Thursday, July 14, 2011

Staying Organized and Under Budget - At the Grocery Store

I don't know about you, but I've been guilty of the following budget-busting shopping techniques:
  • Shop the aisles with an empty stomach
  • Forgot to pack the snacks for the kiddos
  • With a mind like this, who needs a shopping list?
  • I just need a couple things from the store
  • Oh, $2.00/lb is such a great price! This 15 lb bag will last me for a LONG time!
Going to the store without a plan or with an empty stomach equals sticker shock at the register. After having Regus #2 and transitioning to a one-income household (and facing all the debt we'd been stacking up), we realized that our shopping habits had to change. After sulking for several months about having a non-existent food budget, I finally got inspired to use one of my favorite software programs: Spreadsheets!! Oh, the power of data! Yes, I'm a nerd. In a world of diapers, spit up, and sleepless nights, mounds of data was something I could control.

As a little girl, I remember my mom making lots of food from scratch, organizing a health-food co-op, shopping sales, and clipping coupons. She was amazingly resourceful with the money she had for food. With that precious memory, I embarked on my own adventure of saving money for my household.

In this post, I'll cover the basics of how I use spreadsheets to develop my bi-weekly menu plan, enter my shopping list, and stay organized. In future posts, I'll go into more detail about shopping with kids and the benefits of buying in bulk — with a plan.

My plan works for me, so I don't want to say: My plan is BEST, so ha! You may dread making a shopping list, so jumping in full-steam-ahead may not be practical. I pray that this post will help get your creative juices flowing to find a fun, exciting way to make a planned shopping trip a fun one. Even better, I'd love for you to share some of your own ideas. I love to find out how other people stay organized and under-budget!

How I make it work
Before I start any shopping list, I refer to my list of my family's favorite meals. I've seen some people go even farther and list all the perishable and non-perishable items needed for each meal. I'm not that good. This list prevents me from getting in a rut of the same meal over and over. Believe me, hubby will let me know. I do like to try out new recipes, so I print those recipes off and keep them in a notebook. Every few weeks, I'll look through those to see if I can add one in the next shopping trip. I do not make a meal plan before I look at all the flyers. Every few months, I'll actually take inventory of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. I've found about 5 extra meals lurking, what a money saver! Back to the topic... I'll take a look at what I have, for reference. Then, I take a look at what's on sale. What can I make with this week's specials on meats and veggies? What can I stock up on for later?

As I see the items on sale, I start entering my meals on the top few rows of my spreadsheet. From there, I start adding items to my shopping list.

I'm using an Open Office spreadsheet. It functions the same as Excel, but you may notice a few differences.

The spreadsheet
For some, the idea of using a spreadsheet is crazy. For others, it may not be scary but odd to use it for household tasks. You don't have to go as geeky as I do. For example, when I told my Dad (super-fan of spreadsheets, too) that I used a spreadsheet to track my groceries and spending habits, he jokingly asked, "Yeah, but do you use pivot tables?" My response, "Yep! And I love it." If you take a few minutes to enter the department and store in your spreadsheet, you can do some basic sorting that will save you time and money in the store. This same additional data will give you some awesome pivot tables, too. You can track how much you are spending and study your trends.

Ok, enough nerdiness. I really think that a plan can help you save hundreds of dollars each month. If you are new to spreadsheets, I've found a series of You Tube video tutorials that do a great job of explaining the basics. Check out theese beginners and the calculations tutorials. They are EXCELLENT! If you want to go even further, there are other great tutorials for spreadsheets, by this same trainer.

Back to my spreadsheet. Here's my plan of attack:

Along the first row after my menus, I list the following column headers:
  • Item. The name of the product.
  • Qty. How many I need to buy.
  • Kr. This is my "store special" column. In this case, Kroger had a promotion to get $5 off your order, if you purchase 10 of the promotional items. By re-entering the qty in this column (for the promotional items), I can add them up at the end of the spreadsheet and see how close I am to the goal of 10. So nice!
  • Cost. This is the cost per item. We'll make a total later.
  • Cpn. This stands for "coupon." I'll enter the coupon face value, if I have one available in my binder.
  •  Dbl? If the coupon can be doubled, I'll enter a "2." If the store doesn't double coupons, then I just enter a "1." This is also great if a store is tripling coupons, then I'd enter a "3,"wohoo!
  • Total. This is my formula!! We'll go more into that in a minute. 
  • Department (dairy, deli, meat, produce, ingredients). Make this generic, because every store is laid out differently. 
  • Store. Where I'm going to buy the item.
The last two categories (department and store) are helpful for sorting. That way, you can see everything you need from one store, even though you don't enter all those stores' items at the same time on your list. Yeah for spreadsheets!!

The formula
My "Total" formula essentially means: =(qty * cost)-(cpn*dbl?). However, I obviously enter the cell numbers, instead of the labels. The labels are just for reference. Once you make the first formula, just hover over the bottom-right corner of the cell until a solid, black cross shape appears. Click and drag that formula down to the end of your list. This will generate the "total" for all the items listed.

The grand total or TOTAL
This is a "sum" formula. You can highlight all the numbers in the "total" column and click the "auto sum button" (Σ). In my spreadsheet, the Grand Total is $162.24. Disregard the "Filter" stuff, that's a small pivot table.

Sorting columns
The secret to sorting in spreadsheets is to highlight the entire chart that needs to be sorted. When I was a Business Analyst at a major publishing company, I had people (who "said" they knew what they were doing and didn't want any help) try to highlight a specific column only and then sort. All I can say is, they had to waste an entire day getting the data back. Ugh... just save your time and highlight the entire chart. Here are the quick steps:

  1. Highlight the table/chart (except for the menu plan). Be sure to include all the headers (ie, item, qty, kr, cost, etc)
  2. From the top menu bar, click "Data," then "Sort.
  3. After a pop-up box appears, select your search criteria. In our case, I've selected "Department" for the first one, then "Store" for the second. Then, click the "OK" button.
Highlight the data and sort each time you add something new to the list or change the store for an item.

Print your spreadsheet
You may need to do a little formatting to get the spreadsheet onto one page wide. I slip my shopping list behind the clear cover of my coupon book. After my zipper binder broke, I had to move to a regular binder. But I've really liked having the shopping list on the outside... so helpful!

Go shopping!
Now, you are ready to shop... with a plan! As you are shopping, the menu plan reminds you why you are there. The list and prices help you identify a good deal, if you find an unadvertised deal in a store. Plus, it helps me try to find a way to stay under my total.

Don't have a spreadsheet program? Don't worry...
There are a couple, free options for you. I use them both and find them very convenient.* I highly recommend downloading this suite of programs from Sun Microsystems. It's always free and works just as great as Microsoft Word and Excel. Sometimes, it can be a bit different than Word, but it's free. I've heard Clark Howard talk about it, too. 

GoogleDocs: You can sign up for a free Google account and have access to GoogleDocs. Here, you can create documents and spreadsheets and save them to Google. This is nice because you can keep it completely private, share with a few users, or make it public.

* Disclosure: I've not been paid or compensated in any way. These are my opinions.

What keeps you organized, when you go grocery shopping?

UPDATE (Dec 5, 2011): Here's a FREE download of a grocery shopping spreadsheet.


  1. Thanks for stopping by! I have a post in the works for some couponing basics and hope to get it out soon.

  2. Kristy, I see the coupon binder you use, can you post about your couponing? I'm so new to couponing and I don't know where to begin.

  3. In regards to the tax... Most food items don't have tax but toiletries and things like that will have tax. Is there any way to exclude some items from being multiplied with the tax?

  4. Charlee, that is a very good point. My formula for tax is only based upon the subtotal. If you wanted to create your own formula, where you only manually select the taxable items, that would work. However, my spreadsheet is pretty basic and wouldn't do it automatically. I hope that helps some. Thanks for stopping by.