Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tip #6 - Buy what you need, but read carefully!

Not all of us are in the same financial situation – some folks have a family with dual incomes; some have a family but because of the many job losses out there, they are trying to adjust to living on one income; others, like me, live alone and struggle to live paycheck to paycheck (and on borrowed time); and still others are trying to make ends meet on fixed incomes of disability or retirement benefits. The one thing we do share in common is figuring out how to cut costs and make our dollars stretch during these tough economic times.

It’s different for everyone, of course. For those with larger families, buying in bulk at places like Costco or Sam’s Club can save quite a bit of money. There is enough food for everyone, and many things that won’t be used immediately can be vacuum-sealed for later use. For smaller families or single folks like me, however, buying in bulk can be more of a hindrance than anything else. Giant containers of ketchup and packages of 24 rolls of paper towels wouldn’t fit anywhere in my apartment and would take me forever to get through (though I do wish I could have an endless supply of paper towels), so I try to buy what I need, while making sure I have certain bare bones staples always at my disposal. But no matter what your buying habits are it’s important to read prices & labels carefully to make sure you really are getting the best deal.

Take the infamous Club Card Specials that most large chain grocery stores offer. Some of these deals can be really amazing, like 10 items for $10, or 2 for $5, etc. But what if you don't really need 10 of a certain item? If you only need 5 of that particular product, just buy what you need; just because the price tag says you can get 10 items for $10 doesn't mean you have to buy all ten! This is marketing at its finest, tapping into an American's almost genetic need for a "good deal". Sure, it's a good deal, but if you're trying to stretch your dollars on a certain grocery trip, it won't work if you play into said marketing ploy. HOWEVER..... pay close attention to the fine print on that sales tag if you do just buy what you need; not all stores will allow you to have the discounted price unless you buy the advertised lot, so you end up paying more because you're charged the regular price for each individual item. Also check the dates of these sales. Sometimes they last for several months at a time, so you can plan ahead when making your shopping list; other times, they last only a few days.

Another thing to check when reading sale labels is whether or not it's actually a "sale" or if the advertised reduced price is only valid after a mail-in or online rebate. This happens more often at drug stores, but I have seen it at grocery stores as well. Our busy minds being programmed to skim over labels & ads, we tend to go blind at the fine print, and we miss a lot that way. You may be thinking you have this fabulous deal on something, but will be very unpleasantly surprised at the cash register when you're charged regular price and are given some sort of voucher to submit so that you can get your money back 6-8 weeks later. If you can wait for your rebate, by all means, go for it! Deals are great! But if you're looking for immediate savings, be sure that that's what you're getting.

Similar cautions apply to coupons as well. Be sure to read whether the coupon is a manufacturer's coupon or a store coupon only. Check the expiration dates (those with none are the best!) and read the offers thoroughly. If you can only save $0.75 on TWO items that cost $3.95 each, you're saving money but probably not that much. It might be better to go with the store's sale progams instead. Of course, if you shop for many people and go to the store armed with an arsenal of coupons, these miniscule savings add up. And it is definitely possible to combine coupons AND store sales, saving you even more money. Again, you have to read everything carefully and make sure these types of discounts will still apply.

Though I mentioned that for someone single like me, it's not always a good idea to buy larger, bulk priced items, that doesn't always apply. If you read the breakdown of prices on the price tags of each item, many times the larger amounts will cost less than the smaller ones. For example, a small 8 oz. bottle of salad dressing could cost you $0.30/oz, whereas the larger bottle could be twice the size yet only cost $0.20/oz. You'll be paying more up front, but you will have more product for less and it will last you longer. This sort of ties into my next point of store brand v. national brands on sale. Sometimes the most intuitive choice is not always the best one. I usually have no problem buying store brand items because they tend to be of the same quality and same ingredients as national brand names, and cost much less. However, some sales make it so that the national brand items cost less than the store brands for the duration of that sale, so unless you're completely boycotting a certain company, by all means, take advantage of the sale!

I could go on for days about this, but just wanted to touch upon some of the more important points about savvy shopping. Remember: buy what you need, just make sure you read everything carefully so that you make the best, informed decisions that will save you money. Happy Shopping! :)


  1. I agree completely with this article. If your grocery store breaks things down into price per oz or per other comparable unit right there on the tag, it's a huge help. If not, it's best to bring a calculator.

    I shop every two to four days, as making the smaller grocery trips keeps me focused on my little list where I don't get worn out from the extra work of making little calculations.

    In addition, I tend to take my receipt home and further break down what I've bought into "cost per day" in a spreadsheet program. Take eggs, for example:

    -I pay an average of $2.74 for a carton of 12-18 large eggs.
    -That's a gross of $2.98 per carton after our new California sales tax.
    -I note the last time I bought eggs and subtract that date from today's date and see that a carton of 12-18 eggs lasts an average of 14.5 days.
    -So now I know eggs cost me $0.21 per day, that's $6.17 per 30 day month.

    If you lay out a spreadsheet that does that calculation for each item you buy, you can look at that 30 day price and see exactly what your monthly grocery budget will be. You can compare things and notice that the $1.50 can of Pringles that only lasts you two days is actually costing you about $20 per month!

    You can see exactly where to cut back, and control you shopping budget better without making sacrifices. I noticed, for example, that my luxury $3 bottle wine (love California!) consumption was costing me close to $15 a month. Rather than give up wine, I was able to reduce my consumption, increasing the number of days between buying a bottle, and reduced the 30 day cost to $10. This lowers my grocery bill without giving up my little glasses of happiness in the evening.

  2. WOW. You are seriously my new budgeting guru!!! I'm going to give this spreadsheet thing a shot.

  3. Love the blog, will be checking back often.

    I couldn't agree more about the effort required to save money. I have recently started creating a cost comparison shopping list, weekly menu planning, coupon clipping and working the sales. Damn, it's a lot of work. Of course I think it's worth it because we are trying to keep to a very aggressive weekly budget. And if I don't let my husband go to the store by himself we can often manage to keep to it.

    We did just sign up for Costco, although like you I can't store most of their bulk items. But if you've ever priced bread yeast you know one bag from them will pretty much pay the membership fee. For the lower gas prices and any other food we do buy for the year I figure it's just savings from now on. Sometimes one item can pay for it all.



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