Outsmarting the Grocery Monster

One of my biggest mommy projects is wrangling the grocery bill. If you’ve ever undertaken the cringe-worthy task of tallying up your monthly spending on groceries, you know all about what I call the Grocery Monster.  The Grocery Monster is the mysterious creature that eats your well-planned list on the way to the grocery store, sneaks overpriced last-minute items into your cart on the way to the register, and whispers into your toddler’s ear at dinner-time that boxed macaroni and cheese is the only ‘vegetable’ worth eating.

A friend of mine lamented on the phone recently, “I tried couponing, but who has time for that?” I nodded. I’d actually calculated that the time I spent couponing at my current hourly rate would have me paying the amount of the coupon savings on top of my grocery bill. Not to mention the time it was taking away from my family, my whole reason for leaving work in the first place.

So I decided, instead of literally working toward a grocery budget, I’d change the way I buy groceries to make my budget work for me, and keep the monster at bay. Here are some tips I’m using to outsmart the grocery monster.

  1. Buy on price, not on need, and especially not on want.  The grocery monster preys on needs and wants. We already know better than to shop when hungry or throw a menu together in the shopping aisle. But we still tend to buy for now rather than buying for price.  One thing the extreme couponers do well is stock up when items are at the best price.  The downsides to the extreme version of stocking are the required space, and the fact that a lot of non-perishable foods are loaded with preservatives and other processed ingredients that make them unhealthy choices. But stocking up on storage bags, toilet paper, and canned vegetables when on sale is better than buying those items on the fly and paying higher prices. It can add up. But be careful. The grocery monster also loves quantity. Make sure you and your family don’t increase your usage of items just because there is a stock in place. 
  2. Don’t always buy ‘low.’ Huh? The grocery monster is easily fooled by sales circulars.  Just because a price is advertised, doesn’t mean it’s the lowest.  Same goes for the yellow tags in the aisles. You may get tricked into stocking up on something that isn’t actually any cheaper than last week’s price. The initial work of creating a tracking spreadsheet is worth it to familiarize yourself with prices, and it doubles as a quick print-and-go list.  Record the lowest, highest, and average price paid for items you buy regularly like peanut butter. I get weekly circulars for the two stores I shop most delivered to my email so I can check sale prices against my price-tracking sheet.  If a price is lower than the average, I add ‘stock up’ next to the item in my list.  If it’s the average price, I just enter the quantity I need for the week, and if it’s over that price, I avoid buying it that week or look for a cheaper alternative. Over time, you get so familiar with the prices, you don’t even have to check the sheet to know if you’re seeing a good deal.
  3. You don’t have to pass up organic to save money.  The grocery monster doesn’t know the difference, but you do.  Don’t be tricked by labels like “all natural” and “eco-friendly.”  You may end up paying more for something that’s not even close to organic.  Always look for “certified organic” to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.  Know what to buy organic and what you can cheat on [meat and dairy are a must, thick-skinned produce is less likely to contain harmful pesticides], and don’t assume that your usual store will have cheaper organics than the big natural foods chains. Most “whole foodies” will tell you that you can get away with non-certified items at the natural foods store and get the same quality while paying less, because of those stores’ stricter standards.
  4. Beware, baby.  The grocery monster forages on soggy, half-eaten fruit-puffs stuck to the side of the high-chair.  These baby snacks are super-expensive for what you get [puffs are mostly air, and many of the packages are only half-filled with product].  Cut-up cheese, fruit, and even grown-up cereal bars make more well-rounded and nutritious snacks anyway, and create less dependence on filler-filled, expensive processed foods down the road.
  5. Don’t give up couponing altogether. Couponing has its place in the saving game, within reason.  I set a timer for 10 minutes to sit down with the coupon pages a neighbor drops off every week [so I save the cost of the Sunday paper and space in her recycling bin]. I flip through them and pull out coupons only for what I normally buy like toothpaste, toilet paper, and organic cereal bars. Most food coupons are for highly-processed, fillered-up stuff, so those go straight in the trash. When the time is up, I stop and recycle the rest or pass them along to other couponers. 
  6. The adage ‘you get what you pay for’ usually holds true. The grocery monster isn’t discerning on quality. As with coupons, items with lower price tags sometimes also are lower on quality. Check labels on food to make sure the lower price isn’t due to a higher content of fillers like fat and sugar. You might save today, but pay later in other ways. And beware of cheaper non-food items too. One-ply toilet paper and paper towels may just have you getting through rolls faster, and cheap-o storage baggies may leak and spoil your freezer stock of on-sale meat.
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