Thursday, October 06, 2011


"What a bargain!"

Even poor people shop. Even people without any money buy things, they just use barter of goods and services; in fact, as I noted in Kit 2, that's all money is; short hand bartering. And if you're in a depression and hard up for cash, shopping goes from drudgery and distraction to a near combat zone.

One of the things I learned well from my mom is how to shop when you don't have much money. How on earth she managed to feed four growing boys in a family of six with the poverty-line money my father made I do not know, this side of a miracle. But she always put good, nutritious food on the table, even if I didn't always care for it.

Depression style shopping is a science, and it isn't tough to learn but it takes a bit of practice and a keen eye. First of all, forget coupons. Almost never is a coupon worth the trouble and use, and I'll tell you why.

First, coupons are usually for high end brand name items, trying to get you to buy them instead of a competitor. You know why you buy the competitor? Its already cheaper. At best that coupon is going to cut the price to a cheaper competitor. So you've gained nothing. Second, stores that use coupons usually have higher prices than other stores. So what they're doing is lowering their price down to the level you can get the product elsewhere. And even if the coupon does get the price down lower, you still have to buy everything else, which means you don't save money overall... unless you travel all over, and then you have to factor gas, wear on your car, time, and the energy it took you to travel around.

Coupons aren't worth it, unless they're for a store you already go to, for products you already buy because they're a good deal.

So what you need to do is look around for the one or two spots you can get to without excessive travel that will give you consistent good deals. Usually that's going to be some gargantuan box store these days. I love little personal markets, but they just have so much overhead and so little ability to buy in bulk they just have to charge more than the big box stores - except farmer's markets, but more on those in a moment.

So you need to find a place that has pretty much everything you want at an average price that's lower than other stores. Places like Safeway will have sales on various products through the store each day, but on average their prices are bad because the stuff that isn't on sale is usually pretty spendy.

Now I'm going to focus on food shopping here, but the general principles apply to all sorts of shopping. Shoes, clothing, cars, what have you. You want to put the best effort into finding the lowest prices for the best quality you can afford. And once you have it, of course, you want to be able to maintain it properly to save yourself money down the road.

Walmart, for example, will tend to have overall fairly good prices on just about everything you want or need. Other stores like Winco (in Oregon) have good deals on all kinds of things due to massive bulk purchases and low overhead. You're looking for a store that's decorated as little as possible, with not so much attention to savings on specific items as generally just lower prices overall.

You want to go as few times to the store as possible. I know, that means you have to put up with things maybe a little wilted or stale by the time you get to the next paycheck, but this saves money in several ways. First, if there's regular inflation, you're beating it by buying goods as much as possible at a set price. And when there's a depression, there's inflation. Even when there's not a depression, prices will nudge up slightly between trips.

Second, you're avoiding the cost of travel which can be substantial. You'll also need your time and energy for maintaining your home and possessions, cooking, and so on that is bets not used on travel.

Third, by shopping all at once, its easier to stay on budget. The more often you go, the easier it is to lose track of how much you've spent previously and easier to get extra things without thinking about what it does to your budget. Since you'll be buying bulk base supplies anyway, you won't need to go shopping as often.

Before you go to the store, make a list. Even if you don't consult the list, this will help set in your mind what you're going after and only what you're going after. If you're trying to live on a very small, fixed income, you'll have to cook from scratch and be cutting everywhere, so there won't be luxuries on that list - or, at least, what you define as luxury others in better times will define as the usual, like a piece of candy for the kids. For example, if you are really on a tight budget, you'll want to cook from scratch, so you will want basic supplies, not premade items. Put down flour, not deli sandwiches. Put down sugar and milk, not Hagen Daas.

Set a budget: spend this much and no more. If you're on a very tight income, you cannot afford to go over budget, and you need to remember that especially with food shopping which is one of the biggest bills of the month.

Once you have a list of what you need from the store, eat. One of the worst things you can do is shop for groceries on an empty stomach. Suddenly luxuries look like necessities, and you start buying based on what looks tasty rather than what you need and can afford. Eat a good, solid meal. Take a snack along like some nuts if you can, so if you start to get Pooh's rumbly tumbly, eat.

Now, when you set out, have a plan. Don't go shopping with the mindset of "grab what I need" but think in terms of "I'm buying what I need on a budget." My mom keeps a calculator handy and keeps track, its rarely exact, but its usually close to the end amount and she can adjust purchases based on what she sees. I usually can keep track pretty well in my head; when I worked at a grocery store I could look at a shopping cart and estimate within 5-10 bucks. The point is, keep track so you don't go over budget.

As you buy, watch the prices. It will take a few passes through to get a good handle on things but you should be able to find the lowest cost brands (or non-brands) and pick them up quickly. Compare prices anyway. If you're buying almost anything, the cheapest brand is perfectly fine, and often exactly the same as the more expensive. Bleach is still bleach even if its not Clorox, for example.

There are exceptions of course. Some things are awful if they're cheap, like tuna. Either cook it up, skip it, or budget for better tuna because the cheap stuff is barely cat food.

Some stores, like Canned Food Warehouse type places will have some really, really good deals, if you don't mind buying a can of beans from Saudi Arabia and soy milk from China. The problem with a lot of these places is that while some of their stuff is good and cheap - usually canned goods - the rest is just awful and often not all that cheap, either. And from one trip to the next you'll rarely find the same things on the shelf, so you can't reliably pick up a list of goods.

In some cases, you'll just have to "lump it" to use a depression era phrase: eat it anyway because its all you can afford. That's going to especially apply to meat. Unfortunately, meat is expensive, and you're not going to be able to afford it unless you're well off.

That means you buy cheap cuts, poor meat, and have to just deal with the lack of quality. That's the sad part of being poor, you just can't be choosers. Often it means doing without. There's just no way to buy some meat on the budget we're talking about here, so you can't have it any longer. Doing without is one of the most basic factors of poverty - you simply cannot have what you may have once enjoyed.

On the bright side, sometimes cheaper is better: hamburger for instance. Eating high-fat burgers means a lot of shrinkage, but better flavor. With hamburger, however, you have to work out a cost-benefit ratio: you save money with 30% fat but it shrinks up so much you lose about a quarter of the weight; is it really a savings? Its worth considering 22%, just to get a balance between shrinkage (and flavor) and total cost.

Then we come to produce. Now, its rare to find good produce in a discount market. Often its awful both in selection and quality. There is a solution, however, unless you live in a huge metropolitan area. The farmer's market.

Farmer's markets - real ones, not the trendy in-city "fair trade" faux farmer's markets that many cities have developed - break the rule of small shops and cost. Almost always the prices in little roadside stands and farm shops are lower than at a super mart. And the quality is better. Yes, they might look uglier and have dirt on them but they are fresher, more fully ripened, and local, so they have better flavor. That means good eats at a budget, which is always worth the time.

In a future one of these I'll cover gardening a bit more but even if you don't have a garden, someone else you know probably does, and they'll likely give you extras. If they don't well its worth a trade for most folks. A bushel of fresh veggies to can for a few hours work or some goods you have is a great way to make friends and neighbors. Growing your own food helps cut the budget significantly in exchange for a bit of time and labor.

Once you get all that food and hopefully are under budget, put it away as soon as possible as clean and carefully as you can. This has to last you, with as little waste as humanly possible. You can't afford to throw things out for lack of effort to care for them.

Shopping means giving up the small amount of buying power you have for survival, you shop for food, shelter, and the goods to maintain your life when you're dirt poor. That means you have to do it right, carefully, each time.

And even if you aren't poor, this kind of hardcore shopping will mean you have more money you can set aside for emergencies and your future. Because while, at 25, you may think retirement is a long ways off... you're almost half way there and have only worked a decade or less. Think ahead now, because every day you put it off is one less day to save. Frugal habits serve every single person in every single situation, if for no other reason than to teach discipline and the virtue of temperance.

*This is part of the Economic Depression Era Survival KitLink


Eric said...

Another great article, I especially agree with the part about farmer's markets or roadside stands. And if you return to the same producer enough times, they will eventually get to know you on a somewhat personal level, and this can lead to two things: 1) they set back the best looking produce for their repeat customers 2) they'll give you free stuff from time to time. Last month my wife got a free big box full of peaches that were 'on the verge' of going bad. She brought them home, sorted the good from the bad, canned them, and now we have more peach jam than we will use in the next 12 months.

It's always hard to do on a budget because coming up with a big wad of cash is often not an option, but if you can manage to buy some things in bulk (rice, beans, toilet paper, peanut butter) you can save good money. You have to be careful though and do the math becasue some of the big warehouse stores that sell bulk goods will rip you off. They are also better than even the grocery stores at marketing impulse purhcases (of course you can use this against them... if you refuse to get hooked into buying anything, you can stroll through a Sam's warehouse and get an entire meal's worth of 'free samples' from the various vendors).

The only other thing I'd argue is that in some cases coupons can make sense. These 'extreme couponing' television shows are full of people who go overboard buying things they don't need in order to get good deals on other stuff, but some of their principles are sound. If you are willing to spend some extra time planning and paying attention to sales and stores that offer double coupons, you can get some incredibly good deals. My wife started doing this awhile back and has reduced our monthly grocery bill by about a third without any reductions in the quality of food that is in the pantry.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but from my experience, your suggestions are nearly ALL WRONG. 1) Coupons are GREAT, as long as you wait until things are on sale. Depending on the part of the country, you can get TRIPLE coupon value or "buy on get one free" ON TOP of the face value. All this togethere makes price and quality much higher than just shopping Brand X at any one store. RUBBISH. 2) Farmer's markets are by definition out in the country, which conflicts with your "travel" advice (about the only sensible remark in this article). SO that eliminates that as a viable source. What DOES make sense - *IF* available in your part of the country - is going to Produce stores instead of the Supermarkets for your fruit and vegetables. There the quality is higher and the prices 1/-to-1/4 of those in the usual chain Supermarkets.

Marieanne said...

Wow, such hostility towards what is a a terribly sensible article.

Farmer's markets don't exist solely out in the country. I live in the DC metro area and I can choose from four different farmer's market within a ten minute drive.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Kudos to your mom. My husband and I have seven Progeny, all of whom were still minor children when he was enlisted in the Air Force.

Very helpful article for beginners. I look forward to reading the whole series. You may want to share this post on this link-up on bargain shopping.

I don't find coupons worthwhile for me, but I know others who do find great savings with them. All that free stuff some people get from watching coupons, double coupons, sales, and drugstore 'rewards' are also things that go nicely in gift baskets for college students and newlyweds.

Anonymous, your hostility is ridiculously misplaced.

Farmer's Markets are actually, by definition, in *towns*. Farmers and other venders come together and set up a market in town, taking their produce closer to the customers. I live in a small rural town that is our county seat, and we have on twice a week on the Courthouse square. In a university town an hour away they have one twice a week just a few blocks from Walmart, on the tennis courts of a large city park.

There are some ways to cook those tough cuts of meat that make them a bit easier on the teeth.=)

Teri Lester said...

A great way to keep track of what you're spending, that's way easier than a calculator, is to make tick marks - you know, 4 "l" and then the fifth is a slash across. Just make them on your shopping list. I do 4 sets of 5 on a line, so each line is $20.

Everything you put in your basket, you either round up or round down to the number of dollars. $2.75, 3 tick marks. 2.49, 2 tick marks. The items really do balance out each other over the course of a shopping trip so you'll be pretty close to the final total.

When you've reached your budget limit, you either stop shopping or put things back. (And don't forget to leave a few dollars for tax if you're in a state that taxes food.)

If you're accurate/honest about your rounding, you'll be surprised how close you'll come to the final amount. Better than a calculator because you don't have to worry about losing your accumulated total, and again, it's right on your list so you don't need to carry anything extra.

You can do the same thing if you're shopping at Sam's/Costco, or clothes shopping - just make your mark a reasonable multiple. At Costco I do 4 sets of number 5, clothes shopping I'll do either 5 or 10 depending on my budget. It still keeps you in the ballpark without a lot of unnecessary fussing.