Eye on the Bottom Line

by Celia Hayes

An eye on the bottom line of the receipts at the grocery store, of course. I've been through a good few years of this, after being well-trained by my mother and grandmothers. All of them were disposed to pinch pennies until Lincoln begged for mercy, although they took slightly different ways to go about it. Grandma Dodie did coupons and sales; when she and Grandpa finally sold their house and moved into a retirement community, there was a stash of canned goods in the garage which would have fed a family for a couple of years. Grannie Jessie, the country girl, kept chickens, did a lot of preserves and pickles, and saved Green Stamps to purchase certain useful appliances, furniture and luxury goods. My mother eschewed coupons, chickens, Green Stamps and the preserving kettle; she preferred a membership in a food coop, which offered bargains on meats, fruits, grains and vegetables, and making almost everything – even granola – from scratch. It was her opinion, which I found to be a pretty well-grounded one, that unless you used the coupon for something which you would have bought anyway, it was a waste of money and effort. We did wind up eating some very strange things from the coop, though. I recall beef hearts, and rabbit, and other odd cuts of meat.

I saved on the grocery bill myself by patronizing the street markets when living overseas; once a week, the farmers and vendors in Greece would set up tables in a two-block length of street and sell produce straight off the farm. In Spain there was a central farmer's market downtown, in an ornate cast-iron and stone Art Nouveau style building – and besides that, there was always the military commissary. By the time I settled down in Texas, though, the commissaries were less and less of a bargain, and my default money-saving strategy was based on a Sam's Club membership and purchasing certain stapes in bulk ... and in hitting the reduced-for-quick-sale racks at the HEB. All this, let it be clear, usually meant stocks of canned goods, paper towels, oils, beans and grains, sugar and flour. Until lately, coupons on offer were for prepared foods – which, as my mother trained me well – we avoided, mostly.

Curiously, in recent months, it seems like HEB has been producing specialty coupons at the check-stand for us, based on some mysterious algorithm which reflects what we have actually bought. Suddenly, we have a number of coupons offering discounts, or even free items; milk, eggs, salad greens, and pet food. And you can bet that we have made full use of them. The last two times we hit our local HEB, the eventual bill after the coupons were tallied up and deducted was reduced by nearly a third of what it had been at the start through using them. Considering how the price of many grocery items has been creeping up – or the actual package size of the items has been creeping down while the price remained the same – this is a very good thing. I won't be holding my breath for it to last for long, but we'll be making the best of it while it does.