The One Quick and Easy Way to Slash the High Cost of Groceries

Have you noticed? The cost of everything is climbing and not just a little bit. Lumber prices are up 250% in just the past three months. The cost of gasoline is soaring, with the U.S. avg. hitting $2.87 per gal—nearing $6 a gal in Calif. Wholesale coffee prices have shot up 25% over the past few months. The cost of food is soaring in ways that are downright shocking.

Inflation

What we’re experiencing is inflation—the cost of goods and services increasing faster than wages. The cost of the things you need to live is going up while your paycheck stays the same. That means you’re losing ground, Last month you could buy a gallon of gas for $2.25 but this month that same amount of money might get you only 3/4 of a gallon.

Supermarket sticker shock

If you haven’t been to a supermarket in the past few weeks, get ready for sticker shock. Nothing ruins an appetite quite like rising food prices.

Grocery bills could rise another 3% this year, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and some experts say the price escalation won’t end there. This could go on for a long time.

If you’re like most Americans, your grocery runs have been growing more expensive — for months. In 2020 food prices jumped 3.9%, nearly triple last year’s overall rate of inflation, according to the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.

It’s a game

Know this: Retailers are as nervous about inflation as consumers are. The way store owners deal with rising prices is to manipulate their customers into thinking it’s not so bad. Sounds harsh? Maybe, but we need to understand this: manipulation is just another word for marketing. It’s the way the game is played—the grocery game!

As consumers we play the grocery game every time we shop for groceries whether that’s in-store on online. The retailers are our opponents. And trust me on this: Retailers have a playbook. They have a plan and they use every opportunity to get us to do their bidding. What we need is to take a peek into our opponent’s playbook.

This one thing: Eat the Sales

There are myriad ways to reduce the cost of groceries from clipping coupons to using apps that compare prices—some even giving cash back. I encourage you to participate in all of those opportunities if that’s your thing. The bad news is that for some, that process is just too tedious to be sustainable. But not to worry: There exists one quick and easy way to make your food dollars stretch so far you kick the snot out of inflation.

That it. Just one thing. Determine only to buy food items that are on sale—and you know are really on sale, not just prettied up to look like it. That’s the goal. And when you find a super sale, buy enough at the sale price to last until the next time it will be on sale.

Know your prices

It’s super important that you acquire a good sense of the regular price of the food items you buy. Or wish you could buy. For example, do you have a handle on what 80/20 ground beef is per pound in your area? Without that knowledge how will you know if $3.99 a pound is a sale price or the current price? That sign screaming “SPECIAL!!!” could be a trick. Knowing your prices is part of this strategy.

If you have a super memory, rely on it to keep tabs on the regular price of foods you buy. If not, get a notebook. Take notes.

My personal benchmark is that to be a decent sale, it needs to be at least 30% lower than the regular price. And when the sale price is 40%  or even 50% off? Wow! Happy Dance time.

Live by the weekly ad

Every grocery store and supermarket out there produces a weekly ad. That’s in their playbooks. “Inform the customer but do so in a way that is to our advantage and tricks them as often as possible.” (Not a direct quote—my interpretation.)

How they distribute that weekly ad (U.S. mail? Online?) and where to find a copy of it in the store itself may vary from one store to the next. Chances are 99.99% certain you can find the weekly ad of any store that produces one, online at TheWeeklyAd.com. That weekly ad is going to be your ace in the hole. Reading and scouring your stores’ weekly food ads lets you know before you go. It allows you to sit in the privacy of your home without all of the marketing triggers that go on inside a retail store.

Supermarket Weekly Ad

Page 1 of 12 of the Weekly Ad for my local supermarket—only a small number of these sales are truly sal- priced. 

12-week cycle

Teri taught me about the phenomenon of the 12-week cycle. That’s the way U.S. supermarkets work. They rotate sales throughout the store so that everything gets its turn to be on sale during every 3-month period—what will be on sale this week, next week, and on through a 90-day or 12-week period. Diligent shoppers can track this phenomenon so as to be able to predict the sales.

In short, this means that during those 12 weeks, something in every aisle, every department, every section of that supermarket will be on sale—not every brand, but generally. And we’re not talking about phantom or phony sales that are nothing but an empty marketing ploy but at a major discount.

Some will be loss-leaders, which means an item with a sale price below the store’s cost for that item. Why would they do that? Why would King Soopers price hot dogs at 90% off the regular price? To get us into the store! To grab our attention. To make us so happy, we’re willing to pay full inflated prices for the hot dog buns, potatoes salad, and ice cream to go with them.

Our defensive move is to grab all the loss-leaders and resist being drawn into their ploy because we know we have hot dog buns in the freezer, picked up when they were a loss-leader a few weeks ago. That’s the way you win the grocery game.

Set your budget

You know how much you can afford for groceries for a week. Write it down. Lock eyeballs with that number. Commit to not going over. Bring cash.

Make your list

As you go through that weekly ad, make your list and make it specific. Again, know before you go. Go online and look at competing stores to get a sense of regular prices. The Internet lets us look at stores in neighboring areas, or even in big cities across the U.S. Every store worth its salt has its weekly ads on its website.

Store ads tell us a lot and help us to get a tighter grip on actual food costs, not those touted by governing officials and phony statistics.

Shop multiple stores

If you have the time to make the rounds to several stores, expand your horizons! For example, Walgreen’s carries an impressive number of groceries—even milk and dairy. Ditto for some dollar stores. Walgreens’ weekly flyer is a hoot, having joined the world of loss-leaders to draw us into their stores. Just don’t get drawn into their trap where you leave spending far more than you ever planned to spend—and you handed over the full price for many of those items. Grab the loss-leaders and run (well, make sure you pay for them first!)

No more brand loyalty

Given the 12-week cycle, and knowing that not every brand will be on sale once every 90-days, brand loyalty may have to go out the window. Keeping food costs relatively low is worth giving up that kind of loyalty. Unless of course, we can figure out how to make brand equivalents ourselves for just pennies!

How to get started

I know what you’re thinking: How do I wait for sales for the things we need this week, items that are not on sale? You won’t be able to be 100% compliant right out the gate. Determine to do the very best possible. That might mean waiting to buy beef, and substituting chicken (that is on sale) this week. Remember: Eat the sales! Plan your meals around what’s on sale.

If you have to pay full price for a few items this week, get the best price you can. If you can fulfill 75% of your true food needs for the week with items that are truly on sale, that’s fantastic. Go for 80% next week and on until you’re in a routine that allows you to truly live and eat the sales 100%.

Trip and fall hazard

Consider this a warning: It’s easy to go broke sale shopping. That goes for everything, not just food.

The sale is so great we load up on too much of a good thing. Just because whole chickens are $.99 each (yep, loss leader) that certainly does warrant buying one or two extra or the freezer. But 12? What?! You bought 20 whole chickens plus everything to go with them to invite all the neighbors over for a big backyard cookout (funny isn’t it how our minds can go completely unhinged in the face of a great loss-leader!)

See what happened there? You fell right into your opponent’s waiting arms. Besides, do you really have room to store 20 whole chickens? Bwaaaak!

 

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9 replies
  1. Katie French says:

    Great information as usual, Mary. I am staying out of the stores as much as possible. This has been made so much easier now with curbside pickup. And best of all, I fill my cart with what I “need” then go back and remove items if I have gone over my predetermined budget. Then I sleep well that night!

    Reply
  2. Ann says:

    I like Aldi for chicken they are cheapest per pound for boneless skinless breast than big stores.I like the Dollar store for their Eggs at a Dollar.Going to continue Growing vegetables in backyard.

    Reply
  3. Karla Bergen says:

    All great suggestions, Most of which I’ve utilized for years. I think we need to be reminded that one of the greatest strategies for saving on groceries is making your own products – baking bread making your own ketchup (recent EC post), pancake syrup, coffee creamer, etc. AND avoiding junk food. $5 for a bag of chips??? That adds up!

    Reply
  4. Kay Jones says:

    I have a couple of things I always do. First I have an address book I got at the dollar store. I log the cost of the items I routinely use. I have used WalMart as the base price. I then have a quick reference as to the non sale price. I plan my meals in advance and cook and freeze. I thaw the meal in the morning. That way I am not hungry and running out to get something or snacking on things at home. I plan meals that can be made with a variety of meats in small quantities like casseroles . I can choose to make it with what meat is on sale One pound of meat will make multiple meals. I look for buy one get one free but only for things I will use. I found pork loin as BOGO and made slow cooked meat for enchiladas, and other meals for a total of 18 meals for a total of $14. I alternate meat meals with non meat meals. I also know the cost of a gallon of gas and know how many miles I can drive for a “bargain” and if it’s worth it.

    Reply
  5. Robyn S Jensen says:

    Sometimes, I find it easier (and cheaper) to go to just one store. Last week, it was Aldi, where I spent $28, and bought meat & cheeses, canned beans, produce, bread, an extra-large pizza, and even a treat. I always look at the ads, and then look in the fridge to see what needs to be used up. I live in California, and it is just me and hubby, but as you can see I spent less than the cost of one restaurant meal–and since my Aldi is rather small, I spent 15 minutes shopping at a store a mile away from home.

    Reply
  6. Debbie Cook says:

    When we moved to Colorado from Indiana almost 10 years ago, I noticed how much more expensive everything is out here. I have always shopped the sales and stock up on really good sales, but being new here, I had no idea where to get the best prices. So I created an excel spread sheet of grocery prices, and try to keep it updated when I see a price change at the store. I also discovered that if I shop the sales, I get better prices than belonging to Costco or Sam’s.

    Reply
  7. bill stock says:

    Good points, but I add- Walmart, the country LARGEST food seller , does Not have a weekly ad. Know the prices, great to know value, and buy items by the OUNCE price– large, giant, family size, is not always the lowest price.

    Reply

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