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Fight rising food prices with 'stealth stock-up'

Packing your pantry can make financial sense.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 6, 2009 6:37PM

I have 29 cans of tuna, thanks to a really good sale at Albertsons. Last week's ad had a coupon for Chicken of the Sea tuna at three cans for 99 cents, limit six. 

The fine print said "one coupon per transaction," not "one coupon per customer." Some of my neighbors toss the grocery ads unread into the lobby recycle bin, so I wound up with a handful of coupons.

Guess which destination walk I chose a bunch of times in the past week? And guess what I had for lunch on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday?

It had been almost a year since I bought tuna. I'd gotten irritated when the price went up as high as $1.09 a can -- and not even for albacore, just for the chunk light. "When it goes on sale, I'll stock up," I kept telling myself. 

Did I ever. It's part of my ongoing maintenance of what MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam Weston calls "the emergency fund you can eat." 

This doesn't even have to cost a lot if you use what I call the "stealth stock-up" plan. Almost everybody has 99 cents, or even 33 cents, left over each week. Little by little you can build a decent pantry without breaking the bank.

Stock up and save
The idea is thrifty on several fronts. Having just a few basics on hand can mean the difference between making dinner and making a pizza run. 

Stocking up helps cut extra trips to the store for, say, a jar of peanut butter for school lunches. This not only saves gas and wear and tear on your car, it protects you from impulse buys like the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that make the store smell so good. Full cupboards also let you pack a lunch at least a couple of times a week, which can save a bundle.

Worst-case scenario: If you got laid off, wouldn't you feel a little more secure with a full larder?

Stealth stock-up relies heavily on loss leaders. Suppose a decent brand of spaghetti sauce goes on sale for 99 cents. Why buy just one? Buy at least two, preferably more. Then you can feel all smug and proactive once it goes back up to $3.29. You'll also be looking for sales on pasta, of course. 

And yes, all you food purists, I know it's better to make your own sauce from scratch. The fact is, a lot of people aren't going to bother. Pricewise, this beats ordering out.

Cheap chow
Each time you shop, aim for at least one extra item. If store-brand tomato soup costs three for a dollar, buy three -- or six. Dried beans on sale? Get a couple of bags. Canned fruit at something approaching a decent price? Grab it. Peanut butter is a frequent loss leader; recently I even found an all-natural brand on sale, and because I had a coupon I paid only $1.65 for a 16-ounce jar of the good stuff.

"Pantry" can also mean "freezer." If pork chops are 99 cents a pound, buy several packages; you can rewrap in smaller portions if necessary. Bread prices have skyrocketed, so when your favorite multigrain is on sale, throw a couple of loaves in the deep freeze.

Don't forget to watch for great prices on nonfood items like toiletries, laundry soap, bathroom tissue and, of course, Ziploc bags.

Be flexible about where to shop. I've bought wax paper, foil and bar soap at yard sales. My local dollar store sells two-pound bags of rice. Walgreens sells raisins, cranberries and other dried fruit for $1 a box, and regularly puts its spices on sale two for a buck. Obviously, I'm no epicure; fancy rice and pricey spice would be wasted on my proletarian palate.

The key, according to Weston, is to "store food you actually eat. … otherwise, your pantry becomes a food mausoleum." It's also important to rotate the stock, as it were; use and replace these things regularly.

What if you don't have a pantry?
You'd be surprised how many extra items can fit in even a small apartment. Myscha Theriault offers some great storage tips in an essay she wrote for partner blog Wise Bread.

As I was shoehorning Chicken of the Sea into cupboards, I marveled at all the other stuff I've stashed: pinto and black beans (dried and canned), spaghetti sauce, flour, rice, catsup, canned tomatoes, mustard, pasta, sugar (stored for next summer's jam-making), pickles, soups, spices, barbecue sauce, aluminum foil, oatmeal, dried cranberries, peanut butter and tea. All of these items were incredibly cheap; a few, such as the mustard and barbecue sauce, wound being free with coupons.

Elsewhere in the apartment I have months and months' worth of toiletries, laundry soap and bathroom tissue. Many of these items were free or nearly free thanks to coupons and drugstore rebates.

Sometimes I think I'm becoming one of those weird hoarders, the kind who die and leave relatives to deal with a house full of Spam and bundled newspapers. But then I'll go a week or two without having to go to the store at all, which makes me feel better about my shopping patterns. Living out of the larder is very satisfying. Especially if you like tuna.

Published April 16, 2008

Sep 13, 2013 9:35AM

A woman after my own heart. I have 39 cans of tuna (at last count). I love tuna.....and in a crisis at least I'll be able to hang on a little while longer than most folks. Oh the tips I could share. Throwing coupons away (for things you really use) is just like throwing real money away. Lots of lazy, stupid people out there.


Sep 15, 2013 3:40PM
Can you please give me your thoughts on the comparable value of Costco?
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