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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Trying to Grocery Shop on a Budget

I have been neglectful not mentioning my friend Erin's $5 Dinner Workshop that she held a couple of weeks ago in the Dayton area. She discussed healthy eating, portion control, couponing, grocery store advertisements, and meal planning, among other things...

She had limited the (free-of-charge) class size to 50 and it filled up quite quickly. (Have I mentioned that her website has really taken off?) Of course, at the last minute a number of people had to cancel or otherwise didn't show, but the room she had reserved at the local library was still rather cozy.

I am of two minds about shopping at the commissary versus the civilian market and local stores like Kroger or Meijer's. Based on what I have learned from sites like Erin's, I do know that you can learn to play The Game of combining weekly sales with coupons and walk away saving 40% and more off of your grocery bill (as Erin does regularly). HOWEVER -- half of the time I see a "good deal" in a grocery mailer it seems I discover that same item at the commissary for the same price or lower; and the other half of the time I won't can't justify an extra trip just for one item...

I sat with a couple of other friends at the workshop who also happen to be military. Next to my friend Deanna was a woman who we learned was also married to military, and at the end of the workshop we got into a discussion about the commissary vs. Kroger. The other woman commented on how she wished she didn't live so far away (25-30 minutes) from the commissary because it was so much cheaper than going locally. Deanna completely disagreed and said that Kroger was cheaper if you shopped their sales and used their double coupons.

I sat there and said nothing because I was completely undecided. I haven't, after all, attempted to seriously play The Game and go all out with meal planning and stockpiling around local stores' weekly sales and matching those items with available coupons. That's what Erin and others like her do, which is what enables them to walk away paying perhaps $80 for what would otherwise be a $140 grocery bill.

I have slowly started paying attention to the commissary's own sales, which they do have, just for several weeks at a time instead of weekly. The commissary doesn't double coupons, but they do have their own which they display in the aisles next to the items. (You can also find them online.) And I know this sounds stupid, but I used to only use these coupons if I happened to have that item on my list that day; I never took extra or stocked up on them for future shopping (e.g. to match with that item when it went on sale).

"Small moves, Ellie." (Name that movie.)

I am much better with couponing now, though I am still working on coordinating coupon usage with the sales and meal planning and stockpiling accordingly. I have cut my grocery budget down by quite a bit: I now regularly spend under $100 per week instead of over. And considering toiletries, personal items, and various household needs are included in that I think that's pretty good, at least for now.

After Erin's workshop, appropriately enough, I headed to the commissary for my weekly visit. I was behind schedule because of snow days which caused the base to even close, of all things (that like, never happens). I would normally never go on a Saturday, especially when it falls right after pay-day. I figured it would be a bit crazy, especially after the snow days, and perhaps even because of the Superbowl the next day. (I told you I was a bit neglectful posting about this.)

But HOLY SCHMOKES, people.
Yes, I had my camera. (I'm not a complete freak -- I had just come from Erin's workshop, remember.) The picture above means nothing to you, I know. So let me just explain that this is the end of the line for checking out and it's at the back of the store.

Right after I took this some guy said, "Oh, yea? This is nothing. When I got in the line it was all the way by the cucumbers."

The cucumbers are right by the front entrance, meaning the line went all the way from the front to the back of the store, along the whole back, to the other side, up along that edge, before heading back to the front. Here I was in the back corner, finally heading back toward the front.Once you go toward the front of the store again, the line looked like this. If you squint your eyes you can glimpse the registers up ahead, well beyond the Bakery sign.

Phew, made it! But what's this?Once you reached the registers the line switched back, three times. (Yes, around the toilet paper.) Normally this line alone would cause people to sigh and mutter to themselves. Now they're just glad to finally be within shouting distance of the end.

I had never seen it like this before, at this base or any other, that I recall. I know it was an unusual weekend with a pay-day and the Superbowl following base closings and bad weather. But still.

Luckily I ran into my friend Natalee, who had also been at Erin's workshop. She was ready to check out and was heading up to grab some magazines to look through while she walked through the line. Brilliance. So she grabbed me a couple, too.

Natalee had done a better job than I had that day of comparing the latest Kroger flyer to the commissary prices; I'd had every intention of going that road until I saw how thick the traffic was and decided to simply focus on navigating. She and I had both agreed earlier that we just couldn't handle the logistics of store hopping always looking for the best deal. But we both were reluctant to completely switch stores, too, in hopes that playing The Game would save us more than shopping the commissary's regular prices.

Before heading for the line, she pointed at the Kroger flyer in frustration. She'd had her eye on their special that week for pork chops, but she'd made a point to compare the price and had discovered that the commissary's regular price for the same item was still cheaper. "That's why I'm just sticking with the commissary!" She'd finally made up her mind.

I must say that I'm not exactly in a rush to go to The Other Side myself. It's taken me this long to get my mojo down with the commissary here; by the time I got it down with another store it'd probably be time to move again. I figure I just need to fine tune the commissary sales with my coupons and meal planning and I'll be good to go.

What about you guys? You fellow military peeps out there? Do you all make a point of shopping the commissary? Or do you just go to the closest store and shop their sales? Buy generic? Double-coupon it? (Do you care?)

I am hoping to get Erin to the commissary some day very soon. That woman carries a calculator around in her head. I figure she'll be able to cruise the aisles with me and give me the low-down, with much less effort than my trying to figure it out all on my own. As you can imagine, synching our weekday schedules is difficult, but I'll try to give you an update once it happens.

**If you've read this far, and you live in Texas (or southern Oklahoma) you might be interested in going to Erin's workshop in Dallas that she's holding next weekend. Go to her site for more information, or go to register here. There is a $5 fee for this workshop.


Sara said...

I too am a military wife (God Bless us!). I grew up military and have yet to find a place with more consistent quality and prices then the commissary with a few exceptions. I do not live in a town that has any stores that do double coupons. In fact, I really only have access to the commissary, food lion, walmart supercenter and piggly wiggly. I try to go to the commissary every 2 weeks and then Walmart every 2 weeks (the off week of the commissary). This helps me get some of the deals that are better at Walmart (with coupons). Overall though, the prices at the commissary are hard to beat on produce and meat!

Jolyn said...

It really does depend on your local area. It does seem to be a matter of perfecting The Game, no matter where you shop. And moving around sure does make that challenging. Yes, "God Bless Us"!

Rachael said...

I found your site through the Happy Housewife and I am a strictly commisary shopper, I tried to do double coupons and the flyers, but I was spending way too much time and it was tough to do (taking 2 young kids with me) I can save more money and less headaches by using the commisary and coupons with a dedicated meal plan and list. I don't have the time and energy to go to 2 or more stores.

Tam said...

I live between Fort Stewart and I have TWO COMMISSARIES to pick from. YES the prices beat out every other grocery stores here. AND that line...OUR COMMISSAIRYS are always so busy and lines are long....esp on the 1st and 15th...of course..LOL but Kroger, Publix, Piggly Wiggly and Walmart...are too expensive!!!

Carmen said...

That line is C.R.A.Z.Y!!! So glad you were shopping alone. I suppose you can now catch me up on what is new with Brad and Angelina...or Oprah's latest thing she knows for sure, for now.

G'ma said...

I shop primarily at the commissary. There are no stores that offer double coupon and the only other grocery stores are HEB or Walmart. HEB, after running all other groceries out of business are very high priced. Walmart cannot beat commissary prices. Plus the fact that I live closer to Randolph and it is more convenient. I am able to save considerably with coupons and commissary shopping.

Tam said...

OOO guess where I was yesterday....COMMISSARY. I picked a great day. It was sort of slow so I got to wonder a bit and look at things NOT on my LIST. They had WACKY what does that means that THEY had BETTY CROCKER Au Gratin potatoes for 25 cent a box.

Kelley said...

I'm also a military wife and I stick with the commissary. Right now here in Guam I really don't have a choice, but even when we lived State-side I stayed with the commissary as much as possible. I once did my own comparision and found that the comm's everyday prices were within penny's of Super Wal-mart's store brand. Also, when you store hop, you have to think about the gas your driving and the time your spending. I do try to stock up on those coupons and buy extra - if my limited pantry space can handle it! Gotta love these small military houses! (Not)

The Farmer Files said...

I grew up military and my mom was a NUTSO at the commissary. Over twenty years ago she would avg $500 every time we went, with coupons!

I have found it best to stick to a total dollar amount per week, and shop for that week only. We cut our grocery bill in half!

Mike and Erin said...


Obviously I do the commissary. German stores would have to like quadruple coupons just to make up for the exchange rate. :) In addition to two kids in diapers, I have a husband that will only eat meat. Yikes! Needless to say, I definitely need to start paying more attention to both specials and coupons.