Friday, October 8, 2010

There was an article in the N&O on Wednesday about cutting grocery costs. Articles like that always make me feel inadequate. I don’t do anything I’m supposed to — I don’t plan my meals in advance, I don’t clip coupons, I don’t stockpile things when they’re on sale. In fact, I don’t even usually buy store brands, which is the first thing anyone tells you when they talk about how to save money at the grocery store.

Clearly, I’m doing it all wrong.

When I first moved back to North Carolina in 1998, I had just read Your Money or Your Life and was on something of a mission to cut expenses. The reason I don’t spend very much is because I don’t generally buy anything. When I actually do buy things, I tend to spend a lot. (A few years ago, when my friend Cathy was living here, I gave my house over to her for the weekend so she and her friends could all stay together for their class reunion. After spending the night in my bed, one of Cath’s friends said, “Okay I think I’ve figured out where the money goes.”)

After reading Your Money or Your Life, I decided I needed to change my ways and focus on price and not be quite so profligate. I was grocery shopping at Whole Foods (at that point still known as Wellspring … R.I.P. Wellspring) because it was a nice walk from my apartment and because I like it. And I was in the process of figuring out how to shop there for not so much money, so the food part was fine, but other things like toothpaste and paper products were really expensive.

I decided I wouldn’t buy any of that kind of thing at Whole Foods, but would do one or two trips a year to someplace cheap and get everything at once. This is the classic strategy, right? You get large quantities of things as cheaply as possible and keep your closets stocked so you never run out.

The obvious choice for the cheapest place to shop was Wal-Mart, so after a few months I made a big long list of everything I needed and went to Wal-Mart and spent $62.70 on nonfood grocery items and personal care products. (I know the amount because I started tracking my spending after reading Your Money or Your Life, and I am a database developer, so I have a database of all of my expenses dating back to 1995. Yes, I am crazy; even my father, who is a CPA, thinks so.)

About eight months later, when most everything had run out, I took another trip to Wal-Mart and in the midst of that shopping trip had a revelation.

I was reaching for a box of aluminum foil and putting it into my cart, with a running total of what I was buying in my head — this was a new strategy I’d developed, keeping track of how much things were going to cost as I was selecting them, you’d be surprised at how much this helps keep a lid on things. At that point, my cart had probably $75 worth of stuff in it. I looked at everything in the cart and thought, “Yesterday, I didn’t have any of this, and I was getting along just fine. When I first got out of school and had no money, I lived for years without any of these things. Do I really need this trip? Do I really need to come to this store and spend $50+ every time I walk in the door?”

I finished shopping. According to the magical spending database, the trip on 5/15/99 cost $98.13. And that was the last time I did a big shopping trip for nonfood items. I decided I was actually better off paying $5 for toothpaste at Whole Foods and living with less of everything.

When I don’t have plastic wrap, I’ll reuse produce bags from the grocery store. I’ll use plastic bags instead of aluminum foil, I’ll put a plate over the bowl in the fridge instead of covering it with plastic, I’ll use less shampoo, less laundry detergent, fewer paper towels to make it all last longer.

I think some people feel deprived when they do things like that, that they’re making do with substitutes, or skimping on necessities, but I find it empowering. You learn how much toothpaste and how much detergent you really need (less than you think) and how many times you can reuse something and have it be fine.

At around the same time, I bought the book Better Basics for the Home, which told me how to make almost anything — from soaps and lotions to spray cleaners and scouring powders to whitewash and grout — and I experimented with homemade substitutes for commercial products. Some of them are awesome and way better than anything you buy (lip balm), some are different but good (shampoo), and some just aren’t quite right (toothpaste). For the ones that aren’t right, I went back to the commercial products and tried to use as little as I could.

So I do it all wrong. I don’t do what everyone says I should do, I do something completely different.

And I’m not sure what the point of this is except I guess to say that there’s more than one path to enlightenment, and if you want to spend less money by stocking up and using coupons there are all kinds of resources out there to help you. But if you can’t be bothered with coupons or monthly meal planning, or if you don’t have a car and can’t stock up, try the minimalist approach and see if you can use less, less, less. Because less stuff means less money. And usually, less is enough.