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.

11 Responses to “Less”

  1. Valerie Says:

    Great post! I’ve been thinking along these lines with regard to actually preparing food as well, and in what amounts. For instance, we love muffins, and we prefer them fresh. My past behavior would be to make a couple of dozen muffins at one time and freeze most of them to be used later as we wanted them, figuring it was cheaper to make a lot of them at once, with less oven use involved. However, with just the two of us, that meant a lot of reheated muffins over the period of a month, with muffins taking up a lot of needed space in the freezer. Now I just make six at a time, I use the toaster oven to bake them; none go into the freezer, and we enjoy fresher muffins more often. The pleasure value outweighs the ‘convenience’ of having them handy in the freezer, and in the long run, less does seem to be more in this case.

    I’ve also been doing the less toothpaste, soap, etc., and it’s working just fine. Amazing how long some of these products can last. My husband says that one of the best encouragement to use things quickly has to be on the back of shampoo bottles–Lather, rinse, lather again–when a half a lather will do! :-)

    One of the fun things we are now doing that is saving tons of money is cutting each others’ hair every couple of weeks. I lost my hair last year during chemo, and decided I liked the look and the ease of care. So we just get out the clippers with the 1/8″ setting, and shave away! With hair this short we don’t even need shampoo, and conditioner, hair gel, hair spray, etc., are all things of the past. while my first choice would have been not to have cancer at all, this has certainly been one of the ways we have made lemonade from lemons!

    Thanks for your continued posts…Valerie

  2. kit Says:

    This is a great post. I always feel somewhat inadequate when it comes to frugality and there’s a comparison between a super couponer and myself. I’m much more like you, I have a tiny Whole Foods a few blocks from me and most of the time I just fill my backpack on the way home from work. It keeps me to the basics, which seem to go a much longer way than a huge trip to the regular grocery store.

    I’m curious about your database, being a DB nerd myself. First of all, do you enter just where the money was spent and the amount, or do you break it down further into categories (multiple ones per trip, that is) or single items? Also, what sort of interface do you use to enter the data? I’m guessing you aren’t using a raw SQL INSERT or Mumps set command every time you enter expenses ;) It would actually be kind of neat to see an example of this.

  3. Great post! I too have meandered in the past decade or so from the heavy-couponing to the more simple approach.

    I no longer care if I can find Suave for free with a coupon, or toothpaste for $1. In fact, I almost never use a coupon anymore. Maybe if there is one in the grocery store insert. For me it’s a time thing. I found couponing to be fun, but it took time. And right now I’d rather use my time to play with my kid and his Legos.

  4. molly Says:

    Hallelujah. Sing it, sister.

  5. Fernando Says:

    Hi, well I belive your system could be better than the coupon one. Think of it, they give coupons in a commercial strategy, they want us to buy something, in a specific presentation. I just can’t stop thinking on what the companies are looking for when they give us that coupon.. ????
    Still, for some it could work, I’ll agree on that.

    The thing that I myself do when I’m trying not to spend that much is to buy only the things I can carry in my hands (1 to 3 bags). I’m buying for myself only, so why do I need a whole box of “(pick your item)”. In my experience, when you buy and stockpile stuff, you end up using more than what you are supposed to. It’s not only that when you have a limited amount you try to save it or make it last longer, is also that you over spend when you have 12 sets of those things, you feel the “abundance” and simply waste them.

    In any case, I’d love to hear from someone using the stockpiling system explaining how their bills went down, if they did at all.

  6. Marcia Says:

    I used to stockpile, and certainly, when I wanted my grocery bills, etc. to be the minimum, it was the easiest way to get there. I could get my grocery bill to under $200 a month for three (I live in So. Cal.)

    The way the bills go down is pretty simple: you are paying the minimum amount for every item. Instead of buying chicken at $5/lb, or on sale at $3/lb, you wait until it’s on sale for $1.50/lb, and buy enough to last you until you next need it.

    Instead of paying $2/lb for brown rice, you either buy on sale or in bulk, at $0.50/lb.

    The key is to do this with everything you buy. And if you have a well-stocked pantry, then you can cook without having to shop.

    But it’s work. It helps to shop at multiple stores, clip coupons, and keep a price book. It helps to have a big family, and you MUST eat things before they go bad, or there’s no point. The usefulness of this method will depend on where you live and what you eat.

    If you eat meat, then buy a freezer, buy half a cow, and save! If you eat a lot of raw vegetables, then you can’t really stock up so much.

    There are many ways to eat more cheaply, and it really depends on your location, shopping, and cooking personality. Broke foodie, for example, shops once every 3 months and has a CSA for fresh stuff.

  7. lessisenough Says:

    Apologies for the extended delay in responding to this; I’ve been thinking all week about getting back to Kit on the database question but hadn’t managed to get to it.

    For a long time I tracked everything in Quicken — I started out in Quicken ’95 on a 386 laptop and then moved to Quicken ’98 for Mac when I got a Mac in 1998. I had one file for my pre-1999 data and then I started closing out and starting a new file every year. So I had separate files for each year from 1999 to 2008 in Quicken; I just kept using the old computer for that even though I had gotten a new computer. Then I got another new computer and my 1998 computer was dying piece by piece so I decided I should just suck it up and get a new version of Quicken for the new computer but it was $75 and that seemed like a lot for a program that I used for such basic tasks. I didn’t use 90% of the features, I just wanted basically an electronic check register. Also I decided I didn’t like having all that data in a format that I needed a specific program to work with.

    I decided to export all the data from Quicken to csv files, so I could import the basic data into a Filemaker database and work with it there. So that’s how I have it now, it’s just a really simple file with a filter list feature set up so I can put in a data range and/or a category and/or payee and see a list of all transactions matching those criteria.

    In terms of how I enter it, I’m currently doing the day-to-day tracking in an Excel spreadsheet which I use to balance my accounts, and then I import that data from that into the Filemaker dB on a yet-to-be-determined schedule. Doing it in Excel is easy and gives me a quick total and lets me see whether I got everything or not, but then the data is more useful long-term in Filemaker. It’s sort of a weird way to do it but this whole thing since I ditched Quicken is sort of a work in progress.

    The beauty of Filemaker is that it has all the interface tools built in, and everything is really easy.

    In terms of how I track things, I defnitely split transactions and assign different lines to different categories if I buy different things. In Quicken you could do that as a split transaction and it was really easy; in Excel I have to enter three lines which then get imported into FMP as 3 separate entries. Basically I try to get things split up enough so I can make useful decisions about where the money is going, and I probably divide things down to a finer level than most people would.

    In general, I find it really useful to track where the money goes, I think it’s by far the best way to cut spending because you can see what’s happening and decide whether or not you’re getting value for what you’re buying. It allows you to reduce your expenses without suffering becaue you’re able to spend less on things you don’t care about and more on things you do care about.

    And that may be way more than you wanted to know! Sometimes it’s hard for me to shut up.

  8. Diana Says:

    My husband and I sort of hover around this with frequent forays back into bad habit consuming. It’s something where I think we just really need to sit down and keep track more of what we’re using and what we can use less of. We’ll buy something, use it for a few months, then not have it for six because we’re too lazy to go get more and get it, but then we do and instead of just saying we don’t need it, we get it again. This has been a really inspiring post for me, I hope to get some notations down for myself this weekend.

  9. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks, hope it helps. I will say that when I don’t get something for a while then get it again, it’s probably something I like and miss when I don’t have it. Like tinfoil and waxed paper — I can live without them, but decided I prefer to have them. But I use them more sparingly than I would without having gone through this exercise. And I don’t buy anything out of habit. That’s the key, I think — to really think about what you’re getting and make sure it’s something you value.

  10. chloe Says:

    I agree with your overall approach, nothing is cheaper than free. And nothing is more free than not consuming.

    One disturbing part of the original N&O article is she measures her “savings” by comparing how much she spent to “suggested retail value”, *not* by comparing to how little she “could” have spent. (Alas, none of us really get to live two lives that would allow you to truly measure your life in two alternative trajectories. So, you can’t do a perfect measurement of how little you *could* spend any given month vs how much you did spend.) The danger of her approach is it plays directly into the strategy of retailers– they still get your $1, $10, $200, whatever, while making you believe you “saved” something. In a free market economy, the truth is, something is only worth what someone will pay for it; the savings she reported are imaginary.

  11. Beth Gobble Says:

    Coupons are just another guilt-inflicting device for me as I never remember I have them until I am loading the groceries into the car.

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