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A short guide on grocery shopping,
with an eye toward sensory overwhelmsion
and poverty.

Staying under budget

If you aren't already restrained by a grocery budget, you should be; this will regulate how much food is coming into your house, and force you to make choices that will truly be filling, instead of sating whims (eg. that bag of doritos will last you a day; its equivalent in rice and seasonings will last weeks). However, this can be extremely stressful to pull off, especially if you have issues doing math on the fly (especially when surrounded by people, and on the move), or if your budget is literally all the money you can spare. There are tactics to it, though:

  • Bring a pen and notebook, preferably with clipboard, with your grocery list in it. Track the prices of everything you add and remove to the cart; you need to track it going in in case you remove it later, and need to subtract the price. Make note of interesting sales that will still be going the next time you go to the store. Bookkeeping is the mortal enemy of predatory advertising.
  • Put items that come together to a 'round' price together. I got cream cheese for $2.50, cheese for $2.50, and some meat for a bit shy of $5? It all goes together in the card, and I group it in my mind as $10. Using this method, you will have a far easier time keeping track of what's in your cart, ergo what you can remove.
  • Round prices up, most of the time. That sausage you're getting for $2.40 may as well be $3. (Unless you're getting two; then $4.80 may as well be $5.) This will keep you from having to keep a very close eye on any relevant taxes, and prevent you from going over-budget. However, something $2.05 may as well just be $2.

It's worth being aware of how many things you can keep in your memory at once (about 7 on average), and how high an integer you can really understand (about 5, for most people; avoid fractional math wherever possible unless you have a specific proclivity for it), and group based on that knowledge. Taking up the soroban, a japanese abacus that allows very fast addition and subtraction with muscle memory, will be a very useful hobby, if you're so inclined.

Coupons might seem like a conspicuous omission; I don't own a printer or compatible smartphone, so my couponing options are basically non-existent. However, if you intend to use them, it's worth researching how coupons stack (manufacturer and store coupons can usually be combined), and what the coupon policies of a store chain or individual store are (it varies). Drugstores are usually superior options for beginning couponing, but do your research. You may also be wondering about return policies; I can't endorse taking advantage of eg. Walmart's lax return policies, as the people taking the hit for that are the floor staff, not the 'evil corporate overlords' everyone hates.


More on that notebook

It took me a few iterations to come up with a layout that worked for me; so it will for you. My notebook, while shopping, looks something like this:

Important? Empty? Item wanted - Projected price Item in cart/Item taken out of cart Actual price Total
pb - 1 ban 3
i honey - 4 pork 6
ww flr - 2 5 ptwl 2
-i litter - 10 flav 1 12
-i g turk - 9 sesame 1
- ptwl - 1 onion .5 13.5
dry flav - 2 g turk 9 22.5
lit 10 32.5
chp 1 7 33.5 + .7
-ban -3 31.2

As you can see, I don't always follow my own rounding rules. (I tend not to round prices that fit two of these criteria: rarely change, always get, usually get multiples of)

I have my own symbols for notating what's important, what's empty, what's going to be use in what meal ... they tend to change per-list, but they stay in roughly the same place. I'll cross off items as I get them, while in the store, usually; often when it comes down to the wire, I'll have to choose which are more important to get based on my remaining money and the projected prices, and I'll mark those items in the same column. The 'total' is used to keep a running tally, so instead of having to panic and add everything together at the end, I only have to add a couple of items every few minutes.

The grocery list, versus the cart list, is there to accomodate for the situation of getting different items than I planned for, or having a vague item on the list like 'slow cooker meat'.


Keeping from being overwhelmed

  • Start at the back or far end of the store, and work your way through the aisles in order. This way, you won't have to be going around the store multiple times to get what you need, theoretically.
  • Shop during off-hours. Bad times are weekends (except sunday morning) and friday nights. Good times are tuesday and wednesday.
  • Prefer stores with self-checkouts, if that's something that helps you; it helps me and I'm willing to pay slightly more at a store that has it. Similarly, avoid stores where you know there are always going to be long and crowded checkout lines.


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