Updated on 08.05.07

How I Build And Use A Price Book

Trent Hamm

About a week ago, I made an offhand mention of a price book in my detailed review of The Complete Tightwad Gazette. I compressed several ideas down into a single paragraph, mostly commenting on Amy Dacyczyn’s suggestion on how to do it from the book itself. Several readers wrote in and asked how I do it, so I thought I’d explain how we use a price book in our shopping.

First of all, I’ll say that this procedure is a little bit different than picking a grocery store when you first move. That’s a nice rough procedure for finding a place to shop at for your first few months as you settle in, but when your life is in a normal flow, you’ll want to really dig in and assemble a true price book to help with your weekly shopping.

Where I live, there are four grocery stores (that I’m willing to shop at) within a reasonable driving range – a Dahl’s, a Fareway, a Hy-Vee, and a Super Target. I wanted to discover which store offered the best prices on particular items, so I assembled a price book to compare the prices on specific items.

First, I made a list of our thirty or so most essential items. These are items that we buy very regularly at the store – milk, cheese, etc. It was pretty easy to do this based on our regular shopping experience.

Then, for four shopping trips in a row, I visited the four stores, writing down prices on all of the items on the list, regardless of whether or not I was buying them. I was often buying at least some of the items on the list, but it was worth the effort to find the prices on our top ones.

Now, each week, I make up a grocery list, grab the flyers for all four stores, and figure out which store is the cheapest for our list. I usually identify a few sale items from each store to pick up and use to make a few meals that week, like fresh asparagus on sale, for example – these items are obviously different from store to store. I also note any of the items on the grocery list that are on sale at each particular store that week. Then I total them up using Excel and go to the store that will give me the cheapest bill.

What do I save by doing this? There’s usually a $20 spread between the cheapest store and the most expensive store for a given list. Even more interesting: the ranking of the store varies quite a lot. Roughly 30% of the time, either Dahl’s, Fareway, or Hy-Vee is on top; the other 10%, Target ends up on top. Given that, an average week saves me $10 for about twenty minutes of work.

Even more interesting is that by doing this regularly, over time you get a strong innate sense of what sorts of items are cheapest at which stores and you can often use that sense to save time. For example, the meat prices are almost always lowest at Hy-Vee, partially because they have their own meat cutting within the store, so if my list has several meat products, I can basically assume I’m going there.

Another tip: update that price book once a year or so. There is quite a bit of drift over time at the various stores and you’ll find often that your earlier notions are no longer true. I know people who swear that Dahl’s is the cheapest, and they are on some items, but I believe that a big part of this is just habit based on something that may have been true years ago.

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  1. Gina says:

    I have always wanted to do a price book and have started a few but it seemed overwhelming. Now I get it. Do the comparison ahead of time and have a weekly plan. Great tip! Thanks.

  2. Meredith says:

    You’re absolutely right about challenging assumptions through a price book.

    I found that my local Super Walmart costs more for everyday items than either Kroger or Harris Teeter’s sale prices. Now I enjoy shopping the premium grocery and stock up enough of its loss leaders to last me till the next sale.

  3. Margaret says:

    I have known about price books for years, but I have never made one. My idea was that it would contain EVERY item one purchases. I had never thought about just listing the 30 most common purchases. Fantastic idea, and that makes it much more likely that I will start one.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here, I think, is to also track the sale cycles in the stores. Common items go on sale at regular intervals. If you know the toilet paper will be on sale every 6 weeks, then you can stock up at those times. Due to some unusual circumstances, I had to do a big stocking up of groceries at the start of July. I thought I was pretty clever for going in and doing it all on the 10% off day. Might as well get it now, I figured. Well, over the next two weeks, several of the items that I had stocked up on in a big way went on sale for far more than 10% off. I was kicking myself, because I know these regularly go on sale, but I didn’t know WHEN, or I would have held off on those for the two weeks.

  4. Been There says:

    I have always found a price book helpful, I am able to target when particular things go on sale. For example, during super bowl, Campbell’s Chunky Soup is especially inexpensive and there are usually rebates and coupons for soup, soda and chips. In the fall the canned vegetables go on sale because there is a new crop being harvested. In the fall Chili also goes on sale. Obvious things are turkeys at Thanks Giving, ham at Christmas and Easter etc. I always pick up 2 or 3 turkeys when they are sometimes as low at .19 per pound, take it to the meat department and have them cut them in half and rewrap them and put them in the freezer, if they are unfrozen you can easily remove the drum sticks and set them aside for a meal in itself, I usually put the half a turkey on the grill cavity side down. I also have the hams sliced 2 different ways, thick for ham steaks or to cut up for ham and beans and thin for sandwiches, this can also be broken up and frozen, most stores will do this at no charge. But also consider many stores match advertised prices, so check the stores in your area and go to the one that price matches with store flyers and coupons in hand, not just grocery stores, K-mart, Target, CVS, Walgreen’s etc. The better stores may even offer double coupon.

  5. David says:

    My wife and I have a spreadsheet of 50+ grocery and cleaning items we always want to have on hand. Next to each item we list the lowest price (per ounce, etc) that we have ever bought it for. We only grocery shop for things we have to replenish not for specific meals. Every week when we grocery shop we simply print out the list, highlight what we need, check the circulars for the lowest prices and head out the door. If we ever run into deal we can immediately check to see if it is truly a deal and if it is we stock up.

  6. Kate says:

    I use a price book for just about everything I buy in the way of groceries, toiletries, cleaning products and other household staples. It is indeed a very powerful tool.

    I don’t choose which store to shop at though. I choose which items to buy when I go to each particular store. If it’s not a store I visit often, I just stock up on the items that that store sells most cheaply. I’ve been very, very surprised to find that one of the nicest looking stores in our area (Wegman’s) also has the cheapest prices for most of the things I buy, when compared to other stores (Giant, Weis, etc.)

    The price comparison book is also invaluable for teaching you when a sale is a great one. The discipline of keeping a price book also encourages me to check for sales on expensive, shelf-stable items every time I shop (like vanilla extract), whether I need the item immediately or not. It takes me only a few extra minutes during each shopping trip to check for these storable items.

    So, are you going to do the math to figure out what each of your staple ingredients costs you per common unit? I was shocked when I calculated the cost of a teaspoon of organic vanilla extract. Dacyczyn encourages frugalites to know how much a cup of sugar, a cup of flour, and a tablespoon of tomato paste costs them, so that we can make better decisions about the food we prepare at home.

  7. kim says:

    A price book is a very valuable tool for bulk shopping. I note the date, store, and sale price of my most common items. When I see a great deal, I really stock up. I try to buy enough to take me till the next great sale. I know when I’m getting a great deal because I have records. My local grocery chain runs lots of confusing deals under the heading of 10 for $10. Many of these “specials” are only a penny or two under the regular price; but they also bury a fantastic buy or two in the group of items on the 10 for 10 list. Having a price book that lists past sale prices as well as the general going rate allows me to judge whether an item is a fabulous deal or only a so-so sale.

  8. paidtwice says:

    I’ve long wated to do a price book but the idea of it seemed really intimidating and I kept thinking “I’ll do it… later”. This doesn’t seem so hard to do. I may give it a real try when shopping next week. Thanks again for simplifying the complicated — it is really what I love about your writing.

  9. Mary says:

    My friends think I’m sort of crazy for doing this type of thing, since most 21 year olds aren’t concerned with the price of flour or whatever, but I’ve written and kept a spreadsheet price book for several years, though I do a few things differently. I have separate sheets (within the same document) for different types of items (like toiletries, meat, dry goods, etc) so my information is better organized. Additionally, I have some extra sheets that rearrange the information from the initial spreadsheets to calculate stuff like price per ounce, pound or piece, depending on what the item is. I also have a sheet to calculate price per serving (another idea that Dacyzyn recomends). I tried calculating the price-per-teaspoon/tablespoon/etc for other things, but seeing as I buy spices so infrequently, it ended up being a waste of time. As for more common item, to calculate something like the cost of a tablespoon of flour results in a price of a fraction of a cent, so considering the “significant digits” methodology, it isn’t particularly useful to me. I haven’t updated my price book in a while since I keep moving around and changing stores, but people can if they would like to see it (and since it has all the formulas I use).

  10. Debbie says:

    Another way to collect prices is just to save receipts for a while and then write up your book at home. You may find a few holes to fill later, but sometimes I feel like a spy when I go around recording prices.

    I really like having the price book with me when I shop. That’s partly because I try to shop near wherever I’m driving (to save money) and so there are several places I go, and I can’t remember prices very well. I also like to have the price book in hand when I look through the sale fliers.

    Currently I rubber-band a bunch of business-card-sized pieces of paper together inside a protective cover. Each piece of paper lists the category on one side (like Mary uses) and the type of food on the other. For example, I’ll have grain, bread. Then I’ll list my favorite breads and under each one the price, date, and store. (I list store brands together as if “store brand” was a single brand.) If the quantity is unusual, I add that, and if it’s a sale price I add that.

    I write everything in pencil so I can update prices and dates. I use paper instead of, say, note cards cut in half, because they are thinner and thus fit better in my purse. I also include blank papers so I can add new items. Sometimes when I’m shopping for a one-time purchase, I’ll keep track of prices for a while before I make a decision.

    When I first made a price book I had thought that two stores were about the same and that another store was more expensive except for bulk spices. I was wrong. One store was cheapest on about 70% of things I buy, the other had better sale prices and better prices on many dairy products.

    Since then I have found that my local coop is generally cheaper than Whole Foods except on Whole Foods’ 360 brand. Another store I go to sometimes just because it’s the closest has very good clearance prices. I am also lucky enough to have an ethnic grocery nearby–it has really good prices on some meats and some produce.

    I really have no idea about sales cycles except that I stock up on supplies for baked goods (flour, sugar, cocoa) around Thanksgiving and Christmas time. My favorite cheese also goes on sale periodically, but I don’t know how often–I do know it’s several months between sales. I only know not to stock up unless there is a sale. Thanks, Ben There, for the tips.

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  12. Carla says:

    I like the information about the price book, but I have a question. In all of the discussions about saving on groceries, the common theme seems to be that you need to buy in bulk. What if you can’t? I recently downsized to a small house that I’m renting, and there is absolutely no place to put a deep freezer if I had one. I am struggling to fit a regular amount of non-refrigerated food (and my dishes) in the kitchen as well. Are there any suggestions for shopping on a budget when there are only two of you and very limited space for storage?

  13. Sharon says:

    Non-perishables were key when I was in an apartment. Sometime’s it’s not feasible to buy in bulk if you’re not going to use it quickly. Collect some recipes that use several of the same ingredients and plan your menu to use the perishables up in the week. It’s never a deal if you end up throwing it out.
    For the of us that have PDA’s already, I use a free program called handy shopper to track prices at each store. It will also let you keep a running total in the store. There are a lot of free programs for PDA’s if you take time to look. (Some companies can be picky about software though, so check policy if it’s a work device.)

  14. I keep a price book for specialty items like gluten-free flours. We buy so few items at the store I can generally organize it in my head.

  15. fern says:

    The problem with price books is that identifying the cheapest item at a given store is always a moving target. Prices are rising so quickly these days that keep changing. I don’t think updating your price book once a year is nearly often enough. I think you need to be rechecking prices continuously.

  16. Julia says:

    linking to this post in my next article. thanks.

  17. Marsha B says:

    I own all 3 Tightwad Gazettes – all purchsed used at Half Price Books. I shared the cost & the books with my sister. I have been using a price book consistently for 2 years. I check the prices against coupons & “specials” in th weekly papers & maiol flyers. Prices do change more frequently than 1 X per year. I have noticed a big increase since February – on tuna, yogurt, butter, and cereal – so I am watcing these items closely each shopping trip.

    I recommend keeping a price book. I saw yesterday that Walgree’s sale o tuna ($.99) is less expensive than last month’s low price leader (Woodman’s) @1.19. At 20 cents saving per can, I get 5 cans for the price of 4.

  18. Becca says:

    Though Trent attributes the price book idea to The Tightwad Gazette, he doesn’t use it in the way Dacyczyn suggested (although it sounds like most of those who commented do). Her idea was to figure out the lowest price of commonly purchased items, and where or how to buy those items. It might sound like a lot of work to collect prices for 100 items, but really it isn’t. I followed Dacyczyn’s advice and did it by gradually collecting prices from sale flyers, receipts and so on. After this, I just add in a new lower price when I see it.

    She shopped at half a dozen places each month, and bought a month’s supply (or more) each time she shopped. She shopped at different types of stores, such as a major supermarket, health-food store and a salvage store, as these stores tend to have the greatest variation in pricing on certain items. The idea is to never pay more than the minimum. She did not advocate trying to figure out which store was cheapest average on the items you want to buy that week, and shop at that one store, as this would mean you would buy some items at higher than rock-bottom prices.

    This shopping method sounds time-consuming, but her book detailed a typical monthly shopping trip, done by her husband, when he took toddler twins along, and he completed his month’s shopping in a few hours, which would be less than one might spend shopping once a week at one store. Dacyczyn did sometimes make quick stops to pick up some perishables or to hit a great sale at other times of the month.

    Bulk-buying saves time and gasoline. And making a 15 minute stop to buy something on sale is worth doing if you buy a lot, but possibly not for a single item.

    Agreed, it helps to have space to store this stuff. If you space is limited you do not want to store bulky items that represent little savings. You also buy only enough to get you from sale to sale, or month to month, so a single person would buy less than a big family. Aside from bulk buying, there are numerous strategies to save money on food… you have to pick what works for you. So if you don’t have space, cook from scratch, or eat more dried beans.

    As for what Dacyczyn wrote about calculating the cost of basic baking items, her point was that if you take an hour and do this one time, and keep the list somewhere handy, it is convenient to refer to it when you are trying to figure out if it is cheaper to bake from scratch or buy the same convenience food item with a coupon.

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