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How to jump on the 12-week savings cycle

"Many people do not have the cash flow to stock up the way you do. The economy has really hurt the budget of the average family, and they are no longer able to shop the way they used to (such as taking advantage of the sales and buying extra). Do you have any tips for us?

"I do use coupons, but would like to take better advantage of my buying power. I just don't really know how."

I particularly liked this letter from a reader. It encompasses the way many people feel when they first start using coupons. It's a common misconception that I spend a lot to stock up on quantities of the items that I buy each week. My weekly grocery bill for our family of five averages between $40 and $60 post-coupons. But, for that money, I'm typically buying around $100 worth of groceries.

Supermarkets operate on a 12-week pricing cycle, so stocking up on the things we need when the prices of these items hit their low point during this period makes sense. When you know that the items you buy are at their lowest prices just one time during that cycle, buying them only when the price hits that low saves us a lot of money, even without using coupons.

Let's take juice, for example. At my store, a bottle of grape juice can range in price from $1.99 to $3.99. Clearly, I want to buy the juice when it's at its low price. If my family drinks 1 bottle of grape juice a week, I'll need 12 bottles to get through the next 12-week cycle. While it's true that the initial expense of buying that juice all at once requires more than one might choose to budget just for juice in one week, consider the savings in buying it at that low price.

A typical juice price cycle over six weeks at my store may look like this:

Week 1: $1.99

Week 2: $2.29

Week 3: $2.79

Week 4: $2.99

Week 5: $3.29

Week 6: $3.79

If I purchased one bottle a week over this 6-week span, I'd spend $17.14. But, if I bought six bottles the week that it was at its lowest point, on sale for $1.99, I'd spend a total of just $11.94. That's more than five dollars saved in just six weeks' time, without even considering coupons. Of course, I want to use my coupons at that low point, thus lowering my out-of-pocket cost even more.

If you shop cycle lows for everything that you buy, you're definitely buying multiples of items when the prices are low. Remember, though, that you will not buy that item again until it goes on sale weeks from now. So, while I might spend a large percentage of my budget on juice in a particular week, I won't buy juice again at all until it's on sale at a low price some time down the road.

If you followed me around the grocery store, you'd see that I fill my shopping cart with an eclectic mix of items. It rarely contains all of the staples you might notice in other people's carts, because, aside from fresh produce and dairy, I shop strictly for items that are at their cycle lows that particular week.

I usually have what looks like an unusual quantity of the same item in my cart, because I'm stocking up! I will, of course, use all the coupons I have for those items as I purchase them at the low price. But even if I don't have coupons for all of them, as with our juice example above, I know that I won't be able to purchase these items at this low price again for almost three months, so I buy what I anticipate needing.

This is a different way of shopping, it's true, but the strategy balances out budget-wise when you consider what you're NOT buying each week. Typically, when you're starting out, it takes you 12 weeks to go through your first cycle, where you start to notice and learn the price highs and lows for the items you commonly buy. Those first twelve weeks are going to be a little more expensive, because you're also going to have to buy the things your household needs as you build your stockpile.

If you're out of laundry detergent, you'll buy it because you need it, regardless of the price. But a few weeks later, the price may hit a cycle low, and it will be time to stock up for the next time you need it.

Then, the next time you need laundry detergent, you'll "shop at home," because you have extra on hand that you purchased when the price was at its low. And after that first 12 weeks, your home stockpile will include all of the basics that you use frequently … and that you will no longer be paying high prices for!