Frugal Living 101 — Saving Money On Shopping

by Ramona Creel

Pinch That Penny Until It Screams

I come from a long line of serious penny-pinchers — my father was a world-champion cheapskate, so I learned from the best! In fact, one of my two superpowers is the ability to magnetically attract bargains (the one is good parking karma.) I don't see any shame in trying to save money, so I say take advantage of every sale, coupon, and special you can find — as long as you aren't just shopping to get the discount. Remember, it's only a bargain if you were planning to purchase it in the first place. This was a concept my father never seemed to grasp. He'd come home from the grocery store loaded down with crap we were never going to use — but even if it ended up going to waste, he would still insist it was a good buy because it was so cheap! And if you think that you have to clip coupons to trim your budget, think again — all you have to do is realign the way you view shopping, spending, and saving money.

  • plan before you shop (impulse buys will kill your budget faster than anything — if you go to the store to buy bread and milk, don't come home with fried chicken, chocolate cake, and a bottle of wine, too! — if you want to prevent a bigger-than-expected bill at the checkout stand, then you've got to avoid “browsing” — know what you want before you walk in the front door and keep your eye on the prize — only visit those sections of the store where the items on your list are located, move purposefully, and try not to be distracted by “sale” signs — planning ahead also means scouring the internet or newspaper for deals BEFORE heading to the store — make sure you've got a system for storing and organizing your coupons, one that is portable and that you keep either in your purse or in your car — it does you no good to remember that you found $1 off of that item in the Family Circle that week, if you've left it at home on your kitchen counter)
  • harness the power of the internet (you can also save tons by signing up for programs like Restaurant.com, Entertainment.com, and Groupon — however, maximizing these deep discounts requires that you remember to look for and print out their certificates in advance — just be careful about loading up on deals you THINK you might use, then allowing them to expire before you can cash them in — I find that the best approach is to have a system for locating savings — before I do anything costing money, whether it's eating out or visiting a museum, getting the oil changed or replacing a toner cartridge, I check my discount sites — I also visit the actual company/store website, and perform a general internet search, as well — and don't forget to look for coupons through your AAA membership, credit card, or professional association — you never know who's going to be offering a special that week)
  • shop smart at the supermarket (grocery stores are scientifically designed to make you spend more money than you intend — name brands are placed right at eye level, while off-brands are hidden away on higher or lower shelves — but it's worth the search to find a generic version whenever possible — ironically, you're actually getting the exact same product as the big brands, for as much as 50% less because you're not paying for the advertising and flashy containers — another grocery trick is locating more expensive foods at the heart of the store, while cheaper bulk items are shoved way off along the perimeter — to save money, stick to the outside ring of store, where the fresh fruits, veggies, meats, and dairy reside — and when you do have to visit the interior for a package of pasta or some disinfectant, try to avoid all those pre-packaged meals and snacks — “convenience” foods will burn a hole through your budget in no time!)
  • be an opportunistic shopper (smart savers are flexible shoppers, willing to bend their needs to match what's on sale — so if you had originally planned to make spinach lasagna for dinner, but it turns out that spinach is regularly priced and eggplant is half off, you might consider eggplant parmesan instead — substitution is king! — pay attention to the sales in the grocery store circular, because those usually emphasize deeply-discounted items that they are overstocked on and need to clear out quickly — but of course, only take advantage of store-provided coupons and specials when it's something you needed anyway — supermarkets are notorious for providing a “sale” on a more expensive name brand item, which ends up being more costly even after the discount that if you had just bought the generic version)
  • look at unit price, not total price (when comparing different brands and different sizes of the same product, it can be hard to tell which is the best bargain without a slide rule, scientific calculator, and advanced calculus degree! — so the way to get the best deal is to pay attention to “unit price” — this is the one constant in grocery store mathematics, how much that item costs per ounce or pound or piece — fortunately, most stores now provide this information right on the sign for that product, so it's easy to see whether buying a different brand or a larger bulk size container is going to save you more)
  • comparison shop (the difference in price on the same exact product from one store to the next can be staggering –  companies count on the fact that you will be too busy to shop around, that you'll be willing to pay a bit more to run all your errands in one place — but it's usually a lot more expensive to buy food at a drug store and household cleaners at the supermarket, than if you got each at a shop specializing in that category of product — and don't forget the power of the internet when it comes to comparison shopping — if an item costs $40 in the store, you can probably find it for half price or less on Amazon or Ebay or some other discount site that has lower overhead than a brick-and-mortar retailer)
  • stock up (shopping in onesies and twosies is almost always more expensive than buying in bulk — purchasing larger quantities of just about anything, from spaghetti to ball point pens, toilet paper to motor oil, will cost you less per unit — if you don't have the space to store a case of canned green beans, or you can't eat  15-pound slab of salmon before it goes bad, find a few friends to split the deal with you — just be sure to evaluate that unit price before you buy, especially when shopping at the warehouse clubs — some items are a good deal, but some are actually more expensive than if you bought a smaller quantity elsewhere — another way to stock up is to take advantage of seasonal sales, like back-to-school, Black Friday, inventory time, and after the holidays — load up on school supplies for the next year or holiday decorations or household staples when they are marked way down)
  • loyalty pays in the end (as long as there are no annual fees, customer loyalty clubs are a great way to either save money on your purchases or earn cash back for shopping with a particular merchant — some stores have even started marking their products up higher for non-club shoppers, so they can offer deeper discounts to those with the magic membership card — it's a little bit disingenuous, but you might as well take advantage of the disparity!)
  • barter is smarter (whenever you can trade for the products and services you need, you'll almost always come out ahead — folks are willing to offer more generous “packages” when there's no exchange of cash to deal with, no sales tax to charge, and no paper trail for the IRS to follow — if you don't already sell something that you could offer in barter, think about using your talents creatively — you might help your chiropractor's office with filing in return for adjustments, or stuff envelopes for a mass mailing your gym is sending out to pay for your membership fee — you could provide home-baked refreshments at your hair stylist's open house as a swap for a free cut and color — you could even offer babysitting services to your favorite cheese shop owner if she'll keep you in brie Wink — everyone has something of value to offer others)
  • used is the new “new” (while of course, you probably don't want to be shopping for used underwear or yogurt, there are very few other consumer goods that you have to buy new — and while I'm a big thrift-store girl, I'm not suggesting that you have to shop at the Salvation Army to get a deal either — consignment stores carry top-brand clothing at a fraction of the cost — plenty of electronics stores resell used movies, music, and video games — CraigslistEbay, and even the Amazon marketplace can be great resources for bargains on sports equipment, appliances, computer equipment, tools, toys, anything you can think of — and, of course, this rule goes double for vehicles — new cars depreciate by as much as half the minute you drive them off the lot — buying a good 1-year or 2-year-old vehicle will save you a ton — if you're concerned about possible problems, shop with a certified reseller that offers a warranty)
  • take advantage of “free” (I am continually amazed at the number of things you can get these days without spending a cent — join the birthday club at your favorite restaurant to get a free meal — companies have started offering freebie coupons and samples through their Facebook fan pages — notification services like Cities On The Cheap will send you discount codes for free video rentals and MP3 downloads — and nearly every food-oriented company out there, from Starbucks to IHOP to Ben And Jerry's has the occasional  promotional “try us for free day” — borrow books and movies from the library rather than buying them — plan “closet-swap” days where each of your friends cleans out unwanted outfits and you each “shop” through each other's piles — trade tools with a buddy or set up a co-op for the neighborhood — even renting certain types of equipment can be less expensive in the long-run than buying — if you don't have to own it and aren't going to use it all the time, find another way!)
  • sell or trade first (quite often, we buy new things to replace old things without getting rid of the old things first — Matt and I have developed a “one-in/one-out” rule — for example, if he's going to get a new video game, he has to trade in an old one at the same time — we do this with books, music, movies, and sports equipment — not only does it keep clutter away, but we can apply the trade credit toward the price of the new item — and if you can't find an establishment that will take your used items, consider a yard sale or posting it on Craigslist)

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at www.RamonaCreel.com. And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.