I recently embarked on what is perhaps my most time-intensive personal finance experiment to date. While I have always felt that I am a smart grocery shopper – shopping at the right stores, taking full advantage of sales and carefully checking unit prices – I figured it couldn’t hurt to verify the frugality of my ways. I’ve never had a price book before, but I have heard the value of them extolled on not a few personal finance blogs, so I decided to give it a try and compile a grocery price comparison spreadsheet of my own.
I began this experiment by creating a spreadsheet listing items I commonly buy in three key categories: household items, toiletries and food. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but I tried to include enough items to give me a good sense of which stores offer the best value in each category. For some items I had a specific brand that I was looking for. For others, there were only certain requirements, and in those cases the least expensive option that fulfilled the requirements was selected for comparison. For all items at all stores, I compared full prices only. All stores have sales, but it just seemed impractical to wait for those sales to come around to put into the spreadsheet.
My goal in this experiment was to determine if I’m really shopping at the most cost-effective stores for what I’m buying. Of course, convenience is a big factor, so I looked only at stores within a 10 to 15 minute drive of my house. Also for convenience reasons, I knew that I was looking for one store that offered the best prices for my weekly grocery needs, and possibly one other store that I could go to about once a month to stock up on non-perishable items. I’m not about to shop at 10 different stores just to buy each individual item at the lowest price. The cost of my time would just be too high.
Currently, I shop weekly at Market Basket for the essentials, and monthly at Target for non-perishables. I wondered if I’d be better off at a warehouse store, or even at another local grocery store. The only way to find out for sure was to look at prices at each store, which is exactly what I did. Yes, it was tedious to go to each store, take photographs of the prices of each item I was tracking, and then record that information in my spreadsheet when I got home. And yes, the resulting spreadsheet is in some ways incomplete, in that there was always an item or two I forgot to check at a certain store. But all in all, I’m really happy with the information garnered through this experiment.
What did I learn from my great experiment?
- Costco actually does offer the best prices overall. I was skeptical of Costco before this experiment, thinking that many people shop there without really looking at the numbers to determine if the yearly fee is worth the savings. I am now convinced that the yearly fee is well worth the savings. In fact, I went so far as to estimate my usage of the items on my price list on a yearly basis, and based on that I would save nearly six times the yearly fee by shopping at Costco as compared to the stores I currently shop at. Not bad!
- Costco sizes are ginormous. Going into this experiment, I didn’t quite realize just how large the items sold at Costco were. I figured that I could surely find a place in my condo and basement storage unit to store a Costco-sized pack of toilet paper. Having checked Costco out, I think that I probably could find a place for the toilet paper, but not much else. This, for me, is the real downside to Costco. Living in the city, I simply don’t have enough space to accommodate Costco-sized goods. By time I purchased toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, and a few cleaning supplies, my whole storage unit would be full. That is to say nothing of the fridge and freezer space required to accommodate Costco-sized meat, produce, etc. Of course, anything perishable that can’t be frozen was a non-starter at Costco. My favorite item at Costco was the 50 pound bag of flour. I’m pretty sure that would last me and BF until retirement. Of course the fact that I probably couldn’t lift it made it fairly impractical. I do think the savings would still be worth the yearly fee even if you only purchased non-perishables at Costco, as long as you have the space to store them.
- Given the two points above, I’m actually doing pretty well. Yes, I could be saving some money by joining Costco, but given the spatial constraints mentioned above, joining is just not going to work for me right now. Given that, I was able to see from my spreadsheet that I am in fact shopping pretty smartly right now. Market Basket offers better prices that my other local grocery store. Target offers better prices than Market Basket on household goods and toiletries. Amazon offers good prices on a few items, but shipping to our condo is tricky so that probably isn’t worth the hassle.
- If you want to join a warehouse store, be aware that they offer different benefits. Costco does generally have better prices than BJ’s, but the sizes are bigger and there is less selection. Typically, Costco only offers one brand of any given item, so if you’re brand sensitive it may not be right for you. For example, I could buy the Dove body wash I like at Costco, but the scent I like was only available in a three-pack with two other scents that I don’t like. BJ’s, on the other hand, often has many brand options for each item. There, I could find a three-pack of only the scent of Dove body wash that I like. I also found that they actually offer lower prices than Costco for toiletries. BJ’s sizes are also somewhat smaller (although still quite large), so may be better for some people. I don’t have a Sam’s Club near me, so unfortunately can’t provide any thoughts on how it compares.
- Experimentation is costly at a warehouse club. I like to experiment with different brands of various products. For example, I will typically try out a store brand or other less expensive brand of an item, and if I don’t notice a different, I stick with the less expensive option. If you’re shopping at a warehouse club, the cost of this experimentation is potentially very high. For example, if you try out a new laundry detergent and learn (as I once did) that it causes you to break out in hives all over your entire body, you’re going to be stuck with a lot of unusable laundry detergent. Of course the same thing could happen when buying a smaller sized laundry detergent at Target, but the amount of money wasted is likely to be a lot less.
- Some prices are really hard to compare. I found this to be especially true of toilet paper. Who would have thought toilet paper would be so complicated!? Between the double rolls and the triple rolls, the one-ply vs. two-ply, etc., I found it nearly impossible to get an accurate measure of comparison from store to store. Even within individual stores, some toilet paper had unit pricing per 100 sheets, while others had it by pound. Ultimately I decided to look at price per sheet, but this of course overlooks the fact that more sheets of one brand might be required to get the job done. Alas, I had to accept the imperfect nature of this experiment.
My game plan and next steps
The goal of this experiment was to determine the best places to shop, and after looking through the numbers I feel that a weekly trip to Market Basket with monthly runs to Target is still going to get me the best bang for my buck. Market Basket simply can’t be beat in terms of quality and price, and Target is my best option for pricing on non-perishables (and that is before I pay with my Red Card, taking another 5% off the total bill). Something I didn’t talk about here is shopping experience, which isn’t as great at Market Basket as at some other stores. For me, it is worth the savings to shop at a crowded, simple store, but you may feel differently.
The thing I am most excited about is being able to use this spreadsheet as a resource going forward to help evaluate sale prices. Something I have struggled with in the past is determining if sale-priced toilet paper at Market Basket is more or less expensive than full-priced toilet paper at Target. Now, I know exactly what I pay for full-priced toilet paper at each store, so when I see a sale I can easily evaluate if it’s a good deal or not. Yay! (You know it is bad when sales on toilet paper get you excited.)
This experiment also has me considering trying out BJ’s at some point in the future. Unlike Costco, which never offers a trial membership, BJ’s offers three-month free trial memberships from time to time. Next time an offer becomes available, I might take the opportunity to stock up on a few toiletries, for which BJs offers the best prices.
Finally, there are a few local stores that didn’t make it into this round of experimentation, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Based on past experience, I feel that these stores are either more expensive or don’t offer everything I need to get on a weekly basis, but I do feel that I owe it to myself to verify this. Let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in an update with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (any other stores I’m missing?) added to the spreadsheet.
What do you think? Do you have your own price comparison spreadsheet? Do you think I’m nuts for having done all this work (most of my friends and family do!)?