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Food Shopping: The Jarring Truth

Why is it that the odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with ONLY a loaf of bread are about three billion to one?

Food prices in the U.S. have climbed so dramatically in recent months, a stroll through the aisles of a typical supermarket is enough to kill your appetite. If that were the only place we spent our food dollars that would be one thing. But most families these days spend as much eating out as they do for food to prepare at home.

A woman standing in front of a store

It’s no secret that supermarkets and grocery stores purposely design their layouts to entice us to buy lots more than we’d planned to purchase when we walked through the door, but shoppers are not victims. It all boils down to the choices we make—not just for what we buy but when we buy it.

There must be dozens of ways to shop for groceries, and I’m certain I’ve tried them all. But when it comes right down to it, every possible method falls into one of two categories—needs shopping or reserve shopping.

Needs shopping 

You buy what you need now at the best price possible and enough to last until you go shopping again.

Needs shoppers are frequent shoppers. They’re meal planners and make shopping lists. They keep their eyes open for sales, frequently opting for the best price rather than specific brands for the items they need.

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Reserve shopping 

You buy what’s on sale even if you don’t need it now so that you don’t have to pay full price for it when you do need it.

Reserve shopping is the process of building a small in-house grocery store. When it’s time to make dinner you visit your own store. 

Gratefully, years ago I learned to be a reserve shopper, thanks to Teri Gault, founder of The Grocery Game. I credit this method with a rather large stockpile of food and household supplies that has allowed me and my family to sail through surprising food shortages and disappearing household supplies. Unless you’ve been living on another planet you know what I’m talking about.

Let’s just say that my deep pantry (as opposed to the small pantry in my kitchen) has not been fazed. We have not had a shortage of anything in the past four months, including toilet tissue and all manner of sanitizers. Items we used from the deep pantry are starting to go on sale again, and you can bet that as they do, I’m reserve shopping to replace and replenish.

A flawed method

Needs shopping is, in my opinion, a flawed system. Even the most diligent needs shopper who shops with cash, builds the week’s menus around what’s on sale, and is careful to avoid all impulsive purchases—will eventually need something that is not on sale. That’s what food stores count on. When you pay the full price for some of the items in your cart, the store’s plan works. They win. Mission accomplished.

How needs shopping works

Consider this needs shopping dilemma: You need mayonnaise, preferably a name brand. But at $5.99 for one quart, you choke a little and keep looking, The best price today is $3.99 for the store brand. You need it; you buy it. It’s not a horrible deal but it’s not great. 

Four weeks ago, at the high-priced supermarket across town where they do crazy things like BOGO (buy one get one free) and loss leaders below cost that are so cheap they get unsuspecting shoppers through the door—the quart size of Hellman’s mayonnaise (aka Best Foods, the Cadillac of mayonnaise among those who rate their condiments), was on sale: 3/$6. Two weeks earlier there was a $.75 manufacturer’s coupon for Hellman’s in that store’s weekly flyer!

Here’s the way that deal would have played out had you been aware of the sale, clipped and held that all-important coupon: $2.00 for one quart, less $.75 for the coupon. Final price for the Hellman’s: $1.25.

That beats your store-brand deal by a country mile! And had you been diligent to get a couple of those $.75 coupons when they were available, you could have duplicated the $1.25 final price a few times and been well-stocked until Hellman’s goes on sale again.

Needs shopping dilemma

As a needs shopper here’s your dilemma: You didn’t need mayonnaise a month ago. You need it now. You have no coupon, the sale is over. So you pay $3.99 for the off-brand mayonnaise because that’s the best deal at the time you need it. To make matters worse, you discover that your friend, a reserve shopper, bought three quarts of Hellman’s for $1.25 each and won’t have to restock until it goes on sale again.

Half the price

The goal of a reserve shopper is to never pay full price for anything. It’s possible and if you are diligent, eventually you will get there.

Reserve shopping is the best way I know to consistently pay half price for name-brand, high-quality groceries. This method requires a minimal investment of time and energy. It’s a reliable system—you can count on it to work for you week after week. You will enjoy a wide variety of foods in all of the food groups, including meat, produce, dairy; household cleaning products, and personal care items. 

As a reserve shopper, rather than coming up with menus before you go shopping, you look to the store’s sales cycles to determine your food purchases. Here’s a hint: Most every supermarket in the U.S. works on a 12-week sales cycle. That means once every 3 months, something in every aisle and department of that store will be on sale—not every brand perhaps, but a brand that is well-known and popular. And when it does, you buy even if you do not need it now, putting it in reserve. When you need to prepare a meal, you go shopping in your own reserve grocery stockpile. 

Reserve shopping is an ideal grocery method for singles, families with kids, big families, little families, seniors with no kids—for all situations. You are not locked into narrow selections but have lots of freedom to choose the foods you want to buy. The amount of food is limited by the amount of money you wish to spend—not the number of meals you need to prepare between now and your next shopping trip. You simply spend up to that limit and stop. 

Always prepared

Eventually, you will have a month’s worth of basic groceries on hand. It will just happen as you are diligent to buy what’s on sale, and enough of it until it goes on sale the next time. This insulates you against wild price fluctuations at the grocery store. You won’t find yourself running to the store for one or two things, forced to pay the highly inflated full price.

When challenges come your way—you lose your job or get sick; there’s a blizzard; you’re hit with unexpected car repairs, even a global pandemic—whatever the setback, with food in the pantry, hard times are less hard.


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10 replies
  1. Judith says:

    My parents gave us a chest freezer as a wedding gift almost 37 years ago. We moved with it 4 times and had to replace it 10 years ago. Best investment ever. We garden or buy produce at local orchards/markets and freeze much of it, can some too. I get a lot of frozen seafood and love finding new ways to cook with it. It’s been important to loosely keep an Inventory and to actually use the food. We’ve cut back on our reserve buying these last few month – 2 jars of mayo on sale instead of four. Four felt like hoarding rather than smart shopping.

  2. Bettie says:

    My new best way to shop is curb-side pick-up. You do all your shopping on-line and never enter the store. My spending has decreased dramatically. You shop for what you need and are not distracted by “sales” and other marketing gimmicks. I may never look back.

  3. Kathy Hulet says:

    I am happy to say that I have been reserved shopper since at least 1983 when I was a young mother. Now as a grandmother I cringe when I see others spending so hap hazardous. Teach yourself young. It becomes a way of life and the bank account is smiling.

  4. JerrieH says:

    I thought the coupon enthusiasm had stopped and it seems stores in my area including Walgreen are getting away from coupons and, instead, giving points on items you buy. Where is the best place to get good coupons. I tried to coupon a few years ago when it got so popular, but seemed to have difficulty finding good coupons, and spent so much time cutting coupons to save so little. Seemed there were never coupons for the foods we eat. Any tips on where to get good coupons?

    • Cathy says:

      Hi Jerrie H –

      I used to be a mega couponer getting most of mine from a small pack in my mailbox on Fridays with the mail and the Sunday newspaper (mine, my mom’s and friends), but everyone quit getting the newspaper. My fav coupon site was groccerycouponcart, but you can also check stores (Walmart, Target, Walgreens etc) for their coupons too. Another was krazykouponlady, hers were alphabetical and she has a lot of couponing tips.
      I quit couponing about a year ago when all local Walgreens decided to have manager limits (unposted in the ad or on shelves) and they were all different. At one store could get 6 laundry detergents, at another only 3 of a cap color, another 3 total. I quit going there, didn’t need the hassle. When my main large chain (Meijer) started limiting coupons to 2 identical coupons per items (I always had more than 2), decided it wasn’t worth it and have shopped at Aldi ever since. I still watch Meijer’s ad and if/when they have anything Aldi doesn’t, will run in quick and get just those items.
      Being a past couponer, I have a large “stockpile” and since the pandemic, only have a grocery run every 2-3 weeks for produce and dairy and the few store specials offered nowadays. I started the pandemic with an Aldi delivery (thru instacart) which was nice having it delivered right to my door, but with the delivery fee, service fee and 15% tip ($20 total on an $80 order), wouldn’t make it a habit. Now I just mask up, shop quick and sanitize. Aldi also has store pickup in some locations, they don’t near my daughter who’s an hour away from me, but her Walmart does. Happy couponing!

  5. Pam Drechsel says:

    I wish I could be a reserve shopper. It is somewhat difficult in my small apartment with the only freezer being my refrigerator/freezer and limited cabinet space. I do try to at least keep ahead with chicken breasts and hamburger.

    • Cindy says:

      Hi Pam…..you may find lots of storage room under a bed! When we were in a smaller place, I would store cases of canned fruits and veggies under our bed!

  6. Miriam Kearney says:

    I have been a reserve shopper for the last decade and I too sailed through the lockdown easily shopping in my pantry.

  7. Judy says:

    I’m kind of a marketer’s nightmare. I ignore most ads because they are rarely for anything I want or use. I don’t have enough time or energy to research store circulars and coupons, which usually highlight things I don’t need or want. I do most of my grocery shopping at Aldi and get virtually wholesale pricing on everything they carry. Their organic foods are usually cheaper than non-organic items in regular supermarkets. There are just a few things that I get from supermarkets that Aldi doesn’t have. I rarely buy mainstream brands; store brands are always quite satisfying and sufficient for my needs. I also go for bulk pricing when possible, ie, larger unit size for smaller unit cost on nonperishables. As a result I have little use for coupons, which I tend to regard as another form of advertising: hey, check out this item you’ve never bought because we’ll give you 25 or 50 cents off the exaggerated price! And frequently a lot of items on sale are also just another form of advertising, in that they raised the price first and then tease you with “Save $1”! I will stock up on nonperishables to some extent, and in general I have a re-stocking rule of getting a back-up when I pull the last of something out of my pantry. I have limited storage space and a small household but we did pretty well through the recent store shortages from people’s panic buying, and didn’t have to restock until stores and their patrons started settling down again.

  8. Richard says:

    I live alone so stocking up would lead to overstocking and way out of date products. I peruse the grocery ads each week, make a list of what I need and am delighted when I can get everything on my list and no more. Then I quickly check out and LEAVE.


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