When my husband and I first moved to Tennessee, he was in school and I was working an office job. While we were determined to live as economically as we could, we were a little lost as to how to save money on routine purchases in a new town. However, with a little research, time getting to know the options in our area, and many great learning experiences, we discovered that our town was chock full of places to save money.

But one of the most important first steps we did was an exercise that helped form the foundation for most of our money-saving purchases today. We took the time to analyze the price trends in our area by compiling a comparison spreadsheet. I know it sounds pretty basic, but this effective, old-fashioned method of research continues to save us money every time we go shopping. Here are the simple steps to start one yourself and some tips on how to use the data to find a store that saves you money.

1. Set up your Excel spreadsheet

  • Across the top, list the best store options that you are aware of in your area (for us we narrowed it down to Walmart, Costco, and ALDI).
  • Down the left side, list as many of your routine grocery purchases you can think of. These are items that you like to keep stocked in your fridge or cupboard. For example, peanut butter if you eat it every morning for breakfast, but not frozen waffles if you only buy them for special occasions. Our list included items such as oatmeal, spaghetti, and toilet paper, since we like to have these on hand.

2. Print out your list

Or have it accessible on your phone or electronic device so that every time you visit those stores, you have it ready to fill in. It didn’t take but a few visits for our spreadsheet to fill up, but I still keep mine permanently in my purse as prices change or we add products.

Food Comparison Spreadsheet

Our well-used list

3. Bring a calculator

Whether it’s on your smartphone or an old-fashioned one that you can slip into your purse or pocket. My husband and I are frequently punching in calculations before we even put an item in our cart, because we believe you can’t make a smart purchase if you haven’t crunched the numbers. And let me tell you, once you know you have a deal, instead of feeling guilty about spending money, you can walk out with your purchase and on cloud 9!

4. Gather your data

  • It’s unlikely that you’ll have remembered to put all of the items that you’ll want to compare on your spreadsheet, so take the few extra minutes to keep adding items to your list as you’re shopping or as you happen to think of them. I found that items I thought I would never need to remember, I wished I had written down when I found it for sale at some random store. As a rule of thumb, a comprehensive list is always the most useful.
  • Break down the cost based on a fairly universal unit measurement (for food items, that’s usually cost per ounce) so that it will be easy to compare prices between stores even if the item is sold in a different quantity. For example, Walmart may sell peanut butter in 28 ounce  jars, but Costco may sell it in 48 ounce. If you have the price documented by price/ounce, it will be easy to see which is cheaper without having to do multiple calculations. (Tip: Some stores like Walmart and ALDI have done the work for you and already have the price/ounce printed on the price label.)

5. Analyze your findings

Once you have most of the prices filled in on your spreadsheet you will likely have already seen trends as you wrote down your findings, so this step should be fairly easy. However, there are a few things to keep in mind as you decide which store (or stores) deserve to have you (a Crumb Saver) as a well-earned patron:

  • Distance: Don’t spend a dollar to save a quarter. For example, we have found that food is a lot cheaper in Atlanta. In our few years in southern TN, we have been learning which store in Atlanta has the best deal for each item: The Korean market for brown rice…..coconut milk down the road at the Chinese store…..the smaller Korean market on the other side of the freeway whenever their produce is on sale. But if we were to drive the 100 miles to Atlanta just to buy groceries, much of our savings would be eaten up in the miles to get there, and then driving from store to store in bumper-to-bumper Atlanta traffic. Instead, we keep our weekly shopping within a 10-15 minutes radius from our house and indulge in the luxury of shopping in Atlanta only if we are headed back from the airport or have other important business there already. So the point is, if you want to pocket your savings instead of burning them up in your car, keep your shopping nearby (or even better, live near your favorite market and walk or bike there).
  • Tax: This doesn’t apply to everyone, but consider variable tax rates. We happen to live in TN near the GA border and if an item is similar in price, we hop over to GA for 3% tax on food instead of TN’s 7.25%.
  • Special Deals: Every store has some type of special deal that sets it apart from others. For example, Walmart and Home Depot have a price match, ALDI has a double guarantee. Store websites are usually the best place to look and you may be surprised at what you find. Smart businesses go the extra mile to keep their customers.
  • Trends: As you peruse your spreadsheet data, you should start noticing trends. For example, we noticed that ALDI was usually cheaper on packaged goods, almost always cheaper on produce, and definitely cheaper when the item was on special. We learned that Costco was good quality, but usually more expensive than our other options, so we mostly buy items there that we prefer are well-made rather than a few dollars cheaper (i.e. toilet paper, vitamins). We could go on and on, but now it’s your turn….

Once you have determined the trends in your marketplace and have a good pulse on your options, you can shop intelligently and confidently that you are making decisions based not just on emotions, fads, or convenience, but on what is truly saving you money and putting those crumbs back into your pocket.

So how do you go about finding your favorite place to shop? Share your experiences and tips with us!

Curious what store came out on top from our data research?  We share it with you here:

Why ALDI Should Be Your Best Friend