Practice Smart Shopping

Yesterday my wife and I went grocery shopping. Our new hobby has been seeing how much money we can save purchasing products we can and will use, usually product we would have purchased full price anyway, using coupons and shopping smartly. We got a late start yesterday, but we managed to hit three stores yesterday saving a combined total of around $90 on purchases of around $170. In this post, I just want to show how we prepare for the shopping trip and show examples of some of deals we were able to score in this latest trip.

One of the biggest criticisms of shopping smart is that it takes too much time.  In this world today, when people are so busy, they just don’t think that they have the time it takes to clip coupons and plan your shopping trips.  Well I say, it doesn’t take as long as you may think and you will surely find time if you just look.

Where do we get our coupons?  We buy a Sunday paper each week which typically comes with a handful of coupons inserts.  You can view contents of the upcoming inserts at http://www.sundaycouponpreview.com/.  I know of some people that will buy multiple papers just to get multiple sets of coupons.  We don’t typically, but will sometimes ask other family members for their inserts that are just going to get thrown away anyway.

Another huge source for coupons is on the internet.  The three main sites; www.coupons.com, http://www.redplum.com/ and  http://www.smartsource.com/, provide access to many coupons that you can print (often multiple copies).

You can also check out company sites as they often offer coupons for their products as well, sometimes requiring signing up for a newsletter or something, but it is often worth the hassle.   Also don’t forget the store websites themselves.  Most stores offer store coupons or special coupons / deals for card members.  Also most stores will allow you to stack store coupons with manufacture coupons, thus getting double savings on a single product.

Prepping the coupons.  Much of the time, and the resistance by others to couponing is the cutting and sorting of the coupons.  We found that while relaxing in the evening, we were simply watching TV and doing absolutely nothing else.  We now take this time to clip and organize.  I will often clip, do a very loose sorting into very general piles (food, non-food, …) and then my wife will sort how she likes them and put them into a binder.  At the same time we check for expired coupons and remove them.  This is pretty mindless work, so perfect for sitting in front of the TV when you are doing nothing else.

Our binder is a typical three-ring binder you can purchase just about anywhere for a dollar or two.  In the binder we use inserts designed for baseball cards.  We had some laying around, but you can find these just about anywhere you can find baseball or Pokémon cards and are not too expensive.  My wife will categorize as she see fit and then places similar coupons into the individual sleeves.  This binder fits nicely into my wife’s purse, she carries a fairly large and roomy purse, and is easily accessible in the stores.  Check out this post as this is how we modeled our binder after.

How do we determine which products to buy?  This is pretty simple.  We buy what we need.  We rarely buy just for the sake of getting a deal (we will sometimes if we can get the product free or close to free).  Someone once said the best deal they ever got, was the one the did NOT buy. 

If it’s a product you use and you get a good deal, feel free to stock up.  Sure you have to be careful on perishable products, but if you can get a great price on toilet paper for example, then by all means buy as much as you can.

During yesterdays shopping trip, one good deal we snagged was a buy on a feminine product my wife uses.  Rite-Aid had a buy one get one free special (B1G1) on this product.  We also had a manufacture coupon for B1G1.  We also had two more coupons for $3/1 (three dollars off of one item) for this particular product and another for $1/1.  Here is how we did this deal.  Purchased a quantity of 4.  Rite-Aid’s deal gave us two of them free.  Because however we had four items, we were still able to use four coupons. With our B1G1 coupon, we got the 3rd free.  Then with the other 3 coupons we had $7 knocked off the fourth item (the only one were were really paying for).  These are regular priced at $7.98.  So we snagged four products, totaling about $32 at regular cost for a total of 98 cents, through the usage of store sale and coupons.  According to my wife, this will last here almost a year.  I would say that was worth the couple minutes it took us to plan.

Another fun deal we got yesterday was on pickles.  We love dill pickles and with spring coming up (we’re being optimistic here) it’s getting time to start grilling (hopefully sooner than later).  And what goes better on hamburgers than a few good dill pickles.  Well Giant Eagle had Vlasic pickles on sale 2/$4.  Giant Eagle has a program called eOffers that allows you to load coupons on your store card that automatically come up at the register. The had an eOffer coupon for $1/2.  This knocked the price down to 2/$3.  Already a good deal.  We then had two manufacture coupons for $.55/1 off of Vlasic pickles.  Since you can stack manufacture coupons with eOffers we were able to use those two coupons as well.  Giant Eagle also doubles coupons under $1.  So those coupon values jumped to $1.10/1 once doubled.  For those two jars of pickles the final price came to 2/$.80 for two large jars of  pickles.  Good deal for sure.

Planning our trip.  We plan pretty much what we will buy and from where based on our needs and store sales.  We will write out a list of items, their prices and any coupons we plan on using, with one list for each store we plan on going to.  Between the two of us this really doesn’t take much time at all.

Then we plan our route.  We try to plan our trip to travel the shortest distance possible.  Another common complaint of couponing is that you spend as much on gas as you save with coupons and sales that you really aren’t saving anything.  While that may be true if you were only buying one or two items, if you plan well you will come way out ahead. 

Our last trip, I drove maybe an extra 10 miles to get to the different stores (living out in the country we are used to driving distances to get to stores so not a big deal).  We might have spent an extra dollar or two in gas, but when we saved $90 dollars, I think we came out way ahead.

Yes going to multiple stores takes time.  Yes we take a few hours to purchase stuff from multiple stores, but when my wife and I go together, I say what better way to spend time with my best friend.  With four young kids, we don’t get a lot of alone time as it is, so we take it where we can get it. 

Why do this?  Well as I’ve stated many times before (here and here for example) we are trying to become more frugal with our money because of the current world economic state. It just makes sense to save money as best as you can.  The stores give you these means to save money, but so many do not take advantage for one reason or another. 

But we also found that God wants us to use our money and resources wisely. 

The wise have wealth and luxury, but fools spend whatever they get.  -Proverbs 21:20

 

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. – Proverbs 22:7

and we should never forget this:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,   “Never will I leave you;   never will I forsake you.”  — Hebrews 13:5

God Tears a Man Down, Just to Lift Him Up

I recently had to make some difficult decisions, some pretty big, life-changing decisions. But first a little background.

Ten years ago, I was unhappy at my current job. I was a software developer working for a smallish company. There was nothing really wrong with the company itself and the work I was doing was satisfying and challenging. I think my biggest problem was I got bored. Along came a friend who was doing computer consulting and he offered me a job in July 2001. It was more money, more flexibility (I could do a lot of work from my home office) and since I wasn’t working on a "product", I was doing something different almost every day. It was anything but monotonous.  Then came along 9/11.  That fateful day that changed so much in our country and indeed it touched each and everyone of us in some manner. The economy started to fail and work was getting scarce. Shortly after Christmas, I was layed off because he just couldn’t afford me anymore.

It was at that point that I though I had hit my lowest point. Here I was, I had just given up a good paying job six months prior to join a small and exciting company doing what I loved to do and now I was out of a job. What a way to start 2002. I had a choice to make then, do I go looking for a job? Or do I try to make it on my own? Well there were no jobs out there at that time. I had no choice to try it on my own. I jumped into the consulting world. My former employer, the one that just laid me off, passed me some work as he could (not too much at first as he was struggling to survive as well), I picked up a few small clients on my own and I began to grow the business. It was very slow at first. I went from making 70k+ in 2001 and before, to barely scrapping together 20k in 2002. I supplemented my income by selling books on eBay. That kept food on the table and a roof over my head, but just barely. My wife and I and our three children, just keep plugging away.

A little over two years of this and I began to realize what God was telling us. When I graduated from college and got my first job, I moved up the income ladder very quickly. In just seven short years I had increased my income over 50k. What I realized I hadn’t done, was increased my giving and generosity. When we were making the good money, we spent more than what we had and as I got raises, I just kept spending more. By the time I had lost my job in 2002 and lost almost 50k in income in just one year, it shocked us into making life decisions that made us stronger as a family, stronger in our faith and stronger in our financial health. During this time period when we seemed to be at our lowest, a good friend said something to me that has stuck with me ever since.

He said to me,

Jason, the good Lord tears a man down, just to lift him up.

What did this do to me? It made me realize that God had a plan for me and that through the trials by fire, I was becoming a stronger person for God.

Well, fast forward a bit and my business has picked up. I gained a few clients, including one that kept me billable 32 hours a week guaranteed. To any of you that are self-employed you realize how important this was. Good billable hours and steady pay check. In only two years, I had increased my income again 60k+. At about this time, my wife became pregnant with our youngest and we determined that the time was right to buy a house. Our old place would be much too small for four children and now we had steady income so we jumped into the housing market and found our dream house only a mile from where we lived at the time. It was perfect. Plenty of room, a few acres of land, kids didn’t have to change schools….it couldn’t have been more perfect.

During the next four years life was great, the business kept growing as the economy grew stronger and stronger from 2005 to 2008. I was soon making more money than I had ever before and life was good. But we had forgotten some of our lessons from before. While we didn’t spend frivolously like we did before, with the new house, we had more expenses than ever before. Our children were getting older and thus more expensive as they became involved in different activities. We had plenty of money, but we just never seemed to have any left over at the end of the day.

Let’s move forward once more to 2009 and 2010. Finally the failing economy which started in 2008 caught up with me. We had purchased our home when real estate was booming, now our house was worth less than what we owed on it. Business started to decline. Some of the steady work became less steady. Paychecks became less frequent and farther between. Come 2010, we were in trouble. Once again God was putting us through the fire. While it was tough at times, I tried to remember the quote from my friend that I stated before. I truly believed that God had a plan, that God would give us no more than what we could handle, that when we came through this fire, we would come out stronger and more able to do God’s work.

Well now here we sit at the beginning of 2011. Just a few months ago, I truly felt we were on our way to the poor house. I just couldn’t see a way out. There weren’t many jobs, my business was doing anything BUT booming. I was struggling just to put food on the table and gas in the car let alone anything else. I kept asking God in my daily prayers to open that door to where he wanted us to go. And if he opened that door and I didn’t see it, then I wanted Him to smack me on the head, pick me up and throw me through.

Well the door has opened. A few weeks ago, sort of out of the blue, a job offer was made to me. Another small consulting firm, but more established than the one I started off with ten years ago and with financial backing. The job is pretty much doing what I’m doing now, so my day to day doesn’t change much. I do have a team though now. Instead of working mostly for and with myself, I now have the resources to expand the business even further. Yes I give up ownership and some control, but what I’ve gained is so much more. I’ll have to go into details in a future post, but God really did open the door and seem to shove me through. My wife and I have made a promise to God and to ourselves, that we will not fall into the trap again of living beyond our means. We’ve already made moves over the last six months to change our lifestyle to be smarter and more efficient with our money. We’ve gotten into the habit of it in fact. God used that time period of struggle to make us stronger. God has lifted us up after bringing us down and we are ready for the next season in our lives.

The Simple Life

One of the ideas that I wanted to talk about on this site that I’ve not explored much (only one article really) is living a simple, frugal life.  What do I mean by that.  Well quite simply, to be a better steward of my money, to be smart about where my resources go, and to live a comfortable life.  Another aspect I want to share with you on this blog is tips on how to do just that.  I’d like to share tips on how to stretch your money by shopping smarter (my wife is getting quite good at this) and how to enjoy life and live comfortably on less.

Stretch your money

Whether you’re on a fixed income or not, stretching your money to its fullest just makes sense.  If you’re wealthy, then being smart about your spending habits will make more money available for other uses.  If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then you’re spending habits may be the difference between eating this week or not.  Either way, here are some quick tips on stretching your money.

  1. Use coupons especially when matched up with sale prices.  There are tons of sites out there to help you with this.  One of my wife’s favorites is www.hip2save.com.  You can spend as little or as much time on this as you want. 

    For example, just the other day there was a coupon from Swiss Miss for $2 off any Hot Cocoa product (expired now, but here is the post we found).  We were able to print off two of those coupons, which when combined with a sale price at our local grocery, we picked up 60 packets of hot chocolate for under $1.00.  Something that normally would have cost at least $5 or more.  Doesn’t seem like much, but add those up over time and it can mean a lot to your grocery bill.  There are plenty of other sites and I’d like to link to these as I come across them or to good deals as I find them.  No this won’t turn into a coupon site, but you’ll see some good deals from time to time.

  2. Take advantage of store customer appreciation type of cards and programs.  Most stores now have some sort of customer advantage card or cash back coupons that print on the back of your receipt.  For many years we ignored these completely.  But again, when combined with coupons and sales, you can often go buy a lot of product and spend very little out of pocket.  Again, we are just beginning, but can see the benefit of it already.  Friends of ours who’ve figured this out, have come home with hundreds of dollars of product for virtually nothing (think about getting $150 worth of items for under $10!)  This doesn’t mean buying product you wouldn’t use, but by just being smart and stocking up on items when you can get it cheaply. 

    A few months back, I had multiple coupons for the brand of deodorant I use.  These were for $3.00 off of two sticks.  We combined that with a buy one get one free sale (normally $3.50 or so) and managed to get two sticks for 50 cents which normally would have cost me $7.00.  Needless to say, I got as many of those coupons as I could and stocked up with enough deodorant to last me months.

These are the types of things I’d like to share with my readers.  I’ll find good deals and share them with you or just share with you a good purchase that may inspire you to try it yourself.

Enjoy life and live comfortably on less.

One thing we’ve done to simplify our lives is to learn on how to live on less.  For us this means we’re starting to grow our own food and put it up for the winter.  We’ve learned how to can or freeze our vegetables.  We’ve begun to buy food in bulk as we’ve learned how to store it properly to last for longer periods.  We’ve begun to make our own breads and other baked goods instead of buying mixes or premade baked goods at the store.  We haven’t completely moved over to that type of lifestyle, but we’re making progress.  One good resource we’ve found is, Back Woods Homes magazine.  This is one of the best resources online or in print on self-reliant living.  Check it out and it is the only magazine that I still subscribe to.

One thing I’ve enjoyed about our lifestyle changes, is that we seem to be happier with less.  We still have a ways to go and still need to make some serious changes, but our goal of becoming debt-free while it is a long way off, is within our grasp.  By shopping smarter, we have more money to not only pay towards our debt, but to give and bless others.  By blessing others, even by buying a cup of coffee for a stranger, can go a long way to helping you enjoy life.  Start with the small things and then like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, those small things can grow into the large things.  Either way, I’ve found that by making an effort to bless others, I feel better each day and much to my surprise, I’ve been blessed in return.

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  -Malachi 3:10

God promises that by giving a small part of what He has entrusted with you to further his kingdom, He will bless us in return tremendously.  I’ll have more on this later in my series on Power Thoughts, but when you give freely to others to bless them (even that cup of coffee for someone else), God will use that small action, that small gift to, bless yourself and others in ways you cannot even fathom.

What does this all have to do with living simple and shopping smarter?  Well when you shop smarter and live simply, you’ll have more left over at the end of each paycheck to bless others.  This, at least for me, allows me to enjoy life in a way I never imagined.

Future direction

The purpose of this post is really to share with you some ideas for new posts you’ll see here.  This fits in with my theme of helping Christians live exceptional lives in a world that often fights against us.  By being frugal and living simply we can allow ourselves to live exceptionally.

I would love to hear from you if you’ve taken steps in your own lives to live simply.  Please comment, I’d love to hear from you.

Dependencies

What are we dependent on these days?  Maybe the bigger question is, what are we dependent on that is truly not necessary? 

I work in the IT field and as such, I’m very dependent on a connection to the internet to do my job to the best of my ability.  Today our office’s internet was out.  It was amazing how little I thought I could really accomplish without it.  Couldn’t check my email, read my blogs, listen to my music streams, catch up on the latest news during lunch.  So many things that I think I’m dependent on, that when it’s not there, I feel lost.

What are we as a society dependent on?  Electricity!  We’ve all had times when the power has been out for a few minutes, no big deal (other than having to reset some clocks and things like that).  What about for a few hours?  We start to get a little antsy.  How about a day?  Well, now we’ve moved into a mode where we start wondering what to do with ourselves.  A few days or more?  No we’ve kicked into survival mode.  We worry about food spoiling, we worry about fresh water, we worry about heat and the list goes on.  Most people in America, would struggle to survive for a week or more without electricity (in my scenario, we can’t just hop in a car and travel a few miles to where power is and camp out in a hotel or at a relatives house). 

What if there was no supermarkets?  Could we grow or hunt our own food?  I suspect many couldn’t.  What if fresh water was difficult to come by?  Could we survive?   What if we had to live like our ancestors did not so many generations ago?  Could we build our own shelter?  Could we grow our own food and store up enough to last the winter?  That’s a question that I think many of us would fear the true answer to.

I don’t suspect that we’ll have to live through any of these scenarios anytime soon.  I sure hope not for all of our sakes.  But would it hurt to prepare just a little?  Maybe stock up on some canned and other non-perishable foods.  Keep some fresh water available for drinking.  Have the ability to have alternative heat (keep some wood chopped and handy in case you need to build a fire for heat and cooking).  Learn some survival basics.

Also try to remember that all we have, all those material things we are so “dependent” on can be gone in a moment.  It’s good practice to sit down and realize that most of those things we so depend on our just conveniences that we are able to enjoy.  Do we need them?  No, but they are nice. 

I’m gonna strive to be less dependent on these conveniences.  Will I ever go off the grid?  No.  I’m not giving up my internet anytime soon, I still plan on shopping at the local supermarket, and I’ll enjoy my heat and air conditioning.  But I will try to take small steps so that if those things every disappeared, I could survive and in the mean time I can live more independently and probably a lot cheaper.  I think this exercise will help me see the priorities that are important;  God and family.  Those are things I can and need to depend on!

Grocery Shopping

Today was grocery shopping day.  Not that we have a special day for that, but when you’re low on food or other essentials, then it’s grocery shopping day.  Since money is tight these days we try our best to shop smart.  While we are not the best (I know people that can get tons of items for practically nothing), we are learning.  Here are a few things we try to do to save money at the store.

  1. Don’t shop when you’re hungry. This one is pretty obvious actually and we are horrible at this.  It is so easy to fall into the trap of buying those “extras” when you’re hungry.  Everything looks tasty.
  2. Make a list. Again this is obvious and in any list of shopping tips you’ll find out there.  But I can’t express the importance of this.  Know what you want and need so that there is no question as you walk through.  Again without a list, you’ll just see what looks good and throw it in the cart.  You’ll do that even with a list at times, but the list will keep you more focused.
  3. Check the ads. Check those weekly ads that all store put out.  This goes in with making a list.  Stores will offer great prices on items just to get you in the store in the hopes that while you’re there you’ll buy something else.  Resist that temptation and you’ll get the best bang for your buck.
  4. Clip those coupons. Coupons are there also to get you into the store in hopes that you’ll buy more of that product or others.  But if you are able to combine coupons with sales and perhaps shop at stores that also will double coupons, then you can make those coupons really work for you.  It doesn’t take that long to clip and organize your coupons and you can find so many online to print out that it is almost foolish not to use them.  Check out http://www.hip2save.com/ as a good place to start to find those online coupons and great deals at many stores and http://www.coupons.com for an important site for printable coupons.
  5. Don’t be afraid to shop multiple stores. We have 5-6 different major groceries within about a 15 mile radius of where we do most of our shopping.  We’ll take our shopping list, compare it to the sales going on and figure in any coupons we may have to get a list of items to purchase at each store.  While some stores (like Walmart) will price match if it’s the exact same brand and item, it is sometimes easier to go from store to store.  It will take a bit more time to do your shopping, but as long as you plan ahead you can save quite a bit of money.
  6. Make a menu. We used to better at this, but recently have fallen astray of doing this like we should.  We used to plan our meals out for a month.  Buy what we needed to create these meals for the month in one trip and not have to worry about it anymore other than some perishables we would purchase each week.  We found that when we buy for the month, we were less likely to buy those “extras” that we don’t need, than if you shopped more often.  If a month is too long to plan for, a two-week period or even weekly is better than not planning at all.
  7. Stock up if you are able. If there is an item on sale that you use a ton of then as long as it’s not perishable then go ahead and stock up.  We use a ton of condensed can soups for cooking.  When those go on sale or we have coupons, we’ll buy more than we need for the week or month of meals we’re buying for.  This way we can get the best price on the most items.
  8. Buy in bulk if you can. Along the same lines as above, buy in bulk whether through a warehouse store (Sam’s Club) or going to a bulk food store.  My wife makes a lot of homemade breads, so we’ll like to go to buy our flour and sugar in bulk at a local bulk food store.  You’ll typically get a better price per pound on these type of things if you buy in large volumes.  Just be sure you’re going to use it all before it spoils.  Doesn’t help to buy in bulk if you end up throwing half of it away.
  9. Have fun. How can you have fun grocery shopping do you say?  Well, sure it’s not something I look forward to doing, but since I’m out there at the store, I might as well enjoy myself.  My wife and I make a game of it to see how much money we can save.  Who can find the best deals, who can save the most.  We’ve made a chore fun.  Many other list of tips will suggest shopping alone, and that may make sense for a lot of people, but my wife and I actually enjoy grocery shopping together and I love spending time with her.  We are able to leave the kids at home most times so it does make it so much easier.
  10. Be happy. I see so many people at the store there are just plain grumpy.  They just don’t seem to be happy people.  Perhaps it’s just the grocery store bringing it out in them, but if you smile and say hi to people it’s amazing how much better you will feel while out and about.

I think that anything you do to make your money stretch it’s farthest is God honoring.  God wants us to be good stewards of what he has given us.  This list of shopping tips just scratches the surface, and I’m far from an expert, in fact most of these are things my wife does so I take no credit for coming up with any of it.  But if we can be good stewards with our money, be a light to others as they see us out shopping and portray a Christlike character while we’re out and about, I think God will bless us many times over.

And I must say hi again to those people I ran into at the store today.  It’s always fun to see who I’ll run into each time I’m out.  In fact, the trip doesn’t feel complete if I don’t see someone I know!