Updated on 09.17.14

Finding Grocery Item Value Balances

Trent Hamm

Whenever I go shopping, I find myself with an interesting mix of items in my cart. There’s quite a few generics, quite a few “low cost” name brands, and still some more rather upscale items (like organic fresh foods). Organic baking soda gets tossed in right next to the free range eggs, for example.

Why exactly do I skimp so hard on some items but spend so much more on the others? How is that frugal in any way?

Here’s the thing: it’s all about the value I get from the item, which may or may not be the same as the value you get from the item. And that may be different than the value someone else gets from that item.

Take the generic baking soda. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, whether you buy it with an Arm and Hammer logo or with a generic source. There is no extra value, from my perspective, from buying name-brand baking soda. I’m happy to save $0.25 on a box here.

Then we go to the milk aisle, where I’m likely to pick organic milk that is completely free of artificial hormones. To me, the extra dollar or two per gallon that I pay for this is well worth it, as it greatly reduces my children’s exposure to rBS and rBGH, which can alter their development and trigger puberty earlier (among other effects), and the cows do not consume feed treated with pesticides, which shows up in small amounts in non-organic milk. This has a value to me that’s worth paying extra for. This may or may not be your value.

As we walk down the aisle with the garbage bags, I don’t choose the generic, nor do I choose the expensive one. I choose whatever bag is recommended as a “best buy” from the most recent Consumer Reports rundown of trash bags that I’ve read. Why? Because a ripped garbage bag is a big mess that I don’t want to deal with – and generics often rip – but the expensive bags don’t really add anything extra.

Naturally, with all of these choices, I tend to stock up when they’re on sale or I have a coupon.

Frugal Grocery Shopping Tips

1. Make buying decisions outside of the store

If you’re trying to decide which one to get when you’re standing in the store, the psychology of store marketing is going to be at work. Carefully designed packaging and familiar name brands will play a big role in determining what you buy.

If something’s on my list, I usually know the exact brand I’m going to buy before I walk into the store. That way, I’m not spending time standing there idly trying to decide between several options, because that’s when marketing takes effect.

2. If you don’t know exactly what you’re going to buy, research it

Consumer Reports is one of my first stops, but I tend to use a lot of different sources. I want to know the ins and outs of everything that I buy, even down to the $0.99 stuff.

3. If you can’t explain why you specifically need a higher-cost version, buy generic

With the baking soda, I can’t see a reason to spend extra money to get an Arm and Hammer logo. With the garbage bags, I’m buying the “best buy” bags because I do not want the bags to rip – it’s not a mess I want to deal with. With the milk, I’m buying the organic milk for the family health reasons stated above.

This holds true for every item on my list. If I know what value I want from the item and I’ve done a bit of research, I know what version I’ll be buying. I don’t have to look at nine different kinds of diapers or twenty six boxes of cereal to decide which one I want. I’ve already done much of the shopping outside of the store.

This has another big benefit: this, along with a shopping list, drastically reduces the time spent inside a store. I basically move most of my grocery store time out of the store to my home, where I can make my own list and do my own research without all of the marketing distractions in the store.

The end result? I don’t go into a store until I know exactly what I’m going to buy there. That makes it easy to go through the store very quickly. I fill my cart with the stuff I want that delivers what I want and maximizes the value I get for the money I spend. Even better, my time for impulse buys is almost eliminated.

That’s how we’re rolling through the grocery store this morning. How about you?

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  1. graytham says:

    In the last line of the first paragraph, I think you meant to say “generic” baking soda, not “organic.”

  2. J says:

    Yes, organic baking soda indeed. Proofreading really pays!

  3. Jules says:

    Hehe, organic baking soda! That one threw me for a loop.

    I think it’s interesting that you say, as the reasons for buying organic milk, that it’s “safer” for your family. I can not think of anybody who wouldn’t want their family to be safe from TEH EVULs, so does that make people who say they can’t afford $5/gal milk cheap? It’s a matter of semantics, mostly, but it does beg the question: when would you buy non-organic milk?

  4. Mary says:

    As a disabled person, I have to have my groceries delivered so I shop online (Peapod). I select a date for delivery and up until the day before, I can go online and revise my order to take advantage of the sales that week or add or delete items to meet my budget. The delivery person takes my coupons (and my account gets adjusted several days later) and takes away the plastic bags from my last order to recycle. I generally tend to choose generic/store brands for most of my staples but buy organics for fresh produce, meats/poultry and some frozen items. While I would love to be able to go to the store myself and do my own shopping, this works for me.

  5. Shevy says:

    ROTFL at the “organic” baking soda, particularly when it became apparent in the next paragraph that you meant “generic”. Quite a difference there.

    For me, it’s all about the kashrut. If it isn’t kosher, I don’t buy it. So I bought Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Reese’s Puffs the other day for my daughter (2 of her faves) but she’ll never taste Lucky Charms. (The two I bought were Buy 1 Get 1 Free and the Lucky Charms was also available on the same offer but it’s not kosher and the other 2 are.)

    All of that translates into not very many generics and buying only specific brands of dairy products in specific stores. So, some things come with a serious cost difference (cheese is $8.99 for 8 oz!) while others, like the cereal, do not.

  6. et says:

    My grocery cart usually looks like that too. One area in particular is produce – our market sells a small selection of organic versions, but even with that limitation I only spend the extra $ (if there’s a huge price differential) on those items for which conventional farmers huge amounts of pesticides, including root crops that absorb more chemicals than leafy ones. And there are a few items where we think the organic simply tastes better (some produce, and chicken). Otherwise, I tend to figure out my preferences on things like garbage bags by experience/trying things out rather than research, though.

    #3 Jules – I think Trent makes it very clear these are his personal decisions & I have yet to see him (on his blog) disparage anyone who makes different decisions.

  7. et says:

    Trent – kudos for your mention today in the LA Times article “These financial blogs are worth your time”!

  8. C says:

    Trent – Keep in mind that consumer reports favor brands and companies that advertise in their publications. They are marketing mechanisms just as much as packaging and branding.

  9. Maureen says:

    I had to laugh at the organic baking soda too!

    I’m open to surprise deals (even if they are impulse buys). For example, this week I saved over $6 on packages of ground beef that were marked down because it was the last day of sale. I used one pack that day for tacos and froze the rest for future use.

  10. Meghan says:

    So I’m assuming if you are purchasing organic milk because of it’s safety, then you are also purchasing all organic butter, yogurt, and cheeses (especially the butter)? They are concentrated dairy products, and with the butter being mostly fat, will have much higher pesticide/hormone levels than non-organic milk.

    @ Jules. I don’t think Trent is implying that other families are “cheap.” What food he (or anyone) chooses to feed their family is usually based upon many variables, and is a personal decision. BTW ‘safety’ does not imply a moral meaning like ‘evil’ does.

    While American food safety has been much debated, there are agencies in place to ensure the overall health of our food. The non-organic milk on the shelves today is much better than sour-mash milk of cities in the early industrial era. Though I would stay away from skim/nonfat, it’s mostly reconstituted milk powder – not actual milk.

  11. Amy says:

    I also have a grocery cart that looks like this. I buy mostly generics or on sale items, in winter I buy eggs, regular milk and veggies from a large chain store and mostly they are organic. The rest of the year I buy eggs from my brother (his hens don’t produce in winter,) milk from a neighbor fresh and veggies from a selection of area farmers. Because I know the conditions they produce under the organic food actually makes me more nervous.

    I also buy soy milk and tend to buy the same kind which means it is never on sale and costs 5 for a half gallon.


  12. TechEntre says:

    Save your money and stick to the regular non-organic products.

    The organic food industry is a joke now. They still use pesticides and hormones. They still keep the cows artificially pregnant which will give you “natural” cow hormones that are just as potentially bad for you. The information about hitting puberty earlier is controversial because the same thing is happening in Europe where these hormones are banned. They suspect it might be from increase body fat at a younger age.

    And instead of using synthetic pesticides they use “natural” ones, which are just as if not potentially more hazardous to your health.

    They don’t treat their cows any better either(if you care about that, I’m just saying), in fact most local milk farmers that fail to make the organic cut treat their animals far better than these huge organic companies (like Horizon).

    There have also been no studies that indicate that organic food is any better for you. It is mostly a psychological gain. But it is taking your money too, which is what the organic food industry loves!

    All regular milk has to be tested to make sure there are no antibiotics just like organic milk.

    I will say that certain organic milk brands taste better than regular milk brands. I have no idea why this is, I’m concerned that they may add something unhealthy but “natural” that makes this happen.

    The best strategy (I think) is to read the labels of your food. Organic or non-organic you should make sure you know what you are eating. There is far more evidence that MSG and artificial sweeteners can cause health problems, yet people consume those without thinking or knowing everyday. Even some foods that tout organic will also have artificial ingredients (there’s no requirements for organic food to be free of all preservatives, etc).

    Wow, sorry for the long post!

  13. MP says:

    At first I was – what the heck – organic baking soda???

    But yes, I do have some values that result in some greater expenditures in groceries.

    I value organic to a certain point. But mostly I will look at country of origin. With respect, china and mexico, because of their poor standards regarding pesticides and other really unmentionable things, get a pass.

    Canned produce – a big no no for me. Only fresh whenever I can in season and frozen in winter. Have you seen the sodium content on cans of peas, corn, tomatoes etc? It’s often as much as the recommended daily allowance. No wonder there is so much problem with high blood pressure in north america.

    In a pinch, I will buy canned, but will scan the fibre, sodium and fat contents carefully.

    And sometimes the cheapest is just plain bad tasting, or bad-performing. So doing homework like Trent is a good idea.

  14. Vtcouponqueen says:

    Hmmm I like your buying style Trent. Even though I am an avid couponer I still have my favorites and will actually work harder to find a coupon for an item I won’t trade for a generic or other brand. Years ago the Kmart American fare brand garbage bags rated one of the best by consumer magazine so I bought those for a while. Now I usually buy another brand from BJ’s because it is just as good but cheaper. I just gotta have the pull ties on them or my kids and husband threaten to boycott garbage duty.

  15. sewingirl says:

    I also think locally. We have locally produced honey, maple syrup, soybean oil, dry beans, pickles, and potatoes on the shelf in our hometown grocery. They are not always the cheapest, but I buy them every time, they are supporting our friends and neighbors.

  16. Gretchen says:

    Local over everything else.

    I’m very lucky to have so many farmers nearby, including dairy farmers so I get milk right from the farm store.

  17. anna says:

    I once read an article that most organice products are no better quality or more healthy for you than none organic. Its been several months since I read it and don’t recall where I saw it but I was wondering how you decide what products its worth spending the extra for organic on?

  18. Candace says:

    Thanks for a different perspective on the grocery store. I usually make a list of what I need and off I go. I’ve been more focused on price and savings and not so much on value and researching what is best.

  19. moom says:

    We are the opposite. we save money by shopping around stores and markets (within reason) looking for discounts and good deals. There is relatively little on our shopping list when we go out shopping.

  20. J. O. says:

    @ #8 C – Could you provide your source for your statement that Consumer Reports favors brands and companies that advertise in their publication, please?

  21. J. O. says:

    @#10 Meghan – Could you please give the source for your statement that skim/non-fat milk is mostly reconstituted from milk powder? Is that just in the US?

    And, I am curious why it would not be considered “actual milk” when all that is being added is the water component which was removed to produce the powder in the first place. Can you clarify this?

  22. MattJ says:


    Consumer reports accepts no advertising or donation money from any corporate sources. Your entire post is false.

  23. deRuiter says:

    “Yes, organic baking soda indeed. Proofreading really pays!” Agree with this writer. Trent, you’re supposed to be a professional writer. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE RUN YOUR STUFF THROUGH SPELL CHECK AND HAVE SOMEONE EDIT IT. Your wife’s a teacher and you’re a professional writer, and yet these posts contain glaring typos, misspellings and editing goofs. You’re lucky you picked a subject with so much interest about which to write, and I commend you for making money this way. Your column and the thought generating comments are enjoyable, but I’d like to read your work without all the mistakes. It’s great that you can dash these columns off in a few minutes without bothering to edit or spell check, and make money posting them, but you write about being a professional and your work is sloppy. We know you do this to make more time for your family, but please, take a few minutes before posting and spell check, edit and lose the typos.

  24. Gretchen says:

    Actually, all milk has all the fat removed then it’s added back in.

    I think most organic is overrated, ergo I didn’t even notice the organic baking soda thing. For once.

  25. GayleRN says:

    @ Tech Entre
    Artificially pregnant cows?

    As far as I know the only way to get a cow to produce milk is to first produce a calf. Same way as it works for any other mammal including us. Perhaps you are referring to artificial insemination?

  26. Steffie says:

    I have been trying to research the companies that are in my 401k and I buy these items if I can. I use Arm and Hammer laundry soap because it doesn’t smell as much as the others. Sometimes it really is about comfort over money. I buy a lot of stuff at Home Depot, 100 yr old house needs major mechanical repairs to keep going, so I bought a few shares of stock, also AT&T because of my cell phone. Before anyone says anything about big box stores, most of the small hardware stores have disappeared. We buy our produce at the farmers market or grow our own. We buy mostly generic, spices can doctor just about anything ! I think some of the name brand purchases are about what you’ve become accustomed to or bringing back a memory from childhood.

  27. JM says:

    “Artificially pregnant cows?”

    Exactly. It’s no different than a human that breast feeds. If you keep emptying milk, the body keeps producing more. If you stop, it dries up. Same for a cow.

    As for “organic”, a lot of it is just a scam and unnecessarily overpriced. The reason for being overpriced for some stuff is that antibiotics cannot be used if an animal is sick to still get the “organic” label. Thus, a higher number of animals die.

    To me, its more about how the animal overall is treated. I have no issues with occasional antibiotics if the animal is sick. But not on an every day basis added to the food. Why would you not given medicine to something that is sick? Would you do that to your children or yourself? To me “organic” meat/milk/eggs can be just as cruel if you are unable to treat the animal properly just to keep your “organic” label.

  28. Patty says:

    Good timing on the post. I found myself staring blankly at all the choices of flour and milks. I’m trying to be healthier and more sustainable but I’m also very frugal so I’m seeking a balance. We are saving money by cooking more at home and I’m trying to remind myself to use that money for quality ingredients. Baby steps. We do have most of the MSG out of our diet as my husband noticably reacts to this chemical. Its hard though when labels say “spices” though so we are going more and more fresh and scratch cooking.
    I also gave a mental giggle when I saw another persons cart yesterday with organic milk, organic eggs and pilsbury cookie dough. You are right…its all about making choices for the things you value and are of value to you (your health and your famly).

  29. Crystal says:

    We value taste and variety, so my grocery cart is a mix of name brand and generic. My cart items will also change week to week with our current tastes. Only our proteins remain pretty much the same…I can usually get a month’s worth of steak, chicken, and pork for about $100 from Sam’s Club and Angel Food Ministries.

    We save money by buying as much frozen stuff as possible so we can switch around meals really often without wasting food that goes bad quickly.

  30. C says:

    @ MATT J

    You’re getting scammed.

  31. MattJ says:

    @ C:

    You were asked to provide evidence by #20 J.O.

    Do you have any?

  32. C says:

    @ Matt J

    Missed that and no I don’t. Thoughts?

  33. MattJ says:

    No thoughts I’m going to waste on you.

  34. Beth says:

    Organic baking soda gets tossed in right next to the free range eggs, for example.

    Why exactly do I skimp so hard on some items but spend so much more on the others? How is that frugal in any way?

    Here’s the thing: it’s all about the value I get from the item, which may or may not be the same as the value you get from the item. And that may be different than the value someone else gets from that item.

    Take the generic baking soda.

  35. Shell says:

    Is milk really that good for us? There are many other sources of calcium.Rice milk and Almond milk for smaller families is an option, for cereal. I use coupons for these. I have even used Apple juice to flavor oatmeal.It’s what you get used to. People make a big deal of buying organic,then stuff themselves with meat, milk and cheese. Organic or not it is still milk and meat,folks. Want to really think frugal. Think about all the bucks you can save down the road when you don’t get cancer from those items.When I look at baskets, in the Supermarket loaded with all that expensive meat, I feel good knowing that the few items that cost me a little more, in order to make healthier choices, couldn’t begin to stack up, money-wise with all the dairy and meat I see, being bought.

  36. Shell says:

    Trying to figure out if you actually exclude vegetarians from posting. I made a comment about meat and milk not being that great for you and was talking about healthier foods that wouldn’t break the bank and my post was excluded. I realize people have different lifestyles, but even
    Tass was a little more liberal than this. Probably won’t come back. Thank you very much.

  37. Shell says:

    Wow, can’t believe you actually posted it after the second post. Thanks.

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