Building an Electronic Price Book

When Sarah and I were reassessing our finances, we looked around for as many tips as possible on how to save money. One of the best resources we discovered was The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

One of the best suggestions that we found in the book was to use a logical system to determine where the best prices were on the grocery items that you commonly buy. Dacyczyn’s process for doing this was to create a listing of those goods along with columns that indicated the price of those goods at local grocers. She called this a price book, and it wasn’t long before Sarah and I implemented a price book ourselves.

At first, I kept this book in a three ring binder. It consisted of about four sheets of paper, front and back, and I tried to leave plenty of space for updates in each rectangle. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take too long for the sheets to get filled up.

Our next step was to just create a template in Microsoft Word. It was simply a large table with seven columns – the first column contained the item and the other six columns contained the price on that item at the six different stores we compared. Again, I left space for manual corrections.

This worked well for several years. For a while, I included the sheets in a “coupon binder” to make grocery shopping easier.

Eventually, though, I stopped taking the binder with me because I had a good sense of the respective prices. Of course, after a while of not doing the price book, I started to lose perspective on the comparative prices. Stores tend to raise and lower prices fairly often, even to the point of changing how the stores rank on many products. Since the change is often gradual (usually, it’s due to a store gradually raising prices), it’s often hard to notice how big the change is over time.

That’s why, a few weeks ago, I brought back the price book, in electronic form. Rather than making a price book in a word processing program or by hand, I’m doing the whole thing electronically.

How I Made an Electronic Price Book

I simply recreated my old price book in Google Docs. I can access that price book document from my phone, so I can update it really easily. It’s pretty simple to do.

Create a Table

Make a new document within Google Docs (or Microsoft Word, Pages, etc.), add a seven or eight column table to the whole thing, and start adding items to that table in the first column. Each of the other columns should represent a store that you shop at with some regularity.

Input Your Most Frequently Bought Items

What items do you include in the table? Mine has about forty items – the items I buy most frequently. A gallon of milk. A pound of bananas. A loaf of the whole grain bread that we like. A bag of frozen vegetables. A pound of spinach. You get the idea. The list should just include the items you buy most frequently.

Keep Track of Item Prices When You Shop

The next time you go to that store, just fill out the price book with the non-sale prices of all of the items. Since you already have the list of your most common items, you can use a phone or a tablet to enter them directly into this document (you can also use paper and transfer it over later if you prefer that method). Since most of those items are already on your grocery list, it’s not that much extra work.

Figure Out Totals for Each Column

At the bottom of the table, I have a Total line that adds up the prices for each column. When I re-did my price book recently, I was surprised to find that the order of the stores had changed substantially and that all of the stores were actually closer together than I remembered. The most expensive store was no longer the most expensive one (Hy-Vee), for starters.

Adjust and Rethink

The biggest impact this experiment had on me was that it made me re-think the items I buy at Hy-Vee and Fareway, respectively. My general assumption that Fareway was less expensive was still correct, but the items where Hy-Vee matches or beats Fareway’s prices had changed. I usually use both grocery stores on a full shopping trip, but now I know to buy a somewhat different set of items when I stop at Fareway. In other words, the electronic price book is already saving me money.

How often will I update it now? For the moment, it’s fun, so I’ve been checking it every time. Once the “new” dies off, I’ll probably try to update it once a month – I’ll add a note to my calendar to remind me to “add to the price book” when I shop. Now that it’s electronic, though, updating the book became much easier than before.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.