Ouch! My Bank Account!

Everything costs more these days. Everyone is starting to feel a budget pinch with gas prices and food costs rising. It seems like every major news outlet has been talking about it in at least one article a day. Some discuss the problem, some discuss long-term causes, and then some provide tips for getting by. That’s where CNN went with it today.

The CNN piece
offered tips for getting the most bang for your buck at the grocery store without making mistakes by falling for the grocery store marketing traps. Now, I agree that there are definitely some less-than-desirable tricks that stores try to pull to separate us from our money. The savvy consumer does have to be aware of these tricks and pay attention to what he’s really getting for his money. But, I just can’t agree with the options CNN gave.

1. Stocking up on a “great deal”

While a purchase may be a “great deal” in terms of dollar amount, it’s only a deal if the food actually gets eaten. This is especially true for perishables like milk, eggs, and produce. Don’t overbuy, even when the price is right.

Don’t overbuy. That makes good sense, but it really depends on what you can do with what you buy. Perishables don’t have to be perishable. Do you have room in your freezer? Milk can freeze and thaw just fine. What about pickled eggs? What about canning? Buy a bushel of tomatoes and can or freeze them. Buy fruits in large quantities and make jellies or freeze them for pies and smoothies. They’re right when they say that it’s not a deal unless you eat it, but what they leave out is that you really don’t have to eat it right now.

2. Reaching for the “value” size

The concept of getting a better price when you buy the larger package is generally accepted, but many companies have now wised up to our assumptions.

To be sure you’re getting the best value for your money, check the unit price: it’s the number on the shelf tag that says how much the item costs per ounce or pound. That way, it’s a no-brainer to calculate whether the larger or smaller can of tomato sauce is the better buy.

There are some exceptions to the unit pricing guideline: poultry and meats. For instance, don’t assume that buying a whole chicken is cheaper than buying parts separately. In this case you’ll want to calculate the cost per serving rather than per unit. A whole chicken may be cheaper per pound, but that includes a lot of inedible material, like bone and skin.

Yes, you should definitely check the unit price. A bigger box does not necessarily mean a better value. But the chicken? Inedible material? I think not. A whole chicken can be a lot more than a single meal. Sure you can roast it, turn the leftover meat into chicken salad and then boil the bones and leftover skin for stock (more than once even, just be aware that the stock will get weaker every time you boil the bones). Don’t want to roast the chicken skin? Fine. Cut the chicken into parts and use the meat the way you were planning. You can still use the bones for stock and poach any leftover meat along with it for chicken salad or a silky filling for enchiladas or tamales. But what about the skin and fat? Take a page from Francis Lam, culinary genius extraordinaire. Chicken cracklins. Just think about that for a few minutes.

3. Scooping up 10 for $10

“Wow,” we think, “4 soda packs for $10? That’s a steal!” It is, but does any one household really need 48 cans of soda? Not unless you’re helping host a block party that week. But, unless is the ad specifies a minimum purchase, you can usually buy as little as you need while still taking advantage of the discount.

Again, it’s all about how you use it and what your habits are. Is this something that you buy every week? Do you have the willpower to not use more than you normally do just because you have extra in the house? Do you have storage space so you won’t be tripping over it? Then it is a good deal for you. From their example, for instance, if you drink one can per day and won’t drink more just because it’s there, it is a good deal.

4. Skipping the store brand

Store brands often get a bad rap, but really, not all store brands stink. During a blind taste test, supermarket expert Phil Lempert showed that for things like cereal, potato chips, and ginger ale, a large percentage of shoppers either couldn’t tell the difference between generic and name brand, or even preferred the generic type. So do your own taste-tests at home, and figure out which name brands you can swap out.

This one can be tricky. Pay attention to the nutrition details. Store brands tend to be higher in sodium. Verify that the portion size is the same as the name brand. Does the store brand use high fructose corn syrup where the name brand uses sugar? Why not just take complete control of it yourself? Buy fresh products and make things from scratch. Cereal? Make homemade granola. Potato chips? Nothing in a bag compares to fresh homemade chips. Ginger ale? You really can make your own, or make a summer treat like fresh ginger lemonade. But you’re worried about cost. Doesn’t fresh cost more? It does tend to at the grocery store, but check your local farmer’s market and you’ll be surprised at how inexpensive some fresh ingredients can be when they’re in season.

5. Shopping leisurely

Supermarket folks have long known that the more time you spend in a store, the more you’ll spend. In fact, studies show that for each additional minute you spend in a grocery store past half an hour, you will likely spend between 50 cents and $1.

This one is really kind of scary. You may come out with a lower bill, but you won’t have made informed nutritional or quality choices. If cantaloupes are on sale, but you didn’t take the time to make sure that you were choosing a ripe one, you wasted your money. If you were rushing through and forgot something that you needed, your savings go out the window when you have to make another trip to the store. The real key is to know what you’re going to buy before you get to the store and don’t fall prey to impulse buys unless you can replace an entire planned meal based on something you see on sale.

6. Taking advantage of one-stop shopping

As long as you’re already at the store, might as well pick up laundry detergent and light bulbs, right? Wrong. Supermarkets often price non-food household items 20 – 40 percent higher than discount stores, knowing that shoppers will buy them anyway out of convenience. So remember, grocery stores are for groceries only. Shop for toilet paper elsewhere.

This one I do agree with for the most part. Just make smart choices on what you buy. Two of the cheapest things you can buy anywhere are baking soda and vinegar. Two of the most gentle, effective and environmentally friendly cleaners are baking soda and vinegar. You’ll be amazed at the number of cleaners you buy that you can eliminate just by learning what you can do with those two ingredients. Dull stainless steel or cooked on stains? Try scrubbing with a baking soda paste instead of buying a special stainless steel cleaner. Baking soda won’t scratch enamel either. Towels just not smelling fresh out of the laundry? Try adding either baking soda or vinegar to the wash instead of buying special laundry additives. Spots on your glasses? Add vinegar to your rinse water to cut the soap residue on your dishes.

7. Clipping coupons religiously

We’re not saying coupons are bad. Coupons can save you money, but the operative word is can. They don’t save money if you use them to pick up expensive items that you wouldn’t buy normally. They don’t save money if you’re only getting a few cents off a $5 purchase. Studies show that if a shopper has a coupon in hand, they usually won’t check to see if what they’re buying is actually a bargain.

So use them, but use them wisely. Head to Web sites like CouponMom.com and MyGroceryDeals.com to learn how to organize and strategize your coupon use. Then find out if the store doubles manufacturer’s coupons, accepts competitor’s store coupons, or allows you to combine coupons for the same item.

They’ve got some good points here about coupons. And keep in mind that the best products at the grocery store (fresh produce, fresh bread, good cheeses, better cuts of meat) won’t ever have coupons. You’d do better looking for alternate options to processed products instead of looking for coupons.

8. Zoning in on “sale” signs

Just because it looks like a sale doesn’t always mean it’s on sale. For example, stores will create visual cues by using bargain bins, hanging promotional signs, or filling up endcaps (the displays at the end corners of each aisle) — all using items that are actually full-price.

Or, they’ll compare a sale price to a list price, except the list price has been hiked up to offer a deeper discount. So track prices of items you buy on a regular basis so you can evaluate a good deal when you see one, and read the small print, watching out for signage that uses faux-sale language like “everyday low price.”

Ouch. This one is a trust factor, and these analysts are telling you that you really can’t trust the grocery store. They’re going to use some truthfully dishonest methods to try to get your money. Now, you have options here. You can take the time to comparison shop and read all the details (even though CNN thinks taking that time is going to make you spend more money), or you can shop with people you trust. We talk a lot on here about knowing your producers. Here’s another reason why. The farmers selling at the farmer’s market aren’t getting rich or reporting windfall profits by doing what they do. The same product may cost more from a small farmer than from a big name grocery store, but if it does, that’s because there were other factors involved like bad weather or increased transportation costs that he has to pass on to you sooner than the big store does. But he’s not cheating you. He’s able to look you in the eye and tell you exactly why that tomato costs what it does. You’re not going to get that at the grocery store.

9. Making a list

Proponents of list-making says that it helps them remember what they need and avoid impulse purchases, but Robyn Moreno, the consumer editor at Women’s Day, says that shoppers with lists spend over 41 percent more than those who shop list-free.

The idea is not to chuck the list completely, but to chuck the idea of the shopping list as wish list. Plan lists around menus, keeping the store circular handy so that you can take advantage of specials.

This one is a little hard for me to swallow. I’d really like to see some of those lists. Personally, if I don’t shop with a list, I’m going to forget something, and then I’ll have to go again, wasting more gas. The only place we don’t shop with a list is the farmer’s market during the summer. Then we build our meal plan for the week from what we found there and make a list of the things we’re missing to make those meals. Winter gets a lot more list intensive. Probably the biggest factor for us is knowing what’s in the freezer and what’s hiding in the pantry. Out of sight is out of mind, and it’s easy to plan meals and make a list of ingredients and end up buying something that you already have if you don’t check. I think if you’re at the store and something looks good to you but it’s not on your list, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy it. But you need to know how you’re going to use it, and choosing to buy it should change your list. And make a list that makes sense. Produce that’s in season should be cheaper than produce that’s not. Eating seasonally can save money and taste better. Sometimes you just want a peach in January, but 9 times out of 10, you’ll regret it if you buy one because it’s not going to taste like a peach in July. The only times our lists hurt us is when something changes in our week that throws off our plans.

10. Watch the scanner for errors

Keep an eagle eye on the scanner and make sure you’re getting charged the right prices. When items go on sale at the supermarket, the price change isn’t always immediately updated on the store’s computer listings, leading to overcharges at the cashier’s.

IT business magazine InformationWeek estimated that American consumers lose $2.5 billion to supermarket scanner overcharges per year, so it pays to keep your eyes peeled.

$2.5 billion? That’s a whole lot of money. Imagine what that money could do for our education system. Probably the easiest way to get around this one is to make more smaller trips even though that’s an inconvenience. It’s a lot easier to remember what 10 items cost than it is to remember what 50 items cost. Of course, it can also go back to buying from people you can trust who aren’t trying to manage a huge inventory system where it’s all too easy to make pricing mistakes.

Really, saving money on food costs is not going to be something you can make happen without changing habits. And you’re going to have to consciously decide to change those habits. It’s easy to decide to plan to cook from scratch and eat at home. It’s a lot harder to face going into the kitchen after a long day at work, putting all the effort into cooking a meal and then look at having to clean up after it all when it would be so much easier to just go out. But it really can impact your wallet.

Saving money can mean spending more time making things that you’re used to buying. It can mean having to plan ahead more. Dry beans are cheaper than canned beans, but you’re going to have to allow for the time to soak the dry beans before you cook them. Homemade bread is wonderful and cheap, but it takes time. Tomatoes you canned yourself will make your winter spaghetti sauces so much better than canned tomatoes from the store, but you have to take the time time to do that canning.

If you really want cheap vegetables, grow them yourself. But that takes time and care. You have to plant at the right times. You have to weed and water and watch for pests. You have to harvest. But a single packet of squash seed costs less than a pound of squash and will produce more than your whole family can eat in a summer. That’s definitely something to consider.

You also have to decide what’s important to you when it comes to saving money. Is purchasing an organic product worth a cost difference? Is the time required to go to a farmer’s market worth the savings? Are the savings of growing a garden worth all the work required to do it? As for us, we’d rather spend a little more but give our money to local farmers. For us, it’s worth waking up early on Saturday mornings to be at the farmer’s market when the selection is best. It’s worth buying a whole chicken to put away 2 gallons of stock that we can use for soups and risottos later. It’s worth the time to store produce away this summer so that we’ll have it in the winter.

I can’t tell you the best way for you to save money. Neither can CNN. My advice is don’t overthink it. Do what makes sense to you and what works for you. Eat well, and eat happy.

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