Budgeting in the ‘burbs, the grocery edition

veggies at market

With food prices soaring, my partner and I looked for ways to save on groceries. Our bills were insane for a family of three. I believe we were averaging more than $500 per month and one month we spent $700 and we weren’t eating anything amazing as we accumulated PC points at Loblaws (Provigo Le Marché). When I lived alone with my son in Montreal our monthly grocery bills were often $250 but we were eating a mostly vegetarian diet, I had a tight budget and we lived closer to small fruit stores with low prices.

I learned about keeping a price book in Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette and when I searched online I was surprised to see a whole movement of people keeping price books to save money. One frugal blogger, Jordan Page of Fun, Cheap or Free , takes it to the next level. Besides recording your spending in a price book, she prescribes a food budget limit of $100 per person a month ($25 a week per person) and an envelope system to keep track of groceries, which under her rules you only buy once a week, no matter what. You’re allowed half of your total weekly budget for extras but you’re not supposed to go over the limit. We don’t follow her suggestions to the letter but we’re using them as a guideline. Jordan, who lives in Utah, uses an app to find the specials she wants and then heads to Walmart to price match her groceries, something that doesn’t interest us since we don’t shop there.

It looked like the key to meeting a weekly goal of $75 for food, plus $37.50 for everything else (toileteries etc), a total of $112.50 a week, would be to shop the specials.

In January we took our first tentative steps towards slashing our grocery bills and meeting this new goal. At first we scanned printed flyers and circled what we wanted. Then we made lists of the specials and stores. This was a nightmare. It took forever to flip through the flyers. We fought over what we were buying for the week and headed to too many stores.

Around the time I found the Salewhale app, CBC Montreal’s Shari Okeke did a story about Montrealers stretching their grocery dollars. One of the people she interviewed recommended an app called Flipp for grocery shopping.

If you shop at supermarkets and pharmacies these software apps make a difference. Instead of searching for items and prices in the paper store flyers it now takes seconds to see all the sales in your local area at a glance. Flipp shows you the flyers while in Salewhale the sale items are standalone. Both let you search for items and make lists and you can email the list so grocery shopping becomes easier. The downside is Salewhale’s app isn’t currently available for Android phones so we use it on our laptops or desktop. Since Flipp is available for Android we sometimes use it when we’re in a store and want to double-check prices.

You can’t count on the advertised specials to find deals. We’ve noticed that some supermarkets, for instance, Super C and IGA, are adjusting prices to match or beat specials advertised by competitors and they don’t advertise these specials, you only discover them at the store. We buy bread at Costco and for a time it was the only place around here selling two loaves of sandwich bread for $ 4.99 but now that IGA and other stores are selling two loaves of sandwich bread for $5.

Besides shopping the specials, we signed up for a bi-weekly basket of organic vegetables from Les Jardins de la Montagne, a Community Supported Agriculture Farm organic farm in Rougemont, Quebec. The $25 basket is meant for one person but we stretch it over two weeks, partly because we supplement with deals on canned tomatoes (sparingly used – we know about the BPA risk) and vegetables. It reduces the hassle of grocery shopping. And because you can change the contents of the basket and add or subtract items so long as you don’t go below $15, it’s a fun way of trying all kinds of organic food. This week our basket includes maple syrup from Erablière du Chevreuil, a private sugar shack in the Laurentians.

Is our experiment working? Yes and no. We’ve mostly met the $75 weekly goal though we dip into the $37.50 set aside each week for “extras” and we’re not tracking everything quite the way Jordan Page does. We could probably do better and I don’t consider us to be frugal superstars. But we’re meeting our budget goal and setting aside the savings for a family vacation or something fun. The price book helps track the going rate for different goods. We can tell if something is actually a deal or if the “special” is the same as the regular price or even above the regular price elsewhere. We could save more if everyone in the house ate the same food and liked the same things. My partner and I alternate making weekly grocery lists and meal planning and we don’t always want the same foods. IBS makes things complicated because there are foods I just can’t eat and my son and my partner love meat so we’re balancing the grocery list to give everyone a bit of what they like.

While we try to limit the number of stores visited each week, we often end up at three different stores, racking up air miles and loyalty points where they’re offered. Since I don’t drive and we’re in Vaudreuil, I’m counting on my partner to do the driving and he’s not crazy about going from store to store.

We’re not alone in taking a frugal approach to grocery shopping and it seems the big box grocery stores are taking notice. Last week IGA (Sobeys Québec)  announced it was chopping regular prices on 8,500 products by 5 to 7 percent. This “permanent price drop” affects mostly dry goods but doesn’t include fresh products or meats, leaving critics to suggest it’s just a marketing ploy.

I say bring on the grocery wars, we’re ready for them.






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