Buying Inexpensive Groceries in Small Towns, by Sarah in Texas

The “extreme couponing” movement is fascinating. In larger communities than mine, people can combine coupons, sales, and store policies (like double- or triple-coupon days) to walk out with free or dirt-cheap groceries, hygiene items, and other goodies. When you’re trying to build a survival stockpile, every dollar matters; it’s great to get a years’ worth of toothbrushes for the entire family for just a few dollars, for example, and to stock up on canned vegetables for twenty cents apiece.

However, I live in a small town. This rural part of Texas includes a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a local grocery store, and a small supermarket. All have sales, and they accept coupons (no doubling or tripling allowed, though, and they won’t accept most online/home-printed coupons), but it’s difficult to get fantastic deals like twenty-five-cent tubes of toothpaste or fifty-cent bags of flour.

This doesn’t mean that Mom and I pay full, retail price for most of our groceries and other essentials. Mom and Dad are living on his Social Security retirement, which doesn’t go very far. Also, we’re still building our survival stockpiles, so we end up spending the same amount of grocery money—we’re just coming home with a lot more these days, a good chunk of which is stored for later.

Our process is a bit time consuming, but we’re motivated to make the investment, especially with recent word that drought conditions in Indiana will affect food prices. We have to eat no matter how expensive or scarce food becomes in the future, so we figure that having a buffer now, when the biggest pain is investing time in the stocking-up process, is best.

We’re Wal-Mart Shoppers

For ninety-something percent of our grocery shopping, we go to Wal-Mart. Regardless of how anybody might feel about that corporation—we can all agree, I’m sure, that they don’t have a perfect track record—they’re the go-to source for groceries where I live.

Why? Wally World honors competitors’ sales ads. Each store has its own policies, which you can check out by calling or visiting the customer-service desk. In most cases, a local competitor’s sales circular is acceptable as long as an actual price is printed; Wally World won’t generally honor sales like “Buy one, get one for a penny” or “Twenty percent off X item.”
One huge advantage is that Wal-Mart substitutes its own, store brand for generic or store-brand items in circulars. The catch is that they must be the same item as far as weight and contents are concerned. I can’t get a fifty-pound bag of Ol’ Roy dog food (Wally World’s brand) if the advertised, store brand is forty-four pounds. I also can’t get Neufchatel cheese for the sale price if the advertisement is for cream cheese.

However, because most Supercenters stock a large selection of groceries and other goods, finding a comparable item in the store isn’t difficult. Wal-Mart also carries quite a few national brands, which often go on sale somewhere. It’s rare for me to find something I want in a sales ad that I can’t find on the shelves.

Finding Ads

On Wednesdays, I get online and look at the sales circulars for other stores. If the supermarkets are nearby, these ads will show up in the mailbox. That applies to the supermarket and local grocery store I mentioned earlier; the other dozen-plus stores don’t mail us anything, as we live too far away, so I use the Internet.

My Wal-Mart honors ads from stores up to sixty miles away, which includes a very-large, well-populated region. The sprawling metropolis has supermercados (Hispanic supermarkets), which tend to have excellent sales prices on meat and produce. They’re also good for deals on paper products, various soaps, and cleaning items.

I visit the supermercados’ sites first. That’s where I find sales like:
Tomatoes: 5 pounds for a dollar (Wal-Mart price: $1.98 a pound)
White or yellow onions: 5 (sometimes 8) pounds for a dollar (Wal-Mart price: at least $1.49 a pound)
Cantaloupe: $1 each (Wal-Mart price: $1.98 each)
Boneless, skinless chicken breast: $1 a pound (Wal-Mart price: $2.99 a pound)
Eggs: $1 a dozen (Wal-Mart price: $2 a dozen)
Other supermarkets also have great sales. Mom and I like McCormick’s Grill Mates seasonings for some cooking. They’re $2.50 apiece at Wal-Mart, but we have a few dozen of them in storage. They were $1 apiece at one grocery store about fifty miles away, so we stocked up by “comp shopping” at the local Wal-Mart. (Try the Montreal Chicken next time you grill chicken breasts; it’s delicious.)
Also, we can combine sale prices with coupons. When that happens, we do our best to stock up on those items. Coupons aren’t easy to find out here unless we buy the newspaper—people aren’t interested in setting up a coupon swap, for some reason—but we do what we can.
Since we started doing this more than two years ago, Mom and I have learned that ads run in cycles. The first week of the month, for example, is not a great time to go stock-up shopping; stores tend to have fewer sales, or worse sales prices. That, I suspect, is because lots of people are paid around the first of the month (retirees, for example). They’re going to do the bulk of their shopping that week, so why offer them the best sales prices when they’re going to show up to buy food no matter how much or little it costs?
Sales cycles run throughout the month and, in some cases, by seasons. The third week of the month, for example, is a good time to stock up on toilet paper and paper towels, as this is when stores tend to have the best sales. Why? I have no idea. All I know is that the pattern is rather consistent, so Mom and I buy our paper products for the month (and for the long-term stash) that week of the month.
Making Menus and Lists
When I’m finished writing down sales prices for items or printing the pages of ads that we want to use, Mom and I plan the weekly menu. Most of what we make around here is based on what we found on sale, at least for fresh goods like meat and produce. Even perishables like vegetables and meat are preserved—we have a Food Saver, food dehydrator, and freezer—but some of the fresh food goes into this week’s meals. Basing food on what’s inexpensive this week saves money and, because Mom and I have loads of recipes that we all like, there are few complaints about the menu. Fresh, homemade meals can be inexpensive but nutritious, especially if you don’t pay full, retail price for the ingredients.
Using my ads or notes, Mom makes the grocery list. She’s shopped at the local Supercenter so long that she knows exactly where to find each item, so she writes the list in that order. We hit the pharmacy first, so those items are at the top. We hit the produce section last, so those items are at the bottom.
Mom’s list, usually on notebook paper, includes several columns titled “Item,” “Description,” “Store,” “Price,” and “Other.” For example:
Item: Canned corn
Description: Store brand, 15 oz.
Store: Dave’s Fiesta Mart
Price: 50 cents
Other: Limit 5
This way, she doesn’t have to go through a stack of ads, which we regularly see other shoppers doing. Why not spend some extra time, while we’re at the house, to organize the list into one, neat page? (Mom writes on the front and back side of the paper; it’s rare for her to need a second page, but it does happen.)

The Shopping Trip

The entire trip to Wal-Mart, from entering to exiting the front doors, takes an hour and a half to two hours. That seems like a long time, but we’re shopping for both the week and our stockpile; it’s common for us to push two carts full of goods out to the truck.

When we first started, trips took longer—up to four hours in a couple of cases—because we weren’t as efficient as we are these days. We’ve learned, mostly through trial and error, to plan things before we leave the house so that we aren’t wandering up and down the aisles, spending what seems like forever trying to find one stupid thing we need.
While we’re in the store, we separate sale items from the rest of the things in the cart. Sometimes, Mom and I both push a cart: one for sale items and the other for the rest. Either way, staying organized while we’re going up and down the aisles makes things go faster when we get to the cashier.
The main problem with shopping competitors’ ads at Wal-Mart is the extra time involved with checking out. Mom and I have cut time from that process by keeping everything separated while we’re in the store, but that does only so much.

We have to tell the cashier where that item’s on sale and how much it costs. He or she might have to verify by looking at a copy of the ad, which management puts at each register. The cashier must manually override the computer every time he or she scans a sale item which, even with an experienced employee, eats up time.
When I’m pushing two Wal-Mart carts full of purchases out the door, after paying all of $200 for them—including non-grocery items like pet food, laundry soap, and the like—I’m fine with the extra time spent on all this. We don’t have much money around here, but we have extra food and other essentials because of comp shopping. If I have to spend thirty minutes looking ad ads and then an hour and a half shopping for those goods, that’s what I’ll do—and keep doing as long as there’s money to spend at the store and items on the shelves to buy.