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It’s easy for grocery bills to get out of control—the more you’re in the store, the more you’re likely to buy. Sticking to a budget, planning out your meals in advance, and buying only what’s needed are great steps to start saving money.
But I have found that it’s still tough to buy only what’s on your list—what about that sale on cereal? Shouldn’t I grab yogurt if it’s cheaper than usual? That’s where a grocery price book comes in, says Taylor Flannery, writer and owner of Home Storage Solutions 101.
“Once you create a grocery price book, you know when a sale is worthy of heading to the store to increase your stockpile,” Flannery says.
A price book will help you determine the average price you pay for a product. You may come across a two-for-one deal on yogurt, for example, but it could still be more expensive than you typically pay—especially if you shop at more than one grocery store.
Use a price book to help you save money on groceries
A grocery price book is a binder, list, spreadsheet, or notebook where you track the prices you’ve paid for the 20 or 30 items you buy frequently. You don’t have to lug a binder around the store with you to record the prices; I compiled my price book from receipts I saved over the course of one month.
“Price books work best for tracking staples that your family purchases week after week, so you’re always buying those things at the lowest sales price,” Flannery says.
Flannery recommends including items on which you can stock, such as canned or frozen food, toilet paper, shampoo, and laundry detergent. I included dairy products, meats, and produce. The list should include the product and brand purchased, store, date, amount or size, price, and price per unit.
Price per unit is very important, Flannery says, because it allows you to judge whether the sale price is a discount.
“The stores are always fiddling with the prices, and that’s why you’ve got to track those fluctuations with your price book,” she explains.
To help me stick to my grocery budget, I used an Excel spreadsheet to create my price book because if you enter the sale price and weight, it can calculate the price per unit for you. I also found it helpful to create a new sheet for each category. In order to reference my price book in the store, I uploaded it to Google Docs so I could view it easily on my phone. If you prefer paper, Flannery created a template that you can print out and use in the store.
Training wheels: Pricing by category and brand loyalty
If making a price book sounds overwhelming, you can start off slow. Flannery recommends calculating the most expensive item in your grocery budget and tracking that first. For her family, it was diapers.
“We watched sales and quickly [and] significantly reduced our diaper expenses,” Flannery says.
While you’re working in one category, you may want to try out several different brands with an open mind. You’ll soon realize how much brand loyalty is costing you.
“Nine times out of 10, we’ve enjoyed the store brand as much, if not more, than the original,” Flannery says.
But if a brand is significantly worse, don’t buy it because it’s on sale. You may end up wasting food and money.
Do you need to shop at multiple stores to really save money?
Every store is different, so your price book will be personalized to your location and tastes. It will also vary depending on how many stores you frequent. Initially, I thought a price book would only work to my advantage if I shopped at several stores, but that’s not the case.
“The more stores you can shop at means more money saved, but even if you only keep a price book on one to two stores, you will be saving money,” says Jenetta Penner, author of Frugal Living Mom.
This month, I chose to shop at three stores: a bargain grocery store, a store that specializes in produce, and a big-box store. My price book has allowed me to note when the sales in the big-box supermarket get me a better price per unit than in the bargain store.
For example, I stocked up on pasta for 85 cents a pound in the big-box store, when it usually costs me $1.11 a pound in the bargain store. I avoided the chocolate chips, however, because they were $1 more per ounce than in the bargain supermarket; I would have usually just grabbed them for the sake of convenience.
I also learned that price changes occur very fast. Three days after I bought milk for $2.35, that brand was priced at $2.99 in the same store.
You probably have a general idea of what items cost, but you’ll be surprised by how much more informed you are—and how much easier it is to stick to your grocery budget—with a grocery price book in hand.
Camille Puschautz is a researcher, writer, and web producer at Think Glink Media, with a background in print and digital media. She is a graduate of the University of Dallas and Northwestern University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism.
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