Tag Archives: Shopping

My, How Things Have Changed

This morning I saw a child walking to school.  And it struck me how something so completely normal now seems weird to see.  A lot of things that used to be perfectly normal in February are unusual in Covid times.  It’s odd to see people standing close together (it even triggers me when I see it on TV!).  I cringe when I see people without masks.  Name brand Clorox Wipes are impossible to find, and I rush to text my friends when I find the off-brands in stores.  And I generally don’t go to stores.  My groceries come from curbside pick-up.  Beer from my local brewpub is delivered to my front porch.  Eating restaurant food now means takeout or delivery.  Concert tickets are now sold by the car for a drive-in experience.  My commute to work is now a walk from my living room to my guest room.  And meeting with students one-on-one now involves a webcam.

A lot of things have changed in life to accommodate the Covid-19 pandemic.  How we spend money is no small part of that shift.  My impulse purchases in stores are WAY down.  Because I don’t go to stores.  By ordering my groceries online for pick-up it forces me to think about what I need in advance.  In the before times I would retrieve a cartload of grocery staples from the store every weekend, and my husband (who does most of the cooking) would make a supplemental trip to the store nearly every day to get things he wanted for that day’s dinner.  Now I place an order once or twice a week for pickup and my head chef works with what we have on hand (in what he calls the daily mystery box challenge).  Our grocery budget has definitely decreased due to this change.

It almost sounds like the pandemic would be saving me a fortune.  But that’s not true at all.  Everything gained on groceries and gas seems to be spent on my own sanity (retail therapy—the struggle is real!).  Clothes and gadgets that I used to buy at Goodwill are now coming from online retail sites….at a higher cost.  Restaurant food (which is typically a Friday night treat for us) now comes with a delivery charge.  Additionally, I seem to have developed a fabric purchasing habit in an effort to make masks so cute that I can’t wait to wear them.  And writing this makes me realize that I really should focus some effort on reducing my food delivery and Amazon expenses…

Times are weird.  And things have changed, including how I spend my money.  How have your spending habits evolved with the pandemic?

I Spend HOW Much on Food?!?!?

It’s been a while since I told you all about my New Year’s resolution to slowly create and live within a budget.  I’m thinking it’s time for an update on my process.

After trying to track my expenses without third-party help, I quickly came to the realization that I am never going to succeed without some help.  Writing down and tracking my own expenses is not so bad, but staying on top of what my husband spends as well just adds a layer of complexity that I’m not up to.   There are seemingly endless budgeting tools available online, and I feel like I’ve tried most of them at one point or another.  But when it comes right down to it, what I really wanted is a good old-fashioned spreadsheet.  I’m pretty good with spreadsheets (because they are very handy for my job), so if I could just get my account data transported into a spreadsheet I know I’m capable of manipulating it in ways that are useful to me.  Thankfully I found Tiller.  This tool connects my accounts to a customizable Google Sheet, so I can sort my transactions by date and category.  I’m on a one-month free trial right now, but I’m already thinking this will be worth the $59 a year it will cost me to continue.  I was able to get it all set up in about an hour, and quickly saw that the biggest consumption of my money (beyond housing and medical bills) is food.

I looked at my food expenses and saw that there is definitely room to cut back on dining out as well as on groceries.  Dining out is the easy piece.  We just won’t do that as often.  This will end up being better not only for the wallet, but also for the waistline.  Groceries are more complicated.  As I’ve done my tour through a few different stores lately, I’ve been paying better attention to how much things I consume regularly cost.  There are some things (predominantly pet supplies) that I sometimes buy online.  This week I compared that cost to in-store prices, and discovered that online is indeed cheaper for these things.  But it would have been easy to just never check because I enjoy the convenience of having kitty litter delivered to my front porch.  Now that I know the online price is less, I’ll make sure I have enough coming that I never have to buy it in store.

Another grocery cost-saver is whole foods versus prepared foods.  A bag of steam-in-bag brown rice is significantly more expensive than a bag of raw brown rice.  A little planning and some quality time with my Instant Pot can make that transition very easy.  A jumbo tub of old-fashioned oats is much cheaper than pre-packaged instant oatmeal or any boxed cereal.  For produce it’s important to consider the time of year.  Fresh produce is not cheap in Pennsylvania in February.  But frozen berries and vegetables can get the job done for a lot less money.  I’ll wait to enjoy fresh when things are in season.  And then there is meat.  There is definitely savings to be found from buying in bulk.  That jumbo pack of chicken breasts can easily be broken down into individual packages and frozen.  That 9-pound pork shoulder roast can be slow cooked and then frozen as several individual pounds of cooked pulled pork for future burritos and casseroles and sandwiches.  Today’s rotisserie chicken is tomorrow’s chicken casserole.  And don’t forget about the poor-man’s staples:  eggs, pasta, beans, rice, and meat that comes in a can (I prefer tuna, but I know there are still Spam lovers in the world!).

There are a lot of ways to shave the food bill.  I’ll keep exploring them and sharing what I learn.

 

A Money-Saving Change of Pace

Sometimes a change of pace is really good for perspective.  For months I have been visiting the same two grocery stores every week.  I load up on most things at a discount store on Saturday, then Sunday I visit a more “upscale” store for things that are either cheaper or better there.  And I’ve been completely ignoring the fact that there are two more middle of the road grocery stores a little further down the street.

Yesterday I couldn’t stand the thought of the crowded aisles of the more upscale store on Sunday afternoon.  So I headed down the road to one of the other stores.  And it was amazingly refreshing!  I hadn’t been there in months, so it was kind of novel and exciting to be someplace different.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find lower prices than the discount store on some things I buy every week.  And there were sales on some things I was already planning to purchase there.  When I got home with my two bags of food, I had to spend a little time pondering why I never go there.  It’s only an extra five minutes in the car.  And I found some really great deals (as well as buying my weekly supplies of some things the discount store had been completely sold out of—was there some sort of a run on fat-free cottage cheese and frozen berries?!?!?).

The change of perspective was good for me.  I’ll likely build this store into my more regular plans.  Maybe I’ll go there every other week instead of the more upscale grocery store.  I’ll likely start studying their sale flyers for bargains on things I use.  And I’ll likely save money as a result.  And why?  Because I changed my perspective and tried something out of my norm.

You’ll never know how something will work out until you try it.  A random change of pace may turn into a new favorite plan!

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.

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!!

 

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!

 

 

More Ways to Save Money in Happy Valley

Last week we got started on a few ways to save money in Happy Valley.  Since there were so many, I decided to continue the same subject this week.

  • Many of you have relocated from warmer climates.  And this week you got a little taste of the autumn chill of Pennsylvania.  The reality is that winter is only a few months away, so warmer clothes will be a necessity.  But you don’t have to purchase brand new.  A large part of my plan to “reduce, reuse, recycle” is to buy as many of my clothes as possible second-hand.  My primary supplier is the State College Goodwill store.  If you need to load up on cold weather clothing, this is a great place to do it on the cheap.
  • Another great place to find useful cheap stuff is at the campus Lion Surplus store.  On any given day you’re never sure what you may find.  Computer accessories, computers, filing cabinets, and old dorm furniture are regular fixtures.  But you may also find bicycles, sports gear, clothing (I got a Blue Band jacket just last week), musical instruments, or any number of other unusual things.  It’s just across the parking lot from the Katz Building so worth a walk to check it out!
  • Do you need to open a new bank account?  If so consider a credit union.  Credit unions typically offer more favorable interest rates and more free services than typical for-profit banking institutions.  The catch with credit unions, however, is that you have to qualify to become a member.  But by nature of being a Penn State student, you are automatically eligible to join the Penn State Federal Credit Union.
  • Do you like to go to the movies?  The movie theaters in State College not only offer student discounts, they have $5.00 Tuesdays.  All movies, all day, $5.00 each.  And if you also have their loyalty card, you can get a free popcorn too!
  • And finally, have you ever thrown away a pair of shoes that you wish you could have had fixed?  In State College, you can probably have them fixed!  While shoe repair is a dying art, there is an awesome little shoe repair place downtown where you can get your leather goods fixed up for a lot less than the cost of replacement!  I’ve had many a shoe and purse there for re-working, and I’ve always been happy with the work.

I hope you’re all enjoying being back in Happy Valley for the fall (IMO the prettiest time of year to be here!).

 

Saving Money in Happy Valley

Many of you are new to Happy Valley.  Many of you are just returning after a summer away.  Whichever is your situation, here is a refresher of the many ways you can save some money in the State College area.

  • Do you eat at any of the campus eateries?  Many of the dining options offer a discount if you pay with LionCash.  You simply add some money to your ID card and use it to pay, and the discount is automatic!  It’s also a great way to limit the amount you spend on eating out each week by setting a weekly LionCash amount that you won’t exceed.
  • The presence of the Sheetz gas station/mini market chain is pervasive in this part of the state (with their corporate headquarters only 40 miles away).  Since it is practically inevitable that you will shop there, you should make sure you have the My Sheetz Card.  With this card you will save 3 cents per gallon on every gallon of gas, as well as accruing loyalty points that can add up to free food and beverages.  And while you are there, you can do your banking.  Every Sheetz has a fee-free ATM!
  • While we’re talking loyalty cards, don’t forget about your grocery stores.  In State College you will find Giant , Weis, and Wegmans.  Each one has a loyalty card program.  Scan your card with your purchases and save money on select items as well as earning gas rewards at Giant and Weis.  But you have to sign up to bring in the savings.
  • If Trader Joes’ is more your speed, don’t forget to bring your own reusable bags.  Every time you shop there and BYOBag, you can sign up for a drawing for a Trader Joe’s gift card.  They draw a winner every week.

The money saving opportunities in town are endless.  So I’ll be back next week with even more ideas!

 

Food and Stuff: Adventures in Grocery Shopping

I went to three different grocery stores this weekend.  I hate grocery shopping.  And totally on purpose I did it three different times in two days.  But there is, indeed, a method to my madness.  And it’s all about getting the best stuff for the lowest cost.

My first stop was Trader Joe’s.  I know lots of folks love Trader Joe’s for nearly everything.  For me it’s really a one purpose trip.  It’s all about the canned cat food.  It’s no secret that I’m a little nutty about my fur babies.  And I’ve tried every canned cat food from Friskies to the ultra-high end grain free foods.  But I keep coming back to Trader Joe’s.  The combination of high quality and reasonable price just can’t be beat.  Worth adding a quick stop at an extra store?  Since it’s not far from my house (so I’m not putting any financial savings into my gas tank), I think yes.

Second stop was WalMart.  I know lots of people have ethical objections to WalMart, but I really love having a low price “food and stuff” store close to my home.

My mission there was dry goods, toiletries, and cleaning supplies.  Some of these I can’t find exactly the brand and size I want at my favorite grocery store, so I go to WalMart.  And for things like laundry detergent, it’s just plain cheaper there.

All of that was enough for one day for me, but Sunday morning I was out again, this time to Wegmans.  My mission there was produce and store brand products.  I’m a huge fan of Wegmans brand stuff.  Toilet paper.  Tissues.  Soda (which yes….I know I shouldn’t be drinking…but I have an addiction).  Soups.  Dairy products.  All Wegmans brand.  All cheaper than I can get name brands at either WalMart or Sam’s Club.  And in my opinion better quality than I’ll find in the more expensive name brand items.

So for someone who hates grocery shopping, why did I put myself through this?  Could I have just gone to Giant and gotten everything I needed there for just about the same cost?  Maybe.  Would I have been as happy with the items as what I got by making all three stops?  Definitely not.

For me, the three stop shopping weekend isn’t the norm…but a two stop weekend is not unusual.  This was a big one.  I was out of a lot of things and preparing to not be home next weekend.  But my reality is that the best product for the best price is important to me.  Worth going to three grocery stores in one weekend.

Are you a one-stop shopper?  If so, you likely know that your priority is getting the groceries quickly and easily.  If you’re a multi-stop shopper like me, you know that you’re more focused on getting the best price on the product you really want, without compromise.  Both are viable tactics.

How many grocery stores do you go to regularly?

 

Thanksgiving: The intersection of travel, food, and shopping

The week of Thanksgiving always make me think of three specific things:  travel, food, and shopping.  Since I already waxed poetic over leftovers last week, I’ll take the spotlight off the turkey feast, and instead focus in on the intersections of food and travel as well as food and shopping.

When you are getting ready to drive or fly or bus or train to wherever it is you may be going, start by eating a good meal and then packing some food for the road.  Travel food, whether it be airport chow, a roadside restaurant, or a Sheetz stop along the highway, is always going to be more expensive than food you prepare yourself.  So make a sandwich.  Fill a baggie with chips or  veggies.  Grab an apple.  Fill a travel mug with coffee or a plastic bottle with water.  And save yourself a fortune in travel food!

The same rules apply if you are braving the crowds at the stores on Friday morning.  Don’t leave home with an empty stomach that will lead you to a mall food court.  Make a plan.  Pack a snack or even a whole meal.  I’m a big fan of Black Friday shopping.  I sit down with the sales flyers from the newspaper Thursday night and plan my attack based on the items I am pursuing and what time the stores they are in open.  Last year I remember specifically having about 20 minutes in between when I was done getting a great deal on a frying pan at Macy’s and when Bed, Bath & Beyond opened.  This was my breakfast window.  I sat in my car in the parking lot enjoying the coffee I had brought from home and the granola bars I had in my purse for exactly this situation.  It would have been really easy to run to McDonalds or Sheetz for a breakfast sandwich.  But I didn’t need to spend that extra money (or consume the extra fat).

When you’re thinking about your Thanksgiving week adventures, plan ahead.  Take some food with you.  You’ll save a bunch of money.  And while you’re at it….don’t forget to think about all the many things you are thankful for.

thanksgiving