Do I shop at one store and save gas? Or do I shop at multiple stores and save on groceries?
It’s the question that us frugal foodies struggle with on weekly basis, and a question that doesn’t seem to have a definitive “right” answer.
But, not all hope is lost. We can crunch some numbers, think strategically and come up with a way that not only saves us money (and gas and time), but also ensures that we’re shopping the grocery list each week without missing any items.
So here’s my simple strategy for saving time and gas while shopping.
The True Cost of Grocery Shopping
(1) Know exactly how much it costs you to drive one mile.
Before we can say a place is too far or even too close, we need know – objectively – the real distance from our house to the store. Here’s a simple math formula:
(price per gallon of gas) / (your vehicle’s miles per gallon) = cost to drive your vehicle one mile
Example. Gas here in Central California is $3.55 per gallon. Our SUV (what I’m likely to drive when grocery shopping) gets about 20 miles per gallon (mpg). My handy dandy calculator says it costs me 18¢ per mile to drive my car.
Note: We also have a smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle that gets 26 mpg. Just switching vehicles would save me 4¢ per gallon, or up to an entire dollar per shopping trip, depending on where I’m shopping! Can you imagine saving $52 per year just by driving your other car?! It’s certainly worth crunching the numbers for every car, if you own multiple vehicles. You just might be surprised!
(2) Know the distance to your favorite stores.
Straightforward and simple, but how many of us REALLY know how far our favorite stores are? Don’t cheat and guest – seriously look them up!
Use Mapquest or Google Maps, put your house at point A and the store at point B and see how many miles you drive to go shopping. Do this for your top 5 most frequented stores AND for the stores you only shop at once or twice a month.
Example. My top most frequented stores are:
- Savemart: 0.6 miles
- Grocery Outlet: 1.6 miles
- Costco: 6.4 miles
- CSA Pick-up: 17.6 miles
- Trader Joe’s: 19.8 miles
- Whole Foods: 21.8 (my “once in awhile” store)
(3) Know how much it costs to drive to each place.
In case anyone’s math skills are feeling rusty, here’s another math formula to figure it out:
(cost per mile [from #1 above]) * (miles to AND from the store) = cost to go shopping
Example. Using myself:
- Savemart: 11¢
- Grocery Outlet: 29¢
- Costco: $1.15
- Trader Joe’s: $3.56
- Whole Foods: $3.92
(4) Decide if the trip is worth it or not.
The answer to this boils down to your shopping list – what’s on it? Is it worth the trip to a particular store for just that item? Or can you find a similar item at a closer store for about the same price (when you take into consideration gas)?
Example. Costco sells Kerrgold butter in 3 8oz packages for $6.99 each. I have to drive there, so it adds $1.15 in gas to the total cost. All in all, butter from Costco costs me $8.14.
Savemart also sells Kerrygold butter, but charges $3.99 per 8oz block. Although I can walk to Savemart and eliminate gas, the same quantity of butter costs will end up costing me $11.97.
Is Costco worth the drive? In this case, yes. And of course 9 times out of 10 there’s more to my shopping list than just butter, so there is more to save. But still, consider the things you buy and where you buy them from. Is it really worth driving “all the way to _____” for a certain item?
Better yet, is it worth any drive for just ONE item on your shopping list? Or are you spending more in gas just getting to and from the store?
Just food for thought…
Of course there’s more to my “master plan strategy” than just knowing how much it costs to get from A to B, but it’s an important piece to the larger puzzle. Maybe it would be worth your while to look at shopping at other stores in the area. Maybe driving to the discount grocery store across town isn’t really saving you any money over the nice grocery store nearby. Maybe you really could be saving more money with a bulk warehouse membership – even if it’s far and you drive only once a month.
Again, just food for thought…
My Simple Strategy for Saving Time and Gas While Shopping
(1) Start with a FOOD plan.
Every food plan should always include these four items:
- meal plan
- shopping list
- a shopping list, shopped from the kitchen
- a short review the weekly circulars
The goal is to know what you’re eating, know what’s on sale (and what isn’t) and where you can find the best deal for the items on your list (AFTER you’ve shopped your own kitchen).
By the way, if you don’t have one already, I highly recommend creating a price book to keep track of the best prices in your area. It only takes a few minutes of your time, and can really save a lot over time.
(2) Don’t shop EVERY store…
…especially the ones that are far away. You can make the exception to shop the far away stores when you have another reason (or two) to make the drive, but try to keep those trips to just once a month or even every two months. Seeing how much it costs you JUST to drive to the store should make the resistance a bit easier.
With your shopping list marked up and a general idea of who has the best deal on each item, go through the list and see if you can reduce the stores you’re shopping at. The goal is to only shop the 2-3 stores that are the closest to your home that, once you’re done shopping, will have allowed you to completely shop the entire list.
I know this might not be possible for everyone, but truly give it your best shot. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on sale, consider substituting for something else or make do with what you have. Do NOT make a special trip to a store that’s out of the way for just one ingredient!
(3) Shop once a week with a SHOPPING plan.
So you’ve got your meal plan, shopping list and know what’s on sale and where. Next up is to map out where you’re going. There’s only two options here: Start with the furthest store and work home, or start at home and work to the furthest store.
It really doesn’t matter which you choose, so long as you put the “catch-all store” last. This allows you to shop the whole list, without missing any items.
Example. Here’s the order of stores for my shopping trips:
- discount grocery store
- bulk warehouse store
- grocery store
The discount grocery store is first for two reasons:
a) when they have something on my shopping list, it’s likely to cost less than what I’d pay at the store I normally buy it at
b) it’s very close to my house
If our CSA is in-season, it’s my second stop. I save 10% on other items in their farm store with my membership and because I keep a price book, I can compare their prices to the local stores. Being able to shop here BEFORE the store means taking advantage of the best deal, regardless of its location.
Next up is Costco for bulk items and then the last top is the grocery store. By this time the items left on my shopping list are few, if any, but I know this grocery store will carry them for a decent price.
There are two key notes I want to share here. First, I don’t necessarily shop all of these stores every week. However, shopping in this order means getting the best deal I can and crossing everything off the list.
Second, when I use this shopping strategy, I often find that my list is 90% shopped by the time I get to the grocery store. Depending on the week, the list is done before I even get to Costco! Of course there are weeks where I’m shopping at every single store, but that’s not usually the case.
(4) Fine tune the process.
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you take the cost of your trip to the store, compare it to the item(s) you plan to buy from there and see if it’s really worth the gas and time to make that trip.
Example. Store A is having a sale on ground beef. It costs you $2 in gas to drive to Store A. Store B is down the street and is on your short list of stores to visit since you can get most of your items there for a fair price. Store B sells ground beef for $2 more per pound than the sale price at Store A. While the ground beef costs more at Store B, you’d still be spending the same amount as if you drove to Store A… not to mention the additional time you’d spend in making another trip.
Ultimately, you have to make the final decision as to whether or not a trip to multiple stores saves you time, or if it’s actually costing you more money in the long run. However, one strategy I can recommend – call it #5 if you will – is to add shopping trips into other errands you’re already running.
- Swing by the store (with a list!) after you take the kids to school
- Schedule doctor appointments on the days you pick up the CSA box
- Walk to the nearby grocery store while the kids are at soccer practice
- Call far away stores to make certain of prices and availability before you make the trip
- Coordinate with friends so they can pick up 1-2 items for you if they’re out, and you return the favor for them
The goal is to streamline your shopping trips to save time and money, but you can really streamline so many other areas too when you’re looking at the big picture!