Grocery Shopping and the Pantry Principle (part 3)

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Suburban stockade introduction Last week, we talked about learning basic cooking skills and using simple recipes to get started on saving money and improving our health. Let’s go a little deeper this week on developing our shopping skills.

First, two simple rules: shop with a list and go once a week for your main trip. Go more than once a week only if you have to restock on a necessity (such as milk in our family), or if you’ve run out of a critical item (cat food!). You may be able to cut your grocery trips to every other week if you have a large refrigerator and pantry. This does mean that you don’t take advantage of each week’s loss leaders but that may not matter as much as avoiding the store altogether and spending even less.

If you are forced to make that emergency trip, then make yourself buy ONLY the item you need. Walk into the store and do NOT use a buggy, which would encourage you to fill that empty space with impulse buys. Don’t even take one of those carry baskets. Carry baskets, small carts, and large buggies: each one lets you put more stuff into it so you buy more stuff. If you hand-carry what you need, you’ll buy less.

Shopping with a list does require a bit of organization. You have to know what you use, keep track of what you use, know what you have hanging around the cupboards on its way to expiring, and match these items up with the sales in the grocery store. And then you have to bring the list with you to the store. Knowing what you have and what you routinely use will allow you to take better advantage of unexpected special buys.

Wait, didn’t we just say you shouldn’t make impulse purchases? We did, but with one major exception. If you come across something you already use that’s at a discounted price, then you should consider buying it. But that’s it.

tightwad gazette pantry principle

So how do you know what products and brands you use? And at what price that makes purchasing them a bargain? This leads to the price book. I learned this trick from Amy Dacyczyn of “The Complete Tightwad Gazette.” Take a small notebook and you write down the usual things you buy and the usual prices charged for them. Watch for sales on these items and write down the prices. Over time, you will get a feel for when something is really a good deal or not. If the price is as low as she’ll go, then buy lots more.

I used my price book for many years. It isn’t necessary to be hugely detailed. I didn’t spell out the price for each brand and size of cereal or canned fruit. I just marked down the highest price I was willing to pay. That is, if a large box of Raisin Bran can be purchased for less than $2, then I’ll buy it. Since I have a freezer (highly, highly recommended), I buy my preferred brand of bread only when it is buy-one-get-one-free. Then I buy a lot, enough to last for months. As my cooking skills improved and I learned how to make things like salad dressing and pasta sauce from scratch, I stopped buying them.

Now, I no longer had a need to keep track of those prices. So I no longer use a price book. But it took me more than ten years of regular use to get to this point.

Buying on price leads directly to the next major way to save money: the Pantry Principle. I learned this from a book called Cut Your Grocery Bills in Half: Supermarket Survival by Barbara Salsbury, published in 1982. The updated version is Beating the High Cost of Eating: The Essential Guide to Supermarket Survival (2005). Both are superb books, well worth your time reading and applying the information. The updated book (2005) is not exactly the same as the 1982 book; refunding was a lot bigger in 1982 so the 1982 book covers that area quite thoroughly. The worksheets are different, and the 1982 book has an index whereas the 2005 version, mysteriously, does not. Other areas vary too, so you may want to read both via the interlibrary loan before deciding if you want to purchase one.

What a happy day when I found the 1982 version in the library 18 years ago! The book teaches that when an item you use regularly goes on sale, buy enough to last you until the next super sale. If your brand of tuna goes on sale routinely at 99 cents a can, then you should never buy it when it is $1.19 a can. And, if you get a super sale on this tuna at 79 cents a can, you should buy way, way more.

If you are using a price book and paying attention to the weekly sales flier from your supermarket, you will learn that the food companies puts their products on sale on a fairly regular schedule. Some things go on sale every other week, some every other month, and some only two or three times a year. Some items get a super sale twice a year, other items never do. Becoming familiar with your store’s sales over the years will pay back big bucks if you follow them closely.

What the Pantry Principle leads to is eating and cooking only from your pantry and the weekly loss leaders at the supermarket. You only buy on sale and never, ever pay full price for anything. A well-stocked pantry means that if the car falls apart, you have money to make the problem go away. You don’t go grocery shopping that week and put the food dollars toward paying off the emergency. The Pantry Principle takes time to work up to this level, but it means that if you can’t get to the store for any reason, you don’t have to.

grocery shopping pantry principle

Eating food that came from cans with bulges can have unexpected side effects.

Let me talk about food expiration dates here. This is a relatively new development in the food marketing industry. In some ways, it is very nice to have them, but it can be misused to get you to throw out perfectly usable food. If you store your food items in a place that is cool, dry, dark, and pest-free, they will last far longer than the date indicates. Canned goods can last for decades past the expiration date. They remain perfectly safe to eat, with perhaps less vitamins and a poorer appearance than what they once had. But it is not unsafe. (The one exception is if the can exhibits a bulge. Then it has possibly developed botulism.)

This is also true of things in glass jars and paper boxes like pasta sauce and dried noodles. How you store your food matters far more than what the date says. Putting them where it is damp or in garages where the temperature swings wildly from day to day or where bugs and rodents can get to them, will make those boxes of spaghetti turn on you way earlier than the date on the label would indicate. Store them on ventilated shelves (for air flow), in the dark, at a consistent 60 degrees, and they will last years past the date stamp.

For example, at the time of this writing (Feb. 2015), I made a batch of sugar cookies from a mix. I had been given this package from a friend, I think for composting, as the expiration date on the mix was May 2009. The package was sealed and the mix was inside another sealed foil bag. It looked fine, no mold or weevils, it smelled fine, it mixed up fine, it baked up fine, and the cookies tasted fine. It had the usual ever so slightly off chemical taste I notice in packaged cookie mixes as compared to making them from scratch. But otherwise no problems whatsoever.

The way to deal with food expiration dates is to rotate your stock. In the food business, whether restaurant or grocery, the slogan is FIFO: first in, first out. This is where being organized comes into play. When you make your purchase, label the products with a Sharpie on the front with the expiration date. This makes it much easier to read the date than trying to find that tiny print each time you put things away. Put the newest items to the back of the shelf and the oldest to the front. Use the oldest ones first.

grocery shopping pantry principle

Adjust your food buying according to how much your family eats.

The second part of using food expiration dates is learning how fast you use something up. If you use three cans of tuna a week, then you know how many cans of tuna you want to have on hand. If the tuna goes on sale routinely at 99 cents the first week of every month, then you buy 15 cans of tuna at that price. That gives you three cans a week for five weeks, tiding you over to the next sale date with a comfortable margin. When you buy more tuna when it goes on sale again, you move the newest tuna to the back and use up the oldest cans first.

When tuna goes on a super sale of 79 cents a can, which it does here every six months, then you need to decide how many cans you need to carry you over to the next super sale. This would be three cans times four weeks times six months or 72 cans of tuna plus a few extra to meet the next super sale date. When you buy 72 cans of tuna at once, it is worth going through the cans at the store looking for the furthest away expiration dates. Do not assume the store automatically put the oldest ones to the front and the newest ones to the back like they are supposed to. Grocery store stockers are quite likely to put the newest cans in front and keep pushing the older cans to the back. It is way easier to do this than moving around all the cans. You need to check the expiration dates on the cans to be sure.

In fact, if you are buying on the pantry principle you should ALWAYS check the expiration dates of what you buy. I sometimes run across items that are already expired on the store shelf. They aren’t bad but because I am going to store them at home for more time before they get used up, I want to be sure I get as much of a time window as I can. When I find already expired cans or jars on the shelf I pass them along to a store clerk; I do not leave them on the shelf for some other, more careless shopper.

I check the expiration dates on everything that I plan on storing for any length of time and ALWAYS on perishables like cheese, eggs, and dairy products. Cheese by the way, can have lengthy dates which can be useful for stocking up at a good sale. Shredded cheese will turn on you far faster than brick cheese, so watch out for it. For storage purchases, it is always better to buy bricks than already shredded. It lasts longer and is often cheaper per pound.

Since the grocery industry provides me with expiration dates, I take advantage of this information. It gives me an idea of how much shelf life is left, which I can maximize through my ideal storage facility. The grocery industry wants you to throw away expired food, not eat it. They make more money when you do this. They also have to err on the side of caution for storage dates as they don’t know if you are going to be storing your cans of corn in the trunk of your car or in the crawlspace under your house, or in that unheated, leaky, bug infested tool shed. They choose a worst case scenario to accommodate idiots. If you aren’t an idiot, and use the best food storage procedures, then don’t worry too much about the expiration dates.

So food storage, whether you store for a few weeks to get from sale to sale or whether you store for five years to meet the apocalypse has two components: first in, first out; and cool, dry, in the dark, and pest free. The Pantry Principle leads automatically towards storing extra food so you should set up your pantry to meet both components. Always having extra food on hand means more flexibility if you can’t make it to the grocery store. Bad weather, unpaid furloughs, transmission falling out of car, medical emergencies, job loss; all become less of a problem when using the Pantry Principle let you stockpile a month’s worth of groceries at discount prices. You and your family still eat and you spent less money to do so, leaving more money to go towards emergency funds and debt reduction.

Using a price book and the Pantry Principle both demand that you pay attention to what the grocery store does. No reputable supermarket tries to deliberately cheat its customers. Their policies are plain, their sales are promoted, the prices are marked on every shelf for every item. After that, it is up to you, the consumer, to make the most of it.

Next Week: Using Grocery Coupons Like a Ninja