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Thursday, February 28, 2013

February grocery money journal (and how I got started with my shopping at several stores each week)

As you read my Grocery Money Journal, you will likely notice that I shop at several different stores. I take advantage of the different and exceptional deals (loss-leaders and specialties) at each store, and stock up to fill my pantry and freezer.

nothing to do with this post --
the forsythia I forced indoors 2 weeks ago tomorrow
How I got started shopping several different stores and what I think of this shopping technique now

In 1988, we were a family of 3, myself, my husband and our 1 year old son. We were spending about $70 per week on groceries, and this seemed to be a reasonable amount for us.

Growing up, my mom shopped once per week, buying all the food she needed for that one week, and all at one store. She did clip coupons, and watch for sales. But that's as far as she went with trying to be prudent with her grocery spending.

When I married, I shopped the same way. I even shopped at what was known as the "budget" grocery store in our town. Every week, my husband, little boy and I went to the grocery store and bought enough food to get us through a week.

One day, while standing in line at the grocery store check out, I picked up a magazine and began reading. There was an article about a family who shopped at several stores per week, buying stock-up quantities of sale items. Each week, when they received the store ads, they gathered around the kitchen table and studied the ads for all the stores within a 15-20 minute drive of their home. They made lists for the different stores, for the items that were priced especially low for those products. Then they split up, husband and 1 child went to half of the stores, and wife and 2 other children went to the other stores.

the flowering currant forced indoors --
a bright spot in late February
If you were to look into their bags when they got home, you'd think there's no way they can make meals for their family on what's in there! Then you take a look in their pantry, fridge and freezer, and you instantly understand how they make meals. They stock up on great deals, in quantities to last a few months. This family bought more of the snack foods than I would buy, such as soda pop, chips, packaged cookies and cold cereal. But I could see that this technique would work for me, as well.

We changed the way we shopped for groceries, overnight, and cut our grocery spending from $70 per week to $30 per week. Overnight! We went from spending 30% of our take-home income on groceries, to spending 13% of our take-home income. Our take-home at the time was a mere $1000 per month. An extra $173 per month was very valuable.

The grocery store ads for our town came in the Sunday paper. Monday mornings, I would spread the papers out on the table and study the good deals, and spend about 1 hour, making my lists. I selected only the very best buys for each store, for the week, focusing on produce, dairy, grains, and meats. I had 3 stores that were conveniently located for me to shop. In the afternoon, I packed my little boy up and the two of us hit those stores.

One thing I discovered, shopping 3 stores, with list in hand, and only picking up multiples of specific items, was that this sort of shopping did not take up as much time as I had thought it would. Going to 3 stores, within a 15-20 minute drive from my apartment, took about 2 hours per week. My previous way of shopping, at just one store, would typically take longer than an hour and a half, as we seemed to linger over our choices.

The first few weeks left me with a slightly less-balanced pantry and freezer selection, but I was still able to provide nutritious meals for our family. I bought a lot of dried beans and grains in that first week to round out the selection of bargain meat that I found. And I think we may have eaten carrots, cabbage, squash and onions for several meals. But this was just the first week. By the second week, I had a larger variety in stock. 

I spent just $30 for that very first week, and every week to come for many years (until a combination of inflation and a growing family deemed an increase to *gasp* $41 per week, and today we now spend about $48 per week for the 5 of us).

Within a month, the vast majority of foods that we consumed regularly had been featured on sale, and I was able to stock up in quantities to last us several months. Those items that I couldn't find on sale, I picked up at the area "budget" grocery store as I needed.

So, that's how I began with this whole shopping around thing.

Why do I continue with this shopping? 

I still save a bundle of money, and I have found that I can tailor the items I buy to the different stores, according to each stores specialties. 

The Cash and Carry restaurant supply is fantastic for bulk-buying baking ingredients, as I do bake a lot, and large bags of dried beans and brown rice for our vegetarian meals. QFC is the more upscale grocery store near us, and has some of the best meat in the area, that is, for a chain grocery. Trader Joe's is my go-to place for organics, like tofu and soymilk, as well as very fresh dried fruit (sounds funny, I know, but the kind of dried fruit that isn't hard little pebbles, but chewy and flavorful), and naturals like peanut butter. Country Farms is my favorite produce stand. The produce is fresh and well-priced. I don't mind if I have to wash off more dirt than supermarket produce. It just reminds me that what I'm about to eat was grown in or on the ground. I stop by Dollar Tree every couple of weeks and find some real bargains on crackers and other treat items. And I throw in Safeway and Albertsons for rounding out the shopping.

I have found that by shopping several stores, I buy better food overall. And that is perhaps as big a motivator as saving money for our family, these days.

Now for my February grocery money journal

I didn't post a mid-month grocery journal for February, as its a short month, we took a week out for a vacation, and I'm now just posting 3 days per week (and I have other things I'd like to share with you) so I just left this all as one full month's journal.

Feb. 1. I knew we were in for it. This would be the month that I restock quite a bit. And the month is off to a roaring good start. I stopped by Cash and Carry wholesaler in the afternoon, and bought 8 lbs peanut butter (really great price $1.73 lb, it's been so expensive for a year now, couldn't resist this price), gallon sized can of tomatoes, gallon sized can of tomato paste, 3 quarts soymilk, 5 lbs. carrots, 5 lbs. frozen mixed vegetables, 1 head red cabbage, 1 package tofu, and 50 lbs of flour.

I have told myself that I would try and plan ahead better this month, and only stop into both the Cash and Carry and Trader Joe's once each, for the month. This will save me time in the end. I'm just not very good at planning so far in advance. A week or two I'm okay with, but a whole month was a bit hard for me. We shall see how this works out. Total spent today -- $49.06

Feb. 4. At Dollar Tree, found seeds for 4/$1. I count vegetable seeds and growing supplies into the grocery budget. Also bought crackers, cocoa packets and some chips for upcoming trip. spent $11.57

Also, stopped in TOP Foods, for cheese, cider mix for son's Valentine's gift and pills I need to eat dairy (also I take out of grocery). Spent $11.42   total for month so far -- $72.05

Feb. 6. We needed 1 gallon of milk to get the guys through the days that the girls and I will be gone. Also found mushrooms (for tonight's stew) and bananas (tomorrow's lunches) on clearance. Total spent $4.63. Total month to date -- $76.68

Feb. 7. Pre-trip stock up at Trader Joe's. Bought raisins, sunflower seeds, almonds, bananas and soy milk. Spent $17.23. Total month to date -- $93.91

Feb. 8-14. I'll take $45 out of the grocery budget to offset some of the dining costs while away. I came to this number by dividing the monthly budget by days in the month, then multiplying by the number of days away. The rest of the money spent on dining while on vacation will come from the vacation budget.

Total spent for the month -- $138.91

Feb. 15. Post-trip restock. Stopped at Cash and Carry. Bought 10 lbs potatoes, 25 lbs. onions, 5 lbs. carrots, 1 head red cabbage, 1 #10 can ketchup, 1 small can salmon, 2 small cans pineapple juice concentrate, about 4 lbs of bananas. total spent -- $28.77

Also stopped in at QFC for chicken on sale for 88c lb. Bought 3 whole chickens. Found whole and skim milk on mark down for $1.09/half gallon. Bought all 8 half gallons that they had left. Total spent here -- $21.87

Total spent month to date -- $189.55

Feb. 20. I've been slightly under the weather for a couple of days -- no appetite, and no desire to set foot in a grocery store. Now that helps the grocery budget, doesn't it?!!! The silver lining -- get a stomach bug, and save on grocery impulse buys!!

Feb. 26. Needed some things from the dollar store, also picked up a container of oregano (I'm out of my garden oregano from last summer's garden) and 3 bags of foil-wrapped chocolate pieces (Valentine's clearance, 25 cents/bag), to use in s'mores and chopped up for cookies. Total spent $1.75. 

Total spent for February on groceries $191.30, under budget by $18.70. This will roll over into the grocery surplus for next month.

Supplies in the pantry, freezer and garden

My freezer still has blackberries, plums, rhubarb, blueberries and strawberries from last summer. Also, there are 2 whole chickens, 1 whole turkey and a small beef roast. My pantry is looking leaner, but not too lean. The vegetable garden is coming back. I have watercress, sorrel, broccoli, kale, turnip and mustard greens from the fall garden making their comeback for about a month before bolting. I'll need to do a good deal of restocking this next month.

Deals to look for at the grocery store in March
  • with St. Patrick's Day, cabbage will be a loss leader item at most grocery stores the week leading up to St. Patrick's Day. Cabbage keeps for a couple of months in the refrigerator. I buy a few heads of cabbage and use in stir-fries, soup, braised cabbage, bubble and squeak, and cole slaw both as a salad and to add to sandwiches. Also, corned beef is often a loss-leader. It can be cooked, sliced thin and frozen in packets for sandwiches later on.
  • seasonal produce No. Hemisphere -- winter into spring produce: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, celery, carrots continue from previous winter months, but towards the middle-end of the month, expect to find artichokes, asparagus, leeks, spinach, strawberries, green onions and radish all at good prices.
  • seasonal produce So. Hemisphere -- end of summer produce: apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, winter and summer squash, beans and onions.  


  1. With only 2 of us at home, I still do some stocking up, but have to set limits based on what we'll actually use. I would say that at any given time, we usually have 1 month's worth of non-perishables in the house, and we shop for fresh food weekly, as well as making a few things (like yogurt, soup and muffins) at home regularly.

    1. Hi anexacting,
      I have wondered how I will shop when it's just the two of us again, so I find it interesting to read about couples only, or singles, shopping and cooking.

      I'm curious about how you make your yogurt. What method do you use for incubating the yogurt? And what kind of milk do you use? I know so many other people have had trouble getting their yogurt to set up, and I've been trying to piece together the troubles that can happen with certain milks, methods, etc.

    2. I experimented a lot with the yogurt! I bought a yogurt maker because I found it hard to maintain the temperature using the cooler method. An electric heating pad might do, though. I use 1% milk, and I add some skim milk powder as a thickener. I used to use plain gelatin but it didn't work as well.

    3. Interesting. Thanks for your information. I know a couple of people have asked here and elsewhere about making yogurt with skim milk, instead of whole. I've only ever made yogurt with whole milk and soy milk, so it's helpful to know that it can be done successfully with 1% at least.

  2. Grocery shopping is one of those chores that I really don't like to do. I used to shop the sales to save $, but right now I have a system of 3 stores regardless of sales. (One of those stores, I only go to once a month.) It may cost a little more but, to me, it's worth the trade-off. We'll see, though, if gas prices keep going up...

    How do you store your bulk baking ingredients?

    1. Hi Sharon,
      Like you, I wonder how I will manage my shopping routine, should gas prices really skyrocket. Next fall my two youngest children will begin university, and so I will not be traveling near some of my favorite stores as I have done to drive kids back and forth to school. I haven't decided how I will continue with my shopping. I may have to go south just once a month, or every other month, to really stock up on items I buy in that area.

      I have large plastic food-grade bins for flour, oats and cornmeal. They're 18 qts. I can store about half a 50 lb sack of flour in each. I also have smaller, more accessible containers (I think they each hold about a 10 lb bag of flour). When I bring a 50 lb sack home, I fill the large container, then the small one, and any remaining flour stays in the bag and is used first, about a 2-3 week supply. My pantry is about 5 feet by 5 feet square. Some of my sacks just stay on the bottom shelf (about 3 inches off the ground, one of those chrome free-standing shelving units), and I fill smaller Rubbermaid containers as I need.

      I also have a baking cupboard with spices, baking powder, soda, extracts, etc. This is a counter height cupboard right in my baking area. It's large enough to fit 3 lb buckets of baking soda and baking powder, and 1 lb containers of spices that I frequently use, like cinnamon and ginger. I buy cinnamon in a 1 gallon container that I keep in the freezer and refill my smaller 1 lb container with.

      We have only had 1 incident of pantry moths, and I caught it very early and got it taken care of. They came in in a sack of brown rice. I have since stopped buying that distributor's rice in the 50 lb sacks, and only buy brown rice in the 25 lb ones. It may have been a fluke, as I have never had this problem here before, or since.

      Did I give you the answers you were looking for?

    2. How do you handle a gallon of Catsup?

    3. Hi frugal spinster,
      It sounds daunting, doesn't it? I have some 3 lb. plastic shortening (like Crisco) containers, that are just a bit smaller than the 1 gallon can of ketchup. I fill the squeeze bottle that we use regularly from the can, then put the rest into the shortening container, and store in the garage fridge.

      I don't care for ketchup, but the rest of my family would happily put it on anything, so a 1 gallon will only last us about 4 months. I keep toying with the idea of making my own from tomato paste. Not for the money savings, but to avoid corn syrup. Someday . . .

    4. I was wondering the same Do you make your own barbecue sauces using ketchup as the base?

    5. Hi Shara,
      Nope! I do make bbq sauce, but with tomato paste. 4 members of my family simply love ketchup! We do make 1000 island dressing, not a whole lot, but maybe a few times per month, and when I make baked beans I use some ketchup in the liquid. It must be all the oven fries and hot dogs?

      Funny thing, my grandmother had the exact same (small) bottle of ketchup for about 10 years.

  3. I shop exactly the same way - 3 stores - loss leaders. It helps that everything is within 5 minutes of my home so no extra gas expenditure. Could I ask how much 50lbs of flour was at your Cash n Carry?

    1. Hi Cheapchick,
      That is really nice that you have 3 stores so close to your house.
      I don't have my receipt right here with me, but I think I paid about $13 for the 50 lb sack of white flour. I buy the restaurant and hotel flour, which is not pre-sifted. That's the least expensive way for me to buy flour. The last time I bought stone-ground whole wheat flour I paid about $21 for 50 lbs.

  4. Smart shopping strategies sans coupons! I love it, Lili!

    1. Hi Pamela,
      Thanks! I don't have double or triple coupon stores near me, so I'm not very motivated to use coupons. And personally, I don't think I'm organized enough with paper stuff to manage a huge stash of coupons, enough to make it really worthwhile.

      I do know a lady, though, who is seriously into couponing. She sees it as a hobby that pays. She spends about what I do on groceries by using coupons. But I think she spends more time that I do, obtaining coupons, reading the coupon message boards and actually doing the shopping. Like I said, she sees it as a hobby.

  5. It's obvious that you have perfected shopping and cooking efficiently for your family. You should be proud of your skills and the hard work you do to maintain this. However, I think you would agree, that it is something that you have honed over time. So if there is anyone out there that is overwhelmed with the whole process, realize that it takes time to get to know prices, food seasons, and store specialties among other things. I know it did for me.

    Now onto the more practical. Do you have any problems lifting the 50 lb sacks of things you buy. I can do it, but I have problems lifting the 40 lb bags of cat litter we buy.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I think that we've all been given different abilities that help us through the practical aspects of this life. I just happen to have a head for numbers. I remember things like what I paid for peanut butter a year ago, or the price of eggs or milk at different stores.

      But for those who's abilities lie elsewhere, Amy Dacyzcn, from the Tightwad Gazette, recommended taking a couple of hours to make a price book for grocery basics and their prices at the different stores in your area. I can see how this could really help a lot of people. The someone could just look up whether or not a sales price on any particular item was indeed a great price.

      Over the years, I have found better places to buy different groceries, thanks to things like the old news groups from the 90s on the internet (there was a news group called The Frugal Living Newsgroup. My husband participated in that one for me, and obtaining valuable information that I still use today.) And today, I learn new things from blogs. Learning how to successfully make yogurt came last summer. All my previous attempts (all two attempts) resulted in utter failures. It's been nice to learn how to successfully make yogurt. I keep on learning, and hope to never stop.

      50 lbs is just barely manageable. The most difficult aspect of lifting a 50 lb sack is it's not rigid. It kind of slumps over as I'm trying to carry it, so that I can not hold the whole thing tight against my body, which is the key component for me to carry something so heavy. I am fortunate that most of the time I have at least one of my kids with me to help with the heavy lifting. And my petite teenage girls are amazingly strong for their size!

  6. Holy Moly! I am quite impressed. My parents shop this way as well, and have enough food stored in their basement that they could easily weather some sort of apocalypse!

    My dad also shops at a salvage store that we jokingly call "the used grocery store." He's actually become great friends with the owner since he's such a regular, so he gets the inside scoop on all the deals! You can get some pretty fantastic savings there - especially on fancy stuff that would normally be too expensive to splurge on, and most of it just has damaged packaging, although some things are at or just beyond their sell by date. But they're only open once a week, and you just have to show up and see what they've got.

    I think the trick to this sort of thing is to really know your prices so you can spot a good deal when you see one. I know prices on things I buy frequently, but mostly that's fresh produce, which is kinda hard to stock up on. So many things just take me soooo long to use up that I have no idea what I spent on it last time. I'm trying to fathom using 50 pounds of flour since it generally takes me close to a year to use up a 5 pound bag!

    I'm still trying to find the perfect system for myself. Since I'm usually cooking for just me, it's easy to get carried away and buy more than I can reasonably use. I still haven't quite recovered from my pantry clean out where I had to toss several boxes of canned goods that were too far expired to be safe.

    At the moment I'm trying to eat my way through the stuff in the freezer so I can defrost it and be ready to start filling it again once the gardening season begins. I really need a better system for keeping track of what's down there, as well as what's in my pantry. Do you have a spreadsheet or something to keep track of it all, or do you just keep it all in your head?

    1. Hi Cat,
      The used grocery store! That's funny! I used to shop at such a place. Not everything was damaged or beyond the pull-date, but some of it was. I haven't been there in many years, as I no longer live near one.

      I do think knowing your prices is key. I have had muddled thinking days where I just got terribly confused (mostly when my twins were about 2 years old and exhausting me by day and keeping me up half the night), and would think something was a super low price, so I'd buy a lot, only to later think it through and realize I was off the mark on that day.

      For my freezer, I' have been thinking that it would be nice to keep a log of what I put in there. I have 3 freezers, one small one (dishwasher size), just for garden fruits and veggies, one that's the half of a side by side, also in the garage, I use this for meat and prepared meals, and the kitchen one, that I use for leftovers and things I use from the freezer often enough to not want to have to go out to the garage for.

      I think it would be nice to keep better track, but at least now I am actually labeling packages and no longer having to guess what's in each container. I have been thinking about sticking a white board on the freezer doors, and just jotting down what I put in, as I add it. Then I would know, for instance, if there's any pizza sauce left, or if I should plan to make more soon.

      I'm trying to clean out my freezers as well, to start making room for summer produce. Fortunately, we're a family of 5 and can eat amazingly large quantities of food in a short period.

  7. Wow, that was a lot of saving when you first started doing it. And I'm impressed by how you can feed your family on less than $50 a week - you probably chuckled when I posted that my food budget for just myself was $50 a week :)

    It's not worth buying huge sacks of anything as a single person, so I need to take your advice and look into sharing with other singles to take advantage of bulk buying.

    1. Hi Economies,
      I just think that food costs are different in other places. So, no, I didn't laugh over your costs. I have assumed that food is more expensive in Australia. And to top it off, you really can't take as much advantage of buying in large quantities as I can. Plus we all eat slightly differently, for our own reasons. I think the only person(s) who can decide what the right amount to spend on groceries (or anything) is themselves.

      I think you're doing great with your budgeting and goal setting! You have already identified areas to cut back on to make your finances work as a single person.

      And, yes, those first couple of weeks that I switched the way I shopped were an amazing discovery to me. I couldn't believe the difference in what we spent from one week to the next. And at that time, it meant the difference between barely making ends meet and having a surplus to save for a house -- so definitely worth it to us!


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