Politicians say the economy is recovering, but a lot of people are still living paycheck to paycheck. Can we save money without sacrificing quality of life? Sure – and here are some tips.
Don’t Overpay for Convenience
This is tricky one. At some level, nearly everyone pays for convenience. We don’t go down to the creek for our water – we get it piped into our homes. Electricity gives us light at the flick of a switch. We’re spoiled.
However, there is such a thing as overkill. I recently became aware of the fact that you can buy toast in a sealed package. I couldn’t imagine someone being in such a hurry that they couldn’t be bothered to make toast. Just pop the bread in the toaster before you brush your teeth, and it will be done by the time you’re done brushing (and if it’s not done, go back and brush some more – it’ll help prevent gum disease).
Eventually, I realized that some college students living in dorms might not have access to a toaster (although a cigarette lighter would probably do the trick), and maybe someone just gets a hankering for some toast while they are at work. If you’re not in this group and you’re buying your toast pre-made, consider making it from “scratch” to save a few bucks.
Fruits and vegetables are big players in the convenience category. You can buy potatoes already wrapped in foil and ready to be baked or grilled. You can also buy a wide variety of canned vegetables and fruits. Instead of buying corn on the cob, you can just dump a can of corn into a pot and not be bothered with the cob. I'll admit that we often opt for canned fruits and vegetables. You don't have to worry about them going bad, and you can consume them in smaller quantities. We have young kids (5 and 3) who like fruit, but generally can't eat a whole apple, orange or pear - but they can eat a full container of the processed fruit. We also use baby carrots when we make pot roast. We're paying for the small, uniform size, and the fact that they are ready to use - but it also makes it easy to get just the right amount of carrots in the pot roast.
One way to save money is actually to spend MORE money at the grocery store (subtraction by addition). Restaurants are a huge money suck. (By the way, here's are some tips on how to save money at restaurants. The next time you’re in a sit-down restaurant (one that doesn’t have toys in the kid’s meal), take a look at the total cost (including tip) when you leave. Now take that money and go on a virtual shopping trip in your mind. How much food could you buy for the same amount of money. Shocking, isn’t it?
However, your time is also worth money. If you are a $200/hr lawyer, it might be cost efficient to work another hour and have someone else prepare your food. Even if you’re making less than $200/hr, there’s also a value on your sanity, and eating out can help that. The key is to find a happy medium. If you think you’re eating out too often, try reducing the number by one time per week. After a month, if you haven’t really noticed it, cut the number again.
Quick, cheap meals
An easy way to save time and money is to add a few cheap and easy meals to your rotation. I’ll be up front and warn you that these meals aren’t always the most nutritious – I wouldn’t recommend subsisting solely on these items.
Those of us who were (or currently are) poor college students probably had their share of ramen noodles. Every once in a while, I’ll still eat some ramens. They have heat and salt, which is a yummy combination. I also usually have a half dozen cans of chili (different varieties) on hand. I’m a fan of Totino’s pizzas (Canadian bacon), which are conveniently one of the cheapest varieties.
If you want to avoid the pre-made foods, there are plenty of do-it-yourself options. A couple pounds of ham, some swiss cheese, and a loaf of bread are the ingredients for several meals. If you want vitamins, slice up an onion for the top. Peanut butter and jelly is also pretty popular.
One of my favorite hot and easy meals is mini pizzas. Take ten Pillsbury buttermilk biscuits and flatten them on a cookie sheet. Top with Contadina pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese and pop in the oven for ten minutes are 450 degrees. As a seafood-averse Catholic, this is a Lenten staple for me.
Companies spend billions of dollars each year to entice you to buy their brand. Campbell’s soup is “mm, mm, good”, Ruffles have ridges, and Pepsi is the voice of a new generation (well, it was the voice of a new generation in the 1980s). I like my mini pizzas with Pillsbury biscuits and Contadina sauce.
Often, the name brand alternatives can be much cheaper. However, there can also be a different in taste or quality. You have to determine what makes sense for you. Maybe you refuse to eat any soup other than Campbell’s, but you’ll happily use generic crackers. The use of a product may also dictate whether a generic is a suitable alternative. If you’re making a ham, swiss, and onion sandwich, maybe you want to stick with Wonder bread (once it’s back on shelves). However, if you’re going to use the bread for stuffing at thanksgiving, perhaps the brand is less important.
When our oldest child was born, we used Pampers diapers. That’s what the hospital had used, and it was a well-known and trusted brand. The Pampers were great. Almost without exception, they kept the pee and poop inside the diaper. However, when our son was born, we decided to go with Target brand diapers – in small part because having two kids in day care is insanely expensive here (compared to other aspects of the cost of living). At a fraction of the cost, the Target diapers work just as well … during the day. However, for heavy duty nighttime use, we were never able to find a suitable alternative the Pampers night diapers. Any other brand resulted in having the bedding absolutely soaked the next morning, and having a nasty urine scent pervade the room. Using generic diapers during the day and name brand ones at night made sense to use – giving use the best mix of cost and functionality.
If you see a six pack of a product and a twelve pack, the natural inclination is to think that the per-unit cost of the twelve pack is cheaper. The concept is giving a bulk discount to the buyer who is putting more money in your pocket.
However, you have to watch this. Some stores seem to play pricing games on a frequent basis. The local Target is always unpredictable when it comes to toilet paper. Sometimes the six is the cheapest per unit, and sometimes the twelve. The largest package is almost never the cheapest. Recently, the eighteen pack has been downsized to sixteen. Pringles was recently bought by Kellogg's. The can shrunk from 6 oz to 5 oz. Then, a few weeks later, there was a new look can with 20% more! 20% more than the 5 oz can ... in other words, the exact same size of Pringles can we had grown to love when they were owned by Procter & Gamble.
Rebates are another pricing game stores play. The reason why stores use rebates instead of just giving a discount at the register is because a substantial portion of people won’t follow through with the rebate. Most people make sure to mail in their $50 or $100 cell phone rebate - but what about that $1.50 rebate on toilet paper?
Remember that “free” is a four letter word. This innocent little word is the mating call for many shoppers, who warble back “yes, yes, I must buy you!”. Analyze the offer. Do you have to buy $50 worth of items at full price to get something valued at a couple of bucks? Most importantly, do you actually need (or want) the free item? If it’s going to sit in a junk drawer, it’s not worth much.
Penny wise and pound foolish
Decades ago, on a trip to visit my brother in California, my parents ran out of gas. Twice.
You can guess what happened. They were trying to save a few cents per gallon and burned a couple gallons of gas trying to save that fifty cents.
If you’re paying $3.60 per gallon for gas and get 18 mpg, you’re burning 20 cents worth of gas each mile you drive. Oh, you’ll drive to a store 15 miles away because you can save $5? That sounds great … until you realize that the 30 mile round trip cost you $6 in gas – not to mention wear and tear on the car and the cost of your time.
Planning trips in advance can save time and money. Additionally, one stop shopping can also save you money, even if you end up paying slightly more for a few items. Look at the big picture and don’t get too caught up in the details.
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