Monday, July 14, 2008

Organizing Cost Effective Grocery Shopping

Readers in my previous post are making a lot of requests from me. I will try to be at your service, but I'm hoping that there is a life insurance expert out there will kindly submit a guest post because this is not an area of expertise of mine. When it came to selecting life insurance for our family, we called up a friend who sells insurance through a well known and highly rated company and got the ball rolling. We also are required to enroll for a certain level of coverage through my husband's employer, so we don't have all our eggs in one basket so to speak. But I'd like to learn more from a reader of this blog and am putting out my request for a guest post. Otherwise, I will have to do some research, which isn't a problem by any means. But a guest post would be more expedient.

Now, back to the subject at hand. I am passionate about controlling the food/household goods budget. I think anyone trying to gain control over their household budget would do best to start in an area they can exercise a healthy level of control over without having to make changes that might be too drastic. Of course, tackling this area of a diet might involve quite a bit of change if you have to change the way you eat, but it still may be less traumatic than selling your home, car, or pulling the kids off the soccer team.

Many are under the impression that controlling the food/household goods budget is far too bothersome, providing far too little return. I disagree. Getting the hang of it does take some practice and the initial stages can be time consuming (especially as you make menu changes and learn new cooking habits) but once the basic skills have been mastered, it gets easier and easier. Those who haven't learned more frugal skills have to exercise the muscles, and the beginning of any exercise program can be a bit difficult.

Here are a few things necessary to get the ball rolling in the right direction:

1. Spend $1. For at least a year I tried the coupon thing, but could never seem to get a handle on it. I had an envelope with diaper coupons in it, another envelope with cleaning product coupons in it, and another envelope with hygiene product coupons in it. But once I was in the store, I couldn't locate the envelopes for the life of me. Months later, I'd find them while cleaning out the car or cleaning up the desk. Of course, by then the coupons were useless.

Then one day we were in Target and I saw a coupon purse in the dollar section. I spent one dollar and have saved hundreds since then. An compact and organized coupon fits nicely in my purse. I don't leave home without it. And its size and simplicity helps keep me organized.

I try to cut coupons once a week. When my kids are more cooperative, I will put one of them to work leaving me with only the responsibility of organizing the coupons. I file coupons as follows: diapers, food products, household cleaning products, toiletries, gift card offers for new and/or transferred prescriptions, rainchecks, and retail.

Note: CVS Extra Bucks sit in my wallet in front of my credit cards and Rite Aid receipts are filed there due to their valuable rebates. I have found I need these items to be very visible lest I forget I have them.

2. Create a grocery flex fund, say $200-$300. I do not adhere to a rigid budget for groceries. I know it works for some people to put $100 in an envelope at the beginning of the week and call it quits when the money is gone. But, frankly, I'd never survive because inevitably when tuna goes on a 2 for $1 sale, cereal is also on sale at a bargain price, as is cottage cheese, as is pasta, and then, lo and behold, I run into packages of diapers that end up running me less than $5 after coupons. I rarely go to a warehouse store, but when I do hitch a ride with a friend, I can quickly spend $100 on some basics, and while those basics can easily last 6 months, I can't drink the olive oil for dinner. Therefore, I need the flexibility to spend more some months and less other months, hence the flex fund. Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Hence my stockpiles of goods we use regularly.

3. Create organized storage area(s). If you are stocking up you need space. The space should be as easy to use with good visibility so you can make a quick inventory by sight. I highly recommend buying a stand up freezer (try to find a floor model, you will likely save nearly half) because having this storage area is one of the keys to saving, both time and money.

4. Grocery List on the refrigerator. I keep an inexpensive magnetic pad of lined paper on the side of my refrigerator. Everyone has been instructed that if they want something, they need to add it to the list (supplies don't appear magically). When I notice we are running low on a non-perishable staple, I try to get it on the list before the situation is "desperate." That way I can buy it in the place that I know it is priced best at, rather than the place I need to go.

Now, onto the shopping tips:

1. Get your paper and pencil ready. The day that the circulars arrive in my mailbox, I quickly scan through the ads, circling everything of interest to me. Once you have figured out how the stores lay out their circular you will learn which pages to look at and the time spend will quickly be cut in half. The kosher consumer can often skip more than half the ad. The front page normally contains any super sales (e.g. cereals, produce bargains, ice cream bargains). The middle pages are mostly filled with items of no interest to the kosher consumer (meat, cheese, deli, seafood). If I believe I have a coupon for an item, I note "coupon" right on the ad and move that coupon to the front of my file. The real deals often come from matching up coupons with items on sale. How I got cereal for 80 cents: the store was selling general mills cereal 10 for 10. You had to buy 10 at a time. At checkout they gave you a coupon for $2 of 5 boxes on your next purchase. So, I went back and the next 10 boxes cost me 80 cents, as did the next 10 and the next 10. I found a hiding place for the cereal and bought a huge supply.

2. Get to know different store's policy on coupons. Presenting coupons is unfortunately the only way to get to know the policy, but it has been well worth it for me. Some stores will double coupons 55 cents and below, others 99 cents and below. This means the same coupon is far more valuable in store b than in store a. Some stores don't care if you are buying the exact product in the exact quantity so long as the manufacturer is the same (e.g. a coupon for one type of Kellogg's cereal can be used to buy a different Kellogg's cereal). Some stores are more than happy to take coupons that have recently expired, other stores are strict about the expiration date. I tend to throw out all coupons past their expiration date because I don't want my file to become overwhelming. But one drug store is happy to take expired diaper coupons, so if I have a more valuable diaper coupon, I hold onto it.

3. Note non-sale prices on basics either mentally or in a notebook. Just because something is on sale doesn't mean it is a good price. Also there are large discrepancies on basics between many stores. I refuse to go to 6 grocery stores a week. So I stock up on things we need that don't regularly go on sale whenever I am at the grocery store that has the best price.

4. Shop with a calculator. Bulk doesn't mean less expensive and unfortunately grocery stores don't always match their units. You can't compare pints with gallons without a calculator.

5. Ask for a Raincheck. If there is a really good sale on an item, it will often be gone be gone by the time you get there. I keep rainchecks behind a separate tab in my coupon wallet so they are easy to locate.

6. Damaged Goods. I can't even begin to tell you how much money I've saved buying slightly dented cans, cereal and foil in crushed boxes, and packages of diapers with damaged packaging. I have paid 5 cents for small cans of tomato sauce, 25 cents for cans of pineapple, and I've even picked up free cereal after applying coupons. Find out where the damaged items are kept and visit that part of the store religiously.

7. Stock up only on what you use. Buying in bulk is only good if you regularly use the item. Buying an item that is a good price for that item, but not really a good price, will only put you behind. I stock up on frozen vegetables, canned tomato products, cereal, and cuts of poultry/meat that we regularly use.

8. Past its Prime. I have made large batches of soup for almost nothing by buying produce that is past its prime. So long as you have time to put up a soup and space to freeze, I recommend looking for produce past its prime. I made a sweet potato soup from onions and carrots on hand combined with 6 sweet potatoes I picked up for a dollar. I believe I had enough soup to serve for six Shabbat meals. More recently I made an entire stockpot of minestrone soup from not so fresh tomatoes and other vegetables I had on hand. The tomatoes cost me $2.50. This Shavuot I was planning a dessert, but ended up spotting a beautiful raspberry tart for $1.50 on the day old bakery rack. I would not have thought of looking on the bakery rack, since the items baked at the store are not certified. But a kosher certified package caught my attention and we were out the door with a great treat (and it really was tasty).

9. Package your own snacks. Enough said.

10. Water. Challah. Soda, seltzer, and juice can put a hit on any budget. Sometimes you have to wean your family off their drinks. Fortunately water is good for the waistline too. And do learn to make your own challah. I can mix up a water challah (five cups of mixed flour) in five minutes for almost nothing. To think that only 5 years ago I was spending at least $6 a week on challah. It is almost embarrassing.

And lastly, don't wear yourself thin. Good habits take time to build and get easier with time. My food/household goods budget has been just about the same for the past few years despite a growing family. But I've expanded my menu options, learned how to juggle my cooking, learned how to substitute ingredients, learned more about freezing, and I've learned new skills like making a variety of soups and baking challah. I've also managed to settle into better cooking routines that don't take away great amounts of time. I really see this part of homemaking to be a lot like an exercise plan. It takes some time to settle into and learn to enjoy it.


Lion of Zion said...

i think costco is a great place for savings on food (and other products). the membership fee is easily made up from savings and the extremely generous return policy (as long as you remain a member, you can return almost any product in any condition, for any reason, even without a receipt or original packaging.) the only problem is you have to be extremely disciplined when shopping there. i was once going to post about this.

"And do learn to make your own challah."

someone bought us a bread machine for our wedding. my wife used it a few times to bake chalah, but the machine has sat in the cabinet for about 6 years now.


i knew someone was going to say seltzer is a luxury. i've cut out most of the crap from diet. you aren't going to deny my a simple (and relatively affordable) pleasure like seltzer.

"I'm hoping that there is a life insurance expert out there will kindly submit a guest post"

from what i understand term is more appropriate for younger people and you buy as much as you can afford in order to cover the projected annual budget (taking into account mortgage, tuition, etc.).

but how do you choose between companies? a friend bought it online using a comparison website, but i don't understand how to choose one company over the other. you can go to a broker, but who says he has your best interests at heart? in sum, assuming you know which type of policy and how much, how do you evaluate different comapanies? are some more reliable? what small print is involved? are there special options or riders? etc.

Orthonomics said...

LOZ-Costco requires tremendous discipline, but there are good deals. I don't use tremendous lightly.

Enjoy your seltzer. I love seltzer too and buy it from time to time, but there is no question that regular use can be a money drain.

ProfK said...

I think I've mentioned it here before but it works really well for me and for others who have tried it. Using only a visual check of the stores you have in hand works okay when you have a relatively small store of items. Instead I use a list I've compiled on the computer and that I print out and post in my storage areas and for my freezer. The list is every product we use organized by general headings such as laundry, canned goods, dairy etc. Next to each item I post how many of that item I have in stock and I change that number when I remove or add something. Stores use such inventory lists and it works at home too.

I also put the brands I will use on that list. There is no savings in buying a mayonnaise that is super cheap if no one will eat it. Ditto on other products. At this point we have tried enough different brands that I know which ones worked for my family and which ones didn't.

If you are trying a new product buy only one of it at first. If it works then fine. If not, you haven't lost more than that one product's money.

If you like a particular national brand but not its price, ask your supermarket manager which companies package their store brands. The national brands make a fortune in producing the products that come under the store's brand. Shoprite tuna is Chicken of the Sea with a different label and a lot better price.Before Pesach, for instance, the Shoprite OUP solid white tuna was 99 cents a can--the Chicken of the Sea was $2.49. The America's Choice products that are found as one of the store brands in Pathmark and Waldbaums are all manufactured by the name brand companies, and if you read the labels they are identical to the originals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips, SL and ProfK.

::sigh:: If only FreshDirect accepted coupons...or the local supermarkets near my apartment didn't transform the shopping experience into a living hell.

Anonymous said...

Clipping coupons and hanging on to them until they match up with an item on sale at the store sale can save you a pretty penny and can even be cheaper than the generic or store brand. Also, places like Walmart and Target are also good for certain (kosher)food items, toiletries, cleansers, etc. Target has its own coupons and you can stack them with manufacturer's coupons. For example, if you have both a Target coupon and a mfg's coupon for Dove soap, you can use both of them and get some really cheap soap. Walmart accepts competitor's coupons.

ProfK said...

Other great ways to get coupons. Go to a manufacturer's site and browse. Many of them have coupons you can print out. Proctor and Gamble has a coupon now that saves on the Crest rinse and toothpaste, plus others. Go to one of the coupon exchanges that exist online. Sending away the coupons you are exchanging will cost you a stamp but can save you tons of money. Kosher consumers cannot use a lot of the coupons out there, so exchanging those for coupons you can use makes sense. A third way is if you have a non Jewish neighbor. We get all kinds of circulars with coupons and the newspaper with coupons, a lot of them that are for non kosher products and restaurants. I had a neighbor that I would regularly give those coupons to. She would reciprocate with those coupons I could use.

Dave said...

Plant a small herb garden. Even in an apartment, you can probably do a window garden.

The cost/benefit of fresh herbs is astounding.

Ahuva said...

If you really like seltzer, what about buying a seltzer bottle (abt $45) and making your own? I'm having a hard time running the numbers because I'm not sure how many bottles of store seltzer = 1 C02 cartridge (about .70 each). I think this has the potential to save money over the long run since the bottles seem like they would last for many years, but I don't drink enough seltzer to be sure.

Esther said...

Here's a related one - learn to make your own pizza, or anything else that you order when you eat out. We haven't eaten pizza out in ages since my husband starting making it at home, it tastes better, and can even be healthier (he makes it whole wheat). As someone mentioned in the previous post, this also leads to savings on whatever else you would order if eating out (like drinks).

Esther said...

Ahuva - We have a seltzer maker and it definitely saves us a lot of money. (Will only apply if your whole family drinks seltzer regularly.) We also found cheap sugar-free flavored drink mix, so we make whole bottle of punch and other flavored drinks for less than one bottle would cost in the store.

Anonymous said...

Here are two links that may help fellow readers:

Homemade Ginger Ale - I loved the strong West Indian "ginger beer" when I lived in New York, but can't get it here in Israel. This website shows how to use regular yeast to make your own, homemade soda - with as much ginger as you want.

I have changed the recipe a bit by making up concentrated ginger syrup (grated ginger, water, sugar, corn syrup/honey). I use this to flavor the soda. Less mess and I can use it to flavor plain water and in cooking.

2) No-knead pizza dough - there has been a wave of no-knead bread recipes over the past year, sparked by an article in the NY Times.

Letting dough ferment slowly in the fridge or on a countertop actually adds flavor. If kept in the fridge, the dough can last several days. You can dip into the dough over several days to make pizza, focaccia, calzones, etc. - and it can also be used with fillings used for burekas.

This is just one of many such recipes - google "no-knead bread" for many more:

Anonymous said...

I think that making my own deserts is a big saver. The kids like a little something sweet after dinner, and I started making my own stuff - not as fancy, but healthier than what you'd buy, and less expensive.

As for the insurance issue, and this is for all insurance, not just life, which company you chose is much less important than exactly what the policy says. Read everything. The large print, the fine print, every term and every condition. If there's anything you don't understand, ask the agent for an explanation and make sure you get it in writing.

Anonymous said...

I have one more suggestion. I started to buy my coupons on Ebay. I know why pay for coupons, but wait, you can buy 20 coupons of $1 of per item for $2. What I did I went around my house with a pencil and paper and wrote down all the brand names that we use, than I searched on ebay for those particular coupons. I bought a lot of them then I waited when my products went on sale and than I bought 20 of them with my dollar off. I am comitted to a healthy lifestyle, that means we do not eat trans fats and artificial colorings or flavors and I try to buy organic fruits and veggies on sale. I have to save that I have saved hundreds of dollars this way. I also make weekly menus and cook ahead and make own pizza and challah. It does take practice but it saves you a lot of money and you can be proud of helping the family budget.

Miriam Segura-Harrison said...

making your own selzter is SO worth it.
we asked for one for a wedding present and make seltzer every day. one gas cartridge (45 dollars for 2, and that includes shipping) lasts us just a bit more than two months, so that means that we are spending about 9 bucks a month for seltzer that we dont have to shlep up to our apt or throw empty bottles out for. We dont buy the soda mixes. at 70c/bottle (sometimes more at random places in our area) and about 3L of seltzer a day, we are saving... 54 dollars a month.

miriamp said...

The warehouse club (costco. BJs, Sam's Club) membership more than pays for itself if you make your own challah and only ever buy yeast there. You get 2 lbs of yeast for half the price of one of those little 4 oz glass jars. (I don't know exact numbers, because my husband does the grocery shopping). But yes, you can't assume that everything is a bargain just because it's there. Yeast pays for the membership, and eggs are a pretty good deal, and the big things of laundry detergent -- there are certain things my husband makes sure to buy there, and others he makes sure to buy elsewhere. (He's very disciplined about grocery shopping, and has the equivalent of a price book in his PDA, along with the prioritized grocery list.)

Anonymous said...

On the bottom of the Pathmark receipt it tells you how much your year to date savings are. I recently checked it and saw that we have saved over $2000 so far this year using coupons and buying things on sale. Stop and Shop is currently offering a free gallon of milk after a purchase of 6 gallons, with little kids, this could be done in a month. I would say the biggest way to save money on groceries in frum communities is NOT to shop in the kosher stores. You can get fresh kosher chicken in Pathmark and ShopRite and the kosher stores take tremendous advantage of the consumer (especially in outer NYC suburbs like Teaneck or the 5 Towns). Also, regarding soda, it can be found on sale sometimes for 88C a bottle and it stores well.

miriamp said...

Whereas, in Providence, the Kosher store (there's only one) has the best prices on Kosher food. So it pays to know your stores and comparison shop. Stop & Shop might have kosher boxed frozen pizza for $12 while our little kosher store has it for $9. Instant soups are $1.29 at the supermarket, and .79 at the Kosher store. (You might argue that instant soups aren't food, and that it might be cheaper to make the pizza yourself, assuming you have the time and inclination, of course, but I don't do the shopping and those were prices I knew to offer for comparison.)

Ariella's blog said...

Speaking from the 5 Towns, I have to say that the kosher stores actually have better prices on some items than the supermarkets do. While they don't usually have the best bargains on regular ice cream or breakfast cereals, one of them has the best price on a half gallon of regular milk. I end up buying most of my produce in these stores because they actually have the best area prices unless a supermarket is offering some special on something like whole watermelon or corn. And the regular supermarkets actually have higher prices on Empire and other specialty kosher items unless there is a special sale before Pesach or such.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the SL has either more will power or higher metabolism than I do, but I buy the packaged snacks for my child's lunch box, since I nosh if I pack them, and at my stage of life, the pounds mean more than the money.

Shira Salamone said...

This may be a dental-bill-saving suggestion rather than a grocery-bill-cutting suggestion, but those of you who can't manage without soda might want to try adding (unsweetened) grape juice or orange juice to your seltzer, thereby making your own sugar-free soda. Be sure to use 100% juice (no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, etc.) If you don't want to make drinking soda a habit, save this as a Shabbat or Yom Tov treat.

Ahuva said...

Adding juice to seltzer is a great idea, but it won't result in sugar-free soda. Isn't juice 100% fructose (fruit sugar)? It's not really any better for your teeth than sucrose (table sugar) or corn sweetener-- unless you're adding less juice to your seltzer than the amount of sugar you would find in a bottle of soda.