Keeping a grocery price book is one tool to save money on groceries. If you already shop from a grocery list and use menu plans to save money and reduce waste, a grocery price book is the perfect next step.
Keeping a price book makes you pay attention to the prices of individual grocery items, rather than the bottom line on your receipt. When you start to know the price of each item, you are more aware of how each item in your cart affects the total bill.
Everyone is price-sensitive about certain items: you never pay over $2 for toothpaste, or never buy a box of cereal over $4, or always stock up on Kraft Dinner when the price falls below $1. Using a price book helps you figure out when sales will occur, when to stock up and when to wait.
There are also things we’re not price-sensitive about. For example, if you hate to run out of bananas, you’ll buy them every shopping trip regardless of the cost. In my case, I don’t bother tracking the prices of garlic or ginger because I use tiny amounts and they are cheap. If you don’t care – don’t track! But if saving money is the goal, you’ll want to track a bunch of items, and not just the ones you’re touchiest about.
I would say a price book (or a fabulous working memory) is a must when you first start your own grocery shopping, and when you move house and start going to new stores or markets. Another good time is when you have a major life change and your shopping habits change, such as a change in family size (a new baby, a child leaves home, a parent moves in).
A price book would be less helpful if your choice of stores is very limited (although online purchases or local delivery could be options), or if you grow and make the majority of your own food (although some provisions are always going to be store-bought). Even then, you could track best prices and know when to stock up.
If you’re living in a new area or you’ve just started grocery shopping on your own, you might not know when fruit and vegetables are in season or when annual sales take place. For instance, where I live, imported strawberries are on sale for Valentine’s Day, but local strawberries are available and low-priced around Canada Day.
It is said that manufacturers of packaged goods often put them on sale in 6 or 12 week cycles. This applies to things like cereal, granola bars, crackers and cookies.
A price book is just a structured list of items and prices that allows you to compare prices at a glance and make on-the-spot decisions within your grocery budget. It can be a sheet of paper, a notebook, a spreadsheet or an app.
There are three main ways to get prices:
- Record prices from sales flyers – either from printed flyers delivered to your home, or from a flyer app like Flipp, or from the grocery stores’ own web sites (or street signs)
- Record prices from receipts
- Visit a store/market/site and record prices when you are there.
Flyers don’t always show the regular price, and you won’t see that a featured item has a store-brand equivalent at a lower price. The size might be vague: are the 12 rolls of toilet paper double size or mega size?
Making a list from receipts can work, but the product names are shortened: what was PortablsSlc? And how much did I get? I might have to check the fridge to find out. That was a sliced portabella mushroom on sale, by the way 🙂
I am a fan of going into a store and making note of prices and sizes while I’m there. I don’t feel self-conscious. I’m not stealing industry secrets!
The next choice is whether to record prices using pen and paper, or electronically. I make scratch notes in a notebook while shopping, then transfer them into an Excel spreadsheet. The advantage is that I can organize and sort it multiple ways, and analyze it easily. The disadvantage is that I could only access it on my home computer (since resolved), and it is difficult to print, even in sections.
In early days, you really need to have the price book with you so you can make buying decisions in the stores. So the better methods are using a notebook or an app.
In a notebook, you can write the name of one product on each page. Every time you see, buy or compare that item, jot down the size, price, store and date. Soon you’ll have a page of data for that item at your disposal. If you are keen, you can prepare your notebook in advance and organize it in a way that works for you: a section for fruit and veg, a section for frozen foods, a section for canned goods, and so on. If you are super-keen, you could take rough notes while you are in the store, and then copy them over at home into a better-organized, neat notebook. If you are already a Filofaxer or bullet journaller, you would enjoy this (do a Google Image search for Filofax or bullet journal to check them out!)
If you use an app, you are restricted to the format it provides. I have not found an ideal app for a price book yet. There are lots of grocery list apps. The basic ones only create lists, and sometimes allow you to save multiple lists or categorize them. Some allow you to sync or share across devices. Some allow you to list stores, sizes and prices, but they usually don’t allow you to display the information all on one screen – you have to click through several screens to see each detail. I found several grocery list apps, such as Out of Milk and Meal Board, that try to select stores or find deals for you, but only for US supermarkets. Price Cruncher is a proper price book app but is not available in Canada at all.
So it appears the best app option might be any basic spreadsheet app such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, or (with fewer sorting options) a basic note taking app like Notes, Evernote or OneNote. Rom and I share a Microsoft Office 365 subscription so I have now loaded the full version of Excel on my iPad, and I can use it to display my price book (and edit on-the-go if I have wifi).
It’s time to use the data. When it was staring me in the face, I realized that I had become “price blind” to a lot of lower priced items, as if they didn’t matter. For example, canned diced tomatoes vary a lot in price and go on sale often. It may be “only” 25 cents a can, but why pay that difference all year when I can stock up easily at the lowest price? Even if I can only fit 8 in my cupboard, that’s $2 in savings. I would rather buy something else with the 2 bucks. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to drive across town to stock up and save $2.
|Cashews||Kirkland / raw||1 kg||$ 14.99||1.50/100 g||Costco||8/6/2016|
|Cashews||Central Roast / roasted||325 g||$ 3.99||1.23/100 g||Sobey’s||2/7/2016|
|Cashews||Bulk / roasted||100 g||$ 2.68||2.68/100 g||Wal-Mart||8/6/2016|
|Cashews||Joe’s Tasty Travels / roasted||400 g||$ 10.00||2.50/100 g||Wal-Mart||8/6/2016|
Or I would buy something expensive like cashews and not know enough details to figure out the unit price from one store to another. I wouldn’t have thought that Wal-Mart’s bulk bins had the highest price!
- I didn’t think about how most of the commercial bagels are a lot smaller than the in-house bakery bagels for the same price.
- Do I really want to eat the white rice that costs 88 cents a pound – where does it come from and what was it grown with?
- How often can I justify spending 300% more for locally ground espresso when the store brand is satisfactory (but the local is sublime?)
I discovered I really do feel justified in buying local, expensive products such as honey and maple syrup because they are completely worth it. I can afford free run eggs. This weekend I am stocking up on my favourite brand of frozen veg pizzas for those lazy, heat-something nights.
I could have made these decisions at any time and said what the heck and who cares? It just feels better to know they are evidence-based decisions 🙂 If I were on a tight budget, however, I would want to know I was leveraging my grocery dollars in the best way possible. In my case, I feel we have substantial savings from not eating meat, and I like being able to spend that money on other foods. Ultimately we all scrimp in some areas and splash out in others, and the grocery budget is one of the best places to save while still buying good quality and eating well.
Can you name 2 or 3 products you buy every week and the price differences between one shop and another?
What are you price-sensitive about?
Do you have another way of tracking sales and knowing when to stock up on things you know you will use?