Money Basics Part 6: When you have to spend

Obviously, there are times when you HAVE TO spend money, like on food, and like, shelter. UGH. Well you may have to spend something, but you can spend smart!

1) The basic advice is don’t go grocery shopping hungry. You will buy WAY more than you intended. On the occasions I’ve done this on accident, I still stick to my list, and buy myself something I can eat immediately when I get home, like a frozen dinner, or just something I don’t have to cook. Knowing that is waiting for me gives me the willpower to stick to my list for the rest of the shopping trip.

2) Have a list to begin with: Keeping a running list during the week is extremely helpful. I have a notepad on the fridge so when we run out of something, like olive oil, it goes right on the list. I also review the mailings from our store of what will be on sale each week, and add sale items to the list. This also makes it easier to plan recipes for the week. Pot roast is on sale? I’m buying a pot roast, and we’ll have a side of broccoli and squash, which are also on sale. Also keep your eyes open for sales, coupons, and clearance items in the store, but do the math to make sure they’re actually a bargain before you stock up.

3) Buy store brands: NPR published a great article awhile back about buying generics. The bottom line is the store brand on most items is just as good as the national brand, and will be considerably cheaper. If you buy “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner” instead of “Kraft Macaroni and Cheese” what is the worst that could happen? The box turns out to be filled with old newspaper and rat poison instead of noodles? No, you just might not like it as much. What’s likely to happen? You’ll save $1 and find a new brand you love just as much. It doesn’t hurt to try it at least once. There may be specific items that you determine you NEED the national brand of, and that’s fine, if you’re making that choice in an educated way.

4) Compare unit costs: Some stores have the “cost per count” or “cost per unit” on the shelf label, which I absolutely love. It makes comparison shopping so much easier! But if your store doesn’t, you probably have a calculator in your cell phone, so just do the math yourself. Does this sound tedious? You don’t have to do the math on every item every time you go to the store. Once you know you prefer “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner”, and you did the math to make sure it was cheaper per ounce the first time, you can just grab it and toss it into your cart. Prices generally don’t change that much. Unless you have a coupon or there’s a sale, you can probably just analyze a few items per shopping trip, especially if you’re in the process of transitioning away from national brands toward store brands.

Note: Don’t assume that the biggest item will be the cheapest per unit. Most people assume this, but if you do the math the 64 oz. juice will often cost more per ounce than the 32 oz. size. Do your math!

5) Compare around the store: I noticed the other day that my grocery store has oatmeal in several locations: with the cereal, where you’d expect it, in the bulk bins (which cost more per ounce than in the cereal aisle), and in the FREEZER. I think that’s absolutely nuts. I mean, McDonald’s sells oatmeal now also, so apparently we’re living in a topsy-turvy ridiculous reality, but that was still odd to me. Of course the freezer oatmeal was the most expensive option out of the three, but this is a good example. Keep in mind that broccoli might be on sale in the produce section, but still significantly cheaper in the freezer section.

6) Make substitutions: You want juice, but do you really care what kind? Maybe orange juice is cheaper than apple, which is cheaper than grape. Your recipe calls for red onions, but white onions are $0.50 cheaper per pound. Does the color really matter? Do you need Coco Puffs, or will Coco Crispies substitute, since they’re on sale this week? (And hopefully you’re buying the store brand in the BAG, if you’re eating cereal). Can you use half lentils, or even all lentils instead of ground hamburger in your recipe? Be fluid with your list, and keep your eyes open around the store.

7) Cook from scratch: Most foods are cheaper when made from scratch. You could buy pre-made salads for $4-5 per day, or make your own for around $1 each. Mac and cheese might be the only exception I’ve found to this rule, but that liquid cheese (as much as I love it) is not really the same as actual cheese.

8) Use up EVERYTHING: Last week I bought some apples, and they are not crispy and delicious like I expected, so I’m going to make an apple crisp. Did you buy more squash or tomatoes than your family can eat? Time to make and freeze some glut sauce. Bananas turn brown? Peel them and put them in the freezer for smoothies or banana bread later. Did you make waaaayy too much soup, and you and/or your family are already tired of it? Put a bunch in the freezer to save for a day when you don’t feel like cooking. If you have too much of something, google a recipe for that item and make sure it gets eaten. Leaving more time between shopping trips also makes you more likely to eat everything, since there won’t be new food in front of last week’s. And don’t forget to add scraps to your freezer container for some Almost Free Soup. It also helps to buy things you’ll actually use in the first place. If mineral water is on sale for $0.05 per bottle, but you hate the stuff, it’s still a waste of money.

9) Try new, cheap foods: I have never been much of a fan of eggplant, but Hubby loves it, as does Sara of the Long Red Hair. Its low cost also got me to start buying and making some eggplant dishes. Lentils and other dried beans are extremely cheap, and easy to work with once you start. Try a new, cheap recipe every couple of weeks to build your repertoire.

10) Plan ahead: Bring your lunch to work for a start, but also have snacks when you’re likely to need them. On road trips, pack sandwiches instead of stopping for fast food. If you have a habit, like getting chips from a vending machine, buy chips at the store, and bring them with you in a baggy instead. If you’re going to a festival or concert, check their policies ahead of time, and pack a cooler with snacks and beverages, if you can.

For money-saving Black belts:

1) Compare stores: I don’t mean drive all over town to save 10 cents on your “Macaroni and Cheese Dinner”, I mean different stores will have different items that are cheaper. You can compare different stores, or even different locations of the same store. A Randall’s on the rich side of town can have higher prices than one in a lower-income area. Make sure you’re not burning up all your savings in your gas tank, though.If you live in a bigger city you can look for tiny, hole-in-the-wall Indian and Asian grocery stores that will sell rice, spices, and seaweed super cheap, or a Hispanic grocery store for cheap produce. There might even be a discount grocery store that sells items like dented or unlabeled cans on the cheap. Don’t forget clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. Make sure to do the math and include the membership costs to make sure this will ACTUALLY save money. You can also consider splitting purchases with a friend for items that are too large.

2) Make a price book: This is one I need to work on. You can make yourself a notebook, or spreadsheet, or phone app (whatever these kids are using today) to keep track of how much certain items generally cost you per unit, so you know when something goes on “sale” whether or not it’s actually a good deal. So if your shampoo is usually $0.15 per ounce, and you find it at Costco for $0.12 per ounce, you know it’s a bargain. This can help you compare different stores as well as sale prices. Many stores will have a “sale” where your shampoo is now $0.149999 per ounce. It’s technically cheaper, but probably not worth stocking up on.

Saving money on groceries and household goods is one of costs that we have the most control over. Your car can only get x gas mileage, and your home can only be so energy efficient. I’m not pretending that you’ll get $200 worth of groceries for $4, like those crazy coupon shows (which I don’t think you should really believe), but every dollar you save on Mac and Cheese can go towards a goal, and help you get where you want to be in life.


December 29, 2013. Tags: , , , , . Thriftiness is Cool.

One Comment

  1. My Opinion on CostCo | My Attempts at Cleverness replied:

    […] me on a preview trip to see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. Armed with my trusty price book, I set out for some serious comparison […]

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