Updated on 01.20.07

Photo Diary #1: A Trip To The Grocery Store

Trent Hamm

This morning, I went grocery shopping with my son and took my digital camera along to record the experience of grocery shopping with a penny-pincher. Let’s see how it went – maybe we’ll both learn something.

Where there's a helpful smile in every aisle

Welcome to Hy Vee! I went shopping at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Ankeny, Iowa, a northern suburb of Des Moines. Hy-Vee is a midwestern grocery chain that is almost ubiquitous in Iowa. There are many, many Hy-Vees in the greater Des Moines area; I like this one because it’s fairly new, very clean, and the prices are competitive right now due to a new Fareway that opened up about two blocks away. Generally, stores where a new competitor is opening nearby are a good place to shop because they trim their prices quite a bit so that when people inevitably try the new place, they’ll remember the lower prices at the other, more familiar store.

Grocery list

On grocery lists I prepare a grocery list before I leave the house. In this case, the list roughly matches the route I’ll take through the store, except for two items that I’m unsure about (I guessed where they were on the list). I usually head to the farthest point from the checkouts immediately and then work towards the checkout. Since the milk is in the back of the store, I head there first.

Crystal Light vs. store brand

On comparing generics to name brands The first purchase I want to look at is Crystal Light, which is what my wife and I used to replace soda in our diet. It’s healthier and cheaper for us. I need to buy a variety of flavors, though, so we have enough to last a while and don’t get sick of the same flavor. Quite often, we will buy the store brand of Crystal Light, Hy-Vee Thirst Splashers, because most of the time it’s a lot cheaper per quart. Today, however, the eight quart containers of Crystal Light are on sale! The Crystal Light containers are $2 a pop, while the Thirst Splashers are $2.33 a pop. Clearly, the eight quart Crystal Light is a better deal here (and the flavors are better, too). But what about a size comparison?

Crystal Light larger size

The larger twelve quart size of Crystal Light is almost double the price of the eight ounce size. Clearly the eight ounce name brand is the best choice here, so I stock up on them, particularly on the flavors that we don’t usually buy because they’re not available in the generic brand.

Life, 21 oz box

On size comparisons I used to be of the belief that the larger size was always cheaper per ounce, but in fact this is not true on a pretty regular basis. Here, I’m shopping for Life cereal (my favorite cereal which I eat for breakfast multiple times a week). Here, you can clearly see that the 21 ounce box of Life cereal costs $3.88. I happen to have a coupon for fifty cents off, but I’ve bought Life pretty often, and I know even without calculating that it’s pretty high per ounce, even with the coupon, so I keep walking.

Life, 15 oz box

Not much further down, things get better for me and my Life cereal. Here is a 15 ounce box for $2.00. With my coupon, that makes it only $1.50 for a box. I pounce and toss a box in my cart, even though I find the child on the box somehow vaguely disconcerting.

Special K, 12 oz

My wife, on the other hand, insists on Special K cereal. Here, I have a 12 ounce box of Special K for $3.66. That comes out to $0.305 per ounce. However, I also have a coupon for 50 cents off a box of Special K. With that coupon, it’s $0.263 per ounce. Is that better than the larger size?

Special K, 16.7 oz

Right next to the first Special K box, we have a 16.7 ounce box of Special K for $4.98. That makes it $0.2982 per ounce, cheaper than the smaller box. With the coupon, though, it’s $0.2683 per ounce, which is more expensive per ounce than the smaller box. So which do I choose? I go with the absolute cheapest rate I can get per ounce, which happens to be the smaller box with the coupon. If I didn’t have the coupon with me, it would have been the larger box.

In short, a pocket calculator can be really really useful at the grocery store. I usually make several such calculations on a shopping trip, ones that are close enough that I can’t quickly determine with just a glance which is the best deal.

Joe wants goldfish

On shopping with children Near the end of the trip, I was walking down an aisle toward the checkout when my son spotted his favorite snack in the whole world: goldfish crackers. He nearly dove out of the cart reaching for them. He doesn’t eat them at a very high rate, though, so the big packages get stale before he gets through them. Thus, we buy small packages of them. We also buy him the whole grain kind because it’s better for his digestive system.

Of course, the problem is that he wants something that’s not necessarily a need. Although he’s young enough now that he doesn’t realize that there is a cost for these items, I do want to teach him that just because he wants something, he doesn’t always get it, either. This happens to be about the twentieth thing he’s almost dove out of the cart for, though, and when I’ve walked away from other things, he has been perfectly fine with it. He also happens to be nearly out of goldfish crackers; we have a plastic goldfish container in his diaper bag, which I checked and saw that it was empty.

Joe gets goldfish

After picking up the goldfish, he’s distracted for the rest of the shopping trip just by playing with the bag. Was it a good choice? He was out of crackers, after all, but I still felt like I bought him something he didn’t need. I suppose, though, if my biggest guilt during a shopping trip is buying a bag of whole grain goldfish crackers that cost less than two dollars for my son when he’s out of crackers … well, I must be doing something right.

Hopefully, you learned something from this trip. Let me know if you enjoyed it, or if you have any ideas for future photo diaries.

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  1. Phil says:

    First: Cyrstal Light isn’t particularly healthy either. Either it’s got a lot of sugar or nutrasweet (google for nutrasweet safety) both bad for you. Plus lots of artificial color and flavor. Better to learn to like water or perhaps buy a few lemons to have on hand to squeeze into your water. A nice hot cup of tea this time of year is great as well (hold the sugar) and that’s quite cheap and healthy.

    When it comes to cereal it’s hard to beat the price (and healthyness) of oatmeal. Buy it in the bulk section and while you’re there pick up some raisins, honey and cinnamon to spice it up. I like to add peanut butter to my oatmeal to give it some protein (that way I’m not getting too hungry before lunch). Nothing better than a hot bowl of oatmeal in the morning during the winter months and it’s quite a lot cheaper than boxed cereal.

  2. Jodi says:

    I find that my calculator on my cellphone to be my favorite tool for comparison shopping. It saves me from carrying an extra gadget in my purse or having to remember it when I go shopping.

  3. Missy says:

    I enjoyed the visual adventure.

  4. Ah, please don’t do any photo diaries during trips to the public restroom! LOL!

    Cute kid, btw.

  5. Oh, I also wanted to tell you that I used to go to HyVee all the time with my grandparents when we visited them in Norfolk, NE. Fun times at the ol’ HyVee.

  6. ryuu says:

    trent, i’m a non-US reader of the simple dollar, and during my short stint in the states, i was staying at urbandale, iowa, and hyvee was the shopping mall i frequented before i found out about target nearby :P

  7. Drew says:

    Although it looks like a nice store, I see one major problem with it: No price-per-unit tags. I absolutely refuse to shop at any grocery store that does not have the price-per-unit readily displayed next to full price. It saves so much time, energy, and MONEY to be able to look and see that “The name brand is on sale, but is it still more expensive than the store brand?”

  8. Abbie says:

    I too am surprised that That the price-per-unit was not displayed on the price tags. Both of the grocery stores I shop at most frequently (Wegmans and Wal*Mart) provide that convenience. I don’t think I would have the patience that you do to calculate the price-per-unit while I am shopping.

    I’ve been reading your blog for about a month now – keep up the great work!

  9. Ah Hy-Vee, a helpful smile in every aisle. I scored grocery shopping today. I ran across the best deal I’d ever seen on my favorite cereal so I bought every box they had.

    I got some weird looks in the checkout lane but I didn’t mind, I was too busy figuring out how much money I’d saved, almost $17 bucks!

  10. Ellen says:

    Okay, how adorable is your kid? Completely, that’s how. I’m impressed with your fortitude in shopping with a toddler.

    I have one more thing that I do when grocery shopping, though, and that’s a price journal. I jot down the lowest price I’ve seen on stuff I buy a lot (meat in particular), and try to get alternatives if things are high that day. Some people probably can carry that sort of thing in their heads, but not me! Is that something that you’ve found helpful to do?

  11. Amy says:

    When we buy bulk snack foods I divy them up into ziplocks when I get home. That way they don’t get stale fast and all I have to do is reach into the box and pull out a small already filled bag to put in the diaper bag. Also, works great for my toddler when he spills the WHOLE THING it’s not very much ;-)

    Love your site!

    Thanks Oodles,

  12. Dave says:

    One thing that astounds me is the machines that will count your coins. The problem is that they’ll take nine percent of what you have for the privilege.

    I can take my coins to my bank and run them through a machine, and so long as I can show I’m a customer it costs me nothing. Even if you’re not a customer it costs less that those supermarket machines.

  13. Judy from Australia says:

    Love your work you inspire me immensly had to leave a comment to say that you son is so cute and I cant wait till tomorrow to see how to save money on food
    cause those things youre buying are not on my list.
    In Australia we drink more water than soft drink cheaper and better for you.
    Boxed cereal has to be one of the most unhealthy ways to start the day and is not the cheapest either.
    I will photograph my local supermarket for you when next I shop.
    Once again I love your work

  14. Nathania Johnson says:

    Great photo diary. I love it. Offering visuals I think really helps people understand the concepts you’re talking about.

    I have a tip about shopping lists. My husband and I have started using Google spreadsheets to create a menu each week. Then I use another spreadsheet to create the shopping list based on the menu. We can both share the spreadsheet and edit it. Last week, it helped me see that one dinner was going to likely put us over budget for that particular week, so I will probably cut it out.

    It also helps plan weekend meals, which I tend to forget without a list at the grocery store.

  15. Rob in Madrid says:

    trent I agree the largest size isn’t always the best deal. For instance in Madrid the cheapest and the best toilet paper is the Carrefour double roll convenience size 4 rolls, the most expensive the 24 roll bulk package.

    Also loved the visual tour.

  16. emma says:

    Better than lemon (=acidic) you could flavour water with something like cucumber slices or frozen berries, fruit pieces… around here the free water you can have with your coffee at cafeteria is often flavored like this. Make a big canister and keep in the fridge, you can use the same condiments for a couple of days. Look’s pretty too at the dinner table :)

    In Finland, where I live, there is always price/kg on the price tag as well. I think it is a regulation. Definitely makes price comparisons easier.

  17. lizard says:

    Price per unit labels sure are a convenience — when they’re right. The other day I looked at switching brands of paper towels, and found that several of the store’s labels were completely wrong. So if you’re serious about getting the best deal, you should probably do the math yourself.

  18. Molly says:

    I loved seeing this Hy-Vee pictures… I use to live in Iowa (Northwest area) and I really miss
    Hy-Vee stores. Generally, they are very clean, friendly, good customer service and easy to locate.

    I don’t miss the snow (in the picture).

  19. Chris says:

    The scary thing is that manufacturers and resellers have figured out that most people automatically assume that the bulk packaging is the best deal. I noticed this when buying Cool Whip. It was $0.99 for 8oz. and $1.99 for 12oz.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this…it is scary to think how many people are overpaying for bulk items and then throwing away some if it spoils (which often happens when buying in bulk).

  20. Andrea says:

    You left out one important thing which requires a bit of an investment in time (which is money) and for some people, an attitude adjustment about loathing grocery shopping. If there are at least two competitive supermarkets within five miles of you, it is a BIG mistake to buy everything at once store just because you’re there. Perhaps you alternate weekly, perhaps you hit both of them. But there are certain basic (and potentially expensive if you don’t pre plan) things that someone will always have on sale at least once a month. Boneless chicken breasts routinely vary where we live from $4.99/lb if you impulse buy to less than $2/lb on sale. Major brand canned soda from $4-5/12 pack to $2. Add to your advice to simply stay conscious and be prepared to detour for a quality bargain, especially if you have a freezer (for meat especially)or a small storage area.

  21. Barb says:

    I am soooo glad you bought the Goldfish! Your little boy is deserving for being so cute and hopefully, well-behaved.

  22. Lauren says:

    Your son is so so so so cute!!!

    And maybe he would like this easy healthy goldfish recipe :)


  23. Amber says:

    I do all my grocery shopping at the Super Wal-Mart when I can’t get to the Air Force Commissary. Super Wal-Marts have the best prices out of any grocery store around, they take coupons, and you can literally get everything you need there. Also, sometimes it’s good to get things that you or the kids or the spouse wants even if you don’t have a coupon for it or it isn’t a great bargain. You only live once.

  24. princess_peas says:

    I think you’re only feeling guilty about the crackers because your son wanted to grab them first, and by “nearly diving out the trolley”, brought your attention to them as a want. If you had seen them first, looked in the bag, seen you were out and just picked them up, you would, I think, not feel guilty. And if this happens again, you could always walk past them, go around another isle and then return – possibly with your son not noticing them a second time. Yes it’s a slight waste of time, but if it’s the lessons to your son you’re more bothered about, it could be worth it.

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