Prices are going up. For a while, economists said 4% and “transitory,” meaning “This, too, shall pass.” It hasn’t. Whether it’s been gas, food, or housing prices, chances are you’re watching your wallet shrink. It doesn’t matter what the percentage is on the news–stop watching that, it’s all nonsense using official numbers that don’t really reflect the things I buy.
We measure the inflation numbers by looking at the “CPI” or Consumer Price Index. The CPI is a basket of goods and services that when measured, can tell us how much prices are changing–for some people. It’s like asking my grandfather how much a gallon of milk or Hershey bar cost in his day. But, the CPI has two problems. One, it changes and “rebalances” from time to time, so if I’m looking at things from a different “basket” the data won’t be consistent. And, it primarily measures an urban group of clerical workers. To be fair, it hits a little under 90% of the United States, but–not me, exactly.
It’s measuring a lot of things I don’t use or buy, and it leaves out a lot of stuff I use regularly. To get the real impact, I need to see the numbers for the things I buy. I call this “The Milk, Gas, and Chicken Food Number.” I want to know how those things impact me.
When gas prices rose, I didn’t really care much since I didn’t go anywhere. They could be two bucks a gallon or twenty, I still wasn’t going much farther than the next town over. So, the number I was measuring was my approximate total cost for one month. It was negligible until spring sports season, when I became a daily chauffeur to the one sport that didn’t have a bus. Then, I paid attention. Currently, it’s rising about $.10 every day or two at the gas station that never price gauges, so that’s the base price for real.
Groceries are through the roof–but only if you shop like the average American. I’ll get to that in a second. My friend posted a sale price of Stacy’s Pita Chips. It was over $8.00. For $8.00, I want Stacy to come to my house and make those chips in my kitchen. I would never pay that price for a chip, Frito, Dorito, or other snack food unless I got kidnapped by someone going to a weed convention.
Moving on to the things I have to buy, no questions asked: Chicken food. Here, it rose $3.50 almost overnight from the $11 to 13 range to $16.79. That’s a 30% increase from where I sit. My coffee jumped from $9 to $12. That’s 33%. Hellman’s Mayonnaise, something I generally buy when too lazy to make my own, went from the “stock up on sale” price of $2.99 to $4.99 on sale and over $7 full price. That’s a 66% increase right there.
I was on a forum where people were panicking about grocery prices, and for many, the struggle is real. That 30% means the difference between making ends meet–especially for many teachers.
But, you don’t have to sit there and pay those prices. Really, you don’t. While everyone around me is going to The Store and posting food hauls along with their prices, I am not. I’m also not reverting to my crazy coupon self. I only ever use coupons if they fall in my lap. Most stores have electronic coupons, so I’ll do a quick scan before I pay, and that’s it.
There are three things I’ve done to inflation bust, and unless you live somewhere very remote with only one store, you can do them too. I’ve been able to keep prices for most of the things I buy down to pre-inflation levels.
I think you can, too. By shopping efficiently, planning your strategy of attack, then doing a little menu planning, cooking, and waste management (we waste 25% of the food that comes into our kitchens) you can come out on top while not sacrificing any of the things you love.
When I was a crazy couponer, I’d end up throwing things out. I had too much of the things I didn’t use that I got with a coupon. I also had tons of stuff I couldn’t use before it want bad. Or, I’d pile it up and store it improperly, so when I went to use something, it was rotten or destroyed.
If you do these four things, you’ll stop tossing (expensive!!) items and having to buy them again.
It’s nice to hit a sale, but do you really know how much of something you use? This is a very good skill to hone in on. I do a lot of long-term planning. There are some things I grow and preserve once a year, so I need to know how much I’m going to use or gift until the next year. There are other things I try to get only during the sale cycles. Again, I want to know the amount I need.
For most things, this is a general awareness more than a panic mode spreadsheet. The worst that can happen is I get stuck running out of kleenex and buy them not on sale or I run out of homemade peach salsa and eat something else.
But, during the pandemic people were very nervous about things like toilet paper and yeast. If those things matter to you, then you need to know how much you use. Keep that amount plus a little extra if the goal is getting to the next sale. If it’s “never running out.” keep a bit more. When I was teaching, I used to keep too much on hand. That ties up your cash flow in inventory, essentially, and clutters up your life.
Know what you need, and get that amount, plus a little buffer if you can for uncertain times.
ROTATE YOUR STUFF
It’s not enough to know what you have, you have to use the stuff that needs to be used first. I have a shelf where I put the newest items behind the items that need to be used. For example, if there are two bottles of ketchup, I’ll use the older one first, then leave the “just found on sale” new one behind it. I like to keep enough of the things I use to get me through to the next sale cycle, which is generally seasonal or every couple months, depending on the food item. So, it’s important to know which one needs to be eaten or used first, or I’ll end up throwing stuff out.
PLAN & EAT FROM THE PANTRY
…instead of shopping for what you want to eat. If you’re the type of person who stops into the store for an item or two on the way home, before dinner, you’re exactly the type of person who can save a ton by meal planning and shopping only for what you need.
LEAVE THE FAMILY AT HOME
If I take my family shopping, it raises the bill by ten percent, minimum. Generally, it’s closer to twenty percent. They can usually make a case for why they “need” something they see in the aisles and I say yes. Or, I have to argue, say “One treat” or otherwise spend mental energy diverted away from my mission–getting in and out with a bunch of stuff we want to eat at the lowest cost possible.
Send the person who’s most efficient, and send them alone.
KNOW YOUR PRICES & GO TO THE SOURCE
Earlier, I mentioned the 33% increase in my coffee. I buy it by the pound from a local shop that I know repackages it from five pound bags they get from the local roaster.
I called the local roaster and put in an order for 15 pounds. This saves me the 33% price increase (it’s back down to $8/pound), and since I’ll bundle together some errands when I pick it up, it’s not taking a ton of time out of a day (time is money!) or too much gas. And, I don’t have to pay a $30 shipping fee to have the stuff sent three towns over, which ruins buying in bulk.
I also got my nuts (I use a lot for nut milks and veggie meals) in bulk at the place that supplies the chefs. I get spices and international ingredients at global markets–the Asian, Indian, Latin, and Middle East markets. Sometimes this means I have to translate a label. I can. But, if you can’t, you can use the camera feature on your Google Translate just to make sure you’re getting the right thing.
I guarantee you–for many categories of foods, you’ll save a ton.
If you don’t have global markets, you can shop online. You may pay a bit more but you’ll still save when compared to going to The Grocery Store in a one-trip deal.
For the rest–I know where things are least expensive, and I shop there. Milk and dairy is cheapest at my warehouse store, for example, but if I’m also getting other things at my other discount stores (Aldi, Price Rite, Walmart), it’s fairly inexpensive there, and I wouldn’t make the specific trip. But, once a month, I do–I get all the cheese, milk, and cream at the warehouse store and spend half or less what the prices would be at the local grocery store.
“I DON’T HAVE TIME!”
Yes. You do. And you must. It’s not like I’m going to twenty five stores for one thing each. I keep category lists. I go to one loop of stores each time I make a trip. That might be every couple weeks, but certainly no more than once a week. I’ll go to the cluster of stores in a certain area, and get the things I need there when they’re priced well. Doing a region or store each time lets me access the best prices without wasting time.
Delivery can save if you shop the sales, and if the delivery cost doesn’t cancel them out. It can also keep you from buying what you don’t need if you’re the type of person who does.
MEAL PLANNING & EATING FROM THE PANTRY
We’ve been a takeout culture for a while. The pandemic changed that for a lot of people who started to cook great stuff at home. Keep that up! Even though you can go out now, you should plan your meals based on what’s in your pantry from those sales and “great price” loops you did shopping. If you plan your meals based on what you have instead of the instant craving, you’ll waste less food, and you’ll avoid those “just one thing” trips where you bring home seven bags instead.
I’ve got another site that’s not related to teaching. I started putting up food stuff for fun. I’ve got a few menus. I’ll link them here as I build them out so if planning great meals is stressful to you during the school year, you can take my menus.
By having a well stocked pantry, planning ahead, and disciplining yourself to buy things at the places where they’re the least expensive, you can take a bite out of inflation. By cooking at home, from the pantry, you can do even better.