A few weeks ago a friend asked me about how Jon and I did our grocery shopping. Did we use coupons or did we shop sales?
I admitted that we are both some of both, and some of neither. We aren’t big couponers, though we use Ibotta and at least flip through the coupon insert on those weeks that we get hold of a Sunday paper. We browse meats and produce looking for good prices, but don’t go to specific stores with specific items in mind. We buy lots of generics and store brands instead of name brands for most of the products we use. We shop mainly at Food Lion, which tends to concentrate on value pricing instead of great variety.
(Variety and novelty tend to be my worst grocery store temptation. Switching to a store that stays with the basics has probably been the best move I’ve made for our grocery budget.)
As a strategy, our shopping plan has the benefit of being exceptionally easy to do. It pretty much boils down to go to the store and try not to buy stuff that’s too expensive.
The drawbacks? It doesn’t work that great. One of my goals this year has been to try to keep my grocery spending in budget. It hasn’t been easy, and I have to admit I’ve had to move discretionary spending to groceries in 2 of the last 4 months.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about ways we can change how we shop. There’s got to be a better way, and now I’m looking for and trying ways of shaking up our grocery routine.
A Talk With an Extreme Couponer
I was talking with one of my coworkers, B, a couple of weeks ago, only to find out she was an extreme couponer.
This lady had the system DOWN. She showed me the goods from her last trip to the grocery store…almost $100 worth of groceries bought for $20.
My jaw dropped. This was pretty much our weekly grocery spending bought for one fifth the price.
I was REALLY flabbergasted when B told me she’d once managed to pick up $120 worth of groceries for negative $0.38. She said the cashier hadn’t known what to do, so B added a pack of gum to get to a positive balance and finish the transaction.
B was bragging, but she deserved to brag.
I’ve always been wary of couponing outside of a few “Buy $50 and get $5 off” types of deals. Individual coupons seldom paid off for me because I could almost always buy store brands for cheaper than the cost of whatever I had a coupon for. Plus, coupons are mostly for processed foods, right? I don’t want to buy more processed foods.
We kept talking, and B told me the key to extreme couponing was stacking, so that you were using more than one coupon for the same product. She also told me to go to the on the days that the grocery store doubled or tripled any coupons.
You can do that? Evidently yes, at least at Harris Teeter.
As for the processed food issue, let’s just say that I noticed a heck of a lot of processed foods in my next trip to the grocery store after talking to B. I may say I don’t want to buy more, but I’m buying a lot of pretzels, juice boxes, frozen veggies, and other things for which I can probably find some coupons.
My coworker suggested checking out the coupon classes held over at one of our local TV stations, WRAL, on a regular basis. She also suggested following WRALSmartShopper on Facebook, and I’ve been checking out some of the coupon-centered blogs.
I certainly paid more attention to the coupon insert next time we got a Sunday paper.
It didn’t do me any good. I didn’t find any coupons for things we needed, but my interest in coupons was piqued. While I was a little busy for this month’s $10 coupon class, it’s definitely on my radar. In the meantime, Jon and I decided to try some sale shopping.
Shopping the Sales at New Stores
My friend E, who asked about our grocery habits, is very much a sale shopper. She said that her strategy is to browse the sales circulars on Wednesdays and then plan her meals around the advertised sales. That had the advantage of shopping around fresher and more seasonal foods, and probably adds a lot of variety to her meals.
My attempts at meal planning have not gone well. I realize that it’s a skill that gets better with practice, but I have really struggled with coming up with a list of possible meals I might want to cook in a given week. Still, “shop the sales” is a little closer to what we already do than trying to use a lot of coupons.
Jon, however, is the one who browses the newspaper, and our local paper usually gives us an abbreviated version on Wednesdays with all of the local grocery inserts. Two sales in particular caught his eye and both had us shaking up our grocery routine and headed into some different stores.
First, Kroger had a sale on chicken quarters at 10 pounds for $4. I usually go with thighs or legs rather than the messier quarters, but that’s really inexpensive. $4 got us 11 chicken quarters. In the past that would have probably been 11 meals, but Little Bit is eating a bit more these days (especially when it comes to meats) and requires her own piece of chicken. Still, it’s easily 6 meals for us, so awesome deal! It will be a while before we need to buy any chicken. A couple more dollars got us some ice cream and body lotion, and we were good to go for Kroger.
So how were we able to get out of Kroger (which has a lot more variety than Food Lion) with a mere 3 items? We went to Aldi first.
Aldi was advertising gallons of milk for $2. We go through about 4 gallons of milk a week, so to Aldi we went.
Aldi is so uncool that it’s cool, like the 11th Doctor’s Fez.
You deposit a quarter to get your shopping cart. You bring your own bags. You feel like you are strolling through a strange combination of Trader Joe’s, a warehouse store, and that slightly ethnic convenience store on the corner. Aldi has a mix of basic staples and specialty items like Veggie Straws and Frozen Goat Cheese and Mushroom Flat Breads, not to mention some random seasonal items like patio furniture.
So we went through Aldi, and ended up paying probably 1/3 less on things like juice boxes and yogurt than we usually do at Food Lion. Since we also picked up the aforementioned Veggie Straws, Dark Chocolate Cherry granola bars and some dried cherries, I also felt like I had inexpensively satisfied the need to add a little variety to our cabinets.
Jon’s parents go to Aldi pretty often, so we’ve tried a lot of their products. We know that despite the very generic packaging (way less temptation than Trader Joe’s), most of the food choices are pretty solid. We just haven’t been going because it’s not nearly as convenient as our regular stores.
We may need to rethink our Aldi usage. Certainly the savings seem worth an additional 15 minutes in the car. I’m not convinced we can get everything we need there, but I think it’s worth hitting Aldi once a month for particular items.
Shaking Up our Grocery Routine
This time last year, we were shopping at Lowe’s Foods and BJ’s, and were probably spending over $750 a month by going to the grocery store multiple times a week, buying lots of food we ended up tossing, and not tracking our spending.
This time six months ago, we had changed our main store to Food Lion, tracked our spending each month and had dropped our waste considerably. We made great strides in getting our food costs down, but we still need to get closer to $100 a week than we’ve currently managed. There’s only 3 of us, and Jon and I are still surprised any time Little Bit eats even a half portion at meals.
There’s are advantages to shaking up our grocery routine every few months. Trying new things with our grocery shopping helps us question and challenge our grocery shopping assumptions so that we look at our old practices with fresh eyes.
You know how they define crazy? Doing the same old thing and expecting a different result. We’re still working at notching down our grocery expense, and needed to look into some new ways of doing things. So far it’s paying off.
What are some things you’ve been trying to shake up your spending habits?
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