Make Grocery Budgeting A Game, The Price Is Right Style

By Jason White on 15 May 2008 (Updated 30 June 2009) 16 comments
Photo: ninjapoodles

Growing up, I stayed with my grandparents during the day on summer breaks from school. Our mid-mornings were usually spent casually watching The Price is Right. This was back in the days when Bob Barker was still hosting the show, and the "guess the price of the car game" always started off with a "1" in the ten-thousands column. My, how times have changed! My favorite part of the show was the Showcase Showdown, where contestants would bid an amount "closest to the actual retail price without going over" on a host of prizes. Maybe those Showcase Showdowns ingrained something in my frugal memory bank, because my family now enjoys a grocery budgeting game with similar rules.

Grocery Shopping: Price is Right Style

Today when my family visits the grocery store I carry along a pen and a sheet of paper (usually just the back of our grocery list). I used to perform this exercise in my head, but as my brain has grown older and calculators have become cheaper, I now rely on technology for accuracy. This would be a good time to remind you that under my frugal shopping rules one should never enter a store without a list. Even a small mental list of just the few items you need will suffice in a crunch. Without being armed with a list there are just too many opportunities to pick up unnecessary items and blow your food budget .

Rules of the Game

With our food budget firmly established ahead of time and our list of weekly staples properly spelled out, we embark on our weekly grocery shopping journey. I usually follow along behind the wife and kids equipped with my paper, pen and calculator. As the kids toss boxes of Pop-Tarts into the shopping cart I write down the price (rounding up to the nearest $0.50) and keep a running total working down the sheet of paper. It isn't necessary to write the item description, but for example purposes I've included it below:

  • $1.50 Pop-Tarts: $1.50
  • $2.00 Mac and Cheese: $3.50
  • $2.50 Strawberries: $6.00
  • $9.00 Laundry Detergent: $15.00

You get the idea. The estimated item price is listed first, followed by a description, and then the running total. Again, it isn't necessary to list the item price and description on your list - we simply keep up with the running total column.

Now, Time to Calculate and Submit Your Bid

By rounding up to the nearest $0.50 we are intentionally inflating the cost of our goods a bit to prevent a budget overrun, much in the same way The Price is Right contestants undervalue the estimated price of their Showcase Showdown prizes to avoid over-estimating their packaged deal. When the shopping cart is full, or your list is complete, grab your calculator and multiply the final total by your tax rate to estimate sales tax owed. Add this amount to your running total for grocery purchases. If this amount is less than your food budget you've done well. If not, return to the aisles to look for cheaper alternatives, or move that steak dinner to next week's menu schedule.

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Guest's picture
Cashola

Interesting method of shopping for groceries. By inflating items +$0.50, You would consistently end up under budget and with more money than you expected to spend.

Guest's picture

Great idea Jason - and one most everyone should try to implement to see how it can work for them! (Gotta remember to give it a whirl next grocery trip)

Guest's picture

That is a great idea. :) Adopting the rules of price is right to your grocery budgeting. But, isn't it kinda complicated?

Guest's picture

I like the idea of making budgeting fun. People always associate budgeting with something negative.  Great way to encourage people to budget, specially young kids.

Here are some good tips for dealing with the high cost of food that can be introduced to this game:

Dealing With The High Cost of Food

Guest's picture

Jason - I have always been a big fan of The Price Is Right! I watched Bob Barker every chance I got growing up. I can hear Bob at the Showcase Showdown in my head while reading your article. :)

The grocery store is an easy place to blow a hole in your budget. Your ideas for using a running total and rounding up on the prices are great ways to keep this from happening. My wife has also used an online service called emealsforyou.com to help plan and budget for groceries. She swears by it.

Jason White's picture

@SavetotheFuture:  Sometimes keeping "heavy" subjects such as the dreaded "b" word - budgeting - helps to get everyone in the household on board.  My wife and kids like to see how close Dad can get without going over. 

Thanks for your comments.

Guest's picture

I round up and down, for that element of surprise. :-) Here's my game, if you go over, something has to go back, since I bring exact cash only and leave all plastic at home ... http://www.daveramseyguru.com/the-dave-ramsey-grocery-store-cash-challen...

FJH

Guest's picture

My game usually starts with the coupons at home. I hit all the frugal blogs to see who has what on sale and coupled with a coupon to get it for free. Then I check The Grocery Game. My big thrill is to see how much the coupons and sales knock down the final price. Does it occur to you that we all may be a little bit odd to consider grocery shopping a game? :)

Great post! Thanks for a new twist on the game.

Jason White's picture

@Momma:  Yes, we are weird!  But then again, I think the idea of not using coupons, paying full price for brand names and shopping without a list is weird!  Especially with rising food prices.

Guest's picture

I like the idea of rounding up to the nearest $.50.

Guest's picture
AndyS

Life is too busy to spend that much time in the grocery shop to save a few bucks. Better to do your research online and then go into the grocery shop. The longer you are there (espically with kids) the more tempted you will be to buy more things.

Still I like your concept and it make a boring trip to a grocery or department store more interesting.

Andy
www.savingtoinvest.com

Guest's picture

You've got some great tips for living frugally, but I'd like to put in a plug for bicycle touring as a wonderful idea for a cheap family vacation. We spent twelve months in 2006-07 cycling around the USA and Mexico and were amazed at how reasonable the cost was - about $1000-1500 per month for all four of us. We camped out most of the time, had no gas costs, and couldn't buy anything because we couldn't carry it!

Now we are getting ready to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina - leaving in three weeks! We can't wait!!

You can read about our journey at www.familyonbikes.org

Guest's picture
Alison

I love playing this game! I use it as more of a test of my mental math skills though as opposed to checking how close I am to the budget. I keep a running total in my head of how much my groceries will cost. Sometimes I'm within pennies.

Guest's picture
Jessica

We used to play this, well sort of. We didn't have a strict budget for food so at the checkout line we both would make a guess as to how much the food bill was going to be, and the winner was the one who got the closest without going over.

Now we've taken to adding up the food as we go, so we both know how much the bill will be at the end.

Jason White's picture

@Jessica:  We used to do something similar, but were frequently "surprised" by the amount we had spent.  This led to the idea of keeping a running total.  To make it even more interesting you could leave the calculator at home, force participants to keep up with the total in their heads, and make it so the person farthest off from the total amount has to cook dinner that night.  If we implemented this version in my household the kids would surely sabotage Mom for fear of Dad's cooking!

Guest's picture
Marci

I keep tabs, but only in my head. And like you, I tend to round up, or group itmes together to come out with a rounded dollar amount. I also only pay for groceries with cash, and I usually am within a few pennies when I check out. I unload the cart and put the cash on the checkout stand - funny to see the looks on the cashiers' faces sometimes when the cash is so correct :)

It's something I do to exercise my brain :)