Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Closer Look: Grocery Shopping

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Dear readers,

Today, I present to you an extremely overanalyzed reflection on my latest trip to Trader Joe’s. As I mentioned in an older post, Dennis and I are trying to be better at cutting costs where we can. After rent, our biggest expense is definitely groceries. We are a household of two people and our monthly grocery spending since we moved in together has averaged around $500. We figured that the problem was that we were lazy and shopped at the stores within walking distance, including a gourmet market and a New York grocery chain (Key Foods) that is vastly overpriced. Two weekends ago, we went to the Trader Joe’s in Cobble Hill and loaded up a cart with $150 worth of groceries. I thought it would last us for at least 10 days. Unfortunately, we were back in TJ’s just one week later. I anxiously watched the clerk scan everything, hoping that we would spend less than we had the week before. We did, kind of…by $3.37. “How can this be?” I cried on the walk back to the subway. At this rate, we would be on track to spending $600/month on groceries, even more than we had been previously! Did I mention we are a two-person household?

At home, armed with a red pen and highlighter, I scrutinized every single purchase on the list (I’m actually staring at the receipt right now for reference but I am too embarrassed to upload a picture of it here). I sorted our purchases into three categories:

  • Regular purchases: $81.61 — These are the items that I buy every single week, no matter where I shop. These include things like bread, granola bars, hummus, bananas, salad greens, and ingredients that go into meals I plan to cook for the week, such as herbs, ground beef, sweet potatoes, etc. I never feel bad purchasing these items because they are always finished. If my total bill was only $81.61, I wouldn’t be writing this post.
  • Irregular purchases: $36.50 — These are items that are staples in the kitchen but I don’t necessarily buy every week. But, when I do buy them, they add up quickly. These items include peanut butter, sugar, frozen berries, mustard, good parmesan cheese, etc.  Up until two weeks ago I hadn’t shopped at TJ’s in a long time so I think once I remembered how good these staples are, I wanted to stock up. Again, good to have and they get used up eventually. I anticipate that this category will decline over the next few trips.
  • Frozen food: $28.52 — The best thing about Trader Joe’s is definitely the frozen food selection. Delicious and major time-savers. We like the pizza, Indian food, and rice/veggie side dishes and it’s nice to have these on hand for those nights where we don’t want to spend more than 5 minutes preparing food. While a bit pricey, the 3-4 meals we bought are significantly less than our normal takeout order from the Indian place in our neighborhood. So, winning, kind of. 

My goal for our next shopping trip is to keep the bill at $100 or less, which would put us on track to spending $400/month on groceries. I know that there are families out there that feed twice as many people (or more) on that budget so I feel like we have to be able to accomplish that for two people. I will hold onto my March grocery receipts and keep you posted.

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Weakness: Books

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It’s true. Just like good ol’ Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without books. I used to get in trouble for reading too much (sidenote: I hope my future kid also gets in trouble for this…I’m basically hoping for a nerdy kid). Some of my best memories are walking into a bookstore with my mom or dad and negotiating how many books I could leave with. My dad put his foot down on the Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps series because he knew that I would finish those in about an hour, but he was more lenient with classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnUp until recently, I still found myself wandering through bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, like Strand and Community Bookstore, intoxicated by the scent of ink and paper and the weighty feel of a book in my hand. My shoulders, however, didn’t like the extra weight the books put on them when stuffed into my already crammed bag (so I bought a Kindle), and my wallet didn’t like the price of them either. So, I made the hard decision to stop buying books. 

It really came down to cost. I spent $277 on books and magazines in 2013. Ouch. All those Kindle books I bought when I first purchased the device weren’t cheap either — I think the median price was around $10-13. I thought I found a happy medium by buying used books on amazon.com, but those $0.01 books ended up being $4 with shipping and handling — and they were still heavy. But I wasn’t going to stop reading. I have a 25-minute subway ride twice a day and need to read to keep sane. While I subscribe to the New Yorker, I still sometimes want to read a good, long, novel. Lucky for me, I discovered that I can borrow e-books for free via the Brooklyn Public Library. I’m still kicking myself for not joining earlier when I became a resident, but I’ve been taking full advantage since I joined about four months ago. While I sometimes have to wait on a waiting list, it’s usually not too long (plus it gives me time to catch up on the back issues of the New Yorker that are piling up on my dresser). 

If I had lots of income to spare, I would definitely support my local bookstores as often as I could. I still love the feeling of browsing and discovering books that I might not have otherwise, but I definitely feel guilty when I stealthily write down the title of the book and look it up on the library website when I get home. While I miss the visceral feel of books, I really don’t miss the shoulder and budget pain anymore. 

What else should I be doing?

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Sometimes I get the feeling that there’s something more I should be doing to achieve my goals faster. (Obviously if I had more money I wouldn’t be writing this.) I read my favorite personal finance sites every day (andthenwesaved, mint, learnvest, dailyworth, moneyning) to see if there are any new tips I haven’t heard before but alas, no. I mean, sure, there are things I could do but let’s be honest, I don’t really want to:

  • Get a second job. My current job is already crazy and with unpredictable hours, so this just doesn’t seem feasible. 
  • End all subscriptions. magazines, nytimes.com, Netflix, Spotify. I really can’t break up with the last three because I use them every single day and they bring me such pleasure.
  • Don’t eat out anymore. It’s hard enough already sticking to $200/month (I’m currently at $195 and there are still 10 days left this month). Also I think Dennis would break up with me. 
  • Quit the gym. I count this as a health necessity and plus it’s still too damn cold and icy outside to work out. 

However, there are some things I have been thinking about doing but haven’t gotten around to yet:

  • Cancel cable. Dennis and I would function totally fine with the free network channels, supplemented by Netflix, Hulu, and access to my parents’ HBOGo. The last time I tried to cancel cable, the Time Warner rep talked me into a cheaper package…perhaps this next time around I will be brave, stand my ground, and just say no to cable.
  • End some magazine subscriptions. I currently subscribe to Glamour, Women’s Health, SELF, and The New Yorker. I’ve already decided to cut Glamour because the last few issues just haven’t been doing anything for me. I think I’ve also become hypersensitive to non-essential spending and that magazine has just become less and less appealing. I only need to subscribe to one women’s fitness magazine but I’m having a hard time choosing. I hate SELF’s attempt to sound cool by throwing in phrases like “totes” and “seshes” but I like the layout, the workout tips, and the recipes. I like WH’s no-nonsense tips but am not crazy about the layout…decisions, decisions. Finally, I love The New Yorker but since I started checking out books from the library on my Kindle, I’ve found that the issues are piling up on my kitchen table. The library books can only be checked out for two weeks so they are more pressing than the magazines. My 6-month subscription is up for renewal in a few weeks so I think I might pull the plug. 
  • Clean out my closet and sell stuff. I’ve definitely made $100+ selling clothes in the past to places like Crossroads and Buffalo Exchange but I haven’t gotten around to doing this in Brooklyn yet. I really don’t have any reasons why I’m putting this off. 

What else could I realistically be doing?

 

 

Target, part 2: Is this how I shop now?

ImageI’m trying to include a picture with every post from now on, and when I found this photo of the crazy Target lady from those commercials a few years back I knew I had to use it. I went to Target this morning, picked up everything on my list (super boring household items like toilet paper, cotton balls, and handsoap), and went home. During my walk home from the subway, I came to realize that my new approach to shopping in general was perfectly embodied during the 60 minutes I spent at Target.

I made the effort to shop further away to save money. I could have bought everything I needed three blocks away at Key Foods, the neighborhood chain grocery store. Instead, I trudged a half-mile through the dirty snow and waited for the subway to get to Target, two subways stops away. Granted, I had the luxury of time on my side since it was Sunday morning and I had nothing pressing to do later. But you can’t always save time and money – it’s usually one or the other. I estimated that I saved $1-2 dollars for every item I bought at Target compared to grocery store/Duane Reade prices, so the hassle of getting to Target at least resulted in $20-30 in savings. Dennis and I are experimenting with a similar approach when it comes to grocery shopping. We went to Trader Joe’s yesterday morning, which is five subway stops away. The pricing on staples like bread, pasta, cheese, butter, etc. is unbeatable. $2.50 for a loaf of whole wheat bread at TJ’s vs. $4 at Key Foods? $3 for string cheese vs. $5? We’ll see how long our giant haul lasts us, but I have a feeling that it will soon become worth it to make the trek twice a month. 

I made a list and stuck to it. I purchased everything I needed, which is rare because I usually have a weakness for those $1 or $2 items that always seem to make their way into my shopping basket. The list kept me focused and since the things I needed were all household items, I was able to stick to one section of the store and keep my blinders on. 

I comparison shopped. Normally, I’ll grab the first thing I see that’s on sale, assuming that the other brands won’t beat the sale price by that much. For example, a 64-load jug of Tide laundry detergent was on sale for $11.99. I wandered down the aisle and the other brands were very similarly priced. I almost gave up and grabbed the Tide when I saw the Target brand for $9.99. I put that into my cart and about 10 minutes later, when I found myself in the clearance section cleverly tucked away in an isolated corner of the store, I saw another Target brand on sale for $8.99 PLUS a $1 off coupon. I saved $4 by comparison shopping! Again, I had time on my side so this strategy might not always be appropriate. I’m also glad that I went early on a Sunday morning when the aisles were relatively empty because I’m pretty sure I looked like a crazy person, stalking back and forth down the aisles and staring intently at prices.

I told myself to wait till later. The clearance section is my new favorite section of Target and after I found the laundry detergent, I saw loads of other things that I could definitely use, but didn’t need quite yet: shampoo, 2-for-1 body wash, face wash, shaving cream. I’m still working on using up everything I have in the apartment and I reminded myself that the clearance section will always be there. Similarly, I used to always click on the emails from my favorite stores (J. Crew, Banana Republic, Gap) that had tantalizing subject lines like “Check out our new arrivals!” Of course everything is amazing and I want. it. NOW! but 1) the items are all full-priced and 2) it’s too damn cold out still to wear anything that’s not made of wool or fleece. So I remind myself to wait until later when the weather warms up, I’ve had time to go through my existing wardrobe and determine what I really need, and the items go on sale. Win, win, win.

I made a deal with myself. I did find myself staring longingly at a cute pair of pajama shorts on my way to the cash register. “But they’re only $12!” I tried to reason to myself. I really really wanted them. But I have a drawer full of assorted pajama shorts, pants, and tops, which could probably use some clearing out. I told myself that once I clear out that drawer and get rid of a few items, I can go back and get them. To be honest, I will probably forget about these new PJs by tomorrow but if I follow up on my end of the deal, then the next time I go to Target I will treat myself. 

Applying these strategies has kept me in check and motivated me to find ways to be an even smarter shopper. What are yours?

 

Tagged

Good to the last drop

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I get impatient waiting to finish certain things, like shampoo. Usually 2/3 of the way through a bottle I get tired of it and just want to go to Duane Reade already to buy something new! But, in the spirit of saving money and using what I have, I am committed to finishing that damn bottle to the very last drop. In fact, I found out that I actually have multiple kind-of-but-not-really empty toiletries stashed in my bathroom (because for some inexplicable reason, I feel guilty throwing away half-used toiletries even if I have already bought replacements). In the spirit of saving money and making smart purchases, I made a promise to myself to use everything up before buying anything new. The upside? I’m saving approximately $44 for at least the next 4-6 weeks AND I can get rid of the clutter that results from having multiples of things lying around.

Approximate cost of items:

  • Shampoo and conditioner: $15
  • Body wash: $9
  • Face wash: $10
  • Lotion: $10
    Total: $44

When the time does come to replace these items, I’m tempted to do a generics-only experiment to see if that will yield even more savings. A dollar here and a dollar there really does add up!

Tax refund! Now what?

I actually don’t dread doing my taxes because I usually get a nice little refund. Did you know that the average tax refund is around $2,800? While there are some people who argue that getting a refund is not a good thing (because you could have received a bigger paycheck over the course of the year), I am all about the refund, especially now that I am much more conscious of my saving and spending. For me, the refund represents an annual opportunity to make some serious progress towards my financial goals.

I struggle a lot with how I should prioritize my emergency fund, retirement savings, and student loans. There is a lot of conflicting advice out there and after reading several articles, I developed a bad headache. There are basically two schools of thought:

1) The savers. Savers argue that the most important thing to do is to build up at least 6 months’ worth of emergency savings before you do anything else. Only after that should you focus on your retirement and max out your annual contribution, whether through an employer-funded 401k or a personal/Roth IRA. If the only debt you have is federal student loans, savers argue that it’s okay to prolong repayment because 1) the interest rates are low and 2) if you were to find yourself in a jam, like you lose your job, you can negotiate your loan repayment. You cannot take out loans for personal emergencies or retirement — that’s why it’s so important to have these taken care of before everything else. 

2) The “no debt”-ers: There is no good or bad debt, only debt, and you need to get rid of it ASAP. The main argument is that you could be doing so much more with the money that goes to your loan servicer every month. You should do whatever you can to pay more than your monthly minimum payment so you don’t have to pay interest longer than you have to. 

Both sides make a lot of sense to me. Initially I was inclined to put 75% of my refund towards my student loans, and then the remaining 25% split amongst savings, IRA, and my 2014 trip fund. But I’m nowhere near my emergency fund goal of $8,000 and the refund is an opportunity to get there. Similarly, I know that it will be incredibly hard for me to maximize my IRA contribution ($5,500 annually), but an extra contribution will still make a difference. 

I played around in Excel for a little bit yesterday and I think I reached an allotment that makes sense for me:

  • 36%: student loans (equivalent to an extra monthly payment)
  • 36%: emergency fund (this will get me to 40% of my goal)
  • 18%: IRA contribution
  • 10% travel fund contribution (might be enough to pay for one of my 5+ flights this year)

I realized that the sooner I achieve my savings goal, the sooner I can knock that off my priority list and focus on just two items: retirement and student loans. I literally love crossing things off lists (no, really) so I am going to write this down and keep working towards it!