A price book is simple, powerful cheapskate tool. You start taking notes of what particular items cost at different stores you shop. It does not have to be fancy; start by tracking items you usually buy, like this:
Store brand: $0.89 (must buy 10 offer)
Brand X: $1.25
Brand Y: $1.29
You don’t have to whip out your notebook in the store (although you certainly can); you can copy information from your receipts or use one of several smartphone apps, such as Out of Milk (Android and iPhone, free) or ValueTracker (iPhone, $.99). Out of Milk syncs with website ads from many stores to give you automatically updated information.
After a while, you’ll figure out which stores are generally the cheapest on most of the items that you buy. You’ll also start to develop a rhythm for how deep sale prices may go and how often certain items are sold at a discount. I know that at least twice a year, usually around Memorial Day and again during the December holidays, my local grocery store sells Diet Coke for $2 per 12 pack. When that happens, I buy the maximum amount. I never pay more than $1 per pound for dry pasta or $4 per pound for cheese. If I see prices below that, I stock up. Pasta has a long shelf life, and cheese freezes.
A price book helps you get a feel for what a good price is and for how a store cycles its sales. You start to figure out if the big produce sale runs every six weeks or every eight weeks, and then you can plan meals or freezer space to accommodate what you will buy. If you buy 10 boxes of pasta to get it for $.89 a box, you’re going to be having a lot of pasta. (That’s not a bad thing, at least at my house.)
There’s another huge advantage of price books: You quickly determine which stores have real bargains, and which do not. I know that it is worth my while to go to the bakery outlet for bread. And I know that there is no reason for me to go to Costco.
Because I’m a cheapskate, most people assume that I hang out at warehouse clubs. They are wrong. First of all, shopping at the store near me is stressful. The traffic is bad, and is it packed on weekends. I place a high premium on my sanity.
In addition, the prices are not all that great, especially after you figure in the cost of the annual membership. I can do better on most of the items by stocking up at the regular grocery store when there is a good sale, especially when matched with a coupon. (I use newspaper ads to prepare for my shopping trip, but many stores now have sales circulars online.) Sure, it takes a little time, but it takes less time than it would take to get through Costco on a Saturday afternoon. I know this because I have tracked prices enough to know what would I pay elsewhere. OK, so warehouse stores have big, cheap jars of peeled garlic. Has anyone ever managed to use up a jar that big before the garlic gets moldy?
A fancy new grocery chain opened a store in my neighborhood, and I could not believe that it had such a high-end atmosphere and low prices. After a few months, I noticed that the prices were going up – by a lot. Years of paying attention to prices gave me a sixth sense for shopping. I stopped going there. It’s nice, but not nice enough to warrant spending more on groceries.
After you get the hang of your area’s sale cycles, you don’t have to continue to keep a price book. I do not keep a formal one these days, but the work I put into one years ago made me more mindful of what I was spending. And, because I know that the prices at my local grocery store are pretty good, I save a lot of time.