Dear Jill: You previously wrote about price cycles at major supermarkets and drug stores operating on a 12-week basis. As a beginner, how do I determine when a store is in its high or low cycle? — Marsha S.

I’m often called a “Super-Couponing queen,” but the truth is that if you truly want to save money on groceries and household items, understanding the stores’ sales cycles is just as important as using coupons – if not more.

Here’s an overview of a traditional supermarket or drugstore’s price cycle, which typically lasts about 12 weeks. Let’s think about the price of a single item – a box of cereal. If you were to visit the store and write down the price of that one, identical box of cereal, your first month’s logbook might look like this:

Week 1: $3.49

Week 2: $2.99

Week 3: $2.59

Week 4: $1.99

For the sake of saving column space, I’m not outlining a full 12-week cycle here, but you can already see how much the price can vary on this one, single item. It helps to think of prices like a roller coaster’s track — they will rise high and dip low. Week to week, an item’s price can change.

My goal as a coupon shopper is to buy when an item’s price reaches its lowest point during this 12-week timespan — then use a coupon with the sale price to lower it even more.

Grocery prices change week to week, so I try to avoid buying something that is at the high point of its price cycle. Why do I want to pay $3.49 for an item I know will dip to $1.99 or even lower?

It’s important to understand that every item and every category in the store may be on its own price cycle. Juices may be high one week, while cheese is low. The next week, pasta may be low, but pasta sauce may be high. It’s not as easy as simply shopping in one specific week for everything you need. When I shop, I cherry-pick the sale items, buying only what is at its lowest price. I also buy enough to last about 12 weeks, so that I do not need to buy it again until its sale price dips into that “buy it now” sweet spot.

How do we know when it’s time to buy? While you could create a price book and write down the price of your most-purchased items every single week to learn the range of high and low prices, there’s a much easier way. Think about cutting the price in half! Look at the item’s shelf price, and divide it in half. This number is your guide to knowing when it’s time to buy – it’s the most you want to pay for an item.

For example, consider a jar of pasta sauce with a regular, non-sale price of $3.49. I want to cut it down to $1.75 or less to ensure I am getting the best deal. This is not always accomplished with a sale price alone – you may pair a coupon with a sale price to get there. Then, it’s time to stock up. I’ll use whatever coupons I have and buy multiple jars.

Last week, a local store had a great sale on laundry detergent. Bottles that were regularly $4.49 were on sale for $1.79 – already less than half the price. Even without a coupon, the detergent would have been a fantastic deal. However, with a $1 coupon, I dropped to 79 cents. I purchased five bottles for $3.95 – less than one single bottle sells for at its highest price in the cycle.

It’s important to understand that some stores, especially those that advertise “everyday low prices”, do not operate on high/low pricing cycles. Their prices largely remain consistent week to week. While these stores’ prices are not too high, they’re also not too low.

Next week, I’ll share more tips on increasing your purchasing power by shopping smarter.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about Super-Couponing at her website, www.jillcataldo.com. Email your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.

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