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8 Easy Ways to Save Money on Household Items

By Michael Lewis

shopping for bargainsDetergents, deodorants, toothpaste, and toiletries – the various items needed in a household can easily cost hundreds of dollars every month. Humans are creatures of habit, so we tend to shop at the same stores week after week, buying the same goods each time without thinking. As a consequence, most Americans spend 15% to 20% more than necessary, wasting a massive amount of hard-earned dollars.

Retail is big business, and stores are set up to manipulate your senses and entice you to make high-priced impulse purchases. Unless you’re prepared, it’s hard to avoid over-spending. Most stores are designed to appeal to your emotional brain – that part of your mind that gets the pleasurable bursts of dopamine – with their aisle layout and displays, use of colors and sounds, pricing strategies, and the position of the products on the shelf.

To beat the retail geniuses, you need to be focused, aware of the situation, and determined to get the best value for your money.

Prioritize Cost & Convenience Over Customer Care

To get the lowest prices, the majority of your purchases should be in the stores that focus on price, rather than customer service. Good customer service requires retailers to employ more people who have received customer service training; in other words, stores with above-average customer service have more costs, which will be reflected in the price of their goods. Walmart, renowned for its low prices, is not noted for quality customer service, and the people who shop there don’t expect it.

Convenience is another factor that should be considered. It makes no sense to spend $4 more on gas, for example, to save a dollar or two on a single purchase. Studies have shown that every minute in excess of one-half hour adds an extra $5 to the total bill. Why? The more time you spend in the store, the greater you are likely to make impulse purchases. Grocery stores often have long lines at the checkout where buyers have plenty of time to scan the highest profit margin goods available in the store.

shoppers

Simple Ways to Save Money at the Store

1. Know What You Need

Saving money begins before you go to the store. Research has shown that people who shop with a list buy less than shoppers without one. To save real money, however, you need to take more steps than preparing a list:

  • Identify Your Staples. What kinds of products do you consume regularly? Scan your past grocery receipts for a month, along with any other receipts from stores you frequent often. In business terms, this is analogous to understanding your demand.
  • Analyze Your Product Suppliers. While some products may be so unique that we will accept them from a single source, most goods of a specific type are fungible, or easily substituted. I prefer Diet Coke, for example, but I also like Diet Pepsi. If Coca-Cola isn’t available or if the price is too high, I’ll purchase Diet Pepsi. Identifying comparable brands allows you substitute products when it makes financial sense.
  • Know Your Usage. How much do you use over specific periods of time? For example, a roll of paper towels might last a week, while a bottle of aspirin lasts two months. Knowing your usage pattern enables you to know how much to buy, or to time your purchases to take advantage of sales without having to add an extra room in the house to store them.

2. Tour the “Big Four”

Four popular retailers compete nationally for your household expenditures: Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and CVS. There may be a regional or local store where you live that also advertises low prices and gets a portion of your shopping dollar.

Each of the “Big Four” advertises heavily in the local newspapers with coupons and sales; each maintains a website that lists the products they sell and their current prices. Also, each of these retailers has an online storefront as well, with prices that often differ from those in the physical store. Just be sure when you order from the online operation that you take into account any shipping charges.

CVS and Walgreens typically have higher prices than either Walmart or Target, but their weekly price promotions frequently are the lowest in the area in an attempt to get you in the store. In addition, the two pharmacy chains generally have shorter checkout lines, if any, than the bigger retailers. Sometimes, you can have your cake and eat it too.

3. Join Frequent Shopper Clubs

Many retailers offer membership clubs to their customers in order to better understand their buying habits and better enhance the store’s marketing programs. At the same time, members often get exclusive discounts and better terms that are not available to the general public.

Additionally, organizations like the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Association of Retired People (AARP) often also provide discounts for shopping at certain stores on top of store and manufacturer coupons and sales. Check with each organization for discounts in your area.

couponing

4. Use Coupons

Much has been written about the use of coupons and their effects upon the retail industry. Advocates chronicle savings of 80% or more on everything from cosmetics to pet food. Extreme couponing has become a “mini-industry” in the United States, the subject of TV series and national columnists. If extreme couponing appeals to you, go for it.

However, you don’t have to be a fanatic to save money. Instead, employ a few simple tactics:

  • Use the Internet. Electronic coupon sites are easily available on the Internet. In fact, a recent search listed more 773 million references, and sites like Coupons.com and Coupon Network are just a click away. It’s easy to find a coupon for the product you’re seeking, print it (or save it to your mobile phone), and take it to your favorite store. Some people no longer go to the physical stores themselves, preferring to shop exclusively online to reap the savings. If that is your preference, however, you should be aware of the potential disadvantages of online shopping: There may be no returns accepted, delivery can be delayed, and you may incur shipping costs.
  • Double Up Coupon Discounts. Stacking coupons – the practice of using a manufacturer and a store coupon together – is the extreme couponer’s favorite tactic, but it’s easy for a casual shopper to employ also. This practice accounts for the claimed savings of 80% or more by some shoppers.
  • Use Mail-In Rebates. Saving money while shopping is not limited to the store’s four walls. Manufacturers frequently offer hefty rebates that require nothing more than an envelope, a postage stamp, and a willingness to wait a few days for the manufacturer’s check. Companies offer significant rebates because they know most people won’t take the time to fill out and mail the rebate forms.
  • Ask for Rain Checks and Substitutes. The discounts on some products may be so deep that the retailer runs out of stock. When that happens, ask for a comparable substitute product and, if not available, request a rain check. The retailer is legally bound to comply with the offer unless it’s limited to supplies on hand or a certain date.
  • Extend the Due Dates. Retailers spend a lot of time and resources to attract you into the store. If you’ve just missed a sale date, explain to the store manager that you’re a regular customer and you would like the discount. Store managers generally have the discretion to reduce prices in order to satisfy customers, so you have nothing to lose by asking.

5. Buy Private Labels and Generics

Large retailers often go to the manufacturers of the products they sell and negotiate an arrangement whereby the manufacturer provides the same product, but under a different name to the retailer. These store or private brands are identical to the advertised brand, but available at much lower prices.

Aspirin was first sold by the German company Bayer in 1897. According to the National Library of Medicine, there are more than 35 brand names by which aspirin is old, not including the various private brands. The product is the same; the only difference exists in the consumer’s mind and the price. Buy store brands when they are available.

6. Purchase in Bulk

Generally, the more you buy of a product, the lower its per-unit price. Store offers, such as “two for one,” “buy one, get one free,” and “buy one, get 50% off,” are found in shelves throughout a store.

The danger of taking advantage of the offer is that you buy more product than you need or could use before the product expires. Share purchases with other family members or neighbors who use the same products in order to save money and share the effort to shop. And always take a calculator with you on your shopping trips in order to make per unit price comparisons.

7. Know How Much to Spend

Few people would pay $10 for a gallon of milk, nor would they pay 50 cents for it. Many would think the latter price is too low, perhaps indicating that the milk is out-of-date, while the higher price seems like price gouging.

You already have a subconscious sense of price fairness for the products you buy as the result of purchasing them repeatedly in the past. Refine that sense by paying attention to store circulars and sales and using coupons so that you know a real deal when you see it.

getting tips from a store employee

8. Make an Ally

Store employees are the most familiar with existing and upcoming store sales and product discounts. Introduce yourself to the store clerks and managers where you shop so that you’re more than just a face. Make a friend so that your shopping trips are more enjoyable – the store employees will go out of their way to be sure you get the best prices and service.

Final Word

Most importantly, always use a shopping list and stick to it. And when you’re in the store, remember to get in and get out as fast as impossible, focusing solely on what you want to buy, not what the store is trying to sell you. When you check out, watch the scanner to be sure the prices reflected are correct. Inventory systems don’t always reflect the latest prices and sales, and you could accidentally grab a non-sale item when you intended to grab one on special.

What other tips do you have to save money on household items?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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  • Joe D.

    I disagree about your customer service comment. I go to Kroger instead of Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart’s customer service is the worst of any store in the area. I have actually been yelled at by a clerk when I was not doing anything even remotely incorrect. To save money they only open 1 or 2 lanes and have ridiculouslty long lines. We have a Super Wal-Mart here so locating things is sometimes a challenge and you can’t find customer assistance without a search warrant. A lot of their goods are made in China and are of really inferior quality. The store brand foods are mostly inedible while Kroger’s are mostly excellent. I will not eat like a third-world citizen or sacrifice great customer service for a few cents of savings. I don’t go to Wal-Mart unless I absolutely can’t find something at Kroger, K-Mart or CVS.

  • few

    do u know how many time i have tried to get a mail in rebate? i have gotten one back. it is a big farce

  • mlewis

    Joe D.
    I know Krogers and also trade with them. However, I also believe that, day in and day out, the Wal-Marts, Costcos, and Targets of the world will always have lower prices than their more customer service-oriented competitors. Its hard to have both without reducing the margins which shareholders expect.
    Each of us makes choices where we shop based upon some combination of cost, convenience, customer service, and product availability. it sounds to me that you’ve got a good handle on your expectations.
    Good luck and thanks for writing.

  • mlewis

    few,
    Rebates can be a pain. As a consequence, the people mailing in the rebate offer versus the number who get the rebate opportunity is pretty low. Manufacturers know this so they are pretty popular. They are also a good incentive to make an impulse buy – we kid ourselves that we will go trough the process and actually receive the money back while using the savings to justify the purchase – a win-win from the manufacturer’s perspective.
    Whether I take the time to send in a rebate is based upon the money back versus the time it takes to fill out the form. And I never consider a rebate as a reason to buy the product.
    thanks for writing.

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