With grocery shopping, I keep three levels of pricing in my head --
- the "best regular" price (or what I am confident that I will find, often, on a regular basis, usually at my low-price leader stores -- WinCo, Fred Meyer or Cash & Carry)
- the "good" price (or a routine "sale" price, to be found once every several weeks, often found in grocery store ads, with limits)
- the "great" price (rock-bottom, once a year, clearance, or closeout prices, such as an item on sale at Cash & Carry or WinCo, or a special promotion at any of the local grocery stores)
It goes without saying that I try to get that "great" price, as much as possible. Knowing when I have it, and when to buy stock-up quantities, is the trick.
Some examples from recent shopping
When I am completely out of a staple item, I will buy just what I need at the moment, at my "best regular" price. Sometimes this is on Senior Discount Day at Fred Meyer. Sometimes I find that "best regular "at WinCo. And sometimes, the best regular price is at Cash & Carry.
A case in point, I was completely out of all-purpose flour, leading into the Thanksgiving weekend. My "best regular" price was at Cash & Carry, in a 50-lb bag, at 22 cents per pound. I bought just the 1 bag, as I knew that at some point in the year, all-purpose flour will go on sale for a little less than this, likely at Cash & Carry. That "some point" came this week, as the same 50-lb sack of all-purpose flour is on a one-week only sale for $9.99 (just under 20 cents per pound). This will be the lowest price for the next 9 months, is my guess. I go through 1 50-lb sack of white flour every 4 months. I will probably buy 2 50-lb sacks, even though I still have most of the 50-lb sack that I bought last week.
My stock of butter has been depleted, significantly. It's not an emergency, there were still a few pounds left. But my reserves were low enough, going into Thanksgiving week, that I've been keeping a watch for a good sale. At WinCo, last week, butter was on sale for $2.48/lb, with a limit of 4 pounds. Given the current market for butter, this is a good price, but not great. (I've been finding butter on sale at Fred Meyer for $2.50/lb, about once every 6 weeks, this fall.) And I know that $2.48 per pound is better than the current regular price at Cash & Carry, at $2.64/lb in 1-lb blocks. Knowing that WinCo's price was good, but not great, I bought my limit of 4, and didn't bother with attempts to stock-up further at that price.
Later in the week, I saw Cash & Carry had put butter on sale for $2.09/lb. For our area, and at this time, that is a great price. So I bought 12 pounds.
I've been waiting for canned pineapple to go on sale. At the very least, it should go on sale at Fred Meyer or WinCo, for about $1 to $1.25 per 20-oz can, nearer to Christmas. The lower the price, the greater the likelihood of purchase limits. When I found 20-oz cans of pineapple on sale for 99 cents, at a local drugstore, last Friday, I thought about what possible prices I might see. 99 cents a can is not great enough for us to rethink our fruit consumption, and buy several cases of pineapple. But it is a good enough price to buy enough to last until the next good pineapple sale (perhaps at Christmas or New Year, but also I can be relatively certain I will find a similar price at Easter). I bought 10 cans.
Missing my guess
Sometimes, I guess wrong, and buy stock-up quantities at a price that is higher than the rock-bottom price. This happened with whole almonds, a month ago. I still paid quite a bit less than a best regular price. But I see this week, at Fred Meyer, the price is even lower.
What do I do when this happens? If I think the price is truly spectacular, and, I believe we will use more of the item before it goes bad, and, if I have the money to buy more, that is just what I do, I buy more. I accept that I didn't get the rock-bottom price on the first purchase, but I didn't overpay, either. In the end, no one is perfect, and I do very well, most of the time, with our grocery budget. And by buying a little bit more, at this new, lower price, I feel like I am easing the pain of having spent a little too much, the first time.
How to track the "great" price and know how much to buy
You are all familiar with my grocery spending journal that I post at the end of each month. This is a dated log of my purchase price plus amounts that I buy. I am able to go back through the months of this type of post and find out how much I bought (which gives me the approximation of how long any given amount will last for my use), and what that price was.
With the all-purpose flour, I was able to scan the grocery posts from March through now and see that I bought a 50-lb sack in both March and July. It amazes me, but I go through all-purpose flour at a very regular rate, 50 pounds every 4 months. I paid $11.99 and $11.68, in the months of March and July, for a 50-lb sack of all-purpose flour. So, I know that my price this week of $9.99 is a very good price for the year, for my area, on this item.
A log doesn't need to be on a computer. It can be in a notebook. This type of log needn't have prices for everything that you might buy, but items that you buy infrequently enough to not be certain of what you paid, or how much you purchased.
Marking a package
A simpler method for many folks might be to just mark your packages. You can track prices and how long they last by marking individual packages with date of opening, date of purchase, and the price paid. The date of opening would give you some idea of how long a quantity lasts in your home. The date of purchase, combined with price paid, provide insight as to when the prices for an item are at their lowest.
Studying the market
I also use tools like the USDA reports, (google online for these reports), to get an idea of prices on specific food items. I've watched egg, butter, chicken, beef, turkey, cabbage and pumpkin prices, by reading these reports. The reports give me a good idea of what to expect, price-wise and availability.
In the end, its all a guessing game for the consumer. None of us have a crystal ball which can predict what the best price will be, for any season. Even if we get the best deal one week, the very next may see something even better. The bottom line is to set a budget and keep the spending within that amount. Luckily for us, what we buy is quite flexible. If we miss a great deal, for any reason, we can often make up for it, somewhere else in the grocery budget.