Updated on 05.27.09

Using Consumer Reports to Assemble Your Grocery List

Trent Hamm

Long time reader Bob writes in:

I like reading all of your suggestions about making a grocery list and searching for bargains. My technique is actually pretty simple. I trust Consumer Reports completely – they’ve never led me wrong. So each month when I get an issue, I write down their “best buys” in each product category. That’s what I buy – I just look for the best deal among these. I often use coupons for things on that list, too.

I actually really like this idea – it provides a wonderful balance of getting quality items for a good price. In fact, I decided to give it a try myself with a few product categories just to see the results with my own eyes, so I pulled out the May 2009 issue of Consumer Reports and went shopping with five product categories in mind.

Kids’ Breakfast Cereal
Consumer Reports identified four best buys for cereals for children, balancing health, tastiness, and price: Cheerios, Life, Kix, and Honey Nut Cheerios.

I pulled out the grocery flyers this past weekend and found a sale at Target on the General Mills cereals (Cheerios and Life). I then flipped through the coupons and quickly found a coupon for those cereals.

End result: the price for a “double box” of Cheerios or of Life, after the coupon, was cheaper than almost any other cereal in the aisle, with only some generics beating them. After doing an ingredient and Nutrition Facts comparison, Life was our product of choice. The kids utterly love it and it’s pretty good for them, too.

Glass Cleaners
Consumer Reports identified five best buys for window cleaners: Windex No Drip Foaming Action, Sprayway Ammonia Free, Windex Crystal Rain Ammonia Free, Glass Plus, and Streak Free with Ammonia (the Wal-Mart store brand).

The solution here is a simple one: shop at Wal-Mart and get the store brand at roughly a third of the price of the other brands.

I’m far from an expert on this category (as I don’t make coffee at home – keeping it as an out-of-home treat keeps me from getting addicted to the morning joe), but Consumer Reports identified Eight O’Clock 100% Colombian, Caribou Coffee Colombia Timana, and Kickapoo Coffee Organic Colombia as the three best choices.

In the stores I visited, Eight O’Clock 100% Colombian was the cheapest of the three by far, usually costing less than $5 for a 12 ounce bag of whole bean coffee. Here’s the trick, though – there were many coffees that were less expensive.

Since I’m not familiar with this area, I asked my wife for some input and she said that unquestionably, the price premium of the Eight O’Clock coffee over Folgers is worth it. She claims the volume difference in the containers is deceiving, since it takes substantially more Folgers to make good coffee than whole bean Eight O’Clock. So, three votes for the Consumer Reports model.

Tub & Tile Cleaners
Consumer Reports says Comet Scratch Free Disinfectant with Bleach, Ajax with Bleach Scratch Free, Kaboom Shower Tub & Tile, and Green Works Natural Bathroom Cleaner are the best choices, with Green Works being not quite up to the standards of the other but the best of the “natural” cleaners.

Coupons for Comet are extremely easy to come by and they reduce the cost of Comet below the store generic brand for that item. It works well for cleaning our tubs.

Creamy Peanut Butter
This was the one area where there was some debate. Consumer Reports identifies Smucker’s Natural and Smucker’s Organic as the two best buys for peanut butter.

Smucker’s Natural is substantially cheaper than Smucker’s Organic, ringing in at $2.49 for a 12 ounce jar at my store of choice. However, there were several peanut butters available for substantially less on the shelves. Having tasted Smucker’s Natural, I can say that it is quite noticeably tastier (much stronger peanut flavor) than many of the lower-end brands, and the texture is better, too. An ingredient comparison shows that it’s healthier as well.

For me, Smucker’s Natural would be the purchase if I had a coupon for it. Otherwise, I’d put off buying the peanut butter.

My Conclusion
From my experience, Bob’s strategy simply works if you’re trying to get the maximum value for your dollar (and not just seek the bottom dollar). This strategy pairs up well with looking at coupons and flyers, reducing the price benefit that the store brand has over the “best buy.”

Will I switch to this strategy? Perhaps not completely, but I am starting a list of the Consumer Reports best buys. It works surprisingly well.

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  1. graytham says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I didn’t know that the Walmart brand of glass cleaner was so good- I will have to give it a try and save some $.

  2. kristine says:

    Skippy Natural is virtually identical to Smucker’s organic, and cost much less. YOu can even get it at Walmart for a song.

    Winddow cleaner? Use water and a lint-free old clothes rag. It’s free!

  3. a conscience life says:

    I don’t subscribe (as in have the magazine delivered to me) to consumer reports, so does anyone know how they rate the tastiness of cereals for children? Did they use a panel of children? And did they reveal how they rated the healthiness of these cereals? Is it just by sugar content? Trent says that Life is pretty good for them, so he too must have some sort of criterion for deciding. How to people make these types of heath judgments in the cereal isle? So many questions. Inquiring minds want to know…

  4. JJ says:

    I can see the benefits of this approach, especially for a family. But I agree with the comment above that I don’t buy window cleaner — just half a cup of super-cheap generic white vinegar with water in an old spray bottle works great.

    I also wouldn’t choose to buy a General Mills cereal. A small grocery store nearby has rice krispies and corn flakes in bulk for about $3 a pound (which gets you a LOT of rice krispies!). No salt or preservatives or packaging, just whole grains. I doubt I could get kids to eat it, though, it’s nowhere near as yummy as Life. :-)

  5. AC says:

    Krema brand natural peanut butter contains only peanuts, no added salt. It occasionally goes on sale at my local Kroger for $1.99, at which point I usually buy 2 or 3 jars. I’ve found it to be the tastiest of all the natural peanut butters I’ve tried, though if you prefer saltier or sweeter peanut butter, it’s not for you.

  6. Catherine says:

    Reese’s (Yes the people who make peanut butter cups!) makes the best peanut butter I have ever tasted. Unfortunately, it’s not always available at all stores. When I see it – I stock up! Also, it’s usually around $1.69 a jar. YUM!

    (Seriously, if your store doesn’t carry it – ask for it. It is the best.)

  7. Kristin says:

    I would not drink Folgers if it were free.

  8. indymoney says:

    Thanks Trent. It really is a nice idea. I have never used consumer reports. Its better to start now.

  9. Are the Dollar General brand cleaning supplies among those tested? The DG brand window cleaner works as well as Walmart brand & the refill is much cheaper – $1 for a large bottle.

    For the cereal, I’d say that the amount of sugar was a major choice. The brands listed are on most WIC lists & their criteria is high iron & low sugar.

  10. Maggie says:

    I think consumer reports should also cover how ethical products are (including the ingredients). For example we never purchase toothpastes, cosmetics or foods containing palm oil. Mainly because palm oil tree plantations have resulted in the destruction of most of the Malaysian and Indonesian rainforrests.

  11. Jodi says:

    Strange that CR rated those cereals as the healthiest for children since they all contain substantial amounts of sugar. And, at least in the case of the HN Cheerios, high-fructose corn syrup. That’s one of the WORST things you can feed your kids, nothing healthy about it. I’m always really appalled that these cereals (at least Kix and Cheerios) are also what families on WIC get.

    At least the Smucker’s organic peanut butter doesn’t contain HFCS.

    Better to serve up some bulk oatmeal with homemade dried fruit or sugar-free preserves.

  12. Kevin M says:

    Interesting idea, but not sure it’s worth the time clipping coupons and running around to 5 different stores. We tend to be more informal and just stock up on cereals or other items when we notice a sale. For us, the Target brand works fine for nearly everything else (TP, tissues, diapers, etc) and is always cheaper than name brand. We clean with vinegar/water which costs next to nothing.

  13. Arbor Vitaes says:

    I have used BON AMI for years and get a little upset when I have to buy comet. Not all retailers stock this gem anymore. Bon Ami claims to be made from natural ingredients. It has a big yellow chick on the front with the slogan “..Hasn’t scratched yet”.

    Arbor Vitaes
    Vintage and Salvage Art

  14. Michael says:

    How does it work “surprisingly well?” When you heard of this idea you liked it immediately. Then, you conducted research which confirmed that like. So really, using Consumer Reports to buy food works unsurprisingly well.

  15. Dr. Faith says:

    Huh, that is a really great idea. I tend to get lost in all the coupons for so many different products. This is a great way to focus it on quality items and just look for specific coupons.

  16. kat says:

    The ratings on cleaning products are one of the reasons I no longer bother to subscribe to the magazine. You can clean just about any surface in your home with either baking soda or vinegar. The only household cleanser I purchase is Simple Green. It seems that Consumer Reports only deals with cleaning capabilities for products. It doesn’t address any toxcicity issues at all.

  17. Mary W says:

    This is a great idea IMO. It adds an easy quality measure to the basic coupon strategy (coupon/on sale/lowest unit price).
    Each of us have items where we already have a strong preference for a particular brand or type of item and then, of course, we need to go with what we like. However, for items where we are flexible, this will help point us to a good item.

  18. Sandra says:

    If there is an item that WE (family of 5) use over & over, I purchase coupons off ebay for that item. For example, Northern Toilet Paper—I purchased 25 1.00 coupons off ebay for .99. I waited for my local grocer to put them on sale–which is a pretty good deal because during that week they also did .20 off per gallon of fuel up to 30 gallons when you purchased 2. I ended up paying 13.99 for 72 double rolls of toiler paper not including the $6.00 of free gas.

    We do this on ANYTHING we buy over & over.

  19. AnnJo says:

    I get the point about targetting your coupon clipping and deal-seeking to the best products, and it’s a good one, but the list of items you chose to demonstrate that surprised me.

    Why would someone who makes his own laundry detergent buy specialty products at exhorbitant prices for things like cleaning windows, tubs and tile?

    Water, vinegar and ammonia (or for those who shun ammonia, a few drops of dishwashing detergent) work fine for windows, and nothing works better than baking soda for tub and tile cleaning (or maybe a little cheap shampoo if the tub has really been let go for a while).

    As for kids’ cereal, there is so little food value to such products that the price per nutrient load is incredibly high, while most of what you’re paying for is packaging and processing. For the same price as a bowl of Cheerios you could feed a child a scrambled egg and glass of milk and give them much more food value.

    Or a child-size serving of oatmeal (about 3/4 oz. dry oats) will cost a third of what a child-size serving of Cheerios (about 3/4 oz. Cheerios) will, and that’s the cheapest of the dried cereals you mentioned. It will also provide the same or more fiber and protein, and less sugar (unless you choose to sweeten it to suit your child’s taste.

    There’s nothing like Cheerios (or other dry cereals) to help develop fine motor skills in young children and provide entertainment, but as a breakfast tradition, it’s a fairly expensive one.

  20. k2000k says:

    Oatmeal, great breakfast food, just get a bowl, water, oats, microwave for a minute add some fruit and a little honey, beats any cereal in terms of taste and health. Though I do love me some life cereal.

  21. Jules says:

    Or…you could just whip up your own stuff for less than the price of any of the things, and it’ll still work.

    One thing I don’t quite understand about cleaners: once you kill the bacteria and remove the grease/grime (and both of these can be accomplished quite easily with a bar of any conventional bar soap and a good brush), what the hell else is left?

    I’ve been using a bar of Dove and a scrub brush on our bathroom. It takes a little more elbow grease to get the mildew out of the grout, but otherwise it’s amazing how clean it gets the bathroom.

  22. Rob says:

    Thats the thing Jules. Everyone wants it easy, and quick. I used to use swifter wets for the floors. Easy, quick, yes, but also expensive. Towels and fantastic on my hands and knees is harder, and longer, but alot cheaper, and cleaner, I think.

  23. rob says:

    My lodger and I spent one month only buying brands which used heavy advertising and the next month only those which never advertised. The only difference was the second month was slightly cheaper. Just buy the supermarket ‘basic brand’ for the cheapest results.

  24. lurker carl says:

    I agree with these last few posts, there are cheaper homemade products that are as effective or better as the name brands. Same with nutritious breakfast foods, especially for children.

    I find this post enlightening from someone who makes his own laundry detergent.

  25. Jeff says:

    FYI, Life cereal isn’t a General Mills cereal. It’s made by Quaker Oats.

  26. Amy says:

    About Wal-Mart — we try never to shop there, as the company has in place many reprehensible practices (see the documentary, “THe High Cost of Low Price”), including putting all local businesses out of business! Wal-Mart is the worst thing that can happen to a community. Not to mention how unpleasant it is to venture into their stores. Finally, their “everyday low price” is often higher than other stores, I’ve checked. Make your own window cleaner instead!

  27. dan says:

    I would really recommend buying fair trade certified coffee when possible. It really does make a huge difference for the farmers.
    Equal Exchange, Level Group, and some Green Mountain Coffee are some of the more popular fair trade vendors.

  28. Emily says:

    We have Eight O’Clock 100% Columbian coffee here at work. Having gone from Maxwell House to Folgers to Eight O’Clock, it’s by far the best tasting one.

    The only coffee we have at home is a little Folgers decaf that I bought several months ago. My husband doesn’t drink coffee and I’m trying to cut any form of caffeine out of my system (even the decaf stuff.)

  29. natalie says:

    I clean houses for a living and use mostly baking soda and vinegar. Vinegar and hydrogen peroxide disinfect and I keep both in spray bottles. Microfiber cloths are wonderful for cleaning glass streak free. Comet is more abrasive than baking soda so I keep some around for very tough jobs but rarely need it. Anything you spray in the air (bathroom cleaner, febreeze, lysol, etc.) will wind up in your lungs and increase your chances of getting cancer. Medical bills are a cost most people don’t factor into all this!

  30. Elderly librarian says:

    Get your public library card out and access Consumer Reports from the library subscription databases that are available online for your reading pleasure from your library’s website.

  31. sbt says:

    I think this is great advice, EXCEPT, it leaves out the regional and store brands, where you will often find the best buy. For example, I buy the Mom’s Best equivalent of Honey Nut Cheerios. It is absolutely top quality, no cheap cereal staleness, or anything like that. It uses sugar, rather than high fructose corn syrup, if that is important to you. And it’s half the price of Cheerios.

    So, I would say yes, check out Consumer Reports, but don’t forget to also check out the regional and store brands.

  32. Tordr says:

    Why is Consumer Reports mentioned again?

    You deleted your content relevant to them earlier because as you said “Consumer Reports has asked me to eliminate the content of my summaries and any other references to the content of Consumer Reports. I have complied.”

    So if they do not want to be mentioned in your blog and you have complied then you should not make new postings about them less than one year after they asked you to take down posts. So the question for you is then: Will you remove this post if they complain again?

  33. mellen says:

    I wouldn’t buy any of the products you listed except maybe the Natural Peanut Butter (if I ate p.b. at all that is) and the Green Works Cleaner because the cereals all contain High Fructose Corn Syrup, the coffee brands were all terrible and the cleaners, with the exception of the Green Works, were all extremely bad for the environment. I’d rather put my dollars into more natural, healthy products as a way to force the makers of those products to make better products or get out of the market. I’d rather pay slightly more for green, sustainably produced products made by people not earning a sub-standard wage than to save a few cents (or dollars). HFCS, parabens, dioxins, sulfates, chlorine, BPA, phosphorous… how many chemicals do you want on your food, clothes and in your shampoo and moisturizer? Don’t get me started on products that use mineral oil; it’s made from the same source as motor oil. If people keep buying these things, manufacturers will keep making them.

  34. Karen says:

    I don’t get CR so this is an excellent post with great information for my next shopping trip. Thanks Trent!

  35. Monica says:

    Most grocery items in Consumer Reports are not things I buy. I don’t buy breakfast cereal (I make my own granola and porridge instead), glass cleaner (I use vinegar and water in a spray bottle), or tub/tile cleaner (I scrub with baking soda). Sometimes the best deal is “none of the above”.

  36. Kristin says:

    I love this article, just like all your other articles. I wanted to let you know I did a blog post about it, because I find so much interesting reading here.

  37. TJ says:

    You couldn’t pay me to drink any of the coffee listed. That said I don’t spend a ton on great coffee. I love the coffee from San Francisco Bay Coffee Roasters (http://www.gourmet-coffee.com) and they often sell this at the bulk stores like BJ’s. It tastes fantastic and isn’t overpriced.

  38. Cathie says:

    Eight O’clock coffee has been our economical coffee choice for quite awhile. There are usually grocey store coupons nearby, and on occasion there are coupons printed inside the bag itself. Also Eight O’Clock has a consumer rewards program whereby you can earn, among other things, free coffee. And it’s really good coffee.

  39. Nothing wrong with capturing value, but trying live off some recommended list is a bit of a challenge . . .

  40. Andrew says:

    Be wary of putting all of your faith in one publication, even if it is CR. I usually find them to be spot on, except in the technology (computer)area. In this, they are almost always way off (in reliability and in capability, evidenced especially by older reviews of Acer computers, for instance). Perhaps I see this since it is my field of study. I wonder if anyone else has noticed significant issue with any of their sections or reviews…

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