The Buy Ahead Principle: One of my biggest grocery saving secrets

Allison left the following comment on my picture of this week's $30 shopping trip:

I've
enjoyed reading this blog the past month or so since I've discovered
it, and you've really helped me snag some good deals. And I think it's
neat when you come home from the store with a pile of groceries for
only a few dollars.

But every time I see the picture of your groceries, I wonder
something like, "What is she going to cook for dinner with easy mac,
salad dressing, and jello?"

Is this all the grocery shopping you do? Do you have a garden? Or
raise your own beef? How do you round out your bargain purchases to get
a meal on the table?

One of my biggest secrets for grocery saving success is that I practice the Buy Ahead Principle. What's that, you ask?

Well, basically, other than dairy products and produce, I aim to never pay full price for anything. Instead, I stock up when an item is on sale to tide me over until the next sale. 

For instance, in this shopping trip picture, you'll see that I mainly stocked up on cereal. In fact, I bought 16 boxes of cereal–enough to last us for at least 6 weeks, likely longer. Did we only eat cereal that week? No way! We ate a few boxes of cereal that week and the rest of what we ate mostly came from items I'd stocked up on during previous sales.

You see, because I stock up on items when they are on sale at my target price (providing I can afford it in our budget), my grocery shopping trips will usually look quite strange and will certainly not be the basis for a balanced menu. But you can check out some of our menus here to see that we do eat a fairly balanced diet. Well, at least we're certainly not subsisting on Easy Mac and Jell-O every meal!

How is it that we can eat a fairly balanced diet when I buy such an odd assortment of groceries each week? It's because the bulk of our meals are based upon what we already have in our refrigerator, pantry, and freezer.

To give you an idea of how this works, here's a rundown of our menu this week:

Breakfasts: Cereal or Kashi waffles and fruit (The cereal was from our big stock-up mentioned above, the waffles were purchased two weeks ago at Target for $0.29/box, and the fruit is from what we purchased this week and leftovers from last week.)

Lunches: Sandwiches or leftovers and carrots or fruit (I had lots of bread in the freezer I'd gotten for $0.50/loaf from Aldi last month and the peanut butter was from our pantry. My mom also gave us some extra lunch meat she had leftover from a lunch they served so we've used that, too. The carrots and fruit were purchased this week or leftover from last week's purchases.)

Dinners: We're eating meals from our After-The-Baby Freezer Stash paired with homemade bread from the freezer and frozen veggies from the freezer. All of the items in our After-The-Baby Freezer Stash were purchased within our usual grocery budget over the course of a few weeks' time as I had a little extra wiggle room in the budget or items were on sale.

Snacks: Fruit, cheese, crackers, granola bars, yogurt (The fruit, cheese, crackers, and yogurt were all purchased this week. The granola bars were from the pantry.)

When I plan the menu for the week, I first check out what we already have on hand. This gives me the inspiration for the majority of the menu. I then consult the sales fliers and my coupon box to decide what items are on sale and in-budget that I want (or need) to stock up on. I also add in any specific ingredients I need to round out a recipe or meal I've planned from the freezer and pantry ingredients.

For many people who are used to buying only what groceries you'll use in the next week, the concept of buying ahead can be mind-boggling. However, I highly recommend you at least give it a try as it can save you a great deal of money. In fact, I would estimate that we routinely save at least $30-$50 each week by doing so.

If this is a new concept for you, don't go out and spend $500 tomorrow trying to build up a stockpile. Instead, just designate a small percentage of your grocery budget each week to buying extra of those heavily-discounted items which you know you will use sometime in the next few months.

Slowly
start to build up a stockpile of items you regularly use as you find
them discounted by 50% or more with a sale and coupon. Over time, your
stockpile will grow until you come to a point where you can begin to
pretty much only buy items which are at rock-bottom prices, in addition to produce and perishable items.

Just by adopting the Buy Ahead Principle, you will see a significant savings in your grocery bill. And you'll likely be shopping less and eating better than ever before!

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Comments

  1. Jennifer says

    Jeneice–I am also a creative cook, and some of the items you named are harder to find low-cost. But it’s not impossible. If you sign up for the Penzey’s catalog you will get coupons for free spices 5-6 times per year. The idea about making vanilla is good, or another idea is to ask someone who is visiting Mexico to bring you some–it’s much cheaper there. Stores that sell the items you are looking for will inevitably mark them down, just keep looking–I just got shredded coconut for 50 cents at Kroger, and believe it or not I got 5 quarts of olive oil for about $1 apiece at a local gourmet store. Buy specialty baking items in November and December for the best prices–flour can be frozen, good chocolate will keep–I buy enough for 6 months or a year. When you get coupons for free groceries at the checkout or occasionally in the paper or in the mail, give yourself permission to use them for items that you wouldn’t buy otherwise. Finally, pray that God will help you find great deals!

  2. Michelle H. says

    In regard to the discussion about not finding bargain priced fish and cake flour: I figure the money I save on the things I CAN get good deals on makes up for the things I can’t. Getting cereal for $1/box after sale and coupon frees up at least $2 each to put toward other items.

    Great discussion!

  3. Erika says

    To the person who was wondering about the real vanilla vs. artificial…try Costco or Sam’s Club or whoever you have local that sells bulk. I buy mine there and there is SIGNIFICANT savings from buying at the grocery store. Same with things like cake flour and such. If you put it in five gallon buckets it’ll last for a long time.

    I love to cook and how I handle the cost of meat and other things that I can’t find coupons on is this. I plan about two meals a week where I can get creative and try something new and I check my circular to see what is on sale first before I plan those meals. Usually chicken, or fish, or something good is at least SOMEWHAT cheaper than normal and I pick that up and plan meals around that. When I can, which isn’t often anymore with my kids being so young and our budget being so very very tight, is that I go to Costco and buy bulk meat and cut up my own steaks and stuff and put it in the freezer (I buy the good stuff when I go there too because it is still DIRT cheap compared to the regular stores and it lasts for a while). Once you Food Saver it (which I recommend buying one of these to EVERYONE) the meat is good for two years in your freezer before you have to worry about freezer burn (like it ever lasts that long anyway). This is an excellent way to save money on meat if you can afford it.

    As for the person with limited space, I have been there trust me. My husband and I lived in an apartment that was about 400 square feet for the first 5 years of our marriage and my husband is a huge accumulator of books, comic books, guns and other hobbies that take up space; and I love to cook and growing up in Maine where we were all waiting for the blizzard of ’34 to hit again, I was a natural stockpiler of food. I found that you can find storage ANYWHERE! Stack rubbermaid containers wherever you can, the tough totes are great and hold just about anything and you can fit them in the corner of your bathroom. You can hold up end tables (the collapsible ones) with pretty darn near anything and once you throw a table cloth over it you’d never know the difference. I used rubbermaid drawers to hold toiletries by our toilet in the bathroom, put risers on the bed, put shelves up in our closet wherever I could fit them, put up a shelf above our fridge, etc. I found that the small block freezers fit in very tight areas very well. I put ours below our coat rack at the bottom of the stairs in our apartment and it fit perfectly…leaving just enough room to open the lid and still look decent.

    Believe it or not the apartment didn’t look at all bad (I’m pretty picky about how my house looks). My father-in-law was in shock for weeks when we moved out of our tiny little apartment and it took us literally a week to move all the stuff out. Trust me, if you want the things to fit, it will fit ;-).

  4. Nicole says

    Great post! I have been doing this since March and have kind of gotten a good stockpile going and am now really starting to see the savings! Even in No. Cal. where there are no double coupons and we are just getting some CVS I have been able to seriously reduced my grocery and household expenditures by at least half and am looking forward to going even lower in the future.

    But take it slow! It took me a long time to get my trips organized and I still haven’t mastered the rolling deals. But last week at Walgreen’s the lady behind me after seeing all the stuff I got for $17 and I had a gift card to boot was like “Wow! That is amazing!” . ..

    For vanilla try costco. Their big bottle lasts me several months (I bake a lot) and is a good value. You will after awhile have extra money for treats!

    For price information, I just started keeping a price book . . . a journal I write down the sale, my coupon and the rewards . .. takes a few minutes but helps me see where the best prices are!

  5. jessica says

    I also wanted to add to the person who said she can’t shop more than one store per week because she works full time.

    I also work full time and I ride the bus to work, so I am gone 7am-530pm M-F in order to work an 8 hour day. I have a 2yo DD, and I also have a part time freelance writing job that I do from home. I also do other housework and have hobbies. Really, you can price match or plan trips into your route. I usually shop at two stores and then once every 3 months or so I go to SAM’s club.

    But it all depends on your priorities. Maybe grocery savings are not where your priorities are- maybe you would do better saving in other areas of your budget.

  6. Tracy says

    Rachel:

    When we lived in a small apartment I stored linen and towels in decorative boxes and wooden chests (all bought cheaply or picked up for free) and I used the laundry closet as a pantry.

    Stocking up on items when they are selling cheaply is one of the only ways I manage to keep my grocery bills low. In South Africa there are no coupons so getting items for free is unheard of and using the sales is almost the only way to significantly reduce costs at the till.

    I have a policy of never buying meat, toiletries, cleaning products, petfood, spreads, rice, flour, hot beverages or baking supplies at full price. I only buy seasonal fruit and veggies that generally are low in cost and I’ll stock up on large bags of onions, tomatoes and potatoes when they are selling at a good price. The only thing here that seldom is reduced is milk and butter, but even cheese and yogurt comes on sale at least once a month.

    My children and husband know that if the open the last bottle or jar of something from the pantry (eg ketchup, peanut butter) they have to write the item onto the grocery list. This give me at least a month to find that item selling cheaply (it takes about a month for us to work our way through any jar or nottle of something).

    I spend less than half than most of our friends on groceries and that includes feeding 16 pets and pool maintenance chemicals!

  7. M Johnson says

    I would LOVE to have your target prices too! I have a partial one in my mind for certain products, but it is nowhere near complete. I’d love to see how in line my target prices are with yours. Please do a post on that!!! :)

    P.S. I love your site!!! I’m obsessed about checking it :)

  8. Julie says

    Crystal, I have been following your post for about a year now, and have learned so much from you! I have been stockpiling for a while now and have quite a nice “stash”. My husband actually built me some additional shelves in the basement! For those of you who want to try stockpiling and don’t know about rock bottom prices, check out “thegrocerygame.com” A friend of mine introduced me to that about 6 months ago. It continues to amaze me. The woman organizes by stores and comes up with a weekly deal list. She lets you know what is free with coupons, what is the rock bottom price and when to stock up on things, and also what is a good deal only if you need it. I have used her method to stock up for the past 3-4 months and have saved a great deal of money. To try it out, she offers an unlimited number of stores for four weeks for only $1. After that, it is $10 for eight weeks for the first store and $5 for any additional store. I only use it for the two grocery stores in my area (not CVS, Walgreens, etc) as those are always able to be found for free elsewhere. We were hesitant to try it and spend the money at first but we have found that it is well worth the money, and we save much more than it costs. Plus, someone else does all the work for me… I just print out the list of what I need, gather up my coupons, and go! Hope this helps someone. If anyone does sign up and uses me as a referral, I would get credit and after 3 people sign up, I would get a free month! I hope this helps someone out there – it sure did me! Blessings. (dobro1203-cpn@yahoo.com)

  9. Dionne Merriott says

    Good explaination of stockpiling, Crystal. Do you have a certain day of the week that you allocate the grocery money each week? Also, do you go to the stores in a certain order? Although I have some stockpiled, I want to be sure that I have enough money in the grocery envelope to get what we need to feed four hungry kids and not just have plenty of toothpaste.

  10. Shelly says

    Thank you so much for this post! I am working on building up my stockpile, and I am just wondering how long it takes to get to the point where you are just buying things are rock bottom prices and shopping in your pantry?

  11. Jaden says

    This was a WONDERFUL post, Crystal. Thanks so much! I have been really psyched lately to have begun stocking up on things. We had to turn our hutch into a makeshift pantry to hold all the cereal I got on that same deal you had mentioned :) I really need to get a freezer, though, so I can start doing the same thing with meat and bread more!

  12. Kelly S. says

    You talk a lot about your “target” prices for items, can you share those with us? I know we’ll have toa adjust according to the area we live in b/c food does not cost the same everywhere…but I often have a hard time knowing what I should pay for items. – Thanks!

  13. Betsy Negley says

    What does your pantry space look like? I have one 3 shelf cabinet, a refrigerator/freezer and a small chest freezer. With a family of 5 (including a 14 yo boy) I would love to do stockpile shopping, but we just dont have the space to store large quantities of items.

  14. Megan says

    I love stockpiling! But we live in a “junior” 1-bedroom apartment and I have very little space to put my extra finds. Any advice for stockpiling in a confined space? I want to save $, but don’t want to risk being buried alive under bottles of salad dressing either!

  15. Shelly says

    I have been doing this since the beginning of the year and I think you either ‘get’ it or you don’t. For the people who are concerned about saving money while still wanting to buy expensive things I think the question is really, why do you want to save money? What is your goal? Our goal is to pay off our house in three years. We are already debt free (following the Dave Ramsey plan, modified). So for us, eating a few ‘boring’ meals here or there is very much worth obtaining our goal. We still try to eat healthy and I do believe that there are ways to save on gourmet/expensive foods (Costco for us). If you want to continue eating a certain way because it works for you then, by all means, keep on the same path. But if you have a financial goal you’re trying to reach, you will possibly need to change your habits a bit.

  16. Melanie says

    And don’t forget, the “buy ahead” principle can be applied to other areas of your life, too, most notably for me – clothing for the kids! I try to find stuff at end-of-season clearances in the next sizes for my kids and go ahead and buy them up and put them in the back of the closet for next year. You can save *tons* of money that way!

  17. BeachyMum says

    Exactly what we started doing four months ago ~ stockpiling ~ and it has been a *tremendous* blessing financially. I am an avid cook and thought that coupons were only for ‘junk’ food but was dead wrong. Indeed, there are no coupons for the farmer’s market in the Sunday paper…but after 2-3 weeks of committed couponing you realize what there *is* and what you’ve been missing!!

    This week I spent $8 on groceries…I have stockpiled to such a degree that I simply didn’t need a thing, only some fresh broccoli and tomatoes. So, there was no guilt when I took the kids to Bruster’s yesterday for the ‘start of summer’ and spent $10 on ice cream (my local Bruster’s wasn’t doing the kids’ free cone special).

    Groceries in my area of Florida are notoriously expensive, but between the Grocery Game website (great for those trying to figure out stockpiling), excellent blogs such as this one and real knowledge of your own market’s prices you can save a small fortune on household shopping. I have enough toilet paper to last until Christmas + cleaning products for the next year or two…all quality brands that were free or under $1. Enough diapers to last for 6 mos or so, thanks to the infamous $5 Huggies coupon + great CVS rewards deal….etc, etc, etc.

    As for the question about freezers, I *strongly* recommend the GE frost-free upright model ~ I purchased with savings from stockpiling ~ the thought of defrosting a deep-freeze with three young children (and another on the way) was inconceivable. ;-)

    LOVE this blog!

  18. Anne says

    Jeneice- I have some ingredients that I just don’t scrimp on, like vanilla. The real stuff is cheap at TJ Maxx or Ross or Marshall’s sometimes. However, I usually buy it at Costco or Sam’s. It’s SO cheap there right now- about 5 dollars for a huge bottle- and I’m sure you know someone with a membership if you don’t have one, or they occasionally offer free one day memberships.

    For cake flour- I only use it for a few really special cakes but you can sub all purpose with the right ratios (Dorie Greenspan says to reduce 2 tablespoons per cup).

    I agree that the best thing to do is to cut costs where you can and use some of what you save for what you wont’ compromise on (like Heinz ketchup at our house!)

  19. Brooke says

    I, too, was a little concerned about the items on the table each month. Some deals we just skip all together (Easy Mac does me no good without a microwave), and I do get a little frustrated because I live in No. California and the deals are not quite the same as in other parts of the country. I’ve lived all over the country and even though CA grows most of the food and ships it to MI, for example, it is still cheaper in MI than in CA. Go figure.

    Anyway, even without double coupons and totally avoiding Wal-mart (they’re just horrible here), and with Targets nearby that don’t offer the same deals as you all have and that are willing to throw down fists over coupon legalize, we feed 7 people on about $450 a month (just food). I think that’s really good. We eat a lot of fresh produce and I bake from scratch. I shop almost exclusively at Winco and Walgreen’s and the Farmer’s Market. Now that Winco is taking IP, it’s been really great! They have great (unadvertised) sales and the bulk section is a life-saver for spices and baking items.

    You can only do what you can do for your family. I just can’t dedicate the time and energy of me and my brood of small kidlets to traipsing all over town. Simplify and realize this is one part of your life.

    Thanks, Moneysavingmom for everything! I’ve learned a lot from you…

  20. Ellen says

    Very good post. We’re a family of 6 and are trying to begin stockpiling. Question: how many months does it take before you can begin to see the true savings? I know buying produce/dairy/perishables will always be a weekly thing for us but the frozen/canned/boxed stuff and all the toiletries can really save a lot of $ once our stockpile gets to a ‘good’ point. Just wondering when that would be. (only doing this coupon thing for 2 months so far)

  21. Sarah says

    I thought I remember you saying at one time that you do buy your eggs, milk and some of your meat from a local farm. Or maybe I’m just confusing your blog with another one:) I would also love to see a list of your target prices.
    Thanks for a great site!

  22. Dana says

    I do the same thing, I use coupons, matched with sales to stock pile as much as I can as cheap as I can. My grocerys don’t make alot of sense at first glance either but in the long run those savings really add up.

    I think the funniest look I ever got from my husband was when he helped me unload the groceries one day and I had bags and bags and bags of shampoo and conditioner, a total of 38 bottles, my husband said we can’t possibly need this much shampoo and conditioner, I said to him No not all at once but with my coupons and the sale I only spent .35 on each bottle, We haven’t had to buy shampoo or conditioner in such a long time and .35 each is just too good to pass up, besides its not like its going to go bad!!!

  23. fairy dust says

    I’d just like to add that sometimes getting extra newspapers to grab the extra inserts seems like quite a bit of extra money and extra paper that doesn’t get used, so I’ve switched to a coupon clipping service (www.mycouponhunter.com). There are others out there, but Virginia – the owner – is wonderful to work with and has eliminated any required minimum. So when I read here on the blogs about the upcoming weekend inserts, if I see any great coupons that’ll work for me, I email Virginia and she looks out for those and emails me back when she’s listed them. I order, they come within a week and I can use them that week on the big grocery store sales.

    My stockpiling isn’t terribly well organized yet, but I’m getting into the swing of it after reading all the great posts on this blog, and have at least amassed enough dish soap and high-end cat food to last into the next millenium – LOL!

  24. nina says

    For those that are asking about spices… If there is a Penzey’s near you (mine is 2 blocks away), then you should subscribe to the free catalog. Each month they have a coupon on the front for a free jar of something. For May it was fresh ground pepper. I have tried several spices this way.

  25. jennifer says

    Rachel – you can probably store more than you think!! Take a typical 36 inch high bathroom cabinet. If you cabinet is full of bottles and containers that are only 8-12 inches high there is TONS of wasted space above that. By some space saving shelves to put inthose cabinets for storing extra tolietries, laundry detergents, cleaning supplies, etc. Also – removing unneccesary packaging will help a lot. Take the tubes out of the boxes. Take the cookies out of the colorful box. The bags inside the boxes are usually only half the volume of the box itself. Clip the bags (or use a ziploc) and toss them all in a clear easy access tub or container in the pantry. I have a tub/basket that I presort my kid’s snacks in. I take all the granola bars, dried fruit, etc. and dump the individual servings into one tub. It saves so much space and then they can reach in and get their own when it is snack time! I do the same thing in the fridge. I have all the fruit cups, yougurts, applesauce, juice boxes, etc. in one fridge drawer and the kids just grab it and go!

  26. Susan says

    Hi!
    I have a question about coupon inserts. I’ve read here that you and some others pick up coupon inserts at the recycling bin. Where is this? The only one I know of around my area (Greenville, SC) is parked in the Wal Mart parking lot. And it states there is a $1000 fine for removing anything from it. I am currently buying 6-8 papers a week, but would love to pick them up for free.

  27. becalive says

    its a small victory, but I am beaming I got 4 boxes of tissues for .55 yesterday. Its a small but significant start.

    I have a request, prehaps you could do a post on obtaining bulk meat and a listing of some places. I am reading the comments above and I am amazed and somewhat jealous that there are people able to get grass fed meat for $3lb. In there area I live in, in OH the cheapest I have found is $5.5lb.

  28. Lisa says

    A few times on your blog I’ve heard you mention your “target price” for certain items. Do you have a list of these target prices or are they just in your head? Many times I see things on sale and just don’t haven’t been shopping on my own long enough to know whether or not its a good deal. I’m sure the target price fluctuate a little with the economy, but just curious as to some of your target prices for basic things. Might be a good post!! ;)

    Thanks!!

  29. The Prudent Homemaker says

    Jenince

    I have real vanilla on my shelf–three large bottles of it. I buy it at Sam’s Club (it’s not much more there than the artifical vanilla). It’s a good-sized bottle and one bottle can last me a while, even though I use it a lot. Cake flour cshould last 6 months to a year if you keep it cool. Salmon can be kept in the freezer, though some people keep the canned varities. I keep a lot of things on my shelves so that I can make a large variety of things.

    If you use artichoke hearts, you can keep those on your shelf. If you use dutch-processed cocoa, keep that on your shelf. Stock up on what works for you.

  30. Alicia says

    If you are looking for a deep freezer, your first stop should be Craig’s list or similar classifieds. You can get a used one for free or very cheap. We got our dishwasher on craigslist for free because someone was redoing their kitchen in stainless steel and we were happy with their old white one. My first rule of cheap shopping is: I try first to get it for free or really cheap used, then if I can’t, I go retail and get it on the best sale or discount I can. This applies to clothes, furniture, tools, appliances, cars, toys, etc. Not usually food, free or cheap–yes. Used–no. :-)