Thursday, April 22, 2010

Seven Ways to Stretch Shopping Budgets

We've heard rumours of economic recovery. No matter how eagerly this tale is propagated by merchants and politicians, in our household, it remains an urban legend. It may well be our "recovery" is happening slower than most, but we're still carefully monitoring spending and keeping all variable expenses to a minimum. On the front line of our tactical plan are a few shopping strategies. It's ironic that savings are most often realized when spending. Here's our list of seven ways to stretch the budget:

  1. First on the list are lists: lists for groceries, lists for household items, and lists of stores and other tasks. It may sound obvious, but shopping without lists often leads to important items forgotten and/or unnecessary purchases, neither of which respects valuable time nor budgets. We buy some groceries from a chain-store grocer (one that offers "club shopper" savings and air miles,) and bulk groceries from a wholesaler. We also frequent our favourite Green Grocer and Butcher. Each vendor provides a specific quality or quantity of product we prefer. So, we keep separate lists for each store, and will often list the same food item on two or more lists if we intend to shop for best price or a particular quality. By listing the stores and tasks, shopping can be done in the most efficient manner with regard to routes taken and time spent in each store. For people like me, who rank shopping alongside root-canals, there's high merit in planning the day ahead. Or, if you live rurally, as we do, and must travel considerable distances to do your shopping, having comprehensive lists will help save money, time, and fuel.

  2. A day or two before you intend to shop, peruse your collection of coupons for relevant savings. Coupons are a great way to save on products you normally use. I stress that because using coupons for products you don't like often ends in wasted product, and there are no savings in waste. Coupons are, however, a good way to test a new product or one you're unfamiliar with: if you find you don't like the product, at least you haven't paid full price for it. I use an accordion file to sort all coupons, and a coupon wallet to carry with us on shopping excursions. When it's time to shop, I sort through the coupons in the accordion filer for products which correspond to the lists I've created, making sure to use coupons with the closest expiry date, first. Some shopping trips, we have no relevant coupons. Other trips we'll have a handful. Savings may seem small at the till, but they add up over the year -- I estimate we save, on average, about 1-2% solely through tendering coupons. That adds up to savings of between $35 and $150, depending on the year and coupons we receive. Those savings have helped us buy a few "extras." In the past, grocery stores used to have coupon bins – a place where customers could share coupons they won't use and pick up another person's surplus vouchers. This option, if it's available to you, is a terrific way to get the products you need, without discarding coupons which could be of value to others.

  3. Check store flyers. The weekly deluge we receive is sorted at the post office, where most are sent directly to recycling. The only flyers we bring home are for stores where we regularly shop – running from store to store for a few cents off on certain products costs more in fuel than any potential savings. A day or two before shopping, we compare the current week's flyer to our shopping list. If there are sales on items we commonly use and we have room to store (or freeze,) we buy it in bulk if the sale price is persuasive enough. This process may result in scratching off an item from one list and adding it to another, but the time you save while shopping will make the messy lists worthwhile.

  4. On shopping day, check stock in the refrigerator, cupboards, storage, and freezer. Add to (or deduct from) the lists as needed. I do a rough calculation of costs and, if that sum is greater than our budget, I'll put a single line through the items that can be "bumped" to the next shopping list.

  5. Eat just prior to shopping. A full stomach will make it much easier to resist impulse purchases of junk and convenience foods which are all too conveniently stacked on bunk ends and surrounding each check-out. If you're shopping for clothes, being full will ensure the fitting makes allowance for that larger state.

  6. Shop with a calculator. It's surprising how quickly prices add up. By keeping a running tally on a calculator, it's much easier to stay on budget. Often times, we spend less than my (purposefully high) rough estimate and can afford some items that were crossed from the list for budgetary reasons. Occasionally, in-store offers (for which my estimate did not account,) will allow a "scratched off" item to be purchased – this is the reason I cross off things with a single line; it keeps them legible.

  7. Watch for in-store specials, club savings, and member-only offers. These are often the most lucrative offers but, while they seem alluring, they might not always save you money. If you have an over-abundance of product or the inability to safely or properly store the item, then "savings" are reduced or nullified. Check the featured items against your lists – some may actually coincide with your current needs and/or budget. There are offers which will require a greater amount spent than your budget allows or excess product bought to achieve the savings. You'll need to decide whether the budget deficit or storing more product make the savings, reward, or rebate worth redeeming. Clubs are a great way to save, but some cost to join. These clubs often pay percentile rebates on your purchases and, depending on your shopping habits and store preferences, savings from this sort of club could well pay for the cost of membership. Some memberships, however, may cost more than the savings you'll achieve, particularly if you don't shop there frequently. Those choices will require your own calculations. The wholesaler we frequent sends us a yearly rebate on our purchases which nearly covers our cost of membership. We aren't losing, though, because during the year we realize significant savings by purchasing certain foods and household products in bulk. Those savings more than make up for the deficit between our rebate cheque and the cost of renewing membership.

While it's not always feasible, aligning shopping around your favourite stores' restocking schedules has benefits, too. We like to shop on Tuesdays, whenever possible, because that's when two of our grocers get their fresh produce. Fridays are their best day for fresh baked goods. Different stores have different schedules, so check with department managers in your favourite stores. Most will be happy to tell you when they have fresh product available.

I've heard people say they don't have time for all this. They can't be bothered with all the preparations and calculations. It's true this system takes a little more time and energy, but we consider it time well-spent. Like many others, we work hard to earn a living; it only seems fitting to put reciprocal effort into spending that money wisely.

Do you have a shopping strategy or tip you'd care to pass along? Please leave a comment, sharing your idea(s).