Use A Price Book To Save Money On Groceries

For the ultimate in pricing transparency when shopping for groceries, use a price book. Frugal bloggers everywhere write about it like it’s the GTD of grocery shopping, and our own reader marsneedsrabbits suggested it in a thread earlier this week:

The solution to all this is a price book. It costs whatever a cheap notebook costs you, and saves a surprising amount of money and starts saving you money immediately.

If you’re detail oriented and ready to start cutting costs at the supermarket, here’s more info along with links to downloadable forms, spreadsheets (for those spreadsheet junkies), and advice.

Faye Prosser at FamilyCorner writes, “A price book is simply a list of the items you use regularly and the best prices they sell for in the stores where you are willing to shop.” That’s it. While it’s got a sort of “duh” obviousness about it, the power of such a list grows the more data you put into it, especially when you’re finally able to easily compare unit prices for groceries from different stores and at different times of the year:

After a while you’ll have an excellent price record of the things you like to buy. If you add dates to the entries you will begin to see the sale pattern for that item. You don’t need to include everything you ever use in the course of a year, just those items you buy regularly. You can price items for as many stores as you want or just the main store at which you shop.

J.D. at Get Rich Slowly has a great introduction to the concept and several good links to get you started, and below are few more useful ones we found:
 
Printable price book forms:
http://organizedhome.com/make-price-book-save-money

More advice on how to set one up:
http://www.stretcher.com/stories/05/05mar14c.cfm

Downloadable spreadsheet:
http://www.uncommonwaytowealth.com/excel-finance-spreadsheets/grocery-savings-spreadsheet-price-book/

“Use a Grocery Price Book to Slash Your Food Spending” [Get Rich Slowly]
“Developing a Price Book” [Family Corner]
(Photo: Simon Shek)

Comments

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  1. catnapped says:

    This doesn’t work so well when inflation causes products to go up every week (or what seems like it)

  2. Bladefist says:

    this would be a lot cooler if it was ran by a ton of people collecting prices daily, like some of those gas prices websites.

  3. Three Word Chant says:

    When I tried the two direct links to the pricebooks (not the Get Rich Slowly blog), the Uncommon Way to Wealth page wasn’t found, and my anti-virus program (Kapersky) went crazy and said the CheapCooking.com page had a trojan:

    detected: Trojan program Trojan-Spy.HTML.Fraud.gen (modification) URL: [www.cheapcooking.com]

    FWIW, I’m running Vista and Firefox 2.0. Just an FYI!

  4. bdsakx says:

    @Bladefist: I agree. I would much rather see what others are paying and then have more stores to compare at the same time.

  5. forgottenpassword says:

    I wanted to start doing this. Infact I kinda attempted to do this a little bit, but it just became a pain. I never used a little notebook though…. will have to try that & really dedicate myself to doing this.

  6. Three Word Chant says:

    @Ditch1852: The Uncommon Way to Wealth link is working now..but the virus on the other page is presumably still lurking

  7. MercuryPDX says:

    @Bladefist:
    To that point, I thought the pricing on the dog food I buy was unusually high. There was a $5 price swing between Petco ($32), Fred Meyer ($28, $26 on sale), Safeway ($29) and WinCo ($27).

    Since this is a once-a-month purchase, I compared prices for some other products I buy every two weeks, and it all comes out in the wash; eg. One store had X for $2.50 and Y for $2.00, another had X for $2.00 and Y for $2.50.

    Unless you’re going to be that OCD about it and split your food shopping across four different grocery stores, it just doesn’t seem worth it (cost of gas being the factor, let alone the time involved). Just find the one store where most of what you buy is relatively cheaper, and stick with them.

    You can figure this out by doing your bi/weekly shopping at a different supermarket each time and saving the receipts to compare.

    • mmmsoap says:

      @MercuryPDX: I agree. Similarly with gas, I frequently see signs advertising “5 cents cheaper” etc, or price wars between stations on opposite corners.

      When I do the math and realize that a 10-cent price difference saves me less than $1.50 on a fill-up, it’s not worth driving out of my way, or (depending on traffic) even making a left turn to save that much money. I’m not going to throw money away, but my time is also valuable to me.

  8. DeafChick says:

    I’m going to have to start using this.

  9. Chris Walters says:

    Thanks, Ditch1852. I visited the sites on OS X and didn’t trigger any warnings. I’ll remove the offending links immediately.

  10. Me - now with more humidity says:

    My time is worth more than the 12 cents a can I might save on tuna.

  11. Angryrider says:

    Kinda pointless for me because I walk to buy my groceries. I know which stores give the best deals, so I wouldn’t need a price book.
    Living in the city kinda reduces its usefulness.
    Onward to Pathmark!

  12. snowmentality says:

    I recently subscribed to The Grocery Game ([www.thegrocerygame.com]) — wonder if just printing out and saving their weekly lists would be decent for price tracking? It’s ten bucks a month, but that’s worth it in the time and gas I don’t have to spend driving around writing stuff down. I hate data entry. HATE. I keep track of how much I’m paying for groceries overall, so I’ll be able to tell if I’m saving more than $10/month with this service — except, of course, that inflation will probably make it go up anyway, and the best I can do is make it go up slower. ($5.25 for a gallon of milk yesterday. Jesus.)

    Although I did download the iPhone SDK…maybe I can put together an iPhone price book app. Then if any grocery store employees think I’m spying, I can claim that I was just texting.

  13. madanthony says:

    This probably makes more of an impact if you have a large family and buy a ton of food.

    I don’t spend a whole lot on groceries – and I don’t even eat out all that much. I do browse the circular before I go, and try to use coupons. But I’m a single guy living alone. I usually eat a Clif bar for breakfast (which I buy from Amazon when they have coupon codes), brown bag my lunch, and make dinner. It’s rare I spend more than $50 at the grocery store, and I can often go 2 weeks or longer without shopping. So for me, I doubt the effort would be worth it – reading the sales circular and couponing gives me most of the benefit without the work.

  14. MissTic says:

    has anyone played the “grocery game”? It seems to be a more sophisticated version of this. You have to pay a small fee to become a member but it looks like some of the legwork is taken out.
    [www.thegrocerygame.com]

    I’m curious about this one. I would actually do it more than I would enter the prices on my own.

  15. quietdomino says:

    The grocery game is not the same as a price book. It suggests specific items to stock up on week by week depending on 1) the sale schedule at your chosen grocery store and 2) the availability of coupons for said items.

    It’s worth it if you regularly buy a lot of processed or packaged foods. But it doesn’t give you any way to track prices on produce or most organic products. And it also requires you to spend a lot of time clipping and organizing coupons. Ultimately, a lot more trouble than it was worth for me.

  16. mac-phisto says:

    @MercuryPDX: i used to agree with your statement, but lately i’ve noticed the “convenience fee” has gone up significantly…not to mention that i have to hit multiple stores anyway for quality/availability reasons (this weekend i had to hit 5 stores before i found jalapeños that weren’t garbage).

    i started shopping at the local meat market & the local fish market b/c i was becoming disappointed with the selection at the supermarket. do you know what i discovered? i get a wider selection, it’s fresher & it costs less. just don’t buy your cheez-its there.

    i prefer shopping around – i’m not restricted by what one store decides to carry & i can select products based on quality (that’s a HUGE thing for me when it comes to meats & veggies).

    i don’t keep a price book on paper – it’s in my head, but i think i’m going to start. i’m beginning to see massive spreads in every aisle.

  17. randombob says:

    seems silly to me. I mean, too much effort to save a few pennies. I mean, the idea is great, but really just make a mental note of a few select items and be done with it. The trouble of remembering the notebook? Yeah right. And what if you DO use it? Then you’d have to become a Consumer Reports shopper to really make it useful anyway, which is itself a waste of resources (unless, of course, you ARE a CR shopper). Then having to analyze the data? as it grows, that becomes a more and more cumbersome exercise….

    And as others have stated, with price fluctuations, you’d constantly have to go back and revise, wasting more time.

    Good theory, but too much structure makes this useless to the average joe (or jane).

  18. Bladefist says:

    @MercuryPDX: I’m single so I can get away with this, but I go to Hy-Vee and just buy what I need that is on sale. Everything I need eventually goes on sale. Of course people w/ families can’t do this because they got mouths to feed, and probably shoot for a balanced diet. But I’m not afraid to eat turkey sandwhichs all week.

  19. kimsama says:

    Wow, yeah…I’m with the people who do this in their head. I can remember the 100 or so items that I would buy within a year and what their prices are and have historically been, and for staples, I buy in bulk on sale (so it’s not as useful to track sale patterns).

    Ultimately, the effort it would take to maintain this would probably lead me to abandon it after a few weeks, but I can see it appealing to very analytical people who enjoy details and who have bad memories for prices (ahem, my husband, who calls me from the store without fail to ask me “is this a good price on ___?”). He’d probably really like this, but alas, doesn’t buy the groceries enough to make it worthwhile. Sigh!

  20. rjhiggins says:

    I wouldn’t do this (but that’s just me), but I don’t get the people who come on and say, “This is useless because I’m single and eat Top Ramen and macaroni and cheese for all my meals.”

    Why bother commenting? Clearly it’s not appropriate for you, but you’re hardly representative of the majority of grocery shoppers. For people with families, and those meticulous enough to maintain it, this could be a real boon.

    Really, you don’t have to comment on every post. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on to the next item rather than cluttering up the comments.

  21. RandomHookup says:

    I know people who do this and, if it seems to you like too much work, don’t bother — it will drive you nuts. The secret is that you know what the “buy lots now” price is and you stock up on nonperishables. You end up with a stockpile that is 50% or less of regular price and can focus your weekly shopping trips on other stuff.

  22. Consumerist, I think you should review the Grocery Game for us. It’s come up in several grocery posts over the last year, and I too want to know if it’s worth my $10/month. You should get different kinds of Consumerists to sign up (with kids, couple w/o kids, single, etc.) and give us good data.

  23. MBZ321 says:

    A price book seems like too much effort, especially since prices keep going up everywhere, regardless of the store. I just keep a general idea in my head between the three supermarkets I shop at and BJ’S Wholesale and go from there.

  24. MercuryPDX says:

    @mac-phisto: If I need to get something large (like a London Broil) for a dinner party, I’ll pay more at the butcher for it over the supermarket. The quality alone is worth the added trip. Everyday meat for cooking for myself, not so much. I find the baked goods at Fred Meyer better than those at the Winco I shop at, and if it’s on the way back I justify it. I just think food shopping is a big enough pain in the ass at one store, let alone three. I commend you on your jalapeño search; I don’t have the patience for it.

    @Bladefist: I’m the same way. If it’s a really good sale I stockpile. I bought an extra freezer for those 10 for $10 Totinos Pizzas, and whatever frozen food specials come up. I also have a shelf in the garage with more rice-a-roni, mac and cheese and stuffing you can legally have by law. ;)

    @rjhiggins: What about the comment you just posted?

  25. ChuckECheese says:

    @Bladefist: I agree. This would be a great thing to have online, a database of grocery prices. So somebody else get started on it, as I’m too tired.

  26. mac-phisto says:

    @MercuryPDX: is your butcher more though? mine beats the supers on virtually everything in price & quality. of course, it’s also block away from my house, so either way i win. =)

    i agree that food shopping is a pain – especially considering a simple trip for bread, milk, oranges & a box of pasta requires you to zig zag thru 46 aisles. & it’s even more aggravating when i just picked up deodorant at target & i find it at iga for $2 less. it makes my head explode. i don’t mind spending a few cents more here & there, but lately it seems like more than a few cents.

    & i normally would’ve given up on the peppers, but they are an integral ingredient in my buffalo butt blastin’ chile.

  27. Ragman says:

    I did something similar to make sure I was getting my money’s worth at Sam’s club, now that it’s $40 a year. I did notice that you can get better per unit prices on the name brand at Sam’s over the store brand at Wally world for some stuff (Ziplock bags, for one). If you watch for sales, however, I’ve seen Kroger and Wallyworld beat the sam’s bulk prices before. That’s what made me check to begin with.

  28. Hambriq says:

    I tried something like this in the past, and I have found that it really ends up costing me in the long run. Sticking to a plan similar to this saved me an average of about 10% on my grocery bills, but took approximately 20 extra minutes per grocery trip.

    Right now, I average about $400/month on groceries, and go to the grocery store about 10 times per month. So that’s a savings of $40 per month for 200 minutes, or 3 hours and twenty minutes. Which comes out to a little more than 8 bucks an hour.

    For me, and I would say for a number of other people, my “free time” is at a premium. And if I’m going to be spending time doing busy work, crunching numbers, etc. I may as well be doing ACTUAL work and get paid far more than $8.33 an hour.

  29. Hambriq says:

    P.S. Yes, I may be somewhat OCD when it comes to doing these types of cost-benefit-analysis things. I wonder, in the time I spent figuring calculating all of this out, I could have earned….

  30. hmk says:

    here’s a simple solution, if you live in a large city anyway (like Chicago). buy more fresh things and cook more. get those items at your local market, not the big chain grocery store. meat & produce is fresher and cheaper at the local markets. then get everything else on sale at the regular grocery store (wow, don’t buy milk or cereal at the market, $$$!) or at the warehouse of your choice. I’ll even go to Aldi’s once in a while to get cereal or dairy.

    I play a little grocery game in my head, but I don’t keep very good track. I’ve just figured out which stores generally sell which items cheaper.

    in my neighborhood, the local market is right across the street from the big chain grocery store. score!

  31. bohemian says:

    We buy a ton of groceries, so there is enough cost savings to bother doing this. What I did was to grab all of our old grocery receipts for the last 3-6 months and put common items into a spreadsheet with the lowest price found and store.

    I updated this after grocery trips and ran the price book for about two months. I also looked to see if similar items were cheaper elsewhere and made a note, then updated the price book. I found lots of shelf food items were cheaper at Target. I also saw how fast grocery items were going up during this time.

    The changes due to the price book probably save us about $50 or more per month.

  32. snowmentality says:

    @ChuckECheese: @Eyebrows McGee: Yeah, I’d love to see a post about the Grocery Game. It seems like exactly that online database of prices people want (plus it matches up the yearly cycles to coupons so you get stuff for little or nothing). I’ll be keeping track as I use it, for sure.

  33. ChuckECheese says:

    @snowmentality: I just investigated the Grocery Game website. You have to pay $5 per 8 wks for each store you want info on. And there are only 2 stores in their database in my city–Albertson’s (ugh) and Walgreens. So this service won’t help me.

    From her online pic, Teri, the mistress of The Grocery Game, looks way too hot to go grocery shopping. Be sure to read her over-the-top food tips, especially about Eastertime “resurrection rolls.” [www.thegrocerygame.com]

  34. Orngbliss says:

    I disagree with all of the “I’m single therefore I won’t use this” comments. As long as you’re not generalizing that this is not good for all single people, then I have no problem.

    I’m single and love to cook and love to have dinner parties. So, I would find this to be quite helpful. I am never opposed to saving money, no matter how minimal the savings may seem, it all adds up over time.

    ChuckECheese, are you saying only ugly people go grocery shopping? Just playing.

  35. MercuryPDX says:

    @ChuckECheese: Mine shows Albertsons (closed last year), Safeway (I assume good for both local locations?), Walgreens and Rite Aid.

    I was really hoping for a Fred Meyer and a Winco in the mix. :(

  36. ChuckECheese says:

    @MercuryPDX: According to what I read, that is one chain per city/subscription. I almost never go to Walgreens. Like your situation, none of the regional groceries are listed (or Wal-mart for that matter).

    Albertson’s should be closed here, but somehow they hang on: Their prices are insanely high–usually about 50% to 100% more than Wal-mart (hilarious example: $6 for a 5-lb bag of flour), and the stores are old and run-down. I used to sneak in for special items, all of which they’ve stopped selling the past year (they’ve really cut back on the number/variety of items they sell).

    I’m not gonna be a grocery-gamer, but Teri’s website is a scream, full of cheesy goodness. She’s totally into that “calico marketing” thing–girly yet down-to-earth, very thematic, yet deliberately unsophisticated, like the lunch buffet at a women’s ministry conference.

  37. dandd says:

    This seems to me like spending a dollar to save a nickel. If the price seems to high I just don’t buy that item, I’ll wait until it is on sale or I will just do without.

  38. @Hambriq: “go to the grocery store about 10 times per month”

    Oh my God, I would be suicidal. Twice a month is about all I can stand.

  39. clickable says:

    @Me:

    See, that’s a totally valid POV, if you’re buying one can of tuna. And yet, for others, keeping track might add up to savings that are significant enough to make it worth their time. So it’s YMMV. How many mouths are you feeding, what’s your budget, how much time can you reasonably devote to this.

    Too all of you considering the Grocery Game, have you checked out the forums on deal-discussion websites like Fatwallet and Slickdeals? There are subforums for coupons, freebies, and groceries that usually host very similar discussions. Other sites have them too – I think parents.com or families.com has a forums section with an active discussion about grocery-shopping. And of course, they’re free :).

    I feed four, plus two cats. I can stop by three supermarkets during my regular weekly rounds. I only go once a week to the one that has that week’s best bargains so I can stock up, but all are equally convenient. In addition, I go weekly to a low-priced fruit and vegetable stand, where I also get milk and eggs. I clip coupons and keep a categorized file, and I check out the markets’ circulars each week and make some notes about worthwhile bargains, especially if combined with coupons. Otherwise, like MBZ321, I keep a general idea in my head of where the low prices are.

    I also shop at CVS with their Extra Care Bucks program and manufacturer coupons, which combination has kept us stocked in basic personal care items and toilet paper for very low cost (sometimes free).

    In general, I don’t buy prepared food items (I cook fresh and for-the-freezer), so the coupons I use are mostly for grocery staples or for non-food items. I don’t like to buy generics or store brands (quality can be uneven), so coupons and waiting for weekly specials lets me buy brand names at the same cost. For example, Thomas’ English muffins are *always* available at $1.99 for a twin-pack (2 dozen), and there are *always* $1-off coupons to be had, so you can *always* get a twin-pack for $.99, which is less than any store brand. Heck, even $1.99 for twelve muffins is less than the store brand. *Always* meaning all the supermarkets put them on sale every couple of weeks, so you can find them at that price in at least one of the big chains any time, and $1.99 seems to be the permanent price at CVS.

    I know we can be even more frugal, but these measures strike the right medium for me as far as saving enough money to make any time invested worthwhile. Roughly estimating, I think we save us about 20% a month of what we would spend at the supermarket and drugstore (non-prescription items).

  40. snowmentality says:

    @clickable: I hadn’t checked out those websites but did right now — unfortunately I couldn’t find anything that really tracked grocery prices there. On FatWallet I found one reference to Grocery Game, one reference to CouponMom (which makes you click through eighty billion “offers” before you can read the site — I’m glad I gave them a fake name and my “anonymous” email, because I’m sure they’re going to spam me even though I declined all the offers), and one reference to ShopLocal, which broke when I tried to give it my location.

    ShopLocal only gives you online ad circulars, anyway. I get those in my mailbox twice a week. I can tell what’s on sale, I just need some way to know if that’s really the best sale price — which is what either keeping a price book, or paying someone else to do so (like the Grocery Game), is about.

    Also, I miss having a CVS. There used to be one in walking distance from my apartment before I moved. Now there’s not one within 20 minutes’ drive.

    @ChuckECheese: Yeah, that would be the problem with Grocery Game — it won’t be useful if your local stores aren’t on there!

    And yeah, the website is kind of a cheesefest. I’m willing to cope with that if I do end up saving $$$.

  41. RandomHookup says:

    @snowmentality:

    Actually, FatWallet got rid of their grocery section years ago (no big retailers willing to pay for advertising). A few sites rushed in to fill the void, but the best survivor is hotcouponworld.com. With lots of shoppers contributing, the individual effort is minimized.

    SlickDeals has a few grocery deals, but they are an afterthought compared to the technology deals (just like FatWallet).

    For some people, Grocery Game can be useful, but some complaints are they don’t give enough notice on next week’s sale and they don’t handle the really complicated combination deals very well.

    I’ve been using hotcouponworld to help me put together food and drug stores deals and am now at the point where I’m spending almost nothing out of pocket. I’m a bachelor with lots of storage room and don’t care what I eat (as long as it doesn’t take much work). I’m combining sales (especially loss leaders), coupons (especially Catalina deals), rebates and free offers to build a pantry worthy of a Mormon bishop. That should be useful as the deals aren’t coming this year like they were in the past.

  42. Ragman says:

    @Hambriq: Yeah, I used to have a good idea of what was cheaper to buy at Walmart vs Sack N Save, but after a while I got tired of making double grocery runs. Wasn’t worth the extra time after work.

  43. D.B. Cooper-Nichol says:

    I just wanted to say this is a nice change of pace. The stories about isolated, if “shocking” ripoff posts get a little old. Thanks.

  44. fencepost says:

    When I had a Palm I used a nice freeware application called HandyShopper for this (Google it, available for Palm or PocketPC). I was using it for months before I had everything in it, but once I did it was wonderful.

    Basically you have a list of items you’re purchasing and prices. You can then specify individual stores/chains, item categories (e.g. Dairy, Meat), item prices on a per-store basis, quantity needed/purchased, tax rates, etc. If you enter your data as you’re doing your shopping, it doesn’t add a lot of time.

    What you then get is while you’re shopping, if the item cost at the store you’re currently at is not the lowest, it displays with a red slash through it. Clicking on the item shows you the store with the lowest price (and that price). Assuming that you also check off items and quantities as you’re buying, you also get the total price you should be paying at checkout (+/- a few cents).

    There were features I wished it had (and it may now) but I haven’t had anything it’ll run on for a year and a half or so.

  45. Gamblor210 says:

    Yeah how much time and gas will i wasted driving to 3 different grocery stores to buy my weekly groceries?

  46. Anonymous says:

    I use a website that automates the grocery list and price book process. It helps me track grocery unit prices paid by item and also shows which items have increased in unit price and units purchased.

    The grocery list shows the lowest unit price I paid to facilitate comparison between the current store unit price and previous unit prices paid. Very helpful at the store! I can edit the grocery list as needed and create different lists for different stores.

    The site also provides me instant analysis on spending trends to provide a list of grocery items where unit prices have increased and total units purchased have increased, among other areas. That’s very helpful at home for figuring out where to cut costs and why the bill is increasing.

    The site is groceryhop.com.