Are you able to spot a bargain when you see it?  Can you look at a sales flyer or a coupon and know that it’s a good deal?

I can’t.  Or, at least, I couldn’t until fairly recently.  What helped was putting together my own – perfect – price list.

The concept of a price list is old and simple: it’s a list of grocery items (or items purchased regularly from any store) and how much they cost.  The idea is that you take your list with you when you’re shopping and, if you find that the price has gone down, you can stock up.

The old way of doing it is rather tedious and potentially a waste of time.  To get started, there are lists of “standard” items you should track so you print out a list, grab a pen and clipboard, and then head to the store for a fun-filled afternoon of writing down prices.  By the end of your trip, you have a hand-scrawled page of numbers (for items you may never purchase), and you’re supposed to remember to bring it with you every time you go shopping.  Oh yeah, and if you lose that list, you can start over!

Anyway, there are several ways to make a price list -oh- so much more useful that it’s actually worth the time and effort.  Since I started mine last year, I can safely say that it has saved me several hundred dollars in grocery costs.  It has also given me a good sense of how much items should cost and which stores generally have the best deals on certain items.  Jonathan and I still refer to it at least once a week.

So, with all that said, what are the factors that contribute to making the best price list for you?

1. It only lists items YOU purchase
Why bother tracking prices for items you don’t buy?  Just grab your most recent receipts and build your list from those.  If you don’t keep your receipts around long enough, plan to start after your next shopping trip.  Sure, you can write down prices while you’re at the store, but I’d rather kick back at home and do it when I’m not surrounded by busy shoppers.

2. It does the calculations for you
You can’t really compare a 5 lb bag of beans to a 25 lb bag of beans without figuring out the per-unit pricing.  More stores are helpful these days by displaying these numbers on their price tags, but you don’t see it everywhere.  Instead of doing the calculations by hand, enter them into a spreadsheet.  Type in the name of the item in one column, the total price in another, and then the number of units in the third column.  Enter a simple “Bx/Cx” formula and copy / paste it down the column and you’re set.  Also, if you feel it’s worth repeating an item under different units [such as per ounce vs. per pound pricing], go ahead.  Another benefit of using a spreadsheet is sorting.  Enter the items as you wish, and then once you’re done, have the spreadsheet sort them alphabetically.    Easy enough!

3. It’s backed up and accessible online

MJ has already explained the many benefits of Google Docs, and they bear repeating.  Uploading your price list spreadsheet into Google Docs is free, it is platform independent (Windows / Mac / Linux), it is backed up in case your computer crashes, and you can access it from [almost] any internet-enabled device.  If you get regular sales flyers via e-mail, you’re one click away from your price list to see if those sales are worth a trip to the store.  You can even share it with others and let them contribute to it if you’d like.  Once it’s on Google Docs, all you need is an internet connection to view or update your list.

4. It fits in your pocket and goes everywhere with you
This is possibly the most important factor.  About once a month I use the conversion apps from PocketMod to print my 8 page spreadsheet onto one sheet of paper that folds into an awesome little booklet.  It’s always in my back pocket, ready for any planned or unplanned trip to the store.  Say you’re hanging with some friends and end up at their local Asian or Mexican market – why not whip out your list and see if there’s anything worth getting?  It’s also a great time to see how that store compares to the stores you typically visit.  And if PocketMod doesn’t work for you, it’s still possible on most platforms to do a multi-page print from PDF and then cut & staple the sheets into a small booklet.  Take advantage of the fact that your printer can print much smaller text than you can write while still being easy to read.  This helps cut down the bulk of trying to stuff 4 to 10 sheets of paper in your pockets, and makes it much more likely that you’ll carry it with you everywhere.

Once my price list had enough items on it to make some comparisons, I was shocked.   Some stores (such as the grocery store closest to my home) charge 50-300 percent more for everything… including expired and damaged goods in the clearance baskets!  I also found that many “sales” listed in sales flyers weren’t sales at all… and buying items at Costco or Sam’s Club doesn’t necessarily give you the best deal.  I learned quite a bit just by writing down some numbers.

Even after a year, I’m quite thankful for this list and use it regularly.  It was definitely worth the little bit of time that went into it.

What’s your experience?  What are the tips & tricks that have worked for you?

James Roy is an electrical engineer by day and music artist by night – check him out on his website at or
James Roy