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Thrifty Tips

Shopping is where my strengths lay when it comes to living a frugal or thrifty life.  I shop better than most people.  Because of this, I find most thrifty tips about shopping to be irritating.  I mentioned before that I don’t use coupons.  I know that coupons are a huge deal right now and every one looks at me funny when I say I don’t use them.

Before I talk about shopping, let me explain why I don’t use coupons.  First of all, most coupons are for items that I would not normally purchase.  They are either for a product I don’t use or are for a more expensive product.  Many coupons cost to get them – if you subscribe to the paper or just purchase the one day’s, you are still buying the coupons.  Most couponers don’t take into account that expense.  The last thing – if the item is taxable then the coupon is taxed.  They are not free.  I am actually horrified by the couponing shows and some friends who are big couponers. They may feel like they are getting great bargains but what I see is a pile of crap that I would not have bought in the first place.

I love the website cracked.com.  They not only crack me up but often have very poignant articles.  This article on the stupidest habits you develop when you are poor is one I think about often.  It might have even been the subconscious reason for writing this series.  The #1 habit is spending with only the short-term in mind.  This is one of those things that just boggles my mind.  I know that my brain is not the same as everyone else’s but it amazes me how dumb people are when they shop.

Rumor is that if you price something $9.99 people read it as being a better bargain than pricing it at $10.  I never got that because I always round up.  My brain prefers whole numbers so it always rounds up (never down because that might mean not having enough money to pay for the item).  My brain also can’t understand why people wouldn’t shop with the long-term in mind.  If you are a bargain hunter then it’s not just the dollar amount that makes deal but I’m getting off topic so lets step back and talk about the basics.

There are some obvious bargain shopping places – outlet stores, dollar stores, Walmart.  However, I’m not overly inclined to shop bargain basements.  I know, you just gasped in shock.  How can I call myself thrifty and not shop those sorts of places.  First, I don’t have access to outlet stores so I don’t consider them in my shopping.  If I have to travel far out of my way for a deal, then it’s not that great of a deal.  I do shop the dollar store but not for everything.

Walmart is one place I work to avoid.  We have limited shopping in my area and Walmart is a big part of what we do have.  I still try not to shop there.  There are two big reasons – 1.  I just don’t like their company practices, and 2.  it’s not as big of a bargain as it seems.  The more I start researching products, the more I realize that the quality of products sold at Walmart are not worth the money I spend.

For example, my brother bought me an e-reader at Walmart for about $100 for Christmas one year.  It didn’t work.  There was no customer service and I couldn’t load a single book onto it.  We returned it and bought a Nook for about $200.  (I know – gasp.)  Why would I think that was a bargain?  To start with, I got amazing customer service.  For my $200 I got a two-year warranty and a personal shopper.  A lovely lady was available anytime to help me with any problem I had.  And boy was she worth the money because I’m a little technology challenged.  Several times for the past two years I have gone into the store and gotten help with a variety of issues (most of them stemming from my inability to hit the correct button).  I put in less time learning how to use my Nook than I did trying to figure out the Walmart reader and, to be honest, my time is money.

I find many of the Walmart products to be of less quality than other stores.  I am a habitual comparison shopper.  I often take notes of prices of things that I like to buy and, even if I am not shopping for it at that moment, constantly check prices at all the stores I go to.

What are my favorite stores?

I love JCPenney.  Their clothes are often in the same price range as Walmart and other discount stores.  They are of higher quality and their service never fails to impress me.  Returning items is so easy at JCPenney.  It happens – every big shopping spree we do there, we end up with something that needs to be returned.  The other thing I love about JCPenney is their clearance.  I love clearance.  We do a lot of our back to school shopping at JCPenney.  We’ll spend $2-300 dollars and walk out with $6-800 worth of clothing.  The clothes last a long time too.  With a growing boy, we’ve constantly needed new pants.  He outgrows them before they start showing signs of wear.  That’s saying something.

Shopko is another store I love for clearance.  I can often find items for 90% off in all departments.  The trick with Shopko is that they often hide their clearance so you have to learn where to look.

I do my share of hunting through thrift stores.  The trick with thrift stores is not to just buy crap.  Take the time to look over each item and then ask yourself if it’s something you really need or want.

As for the Dollar Store – it’s one of my favorite places to shop.  You have to be careful because it’s not always a place of quality.  Just because it’s only a dollar doesn’t mean you can’t get it for less somewhere else or a better product.  I do buy my first aid supplies and emergency kit items at the dollar store.  I would rather spend a dollar for something that might sit for years in a bag waiting for an emergency.  That doesn’t mean I buy something that won’t be useful when that time comes.  For example, gauze is pretty much gauze no matter where you buy it.  It’s purpose is to absorb blood and clean wounds.  I don’t need to spend $5 for a box when I can get something of good enough quality.  If the injury is so bad that my dollar store gauze isn’t going to work then we’re looking at a trip to the hospital where they will remove the gauze anyway.  Occasionally, I will find amazing food bargains at the dollar store.  We’ve found all natural extracts and great spice blends.  You just have to know your products.

Is this all clear as mud?  I feel like I’m rambling.  In my head this was a whole lot clearer but it’s not coming out as easily as I had thought.  I may have to come back to this topic – so please ask questions.

Let’s talk the actual shopping.

Companies use all sorts of tactics to get you to buy their product.  Their goal is to make money.  They often have little tricks that make you think you are getting the most for your money and it may not be true.  They count on the fact that you don’t want to take the time to do your research.  It happens to me – I pick up something in a hurry with no regard to what my options were.  I’m almost always disappointed when I realize that I could have shopped better.

Many stores help with comparison shopping but it’s not always consistent and I’ve only seen it at grocery stores.  Many labels in my favorite groceries often have the price and the price per some unit (ounces, pounds, etc).  Sometimes this is great because all of that particular product have the same unit but not always.  However, it’s a great reminder that sometimes the best price looks like the worst.

Every product I purchase, I use a little checklist in my head:
1. What does it cost?
2. How much do I get for that money?
3. What are the ingredients?
4. What are my personal feelings towards that product?
5. Is this the best price I have seen?
6. Do I need it right now?
7. Do I need it at all?

It’s not an exact list but it’s the average questions that go through my head.

Let me give you an example – My son needs deodorant.  I have three choices – Arm and Hammer 2.5 oz $1.98, Dove Men 2.7 oz $3.88, and Degree 2 pack of 2.2oz $3.97.  So which would I pick – lets break it down because it’s not as easy as it looks.  I would start by equaling the math – A&H 2.5 $2, Dove 2.7 $3.90, Degree 4.4 $4.  I can already see that the Dove is not the best bargain because it’s nearly twice the price as the Arm and Hammer and only has .2 ounces more.  So I look at the two remaining – Degree is twice the price of the Arm and Hammer so do I get twice the amount – 2.5 x 2 is 5 ounces so no.  In this case, the product with the less dollar amount is the better bargain.  Now comes the final decision – how does it work?  Will my son use it?  If the Arm and Hammer smells terrible then I know it won’t be a good product for us.  If I know the Degree works better for his body then I know that spending just a little bit more is the better bargain.

It does take time to stand there and do the math but when you are on a tight budget, the math is worth it.

Now here’s one of those things that I will never understand.  I have a friend who drives 45 miles to the cheapest grocery store, passing 3 stores on the way.  The three stores she passes have higher prices than the one she goes to and her food budget is tight.  She’s not the only one who does this.  I know so many people who do the same thing.  Many of them are on food stamps.  The one thing I have yet to understand is why people refuse to think of food stamps as part of their money.  I know it can only be used for food but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expenses that come out of the rest of your budget.  Let’s start with the easiest part – gas.  At $3.50 a gallon (or whatever it is today), it costs me up to $7 to drive those 45 miles one way.  The entire trip (if I went to the store and back only) could cost me $14.  Then there’s the time – it would take me about two hours just to drive to the store and back.  Remember, my time is money.  I like to think that if life was fair, I would get paid $10 an hour for everything I do.  So just the driving costs me $20 in time.  So just going to the store has cost me $34.  Then there are all the other little expenses that people don’t think about – the need to get something to eat because it takes me all day to go to the store.  If I take the whole family that could cost me another $30 (actually if it was me and we were on a really tight budget it would cost me less that $10 but that’s because I am super cheap).

Now I could go to the closer store, saving me half the gas and money which is about $17 and get what I can for the lowest amount possible.  I bet in the end it would be less than that $17 I would have spent going to the cheaper store.

My last two tips for this post since it is an out of control mess –

1.  There is usually a reason why something is cheap – sometimes it’s of a poorer quality and that does apply to food.

2.  Just because a store seems cheap on a handful of items doesn’t mean you are getting the best deal on everything you buy.  The trick is to offer you some great bargains and make them up by charging just a little more (or significantly more depending on the item) on other items.  It’s another trick – if the store shows you all its bargains then you will believe that everything is a bargain.