Frugal Living Essentials: The Price Book

As food and fuel costs are on the rise, UC and I are making even more of an effort to be frugal while still living and eating well. There are several things we are doing towards this goal, some that we’ve always done and some new. For example:

-We’ve cut way back on any eating out unless it falls under special criteria such as overnight travel or special occasions with friends (birthdays, etc.).

-We’ve decided to each put a certain amount of money a week into an entertainment fund, which can be used either as-we-go or we can save up for special things like concerts.

-We’ve always done a lot of our own cooking, but this year we’re also doing more seasonal preserving such as drying, freezing, and canning (we’re currently dehydrating strawberries and they smell divine!).

-We’re being more avid about making our own stock from scraps. We used our first batch of vegetable stock last night for tortilla soup, and it was fabulous!

-We’re doing more low-cost and/or free activities, and trying to make a calendar of them so we’re never at risk of being “bored.” There’s NO reason to be bored where we live, but sometimes we forget about things we’ve wanted to do, such as hiking a certain trail, attending a lecture, walking through a historic downtown, going swimming in one of the local rivers, watching a particular movie, going to a local festival or tour of historic homes…you get the idea. Making a list of these, and noting date-specific events on our calendar, means we’re more likely to do these things instead of finding higher-cost alternatives. And, we often find the lower-cost activities more fun, as we did on Monday when we hiked Billy Goat Trail in half the normal time just because we could.

There are other frugal tips and tricks we’re using, but I am sure you have the idea. The new one for me, and the one I want to talk about here, is the Price Book, an idea gleaned from Frugal Upstart & The Dollar Saver Forums. I read several frugal sites, and honestly I disagree with a good bit of what they have to say in regards to food simply because many people on those forums place cost over nutritional value even when they really don’t have to do so. I also know enough about what is in a lot of commercial foods and the risks those things are to my health that frankly I’d rather give up most other things to purchase higher quality food items. I do realize this isn’t possible for everyone–that is a whole different rant on the American food system–but in many cases people overlook the truly bad things for a very, very small savings. There are, however, occasionally some very useful tips and insights.

Given all this, my presence on these sites is largely as a lurker, because I don’t want to preach on someone else’s forum (after all, that is why I have this site, right?). I will say that recently, especially on DS, more and more people are starting to express views on nutrition vs. cost, and I’ve been really impressed at how many people are doing things like going to farmer’s markets or buying their eggs directly from a local farmer. A few of these posters have also used their “Price Book” to argue their case, showing from past records that they can get better food at comparable cost by going to alternative venues. This idea caught my attention.

I am a pretty savvy grocery shopper, but the truth is that I cannot remember all the prices, sizes, and locations (especially at Farmer’s Markets, as keeping track of the farms with which I only have a cursory relationship gets confusing). I did an experiment last week, in which I shopped at Wal-Mart for my normal groceries to see how much I would save. I did, at first glance, save some money–about $5-10 overall, depending on what you count as “normal” purchases. As I went through the groceries, however, I began to notice things like smaller packaging. The sausages I purchased did cost less than at other stores, but their packages were also smaller. Wal-Mart quality was markedly different in some cases, too, even though I was buying name brands (many name-brand suppliers produce “special” products for Wal-Mart so they can sell at a lesser cost). So, without a price book, I am not actually sure I saved money. I don’t plan on shopping at Wal-Mart again anytime soon either way for other reasons, but I’d like to actually know what I am talking about if I choose to tell people my experiences.

I think this will also help at the Farmer’s Market. I will pay more for locally produced things, and more still for sustainable, natural, and/or organic items. However, sometimes you find things at markets that are none of the above; so, the question becomes is it a good deal? Also, it will allow me to effectively see how much of an actual difference buying my preferred items really makes in the budget. Are we spending an extra $5/wk on local, quality produce? $10? $15?

Unlike the price books I’ve heard described, though, mine will also have a section for quality. I believe that being frugal isn’t just about paying less, it’s about getting the best value for your money. Crappy fruit at a lower cost isn’t necessarily a better deal. The book will be divided into sections: meat/poultry, seafood, produce (fresh & frozen), starches, dairy, canned goods, household, personal, and sundry. Each listing will contain the item, brand name (if applicable), cost per measure, where purchased, and quality. I am going to do mine in a 3-ring binder, which will allow me to use a spreadsheet program to make changes and easily organize the items. It will also allow me to keep a running database of food cost changes, as well as print customized lists.

Overall, this should fit in nicely with the budgeting we’re already doing. We do daily meal plans about a week out, and I should be able to use this list to estimate grocery costs. Thus far, we’ve been doing really well; but, there’s always room for improvement.

Do you use a price book? If so, how does it work for you? Are you organizing it differently from mine, and if so, why? If you don’t use one, what do you think of the idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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