Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Grocery Shopping: What Works for Me

(Thank you to everyone who voted for CHG in Culinate’s Death by Chocolate contest. If you didn’t see it early yesterday, the entry should be up now. Voting goes through the 8th. Yay!)

Recently, Kacie over at Sense to Save posted an online challenge asking bloggers to recap their grocery shopping methods. I really liked the idea, and figured it might be good for blog transparency purposes. (A.k.a. Do I walk the walk?) Also, I’m secretly hoping someone out there has a better system, and is willing to share.

So first, here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how I USED to buy food:

1) Become hungry. This part was simple. It usually involved moving, speaking, or watching an Olive Garden ad. (Curse you, unlimited breadsticks. CURSE YOU.)

2) Go to nearest bodega/supermarket/insanely expensive coffee shop. I live within a one-block radius of three delis, a supermarket, and a KFC. In the old days, I’d cruise over to any one of these and pick up whatever tickled my fancy (which was everything).

3) Buy whatever I want to eat. Price was no object.

4) Shovel food into gaping maw. Fat/calorie/preservative content was no object.

5) Lament lack of funds and ever-expanding tuchus. This part generally involved a lot of self-loathing and vows to never eat again. Needless to say, the pledges didn’t stick, and I was back at Step 1 pretty dang fast. Why, hello there, vicious, self-perpetuating circle of poor eating habits! My name is Kris.

My old method lacked forethought, concern for my health, and any discernable spending strategy. These days, it’s different. I cook. I plan meals a week in advance. I study nutrition labels like I’m being tested later. And while the following process may seem a tad time-consuming, I promise it’s not. Half of it happens in my head before pen is ever set to paper. I:

1) Take stock. What food do I need more of? What am I okay with for another month? Why the crap do I have 128 ounces of chicken breast? This step ensures I know what’s already on hand, so I don’t go buying a ninth pound of poultry.

2) Plan ahead. Which holidays are coming up? Birthdays? What foods should I be on the lookout for? If it’s close to Thanksgiving, butter, onions, or sparkling cider are good bets. For the Super Bowl, chips and beer are the order of the day. Prepping for celebrations this way has saved me a ton of dough.

3) Gauge moods. What are The Boyfriend and I craving? What have we OD’d on lately? (A.k.a. Is it possible to consume too much spaghetti?) By checking our appetites before I set out, I avoid guessing and extraneous purchases while shopping.

4) Consider the blog. What can I make for Monday and Friday? Do I have a backup in case something goes terribly, terribly wrong? (See: Teriyaki Sweet Potatoes.)

5) Make a preliminary list. Based on the previous five steps, what are the foods I absolutely have to buy, whether or not they’re on sale? Here’s a recent prelim list, from the week I made Curried Sweet Potato Stew:
  • Fruit
  • Veggies (peppers, mushrooms, etc.)
  • Snack dip
  • Tomatoes
  • Romaine
  • Carrot
  • Ginger
  • At least four sweet potatoes
  • Broth
  • Brown lentils
6) Browse online circulars. What are this week’s loss leaders? What produce has the biggest markdown? Is there EVER, EVER a deal on soy milk? (Answer: no.) Each Friday, I read three local supermarket circulars for values and adjust my list accordingly. I also …

7) Record good deals in a price book. JD at Get Rich Slowly has the definitive post on these guys. (Go! Look now! Then come back.) They’re KEY to scoring deals and keeping track of cost cycles over the course of a year.

8) Research recipes. Is pork going on mega-sale? Will broccoli never hit $0.88/lb again? If there’s a solid discount item (or items), I’ll plan a recipe around it and note whatever else I need.

9) Make a master list. Ultimately, what do I want to buy? Based on all the previous steps, I create a final shopping document complete with brand names and prices. (That’s making it way more complex than it sounds. Really, it’s a piece of notebook paper.) When I hit the aisles, I don’t deviate from my plan.

10) Eat. What will tide me over while I shop? This strategy is all over personal finance blogs, and for good reason. It keeps my impulse M&M purchases WAY, way down.

11) Grab my canvas tote. It’s pretty! And environmentally sound! (But mostly pretty.)

12) Find my keys. I lose them a lot.

13) Shop. I hoof it, so my final haul depends entirely on A) my upper body strength at the time, and B) what can be crammed into my fridge. With four people sharing it, space is at an extreme premium.

And that’s it. All told, I blow about two hours and $45 each week (including walking time) on planning and shopping for a pair of people. Compared to Crystal and Keren, it looks like amateur night at the Apollo. But it’s much better than before, and I’m still working on it. Specifically, I’m trying to better these areas:

1) Coupons. The online databases are useless for my zip code and most coupons are for convenience products, which I tend to eschew anyway. (Also, I’m lazy. Oh, so very lazy.) Nonetheless, I know they CAN be a boon, and resolve to start a collection.

2) CVS/Target/Walgreens deals. While CVS and Walgreens are pretty far away and the Brooklyn Target is legendarily insane, it’s worth braving all three for the discounts.

3) Eating less meat. The Boyfriend and I thrive on poultry. (If God’s a chicken, we’re kinda screwed.) It’s comparatively thrifty and can be cooked 14,000,000 different ways. Yet, legumes, veggies and starches are cheaper. If I can ease Chicken Provencal out of our diets, it could make a big dent in the budget.

So, all you readers out there – how do you shop? What improvements have you made in your system? What’s your best grocery tip? Our operators are waiting for your call. (Translation: comments are open.)

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members Tortuga One, and Neato Coolville)

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Jaime said...

"Is there EVER, EVER a deal on soy milk? (Answer: no.)"

No! Yes! Once upon a time, half-gallons were 2/$5 at Whole Foods. I think it's might've even been Silk, too.

I'm impressed by $45 for two people. I'm at about that much for myself. (Though maybe actually less, since the last two weeks, living out of the freezer and pantry more, I've been closer to $20.) I wonder if my reliance on soy products does it - chicken might be cheaper. But, yes, lentils. Love them. Have trained myself to.

I don't have as rigorous a plan. I have a pretty consistent shopping list every week - eggs, fruit, veggies, cottage cheese, tempeh, and every two or three weeks, soy milk, peanut butter, and nuts. If I'm trying a new recipe, I might need a few ingredients for that, but the more I try, the more I'm likely to already have, say, rice wine vinegar or vegan Worcestershire on hand.

My room for savings comes from the big vague categories - fruit and vegetables. I give myself a rough budget of $10-$15, depending on the week, and buy what's cheap and appealing. In the summer I shop in farmers markets (Inwood market, I miss you!), and once it's too wintery for even that, I switch to a combination of specials at my local supermarket and the consistently low prices at the slightly sketchy produce market behind Port Authority. ($2/lb cherries!! $1.50/lb yellow peppers. I swear.) I shop for produce once a week (I go longer if I can), and I keep myself on a weekly budget (shopping more than once a week means I can spread out the heavy carrying, if it's convenient).

I feel like I don't eat a large enough variety of foods to take full advantage of loss leaders and sales, but maybe I should start venturing to the C-Town that's a few blocks north of my insanely close-by Fine Fare...

Seriously, though, $45 for 2?

(Apologies for the novel-length comment. I've been home sick today and am slightly starved for human interaction.)

Kris said...

Sketchy produce market behind Port Authority? Sweet. Oh, so sweet. I've never heard of that one and will definitely check it out.

C-Town's pretty good when it comes to loss leader-type stuff, and their circulars are online, which is helpful. I frequented the Williamsburg before moving, and it worked well. (Though their meat is kind of meh.)

Thanks Jaime! (And I'll look for soy milk deals starting ... now.)

Jaime said...

It's on the west side 9th ave around 41st St, next to the 99-cent pizza place. I work nearby, so I produce shop during lunch. The quality's uneven, but the prices are insane.

YogaMama said...

You are too funny!!
I don't know how people spend under $50/week/person! I have clipped coupons, checked out the circulars, you name it! The only thing that I can think is that we buy primarily Organic in an area that isn't very 'Organic-oriented'. But we still spend upwards of $120/week for two and a half people. Reading this blog, it sounded as if I had written it myself :) Nice to know that I'm not alone in this on-going battle of frugality. :)

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

My grocery bill has gone down significantly since I started shopping differently.

You can see my new strategy here:

I don't know the exact number off hand, but I'd say that I'm easily spending less than $50 per week --- without clipping ANY coupons, or even going to a cheaper grocery store (though I plan on trying that again soon).

I'm eating healthier, too.

FIRE Finance said...

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Keep up the excellent blogging.
FIRE Finance

Jenn @ Frugal Upstate said...

HA! I love your "old" way of shopping.

Your method is somewhat like mine-with a few variations.

#1-I don't coupon. Coupons are usually for items that I don't buy, or else items that I can get cheaper in a different brand. Plus I don't get the paper etc, so I have no easy way to get coupons.

#2-I keep a piece of paper on the fridge and if YB or I use the last of something, we write it on the list. That is the start of the next shopping list. This especially helps when you run out of something that you use rarely-if it's been 3 weeks since you used the last of the hoisin sauce, you may not remember you need more.

Nicolas said...

This is definitely the future of saving money! Couldn’t come at a better time either.