Keeping Food on the Table

FinanceIsPersonal.com offers up some advice for cutting your grocery bills. The advice is good enough, but I doubt it will help much. One thing I disagree with is that Wal-Mart is cheapest — there’ve been a couple of studies that show very little savings on the overall grocery bill between Wal-Mart and other chains. Where Wal-Mart has an advantage is in loss leaders — they’ll take a huge hit on some items, to get you to buy other stuff that’s the same price or even slightly more while you’re in the store. (This applies to groceries, not housewares — groceries are already on a tiny profit margin, usually only a couple percent or even less, so there’s not much room for discount pricing, even at Wal-Mart.) If you live in a pricey area, Wal-Mart might be cheaper than other local stores, but that needs to be verified for your specific area.

Here’s what we do: I’ve made up a master list of groceries, in order from the back to the front of the store. We do shop at Wal-Mart, because a few of the items we use a lot of (e.g. Capri-Sun juices) are , in fact, cheaper there than at other local supermarkets. I hate giving them our business, but I’d hate it more if our kids didn’t get enough to eat, so there it is. Anyway, we sit down Sunday morning, early, and go through the list, planning out a set of meal options for the coming week and crossing off anything we don’t need, adding anything we don’t usually use. Then we head out and buy just that stuff.

For a lot of stuff, Trader Joe’s is either cheaper or, in some cases, the only place we can get stuff. For example, they have pre-made pizza dough for about a dollar. Two of those, a jar of 99ยข pizza sauce, and a bag of mozzarella from the grocery store and we’ve got a $6 pizza night for 5 (or 6 or 7 if neighbor kids drop by). So while we plan our big shopping trip Sunday, we also make up a list for Trader Joe’s, and I stop on my way home Monday to pick that stuff up (Mondays I only work in the morning, so I have the store almost to myself).

The trick is

  1. have a list
  2. keep to the list
  3. know what you’re going to make
  4. do all the shopping in one go (I’ve never gone into a store for “just one thing” and come out with only that thing…)
  5. know your local stores and their prices
  6. plan realistic meals to fit your schedule (Wednesday we both come home late so we make easy stuff like spaghetti; Mondays I’m home all afternoon so I can make lasagna or goulash — added bonus: we can eat leftovers on Tuesday)
  7. use store brands whenever possible
  8. buy in bulk only what you use in bulk (it’s no help to get a great deal on something you end up throwing away because it goes bad)

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