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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Being frugal at the grocery store. . . .

Several months ago, I began keeping track of my grocery purchases, and created a price book. This has been incredibly helpful---I’ve learned where the lowest prices are, and am much more familiar with the prices of items I buy regularly. This allows me to look at advertised ‘sales’ at other stores, and know immediately if the sale item is truly a good deal.

Because food prices have risen so quickly and consistently over the past few months, some journalists are beginning to suggest that buying in bulk might be a good way to cut down on grocery costs. I’ve been lurking around the bulk section at Winco for months, checking out the prices and often making my purchases in bulk rather than in the packaged food sections. I decided, out of curiosity, to note the prices in the bulk section and then compare to prices for store brand (where available) to see just how much can be saved by buying in bulk. Luckily, my store of choice (Winco) shows the per pound or per ounce price on the shelf sticker, making my comparisons easy. Here are the results:

White, long grain rice
Bulk: 3.8¢ an ounce
Store brand: 5.7¢ an ounce

Jasmine rice
Bulk: 4.1¢ an ounce
Pre-packaged, not store brand: 9.6¢ an ounce

Brown sugar
Bulk: 51¢ a pound
Store brand: 55¢ a pound

White granulated sugar
Bulk: 48¢ a pound
Store brand: 48.8¢ a pound

Quick oats
Bulk: 3.1¢ an ounce
Store brand: 4.2¢ an ounce

Bulk: 34.3¢ an ounce
Planter’s: 38.4¢ an ounce

White flour
Bulk: 32¢ a pound
Store brand: 35.2¢ a pound

Chocolate chips
Bulk: 11.7¢ an ounce
Nestle: 21.2¢ an ounce

Bulk: 6.4¢ an ounce
Store brand: 5.9¢ an ounce

Parmesan cheese
Bulk: 24.8¢ an ounce
Store brand: 23.5¢ an ounce

So there you have it. The only item that was more expensive (of the items I reviewed) in the bulk section was spaghetti! And keep in mind: I only looked at the prepackaged store brands; if you regularly buy name brand items, your savings will be even greater. Something to consider: when you purchase bulk items, many times you’re helping the environment as well. I save my oatmeal container (the big Quaker oats tub) and my plastic parmesan cheese container. Then I refill them when I bring home my cheaper bulk versions.

Here’s another tip. Bulk sections are not all created equal! When I was finished at Winco, I went across the street to FM, to size up the competition. The bulk section is relatively small, so most of my items weren’t even available there. In addition, Fred Meyer only gave prices in pounds, not by ounce. Of the items that were available at Fred Meyer, the difference in price was substantial.

FM: $11.99 per pound
Winco: $5.48 per pound

Quick oats
FM: .89¢ a pound
Winco: .49¢ a pound

White flour
FM: .79¢ a pound
Winco: .32¢ a pound

Jasmine rice
FM: $1.29 a pound
Winco: .66¢ a pound

Hmmm, why are the prices so much higher at FM? Answer: advertising. Fred Meyer sends out weekly advertisements in the newspaper, runs TV commercials, and purchases huge billboard ads throughout Portland. When you buy your $11.99 pound of walnuts, you’re helping FM with its advertising costs. Also, FM offers more than just groceries: you can buy clothing, jewelry, housewares, electronics, and many other items there. I would wager that the much higher grocery prices are making up for losses or lower profits in other areas.

The lesson in all of this? It definitely pays to take a small notebook with you when shopping, and to pay attention to per ounce and per pound pricing. Make a detour into the bulk section of your local grocery store, and shop around. You can experience substantial savings if you’re willing to spend an extra 20 minutes or so every few months researching grocery prices.


Keri said...

Do you have some sort of spread sheet that you use to keep up with the prices???

Finally Frugal said...

Hi again, Keri! Yes, I use my trusty Excel spreadsheet. I list my commonly purchased items in the far left column, and then note the prices (by date) in the columns to the right.

Soon, I'm going to print out the whole list and get all of the prices on one day---I want to be able to easily determine whether some prices are going up more quickly. . .

I highly recommend Excel as a cheap (usually FREE) tool for budgeting and other record-keeping. Using the formulas makes it a breeze.

L@SpillingBuckets said...

This is a great idea. I did something similar for a little when I had a free CostCo trial, but I stopped after a week or so. Food prices are going up like crazy, I should probably start keeping better track again.

Do you bring a pad and paper with you to the store, or print out the excel sheet? (How do you keep track week to week of price increases while you are actually shopping)

Finally Frugal said...

Hi there Spillingbuckets! Yes, I have a small green notebook that I carry with me (actually, I always have it, not just at the grocery store). I make notes about prices of items that I'm not planning to buy, then I update my Excel spreadsheet later. Every once in awhile, I'll print out the whole spreadsheet and bring it along---I haven't done this in awhile, but it's helpful to go around and note the price for everything on the list (which just includes items I purchase regularly). Interesting to see how prices increase over time.

Side note: I was at Winco last night, and my beloved bulk section was OUT of rice! I was stunned. I think people are beginning to believe the media reports and are stocking up. I ended buying a packaged jasmine rice, at a very good price, all the same.

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