My grocery-shopping strategy attempts to maximize the quality of food we get for our money, and one key tactic is shopping at multiple stores. Since I have limited time and don’t like to waste gasoline, I want to make sure that in each shopping trip I get all the things we need that are best-priced or best-quality at that store, but I don’t want to be stocking up on stuff “just in case we need it” only to find that we already have several of those in the pantry. Over the years, Daniel and I have worked out a system that makes it easy to keep track of our grocery purchasing plans.
We keep a separate shopping list for each store. The moment we open up the last package of a staple food, use up something we’d like to have more of as soon as possible, are notified of a sale, or think of a food we haven’t had in a while and would like, we write it on the appropriate list. Any coupons for that store (or for a specific product on that list) are stored with the list. I keep an eye on the lists and decide when it’s time to visit a particular store, and then I take that list and coupons and put them in the outer pocket of one of the cloth tote bags I am taking to the store.
It’s easy for me to remember which store is the best place to get a particular thing, because I am the primary grocery shopper and have a great memory. Daniel isn’t so good at this, but a large proportion of our foods give him clues by being store-brand products or in reusable containers labeled for refilling with bulk foods at the East End Food Co-op. Other things, though, he would sometimes write on the wrong list or, worse, decide that when I was around he would tell me what we needed so I could write it on the correct list–and then he might forget. Recently, he thought of a solution:
In addition to the list for each store, there’s a list headed, “?” When I notice anything written on this list, I transfer it to the appropriate list. I also found another use for the “?” list: I can write on it any item that might be purchased from any of several different stores, depending on who has the best price–like right now, it says “onions” to remind me to look for a sale on onions, but if we totally use up all our fresh and frozen onions before a sale comes, I’ll just get them from the next store I visit.
What if a store is out of stock of something we need, or the price is too high or it looks gooshy or for some other reason I don’t buy it after all? After I get all the other things, instead of throwing away the list I put it into the back pocket of my jeans, and after I get home I notice it crunching in there and take it out and write the items on the second-most-appropriate list. If I’m not wearing jeans, though, it’s harder to manage–most of my skirts and dresses have no pockets. The most reliable solution I’ve found is to write the unpurchased item on the back of my hand so I can’t forget about it!
We are fortunate to have steel kitchen cabinets, which make it easy to hang a bunch of lists right at eye level in the very area where we stand around while waiting for water to boil, “stirring occasionally”, etc. This makes list maintenance easy! For further convenience, we got a small magnetized basket that hangs above the lists, holding pencils and extra list paper.
Some notes about the picture:
- Yes, our cabinets are painted a rather gloomy color. It works with our cute pink-and-gray 1950s kitchen, but a paler gray would work too, and we thought we were going to repaint those cabinets soon after getting settled in the house. That was 10 years ago. It’s funny how that grim gray becomes less noticeable as you get used to it and partially cover it with assorted artwork and household documents.
- We get most of our magnets from Northern Sun. That one in the top left, though, with some guy telling Dogbert, “I was in a big field full of tofu and carburetors,” is a frame from the Sunday funnies that I affixed to an unwanted advertising magnet–see instructions toward the end of this article.
- We write all of our lists on scrap paper. After all, it doesn’t matter what’s on the back of a shopping list. Our almost-eight-year-old son enjoys cutting paper into list-sized sheets (roughly 3″x4″).
- All the things currently on our co-op list can be purchased in the bulk section. (You get to make your own fresh-ground peanut butter!) Not only do we appreciate being able to choose the containers in which we’ll store our food and avoid wasting resources on packaging, but many of these foods are less expensive than the packaged version in any store–even though a lot of the bulk foods are organic–and many of them taste better.
- Our GEagle list (that’s Giant Eagle, the neighborhood supermarket) notes an electronic coupon that I loaded onto our Advantage Card using the SmartSource iPad app. We can sometimes save a little money with these electronic coupons, but I find the app pretty tedious to use–in particular, it’s slow to get started because it shows a lot of unnecessary animation before it lets you actually do anything–so I don’t always keep up with it. I prefer paper coupons, like the one for pickles that you see here, which came from our Sunday newspaper. We would subscribe to the paper anyway, for reading purposes, but the coupons are a nice bonus. Unfortunately, both paper coupon supplements and the SmartSource app mostly have coupons for things we don’t buy regardless of price–foods that are overpackaged, overprocessed, or full of yucky ingredients.
- TJ’s=Trader Joe’s. Their salsa is my favorite, so that’s the default store for salsa when we run out of what I stocked up when it was on sale and when we won’t be going to Target soon–Market Pantry (Target’s store brand) salsa is pretty good and very affordable.
- GFS=Gordon Food Service, a store that sells large packages intended for restaurants but allows anyone to purchase. Some things are a better deal there than at Costco.
These are all the stores where I buy groceries, in approximate order of how often I go there:
- Giant Eagle is nearby and right on my way home from work, so Daniel or I go there at least once a week, sometimes for just a few items, sometimes for a big shopping trip based around the weekly sale flyer. Most often, we go to GEagle because we’re out of milk, and while we’re there we pick up whatever else is on the list–but here are the details on where we buy milk.
- Rite Aid also is very conveniently located and occasionally has a great sale on ice cream, Grapenuts cereal, some kind of canned food, or nuts, although it’s basically a drugstore so the food prices on average are higher than a supermarket. Sometimes when I’ve purchased a drugstore item that earned a catalina (a coupon that prints out with your receipt) that can be used toward any item, I’ll use it for food.
- East End Food Co-op is where I refill our bulk-foods containers and buy a few packaged foods, about once a month. Their sales run for two weeks at a time, so occasionally I’ll go twice in one month if there are good sales in both periods.
- Trader Joe’s gets shopped whenever we run out of yogurt! It’s unusual for any other store to offer a better price on organic whole-milk yogurt, and I eat it almost every day, so I buy 4 quarts at a time and then get back to TJ’s as soon as possible after finishing them–about once a month. (Daniel and Nicholas eat yogurt, too, just not as much as I do.) At that time we also restock other things TJ’s offers at good prices: olive oil, organic jam, almond butter, canned salmon, tofu, organic corn flakes, all-natural vegetarian frozen meals, and soy-free veggie burgers.
- Costco also is about once a month. Many things are good deals there, but it’s important to compare the price per pound, per tortilla, or whatever, to the price at other stores.
- Target is every month or two. I watch their sale flyers for good deals on anything, and then once I’m in the store, I get the groceries they have at good prices: salsa, canned foods, Grapenuts, organic milk, organic coffee. One thing about Target, though, is that it’s not primarily a grocery store, so the grocery items can be near their expiration dates if customers haven’t been much interested in that item. I check the dates before I stock up.
- Young’s is an Asian grocery that’s right on our block! It has better prices and wider selection than Giant Eagle for sesame oil, seaweed sprinkles, soy sauce, udon and soba noodles, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and other foods traditional to China, Korea, and Japan. I stop by there every month or two. Young’s also sells some fresh produce, so once I’m in there I always check whether there’s a good price on anything we want–but sometimes the produce looks dirty, over-ripe, or just sketchy somehow. We do not buy tofu at Young’s because they don’t carry organic tofu, and non-organic soy is almost certainly genetically modified as well as pesticided.
- GFS is farther away than Costco, and the things we tend to buy there are more shelf-stable, so we hit GFS every 2 or 3 months.
- Shop’n’Save has a store that’s on our way home from GFS. This is Giant Eagle’s competition for major supermarket chain of metropolitan Pittsburgh, but we happen to live within a mile of two Giant Eagles and much farther from any Shop’n’Saves. I’ve considered getting a Shop’n’Save loyalty card and watching their sales and making the occasional foray to snag the good deals, but that seems like a lot of work, so usually we go there just once or twice a year to restock our ramen noodles. Giant Eagle does not carry Maruchan, which in my opinion is the only tasty brand of mass-marketed ramen. (Occasionally we buy authentic Japanese ramen at Young’s, but it’s more expensive.)
- Big Lots sometimes has amazingly low prices on food, as well as other household items. I go there several times a year. The main reason I don’t go more often is that the selection at Big Lots is so random; it’s fun to shop there, but there’s no guarantee of coming out with a lot of useful stuff or of being able to find the same things I bought there last time.
- Market Outlet is similar to Big Lots but more food-focused and even more random! I haven’t been there since last winter, so I can’t swear it’s still open, but if you happen to go dahnna Strip (visit the Strip District neighborhood of Pittsburgh), look for it!
- Occasionally I go dahnna Strip and look around the Italian, Asian, and Mexican groceries there and see what delicacies I can find. This is a fun thing to do with out-of-town guests who don’t have any similar neighborhood back home.
- Save-a-Lot Foods has some great deals but is inconveniently located. I’ll go there if we happen to be in the neighborhood or if they’re offering a fantastic price on something we really need in fairly large quantity.
Wow, that’s a lot of stores! It’s no wonder I need multiple lists to keep my shopping straight! I love being in a big city with lots of shopping choices. One place I don’t shop, which seems to surprise a lot of people, is Whole Foods–because their prices on most items are higher than most other stores around here, their parking lot is insane (and there’s no convenient bus connection from there to my neighborhood), and their Pittsburgh store is cold and drafty and smells like rotting fish. I’ve been in Whole Foods stores in other cities that weren’t so bad.