Who moved my cheese?

This post is being written while I boil six eggs for egg salad.  My BIL & SIL are coming over for dinner with both nephews.  Actually, nephew 1 (Snufkin) is going to the same two weeks of day camp as the Snork Maiden, so I’ll pick ’em both up this afternoon.  Nephew 2 (hereby named Sniff) is one of last summer’s babies, now one year old. 

The plan is for a light, dairy-ish, summery supper: egg salad and tuna salad and crudités and cheese and crackers.  Quesadillas, too, to appease the kids (even though they could certainly make a meal out of crudités, cheese and crackers).  I went to the store on the way back from dropping the Snork Maiden and Snufkin at camp this morning.  Wow, those grocery prices!  I am feeling the pinch.  It seemed worse when we were visiting Stubb, maybe because it’s a less densely populated area and there are only two stores, whereas here there’s more competition (major chains, regional chains, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods). 

Several years ago, a writer friend got me hooked on Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette–the book, not the newsletter, which I think had already stopped publication.  My friend warned me, as I’ll warn you: Not everything in this book applies to everyone.  There are ideas in it which I’m not willing to consider (such as Dumpster diving, which Dacyczyn investigates but doesn’t regularly practice), as well as ideas which have no application if you don’t have a car, or a boat, or kids, or whatever.  But reading around in the book really helps reset my attitude toward spending less and using less, as well as giving me many practical tips I can actually use.  Since the book was published in 1998, it only grazes the surface of ways to save money using information and tools from the Internet, but you can probably figure out how to use the Internet to enhance the implementation of many of the suggestions in the book.

Two of the most useful concepts in the book, for me, are the grocery price book and bulk buying strategy she uses.  For the price book, you spend a few weeks keeping track of the prices of the items you regularly buy at the store.  You can do most of this quietly at home with your grocery receipts, but as you fill up the book, you can take it with you to the store and add entries.  The idea is to identify the best possible prices for grocery items you want to buy, so that you know when the item can be bought most cheaply.  And then you employ the bulk buying strategy: you stock up, at the lowest price, on as much of the item as you can reasonably use before it goes bad OR before the lowest price shows up again.  Eventually you just keep these prices in your head and you don’t need the book anymore.

Take cheddar cheese, a staple in this household.  In my main grocery store, it is available in both store brand and name brand versions and in blocks of various sizes.  Because I had a price book (which was actually just a sheet of paper–I updated it on the computer and printed it out to fold up and carry in my pocket), I know that a good sale price at this store for regular old non-artisan cheddar cheese with annatto coloring is 25 cents an ounce, or $4.00 a pound.  For some reason, the 8-ounce store brand package is the one that goes on sale at this price (two for $4, but you don’t have to buy two to get the sale price); the larger packages rarely seem to dip below 35 cents an ounce, or $5.60 a pound, so $2 for an 8-oz. block of cheese is fine.  I’ll usually buy one, and by the time it’s gone, cheese is on sale again.  If it’s not, I usually don’t buy it, knowing that the two-for-$4 price comes back quite frequently.  Once in a great while, the 8-oz. blocks go down to 18 cents a pound ($1.44 each) and that’s when I really stock up, buying as much as I think we will use before it goes moldy.  From the Tightwad Gazette, I also learned that cheese freezes OK if you shred it, but I don’t use much shredded cheddar, hence my motto:

Don’t exceed the cheese needs, lest ye need to freeze.

This sounds complicated, but it becomes second nature very fast.  You can do the bulk-buying strategy without the price book; lots of people already do this (either by buying a large amount at Costco or just stocking up at the grocery store when there’s a sale), but if you haven’t paid close attention to what constitutes a good price per unit, you risk getting snookered by the huge tub at Costco or by those grocery-store “sales” that aren’t really sales.  Sometimes I see a “two for $5.00” label on the cheese blocks, and I cruise on by, knowing that I can do better.  Too cool for the cheese section, that’s me.

Anyway, I have not been putting a lot of energy lately into keeping our grocery costs down, especially in the last couple of months, when it’s just been me and the Snork Maiden at home.  But after today’s sticker shock, I think I’ll start stocking up again–a little bit now, on nonperishables like canned goods, and more later, when our summer travels end and fall rolls around.  Since there are only three of us, we don’t go crazy with dozens of cans, but when we’ve been carefully bulk-buying for a while, our weekly grocery totals are lower because we have the makings of multiple meals at home, and our cart looks like this: milk, fresh produce, coffee, and six jars of spaghetti sauce. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if by now there was a grocery version of GasBuddy to help you with this, but I suppose it would be complicated to organize, given the thousands of products in any grocery store and how stores and prices vary from area to area.  Making your own price book, for your own area, reflecting the one or two or three stores you’re willing to hit, is probably a better use of your time. 

If you don’t already know the blog The Economical Academic, it’s well worth reading.  It’s targeted to graduate students, but it’s useful to anyone who’s thinking about saving money–and who isn’t, really? 

Oh, and speaking of that egg salad.  I don’t like egg salad or hardboiled eggs myself, but Stubb assures me I make a good one, and BIL & SIL eat it (and the Snork Maiden will eat a regular hardboiled egg).  And I have some eggs to use up (another cornerstone of grocery thrift: using what you’ve got).  And they are boiled now and waiting for me to come and chop ’em up.  See you after the egg salad.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Pym Fan on July 2, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I love the idea of having a system for saving money on things like groceries. Your discussion of stocking up during sales on things you buy often reminds me that I should really make an effort to figure out the pattern in the buy-one-get-one-free sales my nearby standard grocery store has on the croutons I like. The regular price on those croutons has gone up about 50% since I started buying them (granted, years ago). So when those sales DO come along, I buy as many bags of croutons as I think I can get away with without looking like some kind of nut case. And speaking of cheese, what’s with the weird, all-over-the-place prices?? I just discovered that the fancy vegetable-rennet cheddar at my usually expensive co-op-style natural foods store is HALF the price of the run-of-the-mill cheddar at Whole Foods (whereas the cottage cheese I buy is twice as much at NFS as at WF). Weird.


  2. I have a kind of similar system — well, I used to, it’s not as formalized now, because as you say it becomes naturalized, and because we buy less and less stuff that goes on sale or can be stockpiled. (There’s only so much storage space for beans in my cupboard). But it’s especially handy when you routinely shop at more than one store (Whole Foods for some things, regular store for others, neighborhood store for quick stops). Thanks for the references, though, I’m interested in following them up…


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