We’ve all fallen for it one way or another: You’re checking out at the supermarket, and the checker takes your receipt, circles a number at the bottom and says with a smile, “you saved $11.27!” You smile too because that is great news! You just saved 11 bucks! That’s more than ten! You are a shopping genius!
Well…maybe. When stores tell us how much we just “saved,” there is a catch. It’s true that buying discounted items can save us money, assuming we were going to buy those exact items (and that number of them) anyway. But stores know that by trumpeting all the great savings and deals that we will only find HERE and only find TODAY, they can get us to buy a lot more, spending money that we weren’t planning on spending, on things we didn’t want or need.
Here’s a quick (I promise) math problem: You go to the store because you need a pint of milk. You walk to the back of the store to get your milk (milk is always at the back of the store, because everybody needs milk almost every time they go to the store, and making you walk through the entire store is a good way to ensure that you will spend more money every single time you are there) and you find that a pint of milk costs $1.50. However, a quart of milk (two pints) costs only $2.50. How much money do you save if you buy the quart instead of the pint?
a) 50 cents
b) 75 cents
c) Zero, people, zero! Weren’t you paying attention?! You spent extra! That is the opposite of saving!
The answer, of course, is c). Instead of spending $1.50, you spent $2.50. You spent a dollar that you weren’t otherwise going to spend, on something you didn’t intend to buy, and that you very well may end up not using.
It’s true that milk is highly perishable, but lots of things are more perishable than we think: if today you buy three shirts for the price of two, are you really going to wear the third one more than a few times before you get sick of it or it falls out of fashion? What about the second one? So why not just buy one shirt for the price of one?
Another “perishable” category: technology. You may feel great “saving” $100 by buying the top-line HDTV on sale rather than an inferior one for a few hundred dollars less, but the odds are good that you will be replacing that TV anyway sooner than you think.
So when does saving really mean saving? When it actually means “setting money aside for future use”—taking money you could spend, and instead holding on to it for another day.
At the outset, this kind of saving might not feel as fun as the first kind. There is a simple reason for that: the first kind of saving isn’t “saving” at all, it’s spending. And spending is fun, because getting stuff feels good. Real saving involves not spending, which is not as much fun. The fun comes later, when you have a bunch of money saved up that you can use however you want. But at the beginning, it can be tough.
These are a few tips to actually save money on your next trip to the supermarket:
Make a list, and stick to it. As easy as this one sounds, a lot of us don’t do it. Sticking to a shopping list ensures that you will only buy what you planned on buying. Pro-tip: if you see something at the store that wasn’t on your list, but that you really want, let yourself buy it only if you replace something else on your list of equal value to do it. Sure, there will be times when you pass the eggs and realize you left those off the list but really did mean to buy them…go ahead and give yourself a pass and buy them without taking anything else off your list; as long as you are in the habit of consciously questioning your purchases, this strategy will be a success in the long run.
Don’t go food shopping on an empty stomach. This one seems pretty obvious too, but only shopping when you feel nice and full is one of the best ways to avoid unintended purchases.
Create a weekly food budget. By planning your meals by the week (including meals out) you can ensure that, even if you stray from your shopping list occasionally, you can keep your spending in check.
And the best way to actually save money? Actually save money. As in, put money in your savings account. There are many ways to do this. Obviously, you can add to your savings account(s) whenever you want. One great way to do this is to enroll in an automatic savings program (many banks offer these, for example). By saving a little (say, 5% of your daily spending), saving often (preferably daily or with every purchase), and saving without thinking about it (through automatic transfers to your savings account), you can build up your savings without constantly having to choose to set money aside.
To be sure, supermarkets aren’t out to ruin you, but they would like for you to spend more money every time you visit. By shopping consciously and carefully, and by consistently setting money aside (automatically or otherwise), you can help make sure that no matter how many times you find yourself at the supermarket, you’ll always be able to put food on the table.