How to choose the most cost-effective grocery store

Healthy Shopping at the Grocery Store
Healthy Shopping at the Grocery Store

If you include just the grocery stores within a 10-mile radius of our home and within two miles of our commutes, you'll quickly wind up with a list of about 30 different grocery stores. That's a lot of options, no matter how you spell it out. Many people who live in urban and suburban areas will find a similar grocery store count near their homes and commutes.

The question then becomes: How does one decide which grocery store to shop at among all of the options? There are many different criteria to use – convenience, variety, price and so forth – so how do you know which store will hit that sweet spot?

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For most people (myself included), their grocery list tends to consist of a pretty regular set of items that they buy every week or few weeks. Take a look at your own grocery lists and shopping routines – a lot of the same items find their way into your cart each time, or at least once every few visits. Those items aren't exactly the same from person to person, as different people have different tastes, different diets and different cultural backgrounds, but as humans, we do thrive on routine and that shows up at the grocery store, too.

The secret to finding the best grocery store for you is to pick the one that sells those staples you buy all the time at the best prices and that also meets your other needs. Here's exactly how to do that.

First, keep track of those staples you regularly shop for at your usual store. What items show up on your grocery list or your cart week after week, or at least once a month with high regularity? Milk? Eggs? Oatmeal? Apples? Cheese?

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You can usually figure this out quite easily by looking at your last couple of months of grocery receipts. Just make a list of everything that appears at least twice on those receipts and you're ready to go.

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Don't worry too much about the more unusual items you buy. If you don't buy an item more than once every couple of months, don't include it on this list.

Second, set up a price-comparison table. This is really easy. Just take a sheet of paper and write down all of those items you buy regularly. Be as specific as you can – note the brand name you buy (or just write "store brand" if you go that route) and the size you choose. Also jot down how many of that item you buy in a typical month. So, if you buy 6 pounds of apples and you're keeping track of the price of 1 pound of apples, write a big 6 there. Then, make several columns next to that and at the top of each column, write the name of a store in your area that you wish to compare. Just include the stores you're willing to shop at, but be open to lots of stores. You may need multiple sheets for all of this!

If you're familiar with using a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, this is a perfect task for those programs as you can keep adding as many rows (the different items at the store) and columns (the different stores) as you need.

Once you have that table, fill in the prices for each of those items at the store you're currently frequenting.Use those receipts to fill in the price of each item in the column for that store. Next to that individual item price, multiply that price by the number of those items you buy in a month. So, let's say that pound of apples costs you $1.99. You buy 6 pounds of apples in a month. So you'd want to write $1.99 x 6 = $11.94. It's basic arithmetic!

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Then, when you have a column full of numbers, add up the totals. For the apples, for example, you'd want to include the $11.94 number, not the $1.99 number. Your goal is to get an estimate of how much you spend on staples at that store in a given month.

After that, just go shopping at the stores you're wanting to compare. Make it your normal shopping trip for that week. You can use your receipt for that trip to get the price of many staples, but take the time to jot down the prices of all of the staples, whether you're buying them or not. You might not need apples, for instance, but go over to the apples and note the price per pound of your preferred variety.

Once you've done that, you can fill in the prices for that store's column, just like you did with the other stores. Write down the prices, multiply that by the number you buy in a given month, and then add up all of the numbers in that column.

After you've compared several stores, select the one with the lowest price for a month of staples as your go-to grocery store. Maybe you'll find that your regular store is the best, but it's very likely that another store will save you a surprising amount of money each month. Just by shopping at this new store, your monthly grocery bill will go down permanently.

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