How do you start building a stockpile when there’s NOTHING in the pantry?

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Reader Jennifer left a very good question at the bottom of one of my posts this week. I felt it deserved answering in a separate post and not in a quick comment. Here's what she writes:

I need help! I'm new to this & I'm not sure what to do in the meantime while trying to grow my stockpile. I currently have 0 groceries & I mean that literally. The fridge is empty for some condiments, eggs, and a few bagels. The cupboards are bare except for cans of soup….This is mostly because I'm so busy at home with my baby and hubby is so busy at work we just haven't had time to shop.

I just started collecting coupons… I'm going shopping tonight and I know that a lot of the coupons expire the end of this month. Should I go ahead and use all of the coupons (that expire soon) to stockpile items that I need anyway even if they're not on sale? I hate for the coupons to go to waste & then end up paying full price anyway… 

Jennifer, I'm going to do my very best to take you from square one to stockpiled!

Let's start with your last question – and it's a great one. Should you use coupons just because they're about to expire? In short, NO!! It sounds like you're in a place where you simply NEED some food. Here's what I propose you do. Head to the store with your coupons, but pay attention. Often you'll find the generic counterparts are cheaper than the name brand at full price with a coupon. Your goal is to simply find the lowest price on the items you need – coupons or not.

So let's talk about two kinds of shopping that we do as couponers and I think this will clear some things up. First, there's NEED-BASED SHOPPING. These are the items you need for the week ahead to complete your meals. For instance, produce, dairy, bread, meat, and/or anything you don't have in your stockpile. When you are starting out, most of your shopping will likely fall into this category. But as your stockpile grows over the months, you'll notice the items on your NEEDS list declines. You'll also learn how to become a more savvy shopper and you'll discover how to find deals on these items.

The second type of shopping is STOCKPILING. The idea here is that you buy items your family needs and uses when they are at their low prices. By using coupons on low prices, you sweeten the deal. But let me get something straight – not every stockpile deal uses coupons! I've stockpiled cans of broth when my store had them for $0.33 each. Don't think you MUST use coupons to stockpile! If you find a good deal, go for it!

Knowing this, how do you start? I recommend that you start each week with a meal plan – do not go to the store willy-nilly to buy things you "need." Make sure every item has a purpose. The items on this list become your NEEDS-BASED items. Do your best to find deals on these items, but do not stress! I like to shop at Fred Meyer or Winco for items I need but aren't on sale. I know that because these stores generally offer lower prices than their competitors, I'll be saving money. For more ideas, read this post I wrote about how to save money without using coupons.

With your need-based shopping out of the way, start to slowly add in a few stockpile deals each week. For instance, you might find a deal on soup you like. Try to get as much as you can reasonably use and store before it goes bad. I also recommend you start slow so you don't overwhelm yourself. Ease in! I also recommend you start looking to acquire household and personal care items such as toilet paper, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste as soon as you can. Why? Because you can often find these items very cheap if not free and these items can easily eat into your grocery budget otherwise. I think they'll make the biggest difference in your budget the fastest.

So how can you find these great stockpile deals? Well, are you not reading this blog?! Each Saturday night (hey – that's today!) I feature Walgreens and Rite Aid matchups. I also do Fred Meyer deals. All of these come late in the evening. On Wednesdays, I tackle Albertsons. Simply scan through my list and pick and choose a few deals out that make sense for you. I'll tell you the sale prices, which coupons to use, and what you can expect to pay. After awhile, you'll get the hang of it and you'll be able to find similar deals in nearly every ad you pick up.

I decided this morning to give this post a great visual, so I turned once again to my friend Mr. Excel:   


I created this chart to illustrate how your shopping might look now and how it might evolve over time. Suppose you ordinarily spend $100 a week at the store. For the first couple months, you may continue to spend this amount. However, the composition of your trips will be different. Now you'll start looking for better prices on the items you need and you'll begin to carve out a small portion of your budget to stockpile. 

As the months progress, you should notice a couple things. First, the amount of the items you need each week should slowly go down. Why? This is simple. As your stockpile grows, you'll be able to draw on those items to complete your meals. The second thing you should notice is that you'll be spending less overall. You'll also begin to notice that different items go on sale at different times of the year. This means it's going to be important to cycle through one calendar year to fully develop your stockpile. 

At 12 months, I would say I've seen the biggest savings in my budget. As of late, I've devoted more of my budget to stockpiling – particularly meat and other "more expensive" stockpiling deals. I couldn't have afforded to do this at the beginning. Three months from now, the chart may change again. But the conclusion is I've ended up with a nicely rounded stockpile and am spending less overall. Of course, your personal shopping and stockpiling needs may yield a different chart…but this illustrates how it *might* look for some.

Jennifer, I hope this serves to help answer your question. I also encourage you to read the series of coupon lessons I wrote – you can find them in Getting Started. I know I have a lot of knowledgeable and talented readers and would love their input too!  

11 thoughts on “How do you start building a stockpile when there’s NOTHING in the pantry?”

  1. This is an awesome post- I’m sure it’s going to help a lot. When I first started (slightly over a year ago) I really though I’d never make it to the point where most of my shopping is stocking up and not needs based, but it does happen over time. Patience is really important when you first start out!

  2. Great Post! I think you are the excel Master 🙂 On another note where you at the down town Norstroms Rack yesterday? Thought I may have seen you or there is someone else that looks like your picture 🙂

  3. Hi everyone! It’s me…the stockpile dummy 😉 j/k

    Thanks so much for the post, it was very helpful! I’m sure I’ll be reading it several times as I figure this whole thing out. Since my daughter was born I seem to spend so much time with her I need to figure out how to do everything else all over again. Yes, I’m the mom that never gets to shower, my house is a mess, and I may only get to eat yogurt all day, but I have one well-cared for baby!
    Not only am I new to couponing but I’m new to blogging too. I’m going to try to blog about learning this whole coupon thing as I go if I find the time to write. Hopefully I’ll be looking back at this a year from now and think “why did I try to make it so complicated?”. Then I’ll go to my huge stockpile and laugh while I make a snack 😉

    Again, thanks so much for this post! I really appreciate it.

  4. Jenn, good night girl if you don’t have time to shop, how are you gonna find time to blog? Pace yourself!! I spend at least a couple hours every day to keep this blog up and going (and very often more than that). I’m glad you found the information helpful. Please keep us updated on your progress, OK? I’d love to hear from you!!

    Joy, ah shucks! Thanks!!!

  5. Very helpful information! What I really want to figure out is how these ladies on TV seem to know to the penney what they will spend on their orders before they are rung up. I don’t want any surprises at the check stand. Do they do the calculations on line or with excel? How? I can cut the coupons and plan the list but the rest is greek. HELP! “No surprises”.

  6. Thanks, you have put it back in perspective for me. I am new to couponing and felt my shopping was getting out of control. I’m not sure what to buy when, what’s really a “good” sale, etc. But your article has made me step back, and each trip just focus on a few items to stockpile instead of trying to buy up the whole store! 🙂

  7. This is great! I am a new, casual coupon user (save about $15-$30 on my needs based shopping per trip using coupons), but I would like to reduce our $150/week grocery bill to a lower regular number. This spells it all out so easily, and I’ve already started to noticed the benefits of slow stockpile accumulation. I think the key for me is to not allow things like toilet paper and paper products to completely run out before adding to the stock or they end up being needs based purchases.

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