Posts Tagged ‘Bargain Hunting’

October 9, 2011

For Coupons’ Sake

I love a good deal. Often that means scouring the clearance rack, or buying in the off seasons. When shopping online, I also do a search first for discount and coupon codes. (You’d be surprised how many student discounts there are out there!) So you would think I would be a couponer too, right? Well, not so much.

I’ve shied away from coupons for a couple of reasons. We’re picky on what we eat, and I had an impression that most grocery coupons are for junk and processed food, not produce and meats. Then there’s the effort to reward ratio. Most coupons are for 50 to 75 cents off. I’ll be the first to admit every little dollar adds up, but If it takes me three hours to find five coupons I’d use, I really have to ask myself if it’s worth it.

Still, it’s hard to claim I’m frugal if there’s a saving avenue I know I’m ignoring. And I know there are good coupons out there. I’ve been using the 20% off one item coupon from Bed Bath and Beyond, and the 40-50% off for Michaels. In fact, I never go to either of those two stores without a coupon in hand! There are bound to be other good deals, for more than just pennies.

So this weekend I started couponing. To keep from getting overwhelmed, I through out any circular for a store we don’t visit. (Aside from saving time, multiple store visits will increase gas consumption.) I also throw away any coupons for products we’re not interested in. After all, the goal is to save on items we’d by anyway, not be persuaded into buying more stuff.

This week I used a target grocery coupon, $5 off a $50 purchase. That was nice, since target grocery does have a variety of healthy options. Interestingly, after using the coupon today, the register popped out a catalane coupon, $7 off a $75 purchase. Now, sure that could have been a coincidence, but I doubt it. Retailers use coupons to track customers. Given the timing, I bet the $7 coupon was an attempt to see if I would spend more money ($75 instead of $50) in pursuit of a bigger reward. Not convinced? In the same purchase I used a $1.50 off Starbucks Via coupon, and received a $3 off two Starbucks Vias. Another bigger reward for spending more.

A while ago I posted about online retailers estimating a customer’s worth, and setting prices accordingly. I didn’t like that phenomena because I wasn’t in control of the message I sent. I didn’t know which of my actions would result in lower prices, and which in higher prices. Here, however, if I stick to only using coupons, maybe I can convince the retailer data miners that I won’t shop at their stores without them. The trick will be not letting the coupons influence me into make purchases I wouldn’t have otherwise made.

September 25, 2011

Eating Well for Less

Eating well and not saving money are two ideas that seem to contradict. Fruits and veggies, extra lean meats, and organics all come with heftier price tags. Domingo and I haven’t mastered the balance yet – I don’t even know if it’s possible – but we have found little ways to save while still eating well.

Fresh Vs. Frozen:
Our first strategy is to buy frozen vegetables. A few studies have found frozen vegetables are typically no worse than fresh. They’re frozen at the peak of freshness, which helps lock in nutrients. Of course, the way they’re frozen (and the way their cooked) influences how many nutrients you can absorb from them.

While the typical recommendation is to buy in-season vegetables fresh, and off-season vegetables frozen, we always have our staple frozen vegetables (corn, peas, broccoli, etc) all year round. They last longer that way so we can stock up on sales, we always have vegetables, and no excuse to go without. On sale, a generic bag of veggies is usually only $1.20, and last for 2 meals. We still buy fresh for vegetables that just don’t taste the same frozen (ie asparagus.)

Using the same logic, we buy frozen meats as well. A bag of Tilapia can cost $8, and last for three dinners. Fresh, the same price would fetch only enough fish for one meal, and we’d have to buy it that day or the day before. Major inconvenience. We also have options for a super quick healthy meal for very busy days – just throw a meat in the oven to bake, steam a vegetable and done. Combined with half a bag of veggies, and we have a healthy, easy, no fuse meal for two for just $3.27!

We will also buy refrigerated meet in bulk, and throw it into the freezer. We’ll buy ground turkey and shape it into patties for burgers. It’s cheaper than buying pre-shaped patties, and we can make them as thick or as thin as we like. We can also freeze them individually, and thaw only what we need each meal.

Pick your healthy battles:
I love the idea of organic, but only buying organic and free range is expensive. We only purchase organic milk. I find a huge difference in taste between organic and non-organic. I can drink a glass of organic milk, but non-organic has a chalky taste. We also found organic milk lasts a lot longer. It may cost twice as much, but it lasts long enough for us to consume it all. I will never go back to non-organic milk.

Veggies and fruits are a different matter. I considered only buying organic for the dirty dozen, but I can never remember which fruits and veggies are on the list. However, sometimes organic can actually be cheaper. Since our grocery store tends to stock up on Sunday, they sometimes have sales to turn over stock. Our current philosophy is to buy organic when it’s close in price or cheaper than regular. This afternoon I bought organic spinach for my strawberry and spinach salad. I figure any vegetable is better than no vegetable, and some organic is better than no organics.

Have a Plan:
We’ll plan three or four meals for the week. By knowing what we want to make over the course of the week, we reduce the number of trips to the grocery store (and any impulse purchases.) We’ll also put meals back to back that use the same ingredients. For example, tonight is taco night. We’re making 3 lbs of meet (waaaay more than the two of us can eat.) Tomorrow we’ll make chili with some of the left over meet, and meaty spaghetti sauce with the rest which will be frozen for future meals.

Left-overs, Left-overs, Left-overs. Most recipes are designed for families, you can cut down on the ingredients, but then you’re using half a pepper and the other half is wasted. We have a couple recipes that reheat very well, and will deliberately make a double batch so we have easy lunches and dinners. It’s especially great for busy weeks where we would otherwise be springing for take-out.

Like I said, we haven’t mastered the art of saving while grocery shopping. Our food bill is still high. You can’t eat $3.27 meals every day – or at least we can’t – it gets boring! But I’ve noticed our grocery bill has dropped some since we’ve started doing all these things, and any savings is better than no savings.

September 12, 2011

From Registry to Wish List

Where do we get all this stuff?? I’m getting ready to make our fourth trip to Good Will this year. It’s not like we buy a lot, so where do all these things come from?! Actually, I know where it comes from this time. I’m still buying stuff off our registry, 18 months after we were married.

Back then, one of the things we registered for was a medium sized pot and pan set. Even though we cooked a fair amount, I wasn’t sure what we would need. At the time we were using two hobbled collections of assorted pots. Neither of us could tell you what each pot’s original function was, or what the size, other than “big”, “not so big” and “wish it were bigger.” We weren’t exactly sure which pots and pans we would actually use, so we registered for a starter set. Now that we’re cooking together, when ever we discover we need something else, I would add it to the registry and wait for the 20% coupon. Anything that we think we want goes to the registry.

I love lists. There are many pros with keeping around the registry. I keep track of items I am considering buying, which makes comparison shopping easier. When a coupon comes in, we purchase the item we want the most. It’s a good way to curb impulse buying. We have only the pots and pans we need, which is great when space is a premium in our kitchen. Bed, Bath and Beyond has a 10% off coupon to complete your registry. 10% is fine, but 20% is better.

It appears that the line of pots and pans we registered for is being dropped from both the store and the website. The whole line is now on sale for 20%, and still eligible for the 20% coupon (effectively 36% off). Sweet! If only we hadn’t bought the griddle just two weeks ago, we could have saved an additional $6. I’ve been searching online, but it doesn’t look like they’ll price match themselves. Bummer.

I would have never noticed the sale on pots and pans if we didn’t have the registry. I just happened to be on it when I noticed a pot previously listed as a $99 pot was listed for $79. The website didn’t say anything like clearance or reduced price, which surprised me. Normally stores don’t shy away from the big “S” word (“sale”). Everyone likes a good sale. It wasn’t until we were in the store and all the products in the line were marked down 20% that it was clear what was going on.

So we finished off the pots and pans. All two of them. At this point, we have pretty much everything we want. Only a few odds and ends remain. It only took us 18 months to do it, but we got it at all at least 20% off.

August 13, 2011

Hallmark on a Budget

I’m totally in a Christmas mood lately. It doesn’t help that the weather has dropped 20 degrees, or that I’ve been getting advertisements this past month for a “Black Friday in July” and two early Christmas decorations sales (also, coincidentally starting in July). I am so ready for the hot coco and fuzzy socks! One of the summer Christmas activities is the release of the hallmark ornaments. They usually have quite a few adorable ones.

Of course, my favorite time to buy ornaments is the after Christmas sale at Hallmark stores. 50%-66% off and no shipping costs? Count me in! We got our tree topper last year for 50% off that way. I tend to visit the store periodically to ensure there’s enough stock of the ornaments I’m interested in that I will be able to get them in an after Christmas sale. If it starts to become hard to find, I’ll strike early, but only when I’m confident it won’t be available afterwards. Waiting for the after Christmas store is common, so I recommend shopping no later than a day or two after Christmas. We also visit multiple Hallmark stores to get the most selection. What’s popular at one store may not have been so popular at another. Usually the “after Christmas sales” will be after Christmas, but some of the non gold crown stores will discount their ornaments a day or two before Christmas. Traditionally, I have the best luck at these stores. I always have “new” holiday decorations that I purchased in after holiday sales. Sure they’ve been sitting in storage for a year, but their still “new” to us.

Ebay and Amazon are a great place for older ornaments. The selection is better on Ebay, but you can occasionally find better discounts on amazon. (I imaginary some of the sellers on amazon may not be collectors and not aware that buyers might be willing to pay more.) I’ve found major scores, adorable snow men and sleighs for 50-90% off the original list price, but the cost of shipping can bring the total price back the in-store price at Hallmark. If you buy a couple from the same store, you can get a discount on shipping. I will occasional buy from one seller who lists the ornament for slightly more in order to get a discount on the shipping. After all, it doesn’t matter how much of the bill goes to the seller and how much to the post office, it’s all money out of my pocket.

Series ornaments can also be expensive, especially if (like me) you feel compelled to complete the set. I bought the 2009 first in series Seasons’s Treatings ornaments, because it was too adorable not to. I’m hoping they’ll do cinnamon rolls like Grandma used to make. Nothing is says Christmas like cinnamon rolls. The 2010 and 2011 ornaments are not really my style, but all the ornaments in the series have a date on them in plain view. If I only purchase a couple Season’s Treatings, the missing date will bug me. I didn’t want to run the risk of ornament being unavaliable in an after Christmas store, so I bought it in store rather than wait for the after Christmas sale “just in case”. Not the most frugal things to do, especially given that I don’t really like them. If an ornament from the series doesn’t have a date in plain view, I feel free to get only the ornaments I like and no one will be the wiser. I prefer dateless ornaments for this reason. It’s like I’m creating my own series by picking and choosing which ones I buy.

2006 Merry Kitchen Magic & 2007 King of the Grill.

There are lots of singleton ornaments that appear like they belong together in a set – especially his and hers type ornaments like Merry Kitchen Magic and King of the Grill. You’ll generally have to purchase them from a reseller, since they typically come out in different years. It also feels somewhat more unique to create your own set, since they weren’t marketed that way. Other possibilities for creating your own set – Snow Much Fun to Cook & Grillin and Chillin, Cookie Doe and Good Grillings Deer Can you tell I’m a baker and my husband is a griller? There are others for different hobbies, you just have to search.

Popular/rare ornaments are expensive, especially mint still in the box, but you can sometimes find good deals on slightly used ornaments. Why pay for Mint In Box (MIB) if you’re going to put them on your tree? Over the years of use, you will scuff the ornament yourself. If you’re not a “collector”, or like me, not a serious collector, even the box becomes optional. After all, the idea is to decorate my tree, not to have a pretty collection of boxes. If an ornament is typically $20 or more for MIB on ebay, you can usually get 10%-30% off for like new. I’m always weary of the MIB label anyway. The last MIB I ordered had an ornament hook attached to it which had scratched the ornament.

I’m totally going to be the mother who buys the “Babies First Christmas” in an after Christmas sale one day. Here’s hoping my future kids forgive me.

In theory, ordering online is faster than going to the store. For me at least, this is far from true true. I tend to be deliberate and slow, waiting for deals. One trick I employ while shopping online is to log in to the store, add an item in my cart and then close the browser. In the past, I’ve found if I wait just a little while, I’ll get a coupon from the store in hopes that I will complete the purchase. It reminds me of car dealer negations. You’re hiding the fact that you really want the product in hopes the seller will discount the price more. I’ll track products on multiple sites to see if catch any price drops and sales. This kind of price hunting may start to become more delicate.

Many companies are shifting towards more consumer profiling. Capital one made the news back in August when it was discovered they used a third party to estimate a potential customer’s worth. The third party collected data based on where you lived (from your IP address), what type of browser you used, what time of day it is**, etc, to make guesses on how much income you have, and how good a credit risk you are. Capital one would then choose which credit card offers to display on their website based on that estimation. Capital one claimed not to use the data in making lending decisions, however they made the news again six months ago when they offered different users different loan rates presumably based on the browser used. This action is legal because they aren’t discriminating based on any of the protected classes. This kind of profiling, however, is one trend that may make online discount hunting harder.

A product otherwise on sale may be offered to me at full price if the profiler estimates (rightly or wrongly) that I want the product and can afford it. This isn’t exactly new, but it may be becoming more common. Amazon tried something similar, but reversed their policy admit a backlash from the internet community. Although, there are mixed reports that they may be at it again, mostly by redirecting prime customers to different products and not price fixing per se.

This dynamic pricing (Also called flexible pricing, customized pricing, and personalized pricing) has become an increasing concern of mine with the abundance of personalized ads. A few weeks ago I was jewelry shopping on QVC.com. I ended up leaving a tab open because a ring I liked was out of stock in my size and I wanted to see when it would be back in. I’ve now noticed as I’ve surfed the web that the same ring has been featured on ads for QVC. I tried it out by leaving a tab open with a different product. This means several things: 1) QVC (or a third party acting on QVC’s behalf) knows what my shopping behavior is and have tied it to me, likely by the cookie they left on my computer; 2) They are sharing that data with a third party advertiser responsible for display ads on many different websites; 3) The ad broker is likely keeping tabs on where I am going and may be sharing that information back to QVC. What if I purchase something expensive elsewhere, will the advertiser tell QVC that I can afford to pay more? If I look for a QVC discount code, would it signal that I really want the ring so QVC should raise the price? To be fair, I don’t think this is unique to QVC. Nor do I think QVC is doing anything deceptive in terms of price altering. The price never changed for me, and I had my husband check from a different state using a different browser and operating system. My concern is that dynamic pricing will be the next step.

The concern I have is I am no longer in charge of the single I send. I do not know how online companies are evaluating me, and what that could mean to my bottom line. While dynamic pricing has been around for ages in the form of senior citizen discounts, or student discounts, in those cases the change is price is transparent. I know what the discount is, whether or not I qualify and what I have to do to get it. When dynamic pricing happens because of my internet habits, I have no awareness. I don’t know that if I had opened Chrome instead of Firefox that morning, I could have saved. Would a company assume I have more disposable income if I view their website from a smart phone?

There’s no clear cut way to thwart this kind of tracking. Removing cookies would be one step, since it reduces the amount of ongoing tracking most companies can do. Even that’s not full proof, as my IP address is unlikely to change in any one sitting. If the combination of ip geolocation, exact operating system (vista home vs Windows 7 professional, etc), and browser version is not enough to identify my computer, it certainty narrows down the field of possibilities.

For now, I will have to be careful about how I shop online if I want to ensure I am paying the best prices.

** Whether you’re on during the day or night could indicate what type of job you have: day shift vs night shift, white color vs blue color. The type of browser and operating system can also be used for profiling, as computer geeks often use linux, while trendy hipster types might prefer apple.

April 13, 2011

On Being Frugal

I consider myself frugal. To me, that means I spend as little as possible for the things I want. At this stage in my life, I try not to sacrifice quality too much. When I was just starting out I would buy the super cheap cleaners that don’t really clean, or use an old threadbare towel instead of a real bath mat. These days, if I want something, I will buy it, but I’m going to spend as little as possible for it. I do this usually in several ways.

I try not to be as flexible in brand as possible. That way I’m free to do comparison shopping, and availability of coupons can factor into my decision. If I’m interested in something specific, then I’m at the mercy of the manufacturer to get a good deal. I don’t buy designer anything, and I usually stay away from brand names. Of course, this doesn’t always work. A while back I suspected Lily was trying to clone herself by shedding, so I really wanted a dyson animal.

I hold off on large purchases for Black Friday. Each year my husband and I make a list of things we would like to get/replace. We then check out the online websites that make deal shopping easier. Of course, that doesn’t always work. We’ve had a TV on our list for a few years. We did manage to get the Dyson at a substantial savings a few years ago. Lists can also help you avoid extraneous purchases on Black Friday. It doesn’t matter that a printer is 90% off, if you already have one that works just as well. Sales are great, but if you’re going to spend the same amount just on more stuff, you didn’t really save. Along similar lines, I tend to purchase everything in the off season. I buy summer clothes in fall, and winter clothes in spring. I saved 50% off my leather coat by waiting for the end of season sale.

If I don’t care about brand, I set a price in my head of what seems reasonable, and go looking. I tend to set my price low, and anything under that price that still has the amount of quality I’m looking for is good. For bath mats, I’m going to look for something super soft that’s in the right color range to not clash (I want to be cheap, I don’t want to look cheap). Solid colors for linens (and clothes) are easiest, since everyone carries them. Matching colors and coordinating looks always makes everything look more expensive.

I tend to avoid stores that price items outside what I consider reasonable. If you go, and you find something you like, you might feel compelled to open your purse strings a little more. If you never see that designer bath mat at Nordstrom’s, you’ll never miss it. I have a few staple stores, target, jcpenney, bed bath and beyond, etc, that fit the bill both in terms of quality and price. If the price is low enough that there’s no room for much savings, then it’s not worth the time and gas looking for the best possible price.

Being frugal means sometimes not using coupons. Today I had a $.10/per gallon coupon that I decided not to use. The nearest gas station I could use the coupon was roughly 10 miles round trip out of the way. It would have cost me about half a gallon of gas (my car gets roughly 20 mpg) at almost 4 dollars per gallon, for a total cost of just under $2. The problem is I have a fifteen gallon tank, so my savings would be $1.50. Using the coupon would have cost me more.

Being frugal means understanding sometimes a sale isn’t always a sale. I find this to be especially true from stores who have constant sales. While the goal of the shopper may be to save money, the goal of the store is to make money. If it can’t make money off an item, there’s a good chance the store will decide to stop selling it. So if a store has a perpetual sale for the item, you can bet the price is marked-up enough for the store to still profit from the sale. Of course, there are exceptions such as printers and ink. Printers are loss leaders. Stores typically loses money on the sale of printers, knowing they’ll make up for the loss in spades with the sale of ink.

Being frugal means not trusting the percentage off numbers. Today, I saved 44% on my grocery bill. Well, not really. I had a welcome-to-the-neighborhood type coupon for $10 off so I legitimately saved 17.4% (the total bill was $57.38 before the savings). The other 27% is a bit misleading. I typically go with the cheapest item, especially on baking things like flour, butter, sugar. Most often that’s the store brand, but sometimes the name brand is on sale. My receipt may say I saved $1.49 on peanut butter, but had the name brand not been on sale, I would have bought the store brand, which would have been a difference of maybe $0.70. So in actuality I saved about half of what my receipt is claiming.

Of course, I don’t always get the best possible deal. When this happens, I often find it really hard not to get caught up in the numbers. If I bought something on sale for 20% off, and find it for sale 30% off the next week, I feel frustrated with myself. To put it in sports terms, that’s like scoring a field goal only to have the opposing team run the ball back for a touchdown. Yes, I got the 3 points, but comparatively I’m still down.

March 24, 2011

Very Un-Sarah Like

I’ve been doing something very un like myself… waiting for airline ticket prices to go up before booking. Usually I am the queen of the discount. I love a good sale, and the hunt for the good sale! Sometimes you gotta spend more in the short-term to save in the long-term.

Domingo and I generally fly Southwest domestically. We racked up a fair number of credits during my last summer internship at Microsoft. It’s just 2 hours away by plane, and if you book early, not too terribly expensive, making it easy.

Southwest recently changed over the point system. Before you received 1 credit per hop, regardless of how short it was. We are just 3 credits (1.5 trips) away from a free round trip ticket. This march, they changed their system. Now you are awarded points based on the cost of the ticket. You can convert points to credits, but even with the 5 hops we have planed (2.5 trips) before the credits expire, we still won’t qualify for a free ticket! We would be about $30 worth of points shy! We can’t have that. Especially because it would be another 3 or 4 additional hops to make up for those expired credits, which would put us right back to square one.

So for now I’m waiting, and watching like a hawk for a slight uptick, so we can nab the free flight.

BTW, the new point system? Love it! It’s basically a 10% discount (well, technically 9%). You earn 6 points for every dollar spent, and redeem at a rate of 60 points per dollar. (1 free trip out of 11 ~ 9%). The points don’t expire as long as you fly at least once within 2 years and with my family on the other side of the country, we have a built in excuse to fly. Last but not least, you get more points for spending more. If I don’t time my ticket purchases well, and the price jumps up a little, at least I get something for it.

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