Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Grocery Shopping

I'm a self-confessed food dictator in my house.  I keep a close eye on what we buy and where we buy it.  Not only for price concerns but for quality concerns as well.   Making the move to the UK from North America also opened my eyes to the shit quality of the North American food industry.  It's actually scary what is considered eat-able in N.A.  High quantities of sugars, salts, fats, preservatives, pesticides, hormones.  All of which, we don't really have in the UK. 

The amount of research and comparison shopping I've done in order to whittle down the weekly grocery bill is immense.  It's actually quite satisfying to know you have saved a significant amount on your food bill and still been able to stuff your cupboards with good products.   The blog I could write on this topic would be miles long so I've decided to cut it down into a few blog posts.

First,  it is imperative you understand a few key elements.  
  • Bigger/More is not always better. 
  • Big chain grocery stores don't give a shit.  They only want as much of your money as they can get and they will pull every trick in the book to get you to spend more than you have to.  
  • The food sold in big chain grocery stores is not always of better value or quality... don't believe the hype! 
I will likely do a separate blog on each of these points later.

So here are my tips and tricks to making your weekly shopping easier, cheaper, better.

First tip, decide what you will absolutely not skimp on, then try to find it as cheap as possible.  Keep it down to only a few items though,  we are trying to save money here.  

For us, we absolutely will NOT skimp on ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and tomato soup.   Everything else is up for negotiation.  Although.... that said,  I do buy the Aldi version tomato soup and we actually like it just as much as our normal one. 

Second tip - Find a store loyalty points program you like and use it as much as possible.  Some places have loyalty points programmes that allow you to collect and spend points in other places rather than just the stores themselves.  Don't get crazy and sign up for dozens of them...  just concentrate on one or two that you would use most or gives you the most flexibility for spending points on other things you need.    (IE:  I redecorated my entire front entry and stairs using only store loyalty points!)

Once you've done that, get your husband, wife or partner to join a different rewards scheme for a different store you use.   Then, order two cards or key fobs from each programme so you both can collect the points at the same time.   I love the key fobs!  So handy!

Third tip - compare, compare, compare..  especially when shopping for the bulkier, more expensive, household items like laundry soap, meat, pet food, toilet paper, specialty food or pantry stuffers.    It takes a little time but well worth it.  Spend an hour or two in an evening comparison shopping online.  Pretty soon, you will get to know which store has consistently cheaper prices for your frequent purchases like butter and ketchup then you can concentrate on comparing prices on your less frequent purchases.   DO NOT assume a sale or multi-buy is the best possible price you will find.

The way I comparison shop is to get the websites for my three most frequently used retailers up at the same time.  Then I just search for what I need on all three.  Whoever comes out cheaper is the winner.
Yes, it takes a while but it's a lot better than watching inane reality TV of an evening.   However, a little time spent planning will save you lots.

In the UK, there is also a website called   I found it doesn't always pick up on everything in a store's inventory but it does the job for more everyday items.  Frankly, I always think I'm missing something so I usually go to the individual store's website to confirm what I find on there.  It's just me.. I'm a bit OCD.

Fourth Tip - If you are in the UK, do not avoid the discount grocery chain stores.  Trust me.

Fifth Tip -  buy cheap and pimp it up at home.  Generally you get better value out of making things yourself...  this goes for food as well.   Frozen pizza and spaghetti sauce is a great way to save money.   This also means you will have to spend some dough on stocking up your spice rack but again,  it is well worth it in the long run.   I recommend buying the best tasting cheap (but not the cheapest!  That crap is grossss and no amount of herbs & spices will save it)  spaghetti sauce possible then just add some herbs & spices to it at home.    You would be amazed at what a little sea salt, pepper and Italian herb mix will do to a cheap spaghetti sauce.
Frozen pizza is another good one.  I buy the cheap cheese pizzas and then use whatever I have in the fridge to pimp it up.  Add a little extra grated cheese... then chuck on whatever I want.  Sometimes it's bacon and mushroom, sometimes it's leftover chicken and sweetcorn, sometimes it's onions and leftover bolognaise sauce, sometimes I even use the last dregs of salsa in the jar.   It's cheap, easy and can be tastier than the expensive frozen pizzas.  

Sixth Tip -  Take a calculator shopping with you.  Not to calculate how much you are spending but to calculate the cost per unit of something so you can compare it with other brands.  Toilet paper is the best example.   Which is the better deal?   24 rolls at £8.00 or 12 rolls at £3.59?   *said in my best game show announcer voice*   Well Stan,  it's cheaper to buy 2 packs of 12.  
It's a simplified example but you get my point about taking a calculator. 


Like I said, a bit of planning goes a long way.  As an example,  we do a grocery shop every two weeks and generally buy the same sort of thing every time.  Fruit, veg, meat, pet food and popular pantry items.  We do a pantry restock every 1-2 months which consists of cereals, laundry soap, cleaning products, dishwasher tabs, toilet paper, cooking sauces, soups, herbs, spices and more. 

For our normal 2 week food shop (about 7 or 8 standard plastic shopping bags worth),  I used to pay between  £90 - £120.  (CDN $153 - $204) at one of the cheapest retailers.....  now, with a little extra effort,  our 2 week food shop is now £50 - £70 (CDN $85 - $119).

Yes, this makes me insanely happy. 

How do I do this?

1.  I shop at the discount retailers that most people despise... except for those of us who have figured out that the products are generally just as good, if not better, but you aren't paying for national marketing campaigns and fat cat salaries.   And you know what?  Most of the cars in the local discount retailer parking lot are luxury SUVs, BMWs Mercs and Audis.. go figure.  

Yes, you have to throw all your items in your cart and pack them over by the window but who cares?!  I'm paying half of what you are.

And don't even get me started on the product quality.  Try comparing Harvest Morn cereal (87p) to Kellogg's Special K.  (£2.09)  You would be appalled at the amount of salt and sugar in Kellogg's most famous "healthy" cereal. 

You also have limited choice in the products you can get but it's not necessarily a bad thing.  Who needs to choose from 17 different brands of chicken soup??  I like the one at the discounter and I pay 47p a can. 

2.  I make a list of what we need and decide which items I can get at the discount retailer.  Then I go looking online for the best deals on the other stuff.   Right now, in the UK, we are in the middle of grocery store price wars so it's a great time to comparison shop.   I currently get groceries from three different stores.  My main food shop store, Store A which has the best deals on toilet paper and Store B which has much better deals on pet food (and much better sales). 

3.  I then plan my attack.  I hit the discount retailer first for all my staple goods.  It's usually quick and dirty because their prices don't fluctuate that much.  I know what I want and where it is.  Bang bang done. 

Since I know that Store B has some amazing deals that won't appear on their website, I usually go to the store myself and check out the shelves in person.  For example,  I bought the last 4 bottles of brand name dish liquid for 50p each!   So what if it was their Christmas scent?  I don't normally smell my dishes so who gives a shit if they smell like cranberry?  Point is... I got 300ml bottles of dish liquid for 50p!! 
*fist pump*

Another day,  I managed to arrive just as the bakery was putting out their "perfectly fine but not oven fresh" bread items.  I bought 3 packs of rolls, 2 loaves of tiger bread and a tray of 6 baguettes for 25p each!!   I also picked up a few bags of stale bread for only 10p EACH!   The "not quite fresh" bread got put in the freezer until we needed it and the stale bread was made into heaps of breadcrumbs!   *another fist pump*

Store A doesn't normally have outstanding sales so it's not really worth the drive... They do have the best offers on toilet paper and laundry soap so I stick to my normal purchases and do home delivery.  They do £1.00 delivery slots in the evenings.  Bonus!  

Although, just yesterday, I saw Store A was having an OUTSTANDING sale on boxes of Whiskas cat food pouches.  I bought 8 of them and they are being delivered this evening.  *yet another fist pump*

Yes,  this makes me insanely happy.   I really do just sit back and bask in the bargain-obtaining satisfaction.   It's like a competition between me and the grocery stores... I don't like to lose.