Mar 10, 2008

Creative strategies for coping with rising costs - Part One: Back to Shopping Basics

In this series, Creative Strategies for Coping with Rising Costs, I will discuss the ways I am saving money and cutting costs in order to maintain our lifestyle as prices increase.

My first strategy for coping with rising costs is going back to basics. Specifically, I'm going to start keeping a price book again.

If you're not familiar with a price book, it's a notebook for tracking the lowest price of an item. I've previously described it as the best way to cut back expenses without changing your lifestyle, which is why it's my first strategy for dealing with price increases. In fact, I've posted before about price books and how they save money (here and here).

When I first started learning about frugality almost ten years ago, a price book was one of the first suggestions I came across for cutting expenses. It made complete sense, so for a while I kept track of the lowest price of the items we bought regularly. But after a while, I had most of the numbers in my head so I stopped updating the price book. I've since added a few things to my mental list (particularly diapers), but it's been long enough that I think I could really benefit from an up-to-date and accurate price list. It will help me ensure that I really am getting the best deals.

I'll be starting from scratch since my original price list was kept two computers ago and apparently didn't survive the transition of files, since I can't locate it on my current computer. Rather than create my own table again, I'm going to use NCN's printable price book to create a booklet that I can carry around with me. Here's how I'll use it:
  • To start, I'll just gather some recent receipts and fill in the first row. It's important to remember to write down the price per unit of every item. The unit price will give you a true comparison of an item's price at different stores.
  • I'll use my cell phone's calculator function when I'm in a store to see if the unit price is better than what's in my price book and therefore I should buy the item.
  • If I see a sale price on something I'm not interested in buying at that moment, I'll take a picture of the shelf tag with my cell phone. The shelf tag usually has the size of the item as well as the price, so I should be able to calculate the unit price from the picture when I get home. (Don't do this too many times or be overly conspicuous about it, as some stores seem to have policies specifically designed to prevent consumers from comparing prices.)
  • I will also track prices using store circulars. We get mailed circulars from the grocery and drug stores each week, and of course there are also circulars in the Sunday newspaper. I'll use these to add prices to my price book. This has the added benefit of helping me spot great deals each week. If I see a great deal, I can plan ahead of time to go to that store and stock up.
  • I really like that NCN's price book has a column for coupons. I'll use it to note not only whether I included a coupon in the price calculation, but also the value of the coupon and how many items it required. I've found that this can be helpful in determining the true value of a sale where I don't have a coupon. Over time, this can also help me figure out coupon cycles and whether one might be coming out soon.
  • If you want to learn more about price books, check out Frugal Upstate's tutorial.
Another basic strategy for coping with rising costs is incorporated in my use of a price book: shopping at different stores.

Early on in my conversion to frugal living, I learned that keeping track of loss leaders* and shopping at multiple stores would probably yield the greatest savings. It didn't take me long to decide that the effort required to do this wasn't for me, especially because the stores often seemed to have similar deals, at least on different weeks. In fact, I only have one supermarket frequent shopper card because I ignore the other chains in my area that use them.

However, by checking each store's weekly circular, I'll now know ahead of time if a store I normally wouldn't go to is having a big sale on something we need or regularly use. I'll probably only go to such a store if the deal is particularly compelling, but I might even find that the store I normally go to isn't the one with the best deals for me.

These are the two shopping basics I'm going to start practicing: an up-to-date price book and shopping at multiple stores. If you already follow these basics and have some tips to share, please leave a comment! And come back next Monday for Part Two of this series and learn about The Drugstore Game.

*A loss leader is an advertised item that's heavily discounted to draw people into the store.

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Anonymous said...

I think that it's not customers, but people working for competitors that they're really trying to stop price-checking.

Chief Family Officer said...

Plonkee - I'm sure you're right! What you said makes perfect sense. I've never personally been told to stop, but I've read about it happening in various forums. I'm of the "avoid confrontations if reasonably possible" school, so I just wouldn't recommend doing taking too many photos at once!

Anonymous said...

Great article, Cathy!
It's so important to know the regular prices of items. Otherwise, how will you know whether you're getting a good deal? Stumbled ya.

Jen_nifer said...

Will you be shopping alone while you fill in your new price book? I can't imagine trying to fill one in with my toddler in tow.

Chief Family Officer said...

@Angie - Thanks!

@Jen_nifer - If I've just got Tyler with me, I'll be able to jot down a price here or there (the kids are used to me whipping out my cell phone to do a quick per unit calculation). But no, I couldn't fill out the whole price book with a child or two in tow! That's why I plan to start at home with receipts and circulars.

Anonymous said...

surely you have to take into account the cost of driving from one store to another - its is very high.

Chief Family Officer said...

@anon - Good point! It didn't really occur to me because I live so close to many different stores (one of the advantages of living in a big city like Los Angeles) but definitely if the stores are a good distance apart, you'll want to take into account the cost of driving there!

Shan said...

I guess that means there's no such thing as ad matching there? I'm in Canada and the grocery store I shop at ad matches as do some others. So I read the flyers for all grocery stores. If I happen to notice any great deals I just bring the flyer with me to the store I get the best overall savings at and have them adjust the price at the register. Plus I rarely have to worry about the store running out of the sale item, if it's a really great sale.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Thanks so much for the link-love. Rock on!

Anonymous said...

It's easy for me to shop at two or three stores every week because I live less than two miles from several local and national grocery / drugstores.

But even if you have to drive a few miles to a commercial district, those stores are often bunched up together. It should be easy enough to do two or three shopping stops in one day without wasting much gas.