Saving On Groceries – Thrift Traps

Now this is something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while, I just had a hard time finding the right impetus to motivate me to actually put it to keyboard. The blog has been a lot of sexy times lately, which mirrors the home front, and I figured what better way to break that up than with some good old fashioned grocery shopping.

Grocery shopping never seems to get easier does it? You add more mouths to feed, more tastes to cater to, your own changing diet and cravings, and then you have the food budget to consider. You coupon cut, you get a membership at the wholesale store and for some reason that food bill just never seems to go down. Well, I can help you with that, because you’re playing the wrong game. Saving money on groceries isn’t about math, it’s about mindset. Like many of us I spent some of my early working days in a grocery store. Unlike many of us, I stayed there long after I should have moved on; I paid attention and I learned some industry tricks. Here are some traps you may be falling into.

Ad-Chasing:

I’m going to use an absurd but true example from my own childhood to illustrate why this is wrong. Coupons do this in a directly targeted way that we’ll get into later.

One day my mother came home with 10 packages of 48 count creme cookies. We all stared at her like she was weird. We wondered how we were going to even eat all those. We hardly ever ate cookies at all and when we did they were baked in the home. They were generic too. Some sort of ultra sweet shortbread with cookie creme in the middle. Oreo’s are like crack, the originals. I don’t care much for the double stuffed or other versions where the proportions are thrown out of whack, personal taste I know. Point is, we wouldn’t have been wondering what to do if she came home with those. But these, we didn’t eat these, we couldn’t even remember the last time they were in the house. Dad got annoyed, and rightfully so, we weren’t doing well financially, we never were.

“How much did those cost?” He questioned.

Mom didn’t answer the question, she responded by indicating how much money she had saved. For her part, she genuinely thought that made it all better. She was too busy doing the math on only one side of the equation.

You do not save money by buying things you don’t normally buy just because they are on sale. It is a trap I have seen thousands of customers fall into. It’s a trap my wife falls into with some regularity. It’s an effective trick I helped pull on thousands of people. The deals are often not even that good. It’s not like when the store did a loss-leader on chicken breasts or something. That’s something most people already spend money on and we’re going to get to that in a minute. This is when we stick impulse buys in front of your face at like 10%-15% off and you happily oblige. People who never buy soda will buy that soda. People who haven’t had cheese-its in 2 years will buy those cheese-its. Oh yeah, it’s usually junk food too.

Anytime you see something like that and you are tempted I want you to stop and recite this to yourself.

“Milk never goes on sale”

You know why it never goes on sale? Because you need it, it expires quickly, and you use it. You never have to discount milk because people never stop buying it and they don’t need to be reminded of its existence. Ditto for eggs. In other words, it doesn’t go on sale because people never need to be tricked into buying it. You know what does go on sale? Cheese.

Ads are constructed around this principle. They’re designed to get you to buy things you normally don’t because they’re on sale. Does it matter if you got that steak for 2 bucks off per pound when it still costs 5 dollars per pound more than the chicken you normally get? You didn’t save money, you spent it. Always watch the money going out, because nothing is coming in when you hit the register.

Buying in Bulk:

This one is going to be short and easy because it’s a psychological thing and you can all relate to it. Buying in bulk only increases your consumption. You may save money per item but your consumption of those items will increase. Anyone who has ever frivolously spent a tax return—that’s you right?—acknowledges this effect. The more you have the more you use. It’s a well known and well understood psychological trick and grocery stores have been using it for decades. You’re paying membership fees on top of that, which creates a pressure for you to shop. There are people who actually benefit from these arrangements, they were the target audience when these stores actually first opened. Small business owners that already go through enough of the things they buy in bulk that their membership works in their favor.

YOU on the other hand are pressuring yourself to go to the bulk store more to get more ‘mileage’ out of your membership card and at the end of the day, you are spending more money. Watch where the money is going, and stop overvaluing where it isn’t.

One more example of this effect. When you make a giant pot of spaghetti, or make a large pork roast, do you eat less or more than you typically eat in one setting. When you hit the buffet do you eat less or more? This effect doesn’t just apply to bulk shopping membership stores, it applies to the decisions about the meals we cook. It even rears its head when you decide to make meatloaf instead of burger patties (can you guess which one goes farther?).

Membership Rewards Programs:

Don’t, just don’t. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on this one, just avoid stores that do this. This is like the Ad-Chasing problem above except 10x more coercive because you categorically WON’T save any money on anything unless you participate in said Ad-Chasing. By the way, everything in the store is marked up to compensate.

Coupon cutting does the same exact thing. Membership rewards programs are just a newer form of it that also makes you a free data point for a gigantic database on buyers trends that the store keeps. You are not only not really saving any money, you are directly telling a giant database how best to exploit you. It was rare, but more frequent than it should be, that a customer would find out they were pregnant because their buying pattern matched pregnancy enough that they started getting baby coupons in the mail. Yikes!

Not Actually Having a Food Budget:

Last but certainly not least on the list. The food budget itself. Money is fungible, spent with plastic, and it’s easy to lose track of what we spent where. If you do not have a food budget, not actually sitting down and figuring out the difference between what you think you should be spending on food, what you should be spending on food, and what you are spending on food is costing you money, I guarantee it.

There’s a lot of busy, fancy apps that promise to help us with this, ignore them. I want you to pick a number for your food budget, take that money out of your bank or an ATM, physically take an envelope and write food on it with some sharpie, and I want you to put that money in the envelope. That is your food budget. When it runs out, it runs out. Your plastic isn’t allowed to save you. I guarantee your costs will come down. Oh, and takeout counts, that comes from the envelope too.

Okay Smarty Pants What do I do?

Here’s the number one knockout way to avoid falling prey to ad gimmicks and psychological tricks—the more insidious of which are outside the scope of this article, this is just an article about the ones you can do something about. It’s also the number one way to stay in your budget.

Okay, ready?

Make a meal plan, and stick to it.

I want you to take all the time you use ad-browsing and I want you to instead use that time to plan your meals, down to the portions. This is going to do two things that short circuit all of these gimmicks, and you may even find it easier to take some weight off as a pleasant side effect.

Thing number one, you are going to control what you buy. You can make it by the month or by the week, I recommend by the week. If one of your meals happens to go on sale, sweet, you’ve actually saved money, congratulations. If the ad-break happens before that particular meals day you can swap days that week, have taco Thursday instead of taco Tuesday, but your ad-chasing days are over, that is also going to save you money, you’re welcome.

Thing number two, you are also going to control how much you buy. You are going to stop making giant pots of rice that you go through too quickly when you only needed 6 ounces of cooked rice. You’re going to do the same thing with potatoes, noodles, and anything else we can be tempted to throw into a giant pot that could feed us 4x over but will only feed us twice. You’re also going to stop buying too many boxes of mac and cheese and then eating too much of that because it’s so damn tasty, comforting, and easy. I know I know, guilty as charged. Your food bill will actually come down for once.

Here’s the last hurdle though, and this is less of a hurdle and more of a conscious choice you need to make, and it’s one of the reasons food bills never seem to come down. When we save money in the food budget we tend to re-appropriate it immediately to food reward. This is when we buy ourselves steaks or seafood or whatever your reward food is. The fancy cheese, the more expensive bottle of wine (that’s food right?), or even some takeout we normally don’t have. These rewards can be psychologically comforting and rewarding and you need to make the conscious decision on whether shrinking your food budget is worth going without them. If not, here’s another challenge, implement the changes above to have more reward steak. Now that’s a motivator if I’ve ever heard one.