Grocery Shopping: To coupon or price book?

You can find more detailed information about grocery shopping price books at Get Rich Slowly and Organized Home (both links take you straight to their price book articles) so I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, as a kitchen manager and chef, I have been sold on the concept of price books--they're imperative to costing recipes.

I haven't really used them outside of work, though. Not because I don't think you should, but a) because I did it at work and didn't want to do that at home too; and b) because I have a head for numbers and am obsessed with getting the best deal, so I do very well with that without writing things down. When I moved from Michigan where I knew all my prices (and had determined that Shop At Meijer was the best way to save money) to Seattle where I didn't know the prices and had a lot of other projects on my plate, I didn't pick it up then either. Nonetheless, I think it's a good idea.

I have heard a lot of people, especially recently, getting into the Extreme Couponing thing. I took some time to research that process, and weigh the pros and cons for myself and my situation to determine which of them would save me the most money in my own shopping habits--or whether I could combine them!

First, what is Couponing? Well, originally it meant picking up newspapers and cutting coupons for all the items which you or your family would use. These coupons are almost exclusively for large national brands who are hoping you will try their product. In the Information Age, this process has gone Online. There are websites such as The Grocery Game and Grocery Mom that have online (usually printable) coupons for all sorts of household cleaners, food items, Health $ Beauty (aka toiletries) and other non-perishables.

The Pros:
  • Save money on items you use all the time!
  • Start saving right away, as soon as the next time you go to the store.
  • Some places even DOUBLE the coupons for extra savings!
  • When combined with sales, you can spend next to nothing on Colgate toothpaste, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Charmin toilet paper, and Windex.

The Cons:
  • Look at that list. You have to buy Windex, not "store brand blue ammonia cleaner" and certainly not a giant bottle of store brand vinegar. It's Kraft Mac & Cheese, not store brand or home-made with whole wheat pasta and real cheese. Now, if you're like me and your princess butt likes Charmin, it's probably worth it to clip every coupon you can find for it.
  • No fresh produce!
  • No bulk-bin items.
  • You have to spend the time: finding the coupons; cutting/printing coupons; sorting them. Every time. Even after setting up, this can take HOURS per week.
  • You spend the space in your home and your life with a notebook full of paper.
  • Can we not ignore the paper being wasted here?
  • You have to remember to take the coupons with you (this is where I fail the most).
  • You then have to remember to USE THEM when you check out. (ProTip: if you get out to the car and realize you forgot to use your coupons, a lot of customer service desks, especially Meijer, will adjust your receipt for you. It's ALWAYS worth asking.)
  • Not all places take printed coupons.
  • To get the best prices, it can often mean stockpiling, which takes space.
  • A lot of cashiers HATE the extreme coupon folks, because so many of them try to cheat the system, and invariably it takes a very long time to cash out--time that you are spending too, so don't forget to build that into your day.

The Price Book:
A price book is a place where you track prices of all the things you buy. Typically, they tell you to get started by digging up all your receipts for the last month or so, and recording the prices of everything you bought and where. But it works best if you track unit prices.

For example, if you ALWAYS buy tomato sauce in 8 oz cans (maybe all your recipes call for that size and you don't want to have to figure out how to use the leftovers), maybe you just need to track the price of an 8 oz can. But what if the 12 oz cans go on sale? Is it a better buy, even if you account for having to figure out how to use a 4 oz portion of tomato sauce? What if you use a LOT of tomato sauce, and want to maybe buy the 96 oz can at the food service store? If you know how much you are paying per ounce, you can easily figure out the best deal.

The Pros:
  • No keeping track of a zillion little coupons, everything is in one place.
  • You can track right from your receipts.
  • You can go fully digital in the records-keeping. Saves trees, and if you have a smart phone you can check prices in-store.
  • Know when to buy in bulk and when it's not worth the effort/money.
  • Once set up, it takes very little effort to update prices regularly.
  • Once set up, you can start to see patterns in the pricing, and stock up only as much as you need. If ranch dressing is on sale every 6 weeks, you only need to buy enough to get you through that long.
  • If you don't want to go all-digital, the information can be kept in a small spiral notebook that you can carry around with you.
  • Bulk-bin items too!
  • YOU get to pick what you will buy at the best price. If that means always getting fresh produce and store brand items for cleaning, you have control over that with the knowledge that no matter what you buy, you can get the best possible price on it.
The Cons:
  • If you only use the receipts of things you actually purchase, you don't know if you're getting the best deal when you purchase it. Getting set up doesn't save you money, and you don't get all the pertinent information from surrounding stores.
  • It does take time to set up, though I don't think any more than the coupon notebook does.
  • Getting the best deal on some things means driving to multiple stores--you have to account for the time and gas in the savings here, and a lot of people don't consider that (it's a pet peeve of mine that all the articles I've seen comparing these two doesn't account for the gas!).
  • To go digital, you have to have some basic computer and spreadsheet knowledge.
  • If you don't have a smartphone, all-digital records means you can't check prices from the store.
  • If you want all the correct information, you have to put more time into getting set up.
  • No double-savings.

Combining the two:
Using both systems pretty much boils down very nicely to this: It takes extra time to set up, but it can significantly increase the savings. If you're trying to choose between the two because you like some of the benefits of both systems and you have/don't mind taking the time, just do both. For people who are time-rich and cash-poor, this is the best system you can use. Imagine buying all the toothpaste you need for the year when it's on sale and you have coupons that double. You could get them for next to free!

My choice:
When I originally did this cost-benefit analysis, I ended up deciding that whatever information I could keep in my head for a price book was good enough for me. After searching around for a few weeks, I discovered that Meijer almost always had what I wanted at the best price, plus I didn't need to worry about driving around to a bunch of different stores. I was willing to pay an extra 50 cents for a bottle of dressing if it meant no HFCS and not having to make an extra stop.

Now that we are moving to Vancouver, and there are SO many stores within a small area, and I don't know their pricing strategies. Also, Pops' diet (he's going vegetarian) requires a LOT of fresh produce, and my partner and I eat a lot of fresh foods as well. Between fresh foods and food-grade cleansers*, plus shopping at restaurant supply stores that don't take coupons, over 3/4 of my purchases don't have coupons to begin with. It's not worth my time hunting down coupons when they don't usually apply to me (though now that we will have a daily paper, I do skim through whatever comes in, just in case). I will, however, check out the ad papers even online to get prices for my price book. That way I can compare the sale prices of a few different places from the comfort of my couch, and get as much information for my price book as I can before even stepping foot in the store.

The biggest difference between my home price book and my ones for work is that the ones for work don't need to keep archival data. By this I mean that I only need to know the most recent price I actually paid for an item, because I need to know how much money is sitting on the shelf and how much it will cost to serve it to my customers. I could keep enough basic pricing guide in my head to not bother saving it, so I only kept a seasonal snapshot of former prices. At home, I need to track all those prices and compare past to present. So my set-up has to be a little different. I'll happily share my system once I decide how I'm going to use it.

What about you? Do you play The Grocery Game? When you empty a bottle of ketchup, do you head for the stash of it, or put it on the shopping list? Do you have a price-book system you like? Tell us in the comments!


  1. I don't really track the prices/play the game, but I will watch for sales and stock up. We have a nice big pantry and so things like diced tomatoes (which I use a ton of) and canned beans and such I will stock up when they go on sale. Most of the stores here have a price per unit on the shelf tag so it makes it easy to compare across brands to see if you are really getting a better price by shopping a sale or if buying the store brand that's regular price is still a better deal. But for the one off items like ketchup (in our house it's not a staple) I just put it on the list when the current container gets emptied.

    1. I love the unit prices being on the shelf tags, it's one of the reasons I have been able to go so long without a price book. So often these days, the national brand on sale with a coupon is still more expensive than buying the store brand--which I would normally buy anyway if I NEED it--without it being on sale.

      Although I was shocked to learn that my local-foods lots-of-organics grocery store is consistently less expensive for most things I purchase than the local Safeway store (like Kroger, but a competitor and less expensive--also less nice). I'm super sad the Town and Country Markets chain is a Puget Sound store, and doesn't have any locations in Vancouver.

  2. I hate couponing :) I rarely buy anything processed so they usually don't work for me. I do LOVE Costco now that I have learned to stick to my list. Good pet food is cheap there and I save the membership cost in buying dog/cat food there. I am also dreading the hunt for a new grocery store in Portland. I love the one that is couple blocks from our house now.


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