impulse buys.  I do this because two grocers frequently have some very good prices on marked down meats, manager specials in deli, produce and bakery, and every now and then a clearance sale pops up that is too good to pass up. (Most recently that clearance price was found on grated Romano/Parmesan cheeses for $1.49/5 ounces.  Normally these containers of cheese cost $3.99 and so this was a most excellent opportunity to stock up. I had room in the freezer so bought six containers...And there was my $10 impulse buy).  I usually try to reserve at least $5 of this impulse amount for flowers.  Sometimes I find  beautiful bouquets on clearance for just $3.  There's always room in my present budget for flowers.

Back to our lists.  Take that second list and rewrite it, keeping only those items that you determined you could afford to buy, listed by store.  Not every item on the primary list is going to be on sale, and so you'll want to carry both the primary list and the stores list with you to insure that you purchase all of your items.  The neater second list will make it easier for you to stay on target when you're in the store. 

Now you should have two neat lists, your gathered coupons ( I stick in an envelope and clip to my list), and an idea of where you'll be shopping.  Part V will deal with the actual shopping trip.

About coupons:
Before I stop writing today I want to briefly go into the usage of coupons.  I clip every single coupon that comes into my home.  Why?  Because I am brand loyal in only two areas: I drink Coke products only and use only Colgate toothpaste.  For the rest of the foodstuffs and personal care items in our home, any brand will do including the store brand if it's the best buy and best product.  There are store brands I won't touch, no matter how low the price and store brands I love but will only buy if that is the rock bottom price I can pay for a product.  However, loss leaders are often name brand items which, when combined with a coupon become a ridiculously good bargain.  In my area, all but the local grocery doubles coupons. 

 http://moneysavingmom.com/     http://www.southernsavers.com/    are just two of many sites to help you pair coupons and sales at major stores for the best loss leader purchases.

Neither of the drugstores double coupons but they have their own incentive program that works in my favor.  For instance, CVS Extra Cash Bucks program often nets me free or almost free items and offers me what is essentially an instant refund in the form of store coupons that I can use as cash for any purchase.  Currently I have about $16 worth of Extra Cash Bucks on hand. I plan to go this week and buy on sale dishwasher detergent, Kellogg's cereal and laundry detergent.  I'll not only probably not pay anything out of pocket for those items, using coupons, I'll also earn more extra cash bucks to use the next time I visit the store.

Walgreens has a Register Rewards program that works much the same way.  I have not really worked with that program, but know many who do and have done very well with it.  I find the majority of my shopping is done at CVS because I do not have to take the extra time to figure out their program. 

 I do not worry if I don't use a particular coupon prior to expiration. I toss hundreds of coupons every month that are unused (or send those I know Kay will use to her for use on base). 

1 comment:

Manuela@TPOH said...

I like Southern Savers and check them every time I go to Target and the grocery store. I find that I don't use MSM as much because she's really hard to keep up with (at least for me).

I don't do the CVS thing - I suppose I should give it a try there's one right down the road from me.