Today at the grocery store, I ended up behind a young couple moving very slowly down the aisles. As the girl put items in the cart, she would call out prices and her boyfriend would add up a running total on his phone. I could tell this was probably their first time doing this, because they would often get out of sync with each other. She would add three or four items to the cart, forget to call out the prices, and her boyfriend would scramble to tally everything up. This led to them becoming increasingly frustrated with each other. I couldn’t help but smile at that, because Crystal and I did the exact same thing when we first started tracking our spending at the grocery store.
When you’ve never paid much attention to the actual prices of the items you’re buying, you don’t have the information you need to determine if you’re getting a good deal or not. When I first started living on my own and doing my own grocery shopping, I could tell you a vague estimate of what my groceries would cost every month, but I couldn’t tell you what a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread cost, because I’d never actually paid attention to the price.
When I moved in with Crystal, we decided to change that, which put us in the same shoes as the young couple in the store today. Even though we were doing something that was good for us, keeping track of our prices seemed to slow shopping to a crawl, and we left the store frustrated (although under budget for one of the first times ever!). The good news is that the more we did it, the easier it became — I started to learn the typical prices of common items and I picked up a few tricks that helped me tally things quicker and easier.
Take a notebook
A small notebook is a great tool to have when you go grocery shopping. Shopping with a predetermined grocery list is a lot easier than shopping freehand, because you know exactly what items you need. If you have a dedicated notebook for shopping, it also gives you the ability to look back and see trends — what items are you buying that aren’t worth the price you’re paying for them? Have milk prices been rising in your area over the last few weeks? Now you can look back and find out. I also use my notebook to remind myself to check for coupons to match with sales on popular brands.
Jot prices down, tally them later
Juggling a calculator while you’re trying to grocery shop isn’t easy. While it allows you to see exactly how much your cart full of groceries costs, it’s easy to get confused if you accidentally hit a wrong key — clearing your total, or accidentally multiplying when you meant to add. Trying to tally as you go also slows you down, annoying other shoppers who may be stuck behind you in narrow aisles.
Here’s an easier way to go about it: as you add items from your list to your cart, jot down the price next to the item and move on. Then, when you’re almost ready to leave the store, pull your cart off to the side and add everything up. It gets you out of the way of other shoppers and it lets you focus your attention on getting the items you need. If you’re shopping with a set budget and you find you’ve gone over, you have a record of all your prices so you can decide what items are the best ones to put back.
Learn through repetition
Even if you wrote down all your prices when you went shopping last week, do it again this week, and then do it again next week. This trains your brain to remember what common items cost, which is a vital thing to know if you want to find the best deals, especially when you start tracking coupons and sales.
Here’s what I mean — I know that a box of Millville Crispy Oats (Aldi’s brand of Cheerios) costs $1.69 at my local Aldi. Actual Cheerios are usually quite a bit pricier than that, but they’re also one of the more common coupon items. If I can use a coupon or find a sale (or both!) for Cheerios that brings the price down below $1.69, I know it’s a better deal than buying the off brand at Aldi. Learning prices gives me the information I need to be able to make that decision.
You are in control of your groceries
It’s almost silly how little control I felt when I first started shopping. My typical routine consisted of walking through the store, picking anything that looked good, followed by a big cringe at the end when I paid the bill. I wasn’t going in with any sort of plan or list, and I didn’t keep track of what I was spending. Worse, I think I felt like it was beyond my control, because grocery shopping was confusing and I couldn’t keep all these numbers in my head while I was trying to figure out if the food I’d bought would last me until my next paycheck.
Obviously, none of that was true. I just needed to learn how to shop intelligently, and to break some bad habits. These days I’m usually able to estimate how much my entire cart will cost just by glancing at the contents.
I hope the young couple in the store today sticks with it. I know it’s frustrating for them right now, but if they keep at it, it will become easier. They’re learning some valuable things about what their money is actually worth and how to make the most of what they have.