How often has this scenario happened to you?
Armed with your short grocery list, you head to your favorite grocery store. You buy two items from your list: a head of lettuce and a bpa-free can of tomatoes. The store was out of sour cream, so you swing into another store on the way home, a store that you don’t regularly shop at.
As you head to the dairy section, you happen to walk pass the canned tomatoes. One can in particular catches your eye because it’s the same can you just bought. A closer look reveals an “everyday low price” that is 50¢ cheaper than the other store!
You’re a bit speechless that this unfrequented store has a better price on something you buy so often… and you’re a bit upset too, thinking about all the times you’ve paid 50¢ too much on a can of tomatoes… and how much money you could have saved if you only knew that this store was cheaper.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that it’s happened more times you can to admit. The same goes for me too.
Fortunately, there’s a SUPER easy way to avoid this situation from happening again, and it’s called a price book.
Simply put, price book is a little “book” that records the prices you pay for certain items. It can be electronic (like an app), typed and printed (like a spreadsheet), handwritten in a few pieces of paper, jotted down in a spiral notebook or even recorded in a full-fledged binder with removable sheets of paper. In any case, a price book is an absolute MUST-HAVE if you’re new to grocery budgeting, trying to reduce your grocery budget, or struggle with staying within your allotted means. And I think that pretty much covers us all.
There are six steps in my frugal grocery budget series and while I didn’t specifically mention a price book, creating one would technically fit in as step 5a.
Step 5 is “learn to stockpile,” but within that step there’s this:
When an item you know you’ll use (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, razors, etc.) is free or very inexpensive (using any combination of store sales, coupons and/or rebates), then you buy enough at that price to last a specific amount of time.
Granted, when your funds are SUPER tight each month, buying one extra of anything is a huge feat. However, let’s concentrate on that first line for a moment: “… is free or very inexpensive…”
This small statement implies that you know when an item is overpriced. How exactly do you know this? You keep a price book!
There are LOTS of ways to make the concept of a price book way more complicated than it needs to be, but I’m all about keeping it simple whenever possible. With that said, here’s how you set up a basic grocery price book:
Step 1: Choose a Tracking Method
Personally, I recommend using pencil and paper. There’s extra learning power when we write something by hand since it tends to stick in our memories better. Plus I think writing is more intentional than typing, especially when it’s so easy to hit “save” only to never open it again.
The whole purpose of a price book is to USE it, so if you’re more Apple than Papermate, then by all means go electronic. I just think the old fashioned method is best way to do this.
If you agree, here are three frugal ways you can quickly and easily pull together paper for a price book. Choose the method that best fits with what you have on hand and that’s easiest.
- a few sheets of notebook paper, folded into fourths and stapled into a book (be sure to cut any folded pages so that it folds properly)
- a dedicated spiral notebook (small or large and CHEAP, from the dollar store or similar)
- a handful of pages within a notebook used for similar purposes (like the notebook where you keep your meal plans, shopping lists, etc.)
Step 2: Set-Up Your Pages
Depending on the size of your notebook, you’ll want to designate one page (if the book is small) or half a page (if the book is big) to each particular item you’re going to track.
For each item, you need to record just five small pieces of information: Date, Store, Brand, Total Price per Size and Price per Unit.
- Date: Self-explanatory, but this is the date you bought the item. Many items are seasonal, but not everything is. Knowing the date you bought something could help determine when the best deals might come along.
- Store: The store you bought it at. Be specific and include the location if you shop at the same store in different areas.
- Brand: Tracking this will help you recognize what brands tend to be less expensive than others. This information can also be handy later when the budget is under control and you’re ready to research the quality of the brands you regularly buy.
- Total Price per Size: This is the total of what you paid for the size of the item. For example, $2.50/15oz of organic canned tomatoes.
- Price per Unit: This is the price per unit of the item, as in per ounce, per milliliter, per pound, per bar, etc. For example, 17¢/oz of organic canned tomatoes, or $2.15 per KIND bar.
Make five columns on 10 pages (or five half pages) for each of these and label them at the top.
Step 3: Track 10 Items
Go through your receipts and choose 10 items that you buy the most often. Give each one a page (or half page) in your book. For example, every month we buy the following items:
- organic whole chickens
- organic whole milk gallons
- organic cheese
- organic kale
- fresh mozzarella
- peanut butter
At the top of each page (or half-page), identify the item you’re tracking. Then, fill in the information in the columns using the receipts you have on hand. You might have to check the packages in the kitchen for some of it (like the total ounces of cheese, or total pounds in each chicken), but fill out as much as you can. The more information, the better.
Step 4: Repeat Step 3 (next week)
Most people will tell you to add to your price book every time you go shopping… to review your receipts, and take the time to give every item it’s on page (or half-page) and record the required information. One blogger recommends setting aside 10 hours a week to work on a price book. Another gal says to spend five.
Not me. I don’t have extra hours in my week to spend on this, and I’m betting you don’t either. In my opinion, it’s best to spend just 15 minutes and track the items you buy most often.
For example, if you only buy blue cheese and water crackers when your mom visits at Christmas, there’s no point in tracking those price all year. However, if you buy canned tomatoes and spinach on a weekly basis, you would definitely benefit by keeping track of what you paid and who has the best price.
So here’s what I propose: Make it a goal to add or update 10 items each week to your price book. These can come from your receipts or from the grocery circulars or even online bloggers who share the price of certain items from certain stores (ahem, like these).
Should you read the circulars if you have no intention of buying? Absolutely! It’s a SUPER easy way to learn the price of items without ever stepping foot in the store. Then when you ARE ready to buy, you know how much (or how little) it can be purchased for.
Step 5: Shop According to the Price Book
Finally, it’s time to put your book into action. Before buying something, or even adding it to your grocery list, consult your price book.
- Has the price of canned garbanzo beans steadily gone up? Maybe it’s time to look into dry beans instead.
- Grass-fed ground beef on sale this week but your recipe calls for a more expensive ground turkey? Make a swap in the meal plan (or just substitute!).
- Are strawberries on sale? Check your price book to see if the deal is really one worth spending your money on!
Price books don’t have to be fancy. Or complicated. They just need to work for YOU. If my method above seems like too much work and you have an app that does the trick, then by all means – use it! Price books can be a tremendous help in seeing trends and the true cost of items. The most important thing for you to do is to just get one and use it!