Author Topic: Groceries: learning price tracking without increasing budget anxiety  (Read 3939 times)

Ellsie Equanimity

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My husband and I are newly married and budgeting together and on the whole really enjoying it.

The biggest stressor for me is the grocery/household budget. My husband is much better than me at keeping prices and doing math in his head. Though I'm not bad or terribly overspendy with groceries, in an effort to get better at knowing deals when I see them I have recently started price tracking. And while I was doing that anyway, I figured I might as well do a grocery breakdown analysis. I'm not sure how long I need to do this to get an accurate analysis (a year?) since we buy in bulk when possible (haven't bought meat for the past couple months as we are still working through what's in the freezer and I only recently started the tracking so meat hasn't even shown up on it yet).

Does anyone else do this? Is it useful or just interesting? I don't want to do this forever, the original goal was just to start getting an idea of normal vs good prices in my head by writing them down. The act of writing them down (/typing them in) plus seeing them next to the prices from before helps me start to retain "this is the average price of [insert item here]." But now I am somewhat curious about how much we spend on different categories and I was even wondering if there are any guidelines on how much you should spend on various categories for a healthy diet (my guess is that would be very difficult to determine as a healthy diet can look very different from person to person). My main concern is being cost effective - I'm not going to spend tons of money on groceries, but I'm also not going totally skimp on nutrition and variety and enjoyableness for the sake of savings.

The reason this part of the budget is stressful for me is (and the extra analysis may be making it worse):

1) this is a lot of work

and

2) it brings out a certain "what if I don't get the best deal" anxiety, plus a lot of "when is the extra cost worth it" uncertainties and "what if it's worth it to me and not my husband" fears, (for the record, there's no particular reason this should be a big fear, but my strong people pleasing instincts combined with feelings of Ďmy husband would be better at getting the deals than meí makes me nervous, especially for the 3rd scenario - but I do most of the grocery shopping now and have to decide without him)

Random other info: We only split the groceries/household categories (to get a better idea of what the food budget actually consists of) in the last month, and that's also when I started price tracking. Combined we've spent $300-350/month on the two categories - target was 300, as that's been slightly difficult and stressing me out we just increased it to 400. (That doesn't mean if we have extra I will go spend it, but for this category at least I'd rather have the budget a little higher than we will spend on average than an actual average and go overbudget sometimes - it stresses me out less, if that makes sense.)

So, I don't even really know what I'm asking I guess. Just people's thoughts? Is the extra analysis worth it? Will it make me less stressed in the end or just feel too micromanaged?

Also, more maybe useful information, before being married I did sort of a not-too-specific, retroactive budget, and was pretty frugal by nature. Without any real planning, I spent an average of about $150 on groceries per month. I didnít keep enough track to know, but my guess is that household stuff was sometimes included in that and sometimes not. So, accounting for an extra person, my spending or what I have to work with for that isnít changing much. So I think whatís really changed to make it more anxiety provoking is
  • knowing it matters to my husband
  • feeling like I will let him down by being less adequate/capable than him because I canít as easily track it in action (I sometimes get afraid in the grocery store that I didnít plan well enough Ė what if I spend too much now and canít stay under the budget later?)
    • concerns that when I actually want to spend more I canít adequately discuss it with my husband and fears I will throw off the budget too much to stay on target (suddenly hyper-aware and maybe exaggerating of the difference every decision could make)
Ok, probably repeating myself now. Thoughts?

Spondulix

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So, I don't even really know what I'm asking I guess. Just people's thoughts? Is the extra analysis worth it? Will it make me less stressed in the end or just feel too micromanaged?
I'm a huge deal hunter (especially with groceries). There's a difference between getting a good deal and getting the best deal, and even then it's hard to plan for (those opportunities just show up unexpectedly). Grocery stores do tend to have sales on everything in an 8-12 week cycle, so in that respect, I don't hardly ever buy anything full cost unless I really need it.

There's a couple things to ask yourself:
- Is the benefit of what I am saving worth the time I am spending on this? (are you spending an hour to save $20, $50, or $2? What is your time worth if you had to put a dollar amount on it?)
- Can you settle for getting an ok deal if it means you're still on budget?
- Do you get a high from getting a great deal?
- Are you flexible in what you cook/can you cook?

Prices change, so your spreadsheet will be a never-ending project. The place where you'll see the biggest impact in knowing prices is produce, because prices can differ significantly depending on what's in season (assuming you're flexible in what you cook). For example, I accidentally paid $8 for a bag of grapes yesterday (I didnt realize it was $2.99/pound - not per bag). When they are in season/on sale, they do run sales of $2-3/bag. It was a mistake, but I felt ok about it because I got a ton of stuff from the clearance bins for 80% off, so I still got $100 worth of groceries for under $50 (for example, 3 jars of peanut butter for 70 cents each - that's a steal!). There's times that it's definitely good to buy excess (if you know it's a great price), but it just takes time to figure that out. With grocery stores, you can always go back into the aisle and look at competitors to gauge if it's a good deal. In general, places like Costco or Sams Club will save you money (vs grocery store), but they are good deals - not great. I have never seen a deal that makes me want to stockpile the way I do at a grocery store clearance section.

Ellsie Equanimity

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There's a couple things to ask yourself:
- Is the benefit of what I am saving worth the time I am spending on this? (are you spending an hour to save $20, $50, or $2? What is your time worth if you had to put a dollar amount on it?)

Probably not in any short term period. But my idea was that doing this for a little while would give me a better internal price gauge which would have lasting results. Theoretically I could learn the prices without doing this, too, but I feel like they just don't stick in my mind very well (especially ones where you have to calculate the size difference to compare). Random ones start to stick as I pay attention, but I felt like there were too many to keep track of spreadsheeting it for a while might speed up the process.

- Can you settle for getting an ok deal if it means you're still on budget?

Yes. But I do struggle with being a perfectionist.

- Do you get a high from getting a great deal?

Sort of? I enjoy it, but it's not like BEST DAY EVER or anything. I don't like shopping so I am balancing a tension of I just want to go in with my list and get done vs it does matter to get good deals. I want to be "good" at shopping - which in my mind is some optimized balance between minimizing time and maximizing cost effectiveness.

- Are you flexible in what you cook/can you cook?

Yes, or mostly anyway, I think.

Carolina on My Mind

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- Can you settle for getting an ok deal if it means you're still on budget?

Yes. But I do struggle with being a perfectionist.

I'm the same way:  I've tried to create the world's greatest price book more than once over the years, and I always wind up running out of steam and ditching the whole thing.

These days, I still try to shop wisely, but I'm a little more relaxed about it.  I focus on the ten or twelve things that I buy most frequently -- say, vegetables, fruit, eggs, cheese, dried beans, canned tomatoes, nuts -- and develop rough guidelines for each of them.  It's pretty easy to come up with guidelines just by reviewing the grocery store circulars for a couple months.  Like, I think twice about buying vegetables that are more than $1.50 a pound or fruit that is more than $2 a pound.  If less perishable stuff goes on sale for less than my guidelines -- like under a dollar for canned tomatoes or a bag of dried beans -- I'll buy a couple extra.  (I don't have vast amounts of storage space in my apartment, so I generally don't do massive stocking up.)

So to take the pressure off yourself, I suggest that you focus on a small number of things you use every week and figure out a decent unit price for each of those items.  When there's a sale, buy a little extra.  Just this little bit of effort makes a big difference, in my experience.  And once it's second nature, you can add another tier of things you use regularly:  yogurt, tortillas, coffee, whatever.

Spondulix

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Carolina's advice is great for getting started - just tackle it small, and grow as you feel more comfortable with it.

I thought I heard some perfectionism in your original post!! As a recovered (recovering?) perfectionist, I would totally recommend spending the time you're not going to be spreadsheeting to reading about perfectionism :) Honestly, I'm amazed what letting go of that has done for my quality of life and stress level. I'm guessing if you're working this hard to get the best deals on groceries, there's a lot of other places in your life you may be overworking, also. There's places where that attention to detail can really help, but a lot of times it's just unnecessary pressure on yourself (that makes it difficult - or impossible - to perform).

backyardfeast

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I agree that the most important thing is not an endless spreadsheet with the best ever price on anything you ever buy, it's setting a reasonable budget, and then periodically challenging yourself to go lower as you get to know your habits.  Starting with prices on your staples is a good.  You can also consider what foods are the most expensive ones in your diet, and focus on getting the best deals on those first.  It might be meat, organic yogurt, whatever.  For us it turned out to be nuts! :)  A couple of pounds of nuts that lasts us a few weeks could be $18-20 here!

Remember, too, that refining your grocery budget is a multifaceted process that will go through many stages.  For now, just looking through the grocery flyers and getting to know what the sale cycles are is a good base.  If you randomly see an amazing deal, stock up.  For example, the breakfast cereal we like ranges across supermarkets from 9-$11/kilo.  We know that it periodically goes on sale for $7, and sometimes as low as $6.  When it's $6, we stock up.  If we start to run low, though, we just look for the next sale.  If that's $7-8, we go ahead and buy a few more bags.  We're not trying to buy a year's supply at THE best rate.  But we do recognize that best rate now when we see it.

But that's just phase 1.  Over time (don't put pressure on yourself; as you master your basics, you'll know when you feel ready to tackle this budget again).  If you read around the grocery bill forum threads, you'll see that people try a variety of strategies.  Instead of just getting the best price on a turkey, maybe they wonder if they actually NEED turkey; maybe chicken, which costs less, is ok to eat more often.  Or maybe that expensive staple (nuts! :) ) doesn't need to be a staple at all; maybe we could eat hard boiled eggs instead for a high-protein snack.  Maybe we just focus on wasting less and shopping less often, learning to make soup out of the leftovers and bread pudding out of the stale bread. Maybe you feel ready to start baking your own bread, or making your own yogurt! There are lots of ways to meet a budget.  But if you are among the fortunate few who get to do this by choice, instead of because of necessity, then go easy on yourself, keep the big picture in mind, and be patient.

(Just as an example, I love food, and going grocery shopping used to be one of my husband and my favorite dates on a Saturday night! Yup.  We were that geeky.  Today, more than 15 years later, we do so much of our own food producing, food processing, bulk buying from local producers, foraging and bartering, that we hardly buy anything at the grocery store at all!  You just never know where these journeys might take you. )

Mrs. PoP

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If it's really causing you this much anxiety, why not let your husband do the bulk of the grocery shopping?  (This is basically how we operate, though I'm the one with the numeric memory that's great at remembering prices and Mr PoP is HORRIBLE at it.)  There's nothing wrong with division of labor within a household, deferring to each person's strengths.  Over time, he can teach you tricks of how to do a quick stop at the grocery store without spending a ton more than is necessary. 

For example, Mr PoP's previous MO when we needed bread and he stopped on the way home was to pick up a loaf he recognized me buying in the past, not paying attention to price (to the point that he wouldn't notice if something was BOGO and would only get one, leaving the free one behind).  But I filled him in on how I buy bread - figure out which ones are BOGO (there's almost always a brand of bread on BOGO at Publix), and then get two of the whole grainy ones that look good so one can go into the freezer. So he's better at bread shopping now, but he'll probably never be as optimized as I am at this stuff.  It's just not in his nature. 

I still do 70-80% of the shopping on the weekends and that's pretty optimized for price, but I don't stress if Mr PoP's mid-week stops aren't totally optimized.  The reason he's stopping instead of me is because he's the one driving the car during the week and we save a heck of a lot more money being a one car family than Mr PoP can waste buying a more expensive jar of peanut butter or a loaf of bread that's not on sale. 

Merrie

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Focus on the things you buy the most and learn the prices on those first. We shop mostly at Costco these days, but before that, we bought our cheese at Kroger and I learned that the sales could be as little as 21 cents per ounce with normal prices at 31 cents per ounce, and since we go through a couple of pounds of cheese a week, over time that adds up. Go with the shopping style that works for you--can you shop at multiple stores to get the best prices, or does that annoy you and you want to use all one store? If you find you buy a non-perishable or semi-perishable item that periodically goes on sale, get into the habit of stocking up. Work on eating lots of different things, to the point that if you run out of something and it's godawfully expensive, you can just eat something else for a while.

For us, Costco has great prices on dairy and we buy all our dairy there. It does not have THE BEST prices on meat, but their prices are only a little more than the average sale prices at other stores. I feel okay about buying most of our meat there at their regular price instead of trying to shop the sales and stock up at other stores when things go on sale, because that was a huge hassle when we used to do it, but if someone else likes it more power to them.

lhamo

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I did my first really serious effort at price tracking back in the late 90s, when DH and I were finishing up grad school.  The way I managed to keep it fun was to have a mental "how low can we go" game going on in my head (and in my spreadsheet) with it.   So finding the lowest price was not something I HAD to do, but when I did it, it felt like winning the lottery.  Could a simple mental adjustment of that sort work for you?  Like see what the average price is on things you regularly buy (like $1.99 for chicken breasts or something), and then just see how many times you can beat that and how low you can get the price down to.  One advantage of doing it this way is that those low prices really do tend to stick with you.  I can still remember the thrill of finding $.79 peanut butter, for example -- I bought about 10-15 jars if I remember correctly.  And if I ever see $.79 peanut butter again I'll do the same! 

Once you have pricetracked for awhile I swear to god those numbers really do get internalized and you will automatically pass up buying something that isn't a good deal.  You also get a sense for the sales cycles at the markets where you shop.  Certain things (like peanut butter) will go on sale at a decent price at regular intervals, so after awhile you just learn how many units you need to buy to stock up until the next sale is likely to run around.  And if you coupon you can also focus on stocking up on coupons during the non-sale periods so that you can get an even better deal when the sales do come around.


Ellsie Equanimity

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Thanks for all the responses and advice.

I think maybe I will continue price tracking for a while, but not be too picky about making sure I record EVERY SINGLE PRICE EVERY SINGLE TIME, and stop the itemizing for now (it's not really that important for us at the moment anyway).

This will reduce the amount of work I am doing for it but hopefully still make progress on learning prices. And things that I buy more I will naturally learn faster - I'm already starting to remember the price of eggs and milk.

I will also try to be less perfectionistic about it in general and focus on the gains I am making instead of the 'what if this wasn't the best purchase ever??' fears.

lhamo

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Re: Groceries: learning price tracking without increasing budget anxiety
« Reply #10 on: May 11, 2015, 03:54:04 PM »

I will also try to be less perfectionistic about it in general and focus on the gains I am making instead of the 'what if this wasn't the best purchase ever??' fears.

Great goal.  And if you can learn to control it in this area, it may spill over (positively) into other areas of your live.

Psychological growth through price tracking! I love it....

Ellsie Equanimity

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Re: Groceries: learning price tracking without increasing budget anxiety
« Reply #11 on: May 12, 2015, 08:09:22 AM »

Great goal.  And if you can learn to control it in this area, it may spill over (positively) into other areas of your live.

Psychological growth through price tracking! I love it....

Yeah...this is definitely not the only area in life I'm trying to let go of fears in. :-)