Category Archives: Smart shopping

The Scarcest Commodity

The scarcer a resource is, the more valuable it becomes.  It works this way with oil and diamonds and the minerals that help to make up your smartphone.  And it works this way with your time.  The further we get into the spring semester the scarcer time seems to be.  Exams (and commencement!) are only a few weeks away.  Your schedule is likely full of papers and events and planning and bar exam applications and outlines and study groups and…..well, you get the idea.  I’ve been finding the same thing in my world as both my personal and professional responsibilities seem to be more than I am able to squeeze into my waking hours.  But we trudge on, we compromise, and eventually we get through it.

The compromising is the tough part.  Every decision to spend your time on one thing means not spending it on something else.  Your priorities become clear.  When faced with the decision of spending my Saturday night seeing some favorite musicians perform or meal prepping with my Instant Pot, I chose the concert.  But that left me without lunches for the week.  Yet another decision.  Do I buy lunch out, or buy something pre-packaged?  I’m busy, but I’m not rich, so I hit the frozen food aisle at my local grocery store and bought an assortment of reduced-calorie frozen meals to eat for lunch this week.  And while I was at it, I grabbed a frozen veggie lasagna for Sunday dinner.  Not the most delicious food ever.  But also not bad, and not outside my budget.  And I didn’t have to give up the Saturday night concert.  I chose to spend my time on fun rather than food, but also didn’t give up too much of my money in the process.  Quality of food is less important to me than quality of life (which for me generally means live music).

Every decision has a trade-off.  But it’s important not to let money be the thing you sacrifice.  You can do or have anything you want.  But you likely can’t do or have everything you want.  What’s most important to you? What are you willing to give up in order to have it?  Can you do that without blowing your budget?

Repair or Replace?

This past summer I had to make a very difficult decision:  repair or replace.  It’s a decision we face all the time.  Sometimes it’s an easy decision to repair, such as when you lose a button off a shirt, or a screw falls out from your glasses.  These repairs are very easy and inexpensive.  Most people can do these repairs themselves.  Sometimes it’s an easy decision to replace, such as when your cell phone charging cord stops working or your toaster won’t toast any more.  These things would be difficult to repair but replacing them is very inexpensive.

Things get more challenging when a repair is very expensive and a replacement would be even more expensive.  Like when your refrigerator stops working, or your laptop gives you the black screen of death.  In my case it was my trusty Subaru.  It was a 2004 Forester with nearly 170,000 miles on it.  Repairs to get it through inspection would have cost about $1,000.  That’s just shy of the value of the car. And within the next two years, two more scheduled maintenance issues would be at least another $1,500.  If I just drove it around town, I may have made the decision to repair.  But that was my camping car—the one I use to tow my teardrop camper to music festivals near and far.  At the time I had a trip to Wisconsin only a few weeks away.  The thought of being stranded in some random part of the flatlands of the Midwest with no way to tow my camper because something else went wrong on my ailing Subaru was just too much for me.  I started shopping.

I was not financially prepared to buy a car.  All I had for a down payment was my ailing trade-in and a few hundred from my savings.  And I had very specific needs as the replacement needed to be towing my camper within a short time.  I knew immediately that I wanted a Subaru Outback, and my price range limited me to a used car between 4 and 8 years old.  I scoured both the local dealerships and the Internet.  I test drove a few Outbacks that would stretch my budget too far.  I made a list ranking the cars that were in play as possibilities.  I made a spreadsheet listing the pros and cons of each car in the running.  And I found perfection at a Honda dealership near Pittsburgh.  A 2012 Subaru Outback, with a trailer hitch already installed, in the color my husband preferred, with a moonroof as a bonus.  And it had less than 60,000 miles on it.  Smack dab in the middle of my price range.

I didn’t get the best deal on financing because I was pressed for time.  I had to rely on the dealership to help me get a loan on the spot.  I’m currently in the process of refinancing that loan with my credit union, which will lower my interest rate by more than 2%.  Yes…you can refinance car loans.  Keep that in mind if you ever feel like your car loan isn’t your best deal.

Am I happy about the fact that I now have a car payment?  No way.  Am I happy that I now have a reliable car in great condition that will likely carry me through the next 8 years?  Absolutely!  It’s sometimes a very difficult decision, whether to repair or replace.  But I’m feeling confident that I made the right choice.

My Old Friend Cooks Slowly

I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of my slow cooker.  There’s something magical about spending a few minutes in the morning throwing some food together in the pot, and then having dinner just be ready and delicious at the end of the day.  I don’t enjoy cooking.  But I do enjoy eating.  My slow cooker makes that easier for me.

I have a few slow cooker cookbooks that I’ve been hauling around with me since I had my first apartment in the 1990’s.  And I still use them.  All the time.  I know there are tons of recipes online now, but there’s something nostalgic about reading the ingredients and directions from an old-school book.  Sometimes I’ll crave something that isn’t in my books and I’ll turn to the internet for help.  But I usually print out the recipe and jam it between the pages of one of my books.  I’m just a print on paper girl when it comes to the kitchen, I guess.

One of the best parts of the slow cooker is that you can use the cheapest cuts of meat and they come out fork tender.   On any given weekend morning you might find me scouring the meat case at Walmart looking for the bright yellow labels.  Those are the labels of the meat that is getting ready to go out of code, so it’s reduced in price for quick sale.  I love to snatch up those bargains and freeze them for later slow cooker use.

I know that the slow cooker is old fashioned (and a sore point for fans of This Is Us), and that the Instant Pot is the way of the future.  And I sincerely hope that Santa Claus brings me an Instant Pot this year.  But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say goodbye to my old friend and its companion cookbooks.  Slow cooking (especially in the fall and winter) will always have a special place in my heart.  And my tummy.

Is Bigger Better?

With all due respect to the state of Texas, bigger isn’t always better.  I was at a music festival this past weekend and couldn’t help but think about it.  I go to a LOT of music festivals of assorted sizes.  The biggest one I attended this year cost me the most money and was absolutely the least fun.  This weekend’s fest was one of the smallest and one of my best experiences of the summer.  Sure….big has its advantages.  In the case of a music festival it brings you a killer lineup of nationally known artists.  But it also brings you a giant venue to hike around, high ticket prices, high vending prices, and difficult security.  A big fest is a lot of work (and money) to have a good time.  The small fest I just attended, however, was very peaceful.  The bands were mostly from Pennsylvania, but very talented.  My camp was only about 150 yards from the stage, so it was quick and easy to go back for food and beverage supplies.  And many of the performers spent the weekend hanging out in the crowd, listening to the music with the rest of us.  It was just really fun.  Bigger isn’t always better.

The bigger isn’t always better theory applies to so many things in life.  A warehouse club container of fresh veggies doesn’t do you any good if they spoil before you can eat them.  The 36-pack of toilet paper may cost less per roll, but what good is that if you have no place to store it?  A gallon of milk isn’t a bargain if you only consume a quart a week.  A giant pickup truck may seem like a good choice…until you have to fill the gas tank.  A huge house with vaulted ceilings seems lovely…until you have to pay the bill to heat it in January (or cool it in July).  A forty pound bag of dog food might come with a great price, but doesn’t help you if you are not able to lift it without help.

Many times we are conditioned to think that bigger is better.  But it is important to think about your own reality to decide whether that is actually the case.

Electronic Payments with your Smart Phone

I’m usually the kind of person that wants to see how something works for other people before trying it myself.  So I’ve been dragging my feet on the whole Apple Pay/Google Pay thing.  But if there’s one thing that can drag me into a new technology, it’s the opportunity to save money.  So when one of my credit cards started offering 5% cash back for using their card with these services this quarter, I jumped on board.

Most major retailers are equipped to accept electronic payments now.  So I set up my Google Pay account and attached the credit card with the 5% cash back.  And off to the grocery store I went.  Instead of pulling out my credit card at the register, I just tapped my smartphone to the signature pad.  And boom….I was done.  No signature. No waiting.  No exchange of cash.  Just tap and done.

This is a whole new world.  Very quick payment.  No need to have credit cards on my person.  I can see this as being very useful when I go out for a longer run or bike ride and might want to stop to buy myself a beverage or snack.  And if the vendors at music festivals start accepting Google Pay, I’ll certainly be in my glory.

But on the flip side, I can see this new technology as a bit dangerous to the budget.  As we’ve moved from a cash society into the world of plastic, it has become a bit harder to keep track of how much money you actually have available to you.  You no longer have to consciously make a trip to the ATM to spend more than you have planned.  And the ability to pay by tapping your phone without even digging out a card makes it seem even less like real money.

Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you keep your phone screen locked if you are using this.  If your screen is unlocked and you lose your phone, the finder would be able to run around charging up a storm on your account.  You should be keeping your screen locked anyway, but this is just another reason to do so.

Electronic payment technology is definitely easy and fast.  But it has a down side as well.  For now I’m going to give it a thumbs up, but with the caveat to proceed with caution.


Unintended Consequences

Sometimes when you make a decision, you end up with unintended consequences.  Sometimes those consequences are bad (for example…you find a parking spot in the Katz lot but you end up with a ticket because your meter ran out before you left the building).  But sometimes those consequences can be good (like when I gave up cable TV and my electric bill went down because the cable boxes are power vampires).

My New Year’s resolutions this year included a “healthier living” component.  This includes not only exercise (and yes…I’m still winning my StepBet!), but also eating less processed food.  Some things (i.e. potato chips and pretzels) that used to be staples in my life are just not a part of it any more.  Now when I think of snack food, I’m usually thinking fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, or applesauce.  And my one true snacky weakness—popcorn.  Popcorn is a true whole-grain snack food that doesn’t have to be bad for you.  I recently acquired a microwave popcorn popper.  This provides me with oil-free popcorn in minutes that can’t cause popcorn lung. Add a little salt while it’s still hot, and I’ve got a delicious, easy, healthy snack.

But the thing that caught me off-guard about this dietary change is the unintended consequences.  I’ve read a million times that the best way to shop in a grocery store is “around the edges” where the fresh foods are kept.  And this change to my diet has led to more around the edges shopping and a lot less of picking up boxes, bags, and jars from the aisles.  And this is where the unintended consequences come in.  I’ve been spending a lot less money on groceries since the start of the year.  A dozen eggs, a bag of clementine oranges and a bag of apples costs about the same as one bag of chips and one bag of pretzels (and will make you feel full a lot faster).  And a jar of un-popped popcorn kernels costs only a few dollars but will last for weeks on end.  While this may not seem like a budget busting discovery, I’m easily saving $10 to $20 per week on groceries by sticking with healthy food.  And over the course of a month that’s $40 to $80.  Over a year it can be as much as $1,000.  And that’s a significant chunk of money.

You never know what unintended consequences may come from decisions you make.  But sometimes they’re really good ones.

A Trio of Thanksgiving Tips

The week of Thanksgiving is an abundance of riches when it comes to topics for financial bloggers.  Travel…food…shopping.  These three things are all at the front of my mind and I’m having a hard time deciding.  So this week, you get a three-for-one.

Holiday travel is the worst…especially if you are flying.  Every time I fly, it seems like it’s less fun than the time before (and I assure you—it hasn’t actually been fun in many, many years).  But one thing remains constant when I travel.  I always throw an empty water bottle and travel coffee mug into my carry-on bag.  Most airports (including the tiny University Park airport) have bottle filling stations by the water fountains, so I can fill my water bottle once I’m through security and be set for the trip without buying expensive throwaway bottles.  And most places (including airport Starbucks stores) offer reduced pricing on coffee if you bring your own travel mug.  Carrying my own drinking vessels saves me a bundle when I fly!

Thanksgiving is a holiday that revolves around the family table.  But when the meal is complete and the dishes are done, my favorite part of the holiday is still to come:  the leftovers.  It’s so rare in today’s busy world that we prepare a large meal with lots of sides and a huge entrée.  But Thanksgiving usually means a full turkey.  Which almost always means leftovers.  So now is the time to make those turkey salad sandwiches and Google recipes for casseroles made with leftover turkey.  Freeze some for later.  And enjoy the fruits of the Thanksgiving meal for weeks to come.

And if you’ve been anywhere near a TV in recent days, you are more than aware that the busiest shopping day of the year is coming up on Friday.  I’m a sucker for a good sale and love early morning shopping on Black Friday.  But I never go at it blind.  I like to make a plan.  There are certain items I’m looking for as Christmas gifts, and there are some things I want for my home that I’ve been waiting for sale pricing on.  I’ll sit down Thursday night with the sale flyers from the newspaper and plan my attack.  Once I know what I’m buying where, I’ll compare store opening times and locations and make my list.  Usually I’m done shopping and back home by 8 am (and I usually don’t start until at least 6 am).  Shopping with a list is pretty efficient.  The key to not spending too much is to not stray from the list.  No impulse shopping means no overspending.

Happy Thanksgiving!!


You Can Have Anything

Every time you spend money on something, you are making the conscious decision not to spend it on something else.  Every penny is an exercise in prioritization.  When you decide to eat out instead of cooking at home, you are making a trade-off.  You are giving up the chance to spend that money on something else in order to enjoy the experience of eating out.

One of my mantras is “You can have anything, but you can’t have everything.”  So when I think about making any purchase, I think about what I have to give up in order to allow for that.  I can go out to dinner on Friday, but that means I have to cook for myself on Saturday and Sunday.  I can go to this concert, but that means I have to take a pass on that other concert.  I can go to this music festival, but that means I can’t do that weekend getaway to New York City.  I can buy this new pair of running shoes, but that means my next “new” work outfit will come from Goodwill rather than a retailer of new clothing.

Everybody has different priorities.  I’d rather have a camper in my garage than a diamond on my finger.  I’d rather have a weekend at a music festival 8 times a year than a week at the beach once a year.  I’d rather that my husband and I have two old cars than have to share one newer one.  These are my priorities.  Yours likely vary.  But the thing we all have in common is that every purchase comes with a tradeoff.

You can have anything.  But nobody can have everything.  Your priorities will tell you how to spend.

An Easy App to Save You Money

I like cheap stuff.  This means I shop at big box stores.  This includes the controversial grand-daddy of them all, Walmart.  I know a lot of people choose not to shop there for a variety of reasons.  But I do shop there.  And one of the reasons I shop there is a part of their smart phone app.  Inside the Wal-Mart app is a little feature called “savings catcher.”

Every time I shop at the store often referred to as Walley World, I open the savings catcher and take a picture of my receipt.  Then Walmart compares the prices on the items I purchased against other stores in the area.  A couple of days later, I’ll get an email from Walmart telling me that either I paid the lowest price, or that they found a lower price elsewhere on a few items.  If they found a lower price, they refund the difference in price to me by way of “Walmart Pay.”  This basically amounts to a virtual gift card that I can use from my smart phone.

The effort on my end is minimal.  I shop as I normally would.  I take a picture of my receipt.  I wait a couple of days. Then I usually get a small refund via Walmart Pay.  It’s price comparison without the work!

I appreciate that not everyone shops at the big box stores.  But if you do shop at Walmart, it only makes sense to use the app’s savings catcher!



Birthdays are for Discounts

Today is my birthday.  And aside from the fact that I’m happy to have made yet another journey around the sun, this time labeling myself Fifty and Fabulous, I love a good birthday discount.  I’m a huge fan of discounts.

On Friday I enjoyed a free birthday meal at my local brewpub as one of the perks of being a member of their Pub Club.  I paid a pretty large fee to join about seven years ago, but it has paid for itself over and over and over again in the discounts I have received there.

Today I enjoyed a free salad from the Au Bon Pain in the Katz Building.  How?  I’m a member of their eClub.  You can sign up for free and get all kinds of perks, including a free birthday lunch!

There are tons of places that give you free stuff for your birthday.  You can find a quick list of 100 here.

And because I am now officially Fifty and Fabulous, I just joined AARP.  Yep…I’m now a member of the old people’s club.  Why?  DISCOUNTS!  I looked at all of the discounts available and decided it was worth the annual membership fee.  If for no other reason, I’ll now be eligible for a free donut with the purchase of a large coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.  That in itself is worth labeling myself as “old.”

I’m having a great birthday.  Sign up for some free stuff and your next celebration of age can be just as fabulous as mine!