Reader Question: Grocery Savings Without Bulk Buying

Jill submitted a great question:

I enjoy your blog, but wonder if you have any tips you can share for
singles (or anyone who does not buy groceries for a large family.)
There are two of us in my household, and we don't eat a lot of
pre-packaged foods that seem to be the center of these Catalina deals;
not to mention it would take us months to go through 5 cartons of ice
cream. It doesn't seem worth it to buy things we aren't going to eat or
that we would be stuck with for a long period. Thanks in advance for
any advice.

So, you mean you don't want your car to look like this every time you come back from the store?


 (This is the back of my car after triple stacking the current Jewel-Osco Catalina offer; $90 in pre-card prices, paid $52 including tax after Preferred Card and coupons, received $45 in Catalina coupons for my next shopping trip --> $7 for 26 rolls paper towel, 12 cans soup, four boxes broth, and most of that was tax. And I had all 3 kids with me. Why yes, I DID need help getting out to my car, thankyouverymuch.)

 Jill, you bet I have advice for small households who don't want to buy in bulk, and who want to avoid processed foods:

1. Set a weekly (or biweekly, monthly, whatever) grocery budget and stick to it. One of the most popular posts I ever wrote on frugal living is "10 Things I Learned From Grocery Shopping on a Budget" over at Wise Bread. For me, sticking to that budget does a lot of things: pushes me to use every bit of what I buy without waste; pushes me to seek out the lower-cost nutrient sources (eggs, carrots and potatoes are big at our house). It even helped me realize that I COULD afford to go organic with most produce by cutting back on other less important things.

2. Use coupons where you can. You're correct that most -- though not all -- coupons and promotions focus on packaged foods. If you buy even a few of these foods, say breakfast cereal, it's pretty easy to ALWAYS combine a coupon and sale on those items. This frees up more money in your budget for the high-quality fresh foods.

(By the way, currently has coupons for $1.50/2 lbs. of any brand cheese and other dairy coupons.)

3. Consider joining a CSA or other produce box service. This isn't really the season for it in the Midwest, but soon enough the Community Supported Agriculture coops will be taking sign-ups for spring. When we got a produce box, I thought it was going to be a splurge at first, especially because it was organic and I hadn't bought organic before. However, I found that I saved money because having the box of vegetables there pushed me to prepare more meals based on them and use less meat and packaged foods. Many do offer half shares for small households.

4. Be flexible and strategic about shopping. You don't have to buy a lot to shop strategically. When the weekly sale flyers come out, check out the loss leaders at each store that's convenient to you (loss leaders are those items, usually on the front of the flyer, that the store sells for really low to get you in the door). You don't have to waste all day going from store to store -- just decide which one store you're going to based on the number of sales it's having that are attractive to you. Also keep an eye out for "buy one, get one free" sales -- these are, obviously, offering the items at half price and that's deeper than your typical sale discount. Most stores will let you use two coupons when buying bogo items, one for each item, so you can save a lot that way.

Another way to be flexible is to seek out new places to shop. I love hitting grocery stores marketed at niche ethnic groups, like Hispanic stores in my area; when I lived in San Francisco the produce stands in Chinatown offered outstanding quality and prices. I've heard that the prices in Indian groceries on Chicago's north side are also great.

5. Keep in mind that stockpiling is not just for large families. You may not want to buy your groceries in bulk because you don't have much storage or because it just bugs you to have more than you need on hand. But do realize that if you can find even a small amount of storage space, stockpiling is a great way to guarantee you never have to buy something at full price.

These Catalina deals I've been writing about are not necessarily for everyone, sure. But personally, I'm doing them because they're great deals, not because I have a lot of mouths to feed. Actually, we are barely more than a household of two eaters ourselves, because out of our 3 kids, our infant doesn't eat table food yet, our 2-year-old eats like a bird, and that leaves a 5-year-old, my husband and myself. But from my perspective, when the price is close to free, why NOT buy as much as I have coupons for and time to ring up now, and avoid having to buy cereal or canned soup again for the next six months?

You mentioned not having room or appetite for 5 cartons of ice cream. Point well taken. However, do realize that the photo at the top of this post represents the spoils of the current Catalina deal times THREE. The deal requires you to spend just $30, pre-card prices, which is not necessarily a lot of food, especially if you buy a variety of things instead of all one thing.

For example, for $30 pre-card price in the current deal, you could buy

4 cans soup ($11.16)

1 carton ice cream ($5.99)

1 box broth ($2.99)

4 rolls paper towel ($7.96)

1 four-pack yogurt ($3.39)

That's enough stuff to make the $15 in coupons print. Once you scanned your card, you'd be spending about $18 and getting $15 back -- even without coupons (with some of the available printable coupons, this would be free). Three dollars for those two big bags of groceries seems like a sweet deal, yet it does not seem like an overwhelming amount of food to take home.

Also, there are some great examples online right now of folks doing these Catalina deals and sharing the excess with local food pantries, which are really hurting right now. They're getting a better deal for themselves than they would have at regular sale prices, AND they're doing a good (usually tax-deductible) deed. For example, Adventures in Couponing donated 63 cartons of ice cream to an enthusiastic food pantry. (Of course she called first to see if they wanted this and had the space. You might think that ice cream is not the most nutritious food to provide to needy families, but come on. When I've had a hard day, nothing can turn it around like an ice cream treat, and you can pretty much guarantee that if you're going to a pantry for your groceries, you have had a hard day.)



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