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Friday, September 19, 2014

How has my grocery shopping changed over the last year?

So, we're doing "okay" with our reduced grocery budget this year (a budget of about $165 per month, for food only, for 5 of us), even with some rising food prices. But to make that happen, I've had to make even more changes in the last 12 months.

A year ago, I posted about various ways I am cutting our grocery budget/spending. One of the methods I've used is shopping at a restaurant supply and buying institutional sizes. Even at the Cash and Carry's regular prices, institutional sizes saves us a lot of money.

However, I've now moved to an even more advantageous shopping strategy. I've become a very opportunistic wholesale shopper. The Cash and Carry does have sales. Every 2 weeks they put out a new ad, and it's available for me to view online. I go through the ad very carefully and make a list of what's on sale at a great price, determine the quantity we would need to get through 6 months to 1 year, and add that to my list. Basically, this is institutional loss-leader shopping.

Shopping this way means that I can't always pick up what we're out of, but may have to wait a few weeks, instead, to find it on sale. But it allows us to pay the absolute minimum price on almost all of our basics. (I do need to occasionally buy something at their regular institutional price. Last month, I really needed all-purpose flour, to continue on with our baking. So, even without a sale price, I bought a 50-lb sack of all-purpose flour for about $12 or $13.)

Here are a few examples, with stock-up price as well as regular price:

  • whole wheat flour -- $12.99/50lb sack (regular price $13.59). I had about 25 lbs still at home. I bought 100 lbs of new flour. It should last many months. We don't have a pantry moth problem in our kitchen. But I will still re-package this flour into 25-lb bags and cycle through the freezer, to kill anything that has hitch-hiked into our kitchen.
  • #10 cans (6 lbs, 10 oz) Libby's canned pumpkin -- $4.25 (regular price $8.77). I bought 4 of these large cans and will repackage into 15-oz freezer containers as we open the cans. This amount will hopefully carry us through the entire year. (Update -- We are already going through this pumpkin, and I may pick up another couple of cans near the end of the month. Sale ends on Sept 30.)
  • 5-lb bags of shredded mozzarella cheese -- $11.98 (regular price $12.58). I wound up buying 4 bags (20 lbs). This cheese will be frozen as room in the freezer opens up, and should last well into spring.
  • #10 cans whole, peeled tomatoes -- $2.37 (regular price is about $3.49). I bought 15 cans, a one-year supply. Canned tomatoes can be frozen after opening. So, I repackage and freeze canned tomatoes in amounts that I typically use in cooking.
  • 1 gallon jugs of white vinegar -- $2.47 (regular price -- $3.29). I bought 6 gallons, again, a year's supply. We use a lot of vinegar, for hair rinsing, cleaning, making flavored vinegars for salad dressing, making pickles and for a substitution for baking powder (1 Tablespoon baking powder = 1 Tablespoon vinegar plus 3/4 teaspoon baking soda).
  • 3 lb bag of dried cranberries -- $5.87 (regular price $7.37). I bought 1 bag and am saving them for holiday baking. I don't usually buy dried cranberries other than holiday/winter baking. So this should be it for the year.
  • ground ginger (9 oz) and curry powder (13 oz) -- $2.88 (regular price $4.19) and $4.24 (regular price $5.17), respectively. I needed both of these, but waited until they went on sale.
  • 5-lb bags frozen peas -- $3.54 (regular price $4.23). I bought 3 of these bags, for a total of 15 lbs. This should last us through most of winter and into early spring.
You can see that some items have a pretty decent "regular" price. But when you see the sale price, in some cases, the savings are significant. The canned pumpkin was about half price from the "regular" price. It worked out to about 60 cents per 15-oz portion (standard size of canned pumpkin to make 1 pie).  The canned, whole peeled tomatoes were on sale at a price of about 30 cents per 14.5 oz (about the regular-sized can for whole tomatoes), or about 60 cents for the larger 28 oz sized can. For reference, in our area, the 14-oz sized can of tomatoes goes on sale in regular grocery stores for 49 cents. The cheese worked out to about $2.39 per pound. For reference, the next best price I find on cheese of any kind is 2-lb blocks of cheddar on sale for $4.99--or $2.49/lb (and usually limit of 1).
One thing I learned many years ago about stocking up like this -- it doesn't work in our household to stock up on snacky items. So most of our stock-ups are for basic, healthy food.(The snacky food gets eaten too quickly, and winds up pushing healthier foods out of the diet.)

My hope is to continue feeding my family as well as possible, while keeping our grocery budget low. I still may need to "find" more money in the budget to allocate to groceries. I'm currently working on plugging some spending holes, here and there.  And I may be able to increase our grocery budget a smidge in the coming months.

I understand that for the most part, absolutely none of this is helpful to most of you. I just wanted to offer some explanations for how we can keep our grocery spending as low as we do. Anyway, with each budget crisis, or bout of inflation, I do find myself wondering just how I'm going to pull another rabbit out of my well-worn hat. And somehow . . . we manage.

Have you found any ways to reduce your grocery spending, overall, in the past year, despite the inflation that is hitting all of us? How are you handling price increases? Are you adding to your grocery budget? Eliminating the purchase of some foods? Do you have any stores that carry institutional sizes? (When we lived in Salt Lake City, we had one store that carried some #10 cans of fruits and vegetables, and many large families took advantage of these sizes.) Do you tend to stock the pantry, or buy just what you need for 1 or 2 weeks? If you stock the pantry, do you ever have a moment of feeling overwhelmed by how stuffed you pantry can look and feel? I know this might not make much sense coming from me, but sometimes, even I look in my pantry and get this feeling of being overwhelmed by it all.



  1. Lili, your grocery posts are most helpful to me!

    I've always considered myself to be a bargain shopper. Previously, this consisted of me reading the Kroger ad each week and buying their loss leaders, but only buying enough to last a couple of weeks. The rest of my groceries were bought at WalMart's 'Everyday Low Prices' with the occasional drug store special deal thrown in. I also coupon, but most coupons are for convenience foods that I don't buy. My Mom is fairly frugal, and I learned this method of shopping from her.

    I thought I was doing good until I started reading your blog. I had a specific grocery budget for each month and I stayed within that budget, shopping week by week. Slowly, it started sinking in that I could do so much better. I don't know why it didn't occur to me before to stock-up at 'rock-bottom' prices, but it didn't.

    I think I really started paying attention when you had to cut your expenses, about a year ago. Several of your posts mentioned determining how much of a product you should buy at 'rock-bottom' prices to get your family through a specific amount of time. A light bulb went off in my head! Why didn't I think of that sooner?!?

    So, I started applying that to my shopping. Early this year, I started looking at the Kroger ad each week with new eyes and carefully considering the loss leaders. When I found a great loss leader item, I bought enough to last our family until I thought the item might go on sale again. It has taken time, but slowly our pantry/fridge and freezers are being stocked at rock-bottom prices.

    Just the last couple of months, I'm actually needing to buy less when I grocery shop. I no longer have a weekly list of needed items. My trips are mainly to stock-up on loss leaders or pick up fresh milk. And the best part...the past couple of months, I've been surprised to actually find grocery budget money left over at the end of the month. I'm building a little surplus to stock-up further on special deals.

    I'm now even considering buying some things in bulk. My choices are
    limited in my area, but there is a Sam's Club about 50 miles from me. I've been looking at their website to see if a stock-up trip a couple of times a year would benefit me. I'm counting the cost of the membership and the gas, but I think it might actually be worth it. Providing I stick with basic, healthy bulk purchases and not buy the convenience food items. Like you mentioned, this does not work for my family either. I had a Sam's membership years ago and the super-sized box of granola bars didn't last my family any longer than the small sized one.

    So, thank you VERY much for sharing your grocery shopping strategies in such great detail. You have helped me so much and I know you have helped others. Keep up the good are an inspiration. :)


    1. One more thing...

      My husband is really happy with having a stocked pantry, etc. He commented to me that it feels like we could fare pretty well for awhile in an emergency situation such as a lay off. So that is another benefit to this method of shopping.


    2. Angie, that is so great! I often look into the pantry and freezers, and think, "hey, we could survive for many months on what's in here, should we lose our income".

      Keep saving!

  2. I usually buy to stock my pantry. I buy the Wednesday newspapers and scan the grocery store ads and then buy when I find rock bottom prices. Those prices you've mentioned are really good! Such a great plan for your area.

    1. Hi Belinda,
      I keep working on finding the deals in our area. It sounds like you've got a good system for your area.

  3. Even though your posts are sometimes not directly helpful (as in we don't have restaurant supply stores here), they are still helpful in getting a feel for how you approach the situation so the process itself can be applied to my personal situation, if that makes sense. I do notice when I shop similiarly that we run out of a lot less ingredients since we're buying less variety and larger quantities.

    1. Sorry, started to reply, then took the kids to school, came home, and forgot where I was going with it. :P

      Anyways, yes, I tend to stock the pantry but also pick up odds and ends (those cans of green chiles for the occasional enchiladas, a random can of pineapple, etc..., things I don't keep a lot of). And it does get overwhelming facing a full pantry or freezer. Sometimes I think I waste more because I have trouble finding things.

    2. Hi Cat,
      Finding things, and making sure I use what I've got on hand seems to require a constant eye on what's there, for me. This week, I'm faced with an overpacked fridge, and am working hard not to lose anything in there. It's a challenge, but I just see it as another part of my job. Good luck to you!

  4. Other strategies besides my own for saving money are always helpful to me. It's good to learn from each other, and while I might not apply every strategy you or someone else uses, it does make me re-think what I do and try to be more effective with my money.

    My in-laws were here last weekend and brought a LOT of canned produce for our pantry and our freezer. Yes, it's a blessing, but it can feel overwhelming to me to think how best to use what they have brought us.

    1. Oh, lucky you, Kris! All that canned produce will be sooo nice to have this winter, when produce is typically so expensive, even though it's overwhelming right now.

  5. I appreciate your posts about shopping and how you save. There are hundreds of ways to save little amounts - and they add up. I shop for bulk items at Sam's club - for flour, toilet paper, parmesan cheese, coconut oil, shortening - and items when they are on sale. I use Smith's Foodking for other ad items. I live in SLC and I'm curious as to where you found the best deals.

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      Okay, so it's been about 25 years since we lived in SLC, but here's where we shopped:
      Smith's was my overall low-price store for anything I couldn't find on loss leader. Their loss leaders didn't seem terribly spectacular, but regular prices were good.
      For loss-leaders, Dan's had the very best prices on their ad's front page, and they had a very generous coupon deal, with every Wed double coupon day. I used coupons then for breakfast cereal and laundry detergent, never paying more than a few cents for either. And they had no limits on loss-leader items, so I could really stock up.
      I also bought loss leaders at Alpha Beta (not sure if they're still there -- they were on 33rd SO, on the east side).
      Harmon's in Sugar House (I think that's where it was) had the #10 cans of various canned goods. I only occasionally shopped Harmon's as I didn't get their ads.
      I lived on the east side, in a couple of locations, around 9th SO and 11th E, and also in Holliday, so I shopped east side stores. There was an Albertson's on 39th SO that I stopped in occasionally, but just didn't find many deals there.
      I imagine that SLC has many more options now. I don't remember there being Sam's, and Costco wasn't an option for me (though my SIL shops there, and does very well for her family).

      It sounds like you've found some good shopping venues for your family.

  6. Ha! I saw the title of this post and I thought: how has it changed? It's gone from incredible to completely unbelievable! Seriously, you feed a family of 5 on half of what I spend on myself! Of course, I haven't really been trying to save money this year - since I paid off my mortgage and am getting a nice tax break on health insurance, my costs have gone down considerably - plus, since last year was the year of dealing with illness and death, I decided I had other priorities right now.

    But, none of that diminishes how totally amazed I am by what you are able to accomplish! You did inspire me to try to use up my garden grapes this year - so I made grape juice, froze a bunch of the seedless ones and made some utterly amazing grape muffins. For some silly reason I decided to use the seeded ones for the muffins which meant I had to seed them - which was sort of a nightmarish task, but totally worth it. I don't think I'd try eating the seeds as you could break a tooth or something if you weren't careful! For the grape juice though you just wash, mash add enough water to cover them, cook & strain - totally delicious! I thought about jelly, but since I don't really eat jelly I figured it would be a waste.

    My next door neighbors both have apple trees and neither ever uses their apples. I'm trying to get up the courage to ask one or the other if I could pick some to try my hand at applesauce. I keep hoping for an appropriate "over the fence" moment, but it has yet to arise. We'll see...

    I'm totally wishing you were closer because I'd gift you as many pie pumpkins as you could eat. Seriously, I get about 20-30 volunteers every year and I try valiantly to use them up but always fail. I still have a gallon of frozen pumpkin mash in the freezer from 3 years ago (probably time to toss that!)

    1. Hi Cat,
      your pumpkins always amaze me. I've got 5 pumpkins this year, and they're still not ripe!

      So, do your neighbors have pumpkins? You could bring one over, and at that time, mention that you notice they haven't harvested their apples yet, and you'd love the "help" them with the picking, for a share of the apples. We did something like this and wound up with a huge bag of apples, and a closer relationship with the neighbors.

  7. Lili, Besides the knowledge you've accumulated over the years about prices and amounts of things that you use, your methods also take discipline. The discipline to wait for something to go on sale before you buy it even if you really want it. I think that may be the most important part of your success. I'm always interested and impressed with you whole grocery system.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I'm not always so disciplined, but I try to hold out as long as we can, while waiting for a sale. I figure that by waiting longer and finding cheaper alternatives, that I've saved some money, at least. That's where I am on yeast. I've been using sourdough starter only, now, for over a month. So I figure, even if I buy yeast at the wholesaler's regular price now, I've saved on yeast for this past month.

  8. I always am looking for fresh ideas! Please continue to be generous and share what works for you. I also have always kept a pantry-even when in my first, teeny tiny "grown up" appartment. It saves significant $ in the long run, and is a blessing in a financial crisis

    1. Hi Carol,
      I didn't start stocking a pantry until my oldest child was born. It never occurred to me before that (I just shopped as my mom had always shopped, one week at a time). But overnight, I discovered that I could slash our spending almost in half, by stocking a pantry, and cooking from that. So, it has definitely been a money saver for us, and has seen us through 1 long layoff, many years ago, and may see us through a tight winter this year.

  9. I am always impressed with your resourcefulness and shopping creativity. We have no Cash and Carry here so that is not possible for me, but I have been exploring some of the large ethnic markets near me. I have found unbelievable deals on produce, much of it new to me but I am willing to try it anyway. Some things I use already I can find much cheaper there. For instance key limes were $2 for a 1 1/2 pound bag. I have not seen them that cheap outside of South Florida. The reward? Enough lime juice for nearly 4 Key Lime Pies ( The 4th pie will be a combo of key lime juice and regular limes) And did I mention regular limes were 8 cents each! SInce everyone is bound by stores around them, explore and learn has to be our mantras. Thanks for sharing your methods!

    1. Hi Anne,
      Ethnic markets are my next place to explore. There's an Hispanic market that was near my daughters' high school that we went in a couple of times. They did have a few items at very good prices. Now I'll be looking for similar markets near our house.

      What a deal on limes you found! And the Key Lime pie will surely be appreciated by your family!


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