Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thinking about couponing...again

It's been about two years since I started my coupon challenge, and I figured it's a good time to take stock and see how things are going.

After creating a price book and figuring out where the best deals on my regular purchases were, I started splitting my shopping trips between three stores (Costco, Aldi, and a regular grocery store that had double coupon days). I plan meals weekly and shop with a list, which I adhere to pretty strictly. I have a newspaper subscription (which, naturally, I got using a coupon) and clip coupons every week. I only print coupons that I specifically go looking for. I try really hard to match sales, store coupons, and manufacturer's coupons, but it doesn't happen as often as I was hoping. More recently I've been using the Target Cartwheel app, although I haven't started doing a ton of grocery shopping there. Peanut and I were thinking about signing up for a Target credit or debit card to get the extra discount, which might be worth more than our credit card rewards for just that store (we need to dig deeper into this).

So, what's the state of the union?

Well, overall I am spending MORE than I was before, but we are spending less eating out, and I would argue that we are eating better at home than we used to. Then, I was shopping for two working adults. Now I shop for two adults and a child. There are people eating at home all day instead of just two meals. I am a better cook than I was, there is less food waste, and my kitchen is stocked differently - I am often able to throw together a meal to feed unexpected extra people with no trouble.

I think couponing definitely contributed to the increase in spending, to some extent - it's true that the coupons are for the more expensive name-brand products, and unless you pair them with a store coupon and sale, you're still often paying more than you would for Aldi brand. Sometimes the quality is worth it, and sometimes it's not. I am sure that I also ended up buying things that I might not otherwise have purchased at all, just because I had a coupon. (That's actually more of a risk for me at Aldi, because things are so cheap that it's much easier to stray from my list.)

Most of the things that have changed in our grocery expenses were out of my control, though. Prices in general went up. My local grocery store chain was sold to a chain that does not double coupons, so there goes all that extra savings. We go through two gallons of whole milk a week, which is not available at our Aldi ($8/week x 52 weeks is $416 a year!!!!). I buy quite a bit of baby food, which is pricey (still cheaper than formula!). (I do make a lot of my own baby food, but the consistency of commercial baby food is perfect for Pickle's feeding tube blends so I fall back on that a lot for convenience.) I also buy more meat than I used to (I didn't until I got pregnant, and I'm curious as to whether my cravings for extra protein will go away when I give birth).

All in all, couponing has been helpful in getting me to examine how I was shopping, but it's not clear that it's saving me a lot of money anymore. Renewing my newspaper subscription will cost me three times what the last renewal did, and I'm not biting. Instead, I'm going to take a slightly different tack, and see if I can set a budget limit on what I spend on groceries each week (something I haven't done since I was living on a shoestring budget in NYC). I'll start at $400 per month, $30 below my current average, and see how we do. It'll take several months for this to start happening, since I'll be having this baby soon-soon-soon and that will shake things up for a while, but I am interested to see how it turns out.

Here's my new plan:

1. Update my price book. New grocery store chain, new prices - and I noticed that Target has changed their prices on baby food, almost certainly in response to the competition. It's probably time to take another look at where the bargains really are for the things that I am particularly brand-loyal on.

2. Streamline my stocking up at Aldi. Aldi is in the opposite direction of everywhere else that I ever go, so while it's not far away, it is out of the way. Right now I'm going 2-3 times per month, but I'd like to winnow that down to just once per month and do a big stock-up trip then. I have not liked the quality of the produce at my local Aldi, so most of the things I get there are shelf-stable and this shouldn't be hard to do with a little bit of planning.

3. Investigate the Target Red Card. An extra five percent off anything purchased at Target might be a better deal than we're getting from our regular rewards credit card, especially if I work on matching Cartwheel deals.

4. Work on my pantry stocking strategy. I've spent the last few months finding recipes that work well in a variety of ways - easy to have on hand, easy to prepare, easy to reheat. This means that with a little reorganization, I should be able to have a visibly stocked pantry for the meals that I make most frequently. Then if I stock up when those things are on sale and do a regular shopping trip only for produce and perishables, I should be saving myself a lot of time and money. This has worked really well for my deep freezer, and I think it will translate to cans and boxes fairly easily - it'll just take some thinking.

5. Take a break from actual couponing. Just for a while and just for general coupons - I'll still go hunt down coupons for specific brand name things when I need them. And I'll use the store coupons that get sent to my house and from the circular. But no more of this multiple-coupon-envelope thing each time I go to the store for a while.

Let's see what this does to the grocery budget!

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