Janet Patton: You can save time or money but probably not both

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 4, 2014 

The old business adage "time is money" is never more true than in the modern household budget. Almost everything designed to save you a little time costs more.

But if you can do without a little convenience, you can whittle a lot of money out of your spending, particularly at the grocery store.

Amy Clark, an Indiana blogger at Momadvice.com and author of The Good Life for Less (Perigee, $15), discovered this the hard way, after her family got into dire financial straits a decade ago.

When she was pregnant with her first child, her husband lost his job and was out of work for almost a year. The family had to pare spending to the bone.

"We really were struggling financially. And the first place you start looking is your grocery budget," Clark said. "It really is the most flexible. Lots of other costs seem pretty fixed.

But the most dramatic thing is how much people are spending on groceries, and learning how to make better choices."

She started writing her blog to share her story and to help others in the same boat.

She tried couponing, which many people use to cut costs — but it backfired.

"I did not coupon well. I ended up buying things I didn't typically use, buying things we didn't really need," Clark said.

At one point, she found herself doing a piece for a local TV station on how shoppers could use CVS' ExtraCare rewards program and coupons to get stuff for free — but she ended up donating the free stuff to a charity.

That's great if you have the time and a charity to help, she said, but it wasn't saving her family money.

"Now I buy what I need, and I think I'm saving more in the long run," Clark said.

Clark's money-saving tips

Her strategies for saving money on those needs include:

Buy in bulk. This is often pointed out as a "shopping trap" — that the bulk goods go bad or don't actually cost less. But Clark doesn't buy just anything in bulk. She prefers buying basic staples that can be used as building blocks in her pantry. Baking supplies, sugar, spices and meat are cheaper by the pound from a warehouse store like Sam's Club or Costco, she said, and can be divided into smaller amounts for cooking or sorted into bread mixes, seasoning mixes, etc. Meat can be frozen for later use.

Check out bare-bones stores such as Aldi or Save-a-Lot. Clark, who likes Aldi so much she's signed on as a spokeswoman, says the store cuts costs by selling only in-house brands and streamlining its service. You have to put a quarter in to get a shopping cart and return it yourself, for instance.

But, again, what you don't realize at other stores is that conveniences such as baggers and multiple choices of products are built into the price you pay for groceries.

"I do 90 percent of my shopping at Aldi," Clark said. "Everything is really, really inexpensive. I can feed my family of four now on $125 a week, shopping at their store."

Central Kentucky has several Save-a-Lot stores, including four in Lexington. Aldi has two stores in Lexington and one in Danville.

Make a menu plan. It seems obvious, but by planning what your family will eat, you can take advantage of stores' deals.

Have a few weekly staples, like soup on Sunday, that can give you an extra day or two of leftovers. Clark has a family pizza night; with homemade dough and sauce, she spends about $5 a week, far less than takeout.

"Menu planning really helps," she said. "We have a standard pizza night, and do a Sunday brunch and double the waffles and pancakes, so my kids will have hot breakfast one day a week when things are busy. We have a slow-cooker meal and a leftover night. And a kind of standard soup that will stretch throughout the week. And lately I've been relying on a weekly frittata."

Take cash. Clark recommended this as a great way to keep inside a budget: If you don't have it with you, you can't spend it.

If you are the kind of person susceptible to the impulse purchase, then having a "hard ceiling" on what you can spend will make you re-evaluate every item in your cart.

Other considerations

Organization is key to saving money, Clark said. She recommended an app called GroceryIQ, which will track your shopping list from week to week, link to coupons and let you print out a list. (The app is available for Apple and Android devices. For more into, go to Groceryiq.com.)

Additionally, she doesn't shop very often. If you know you aren't going to shop again for two weeks or a month, then you have to have a better plan, she said.

What about the cost of a membership to a warehouse store? In the long run, Clark said, it still should cost you less to shop there. But, as an alternative, she suggested going in with a friend and sharing a membership.

But which club? Scout them first.

"Check online and look at what they are offering at the store, or ask to walk around and get a feel for prices," she said. "BJ's offers more baby supplies. Costco has great customer service, people who are very knowledgeable on wine, etc. Sam's Club is well known for the best price on meat."

Central Kentucky has two Sam's Club locations and one Costco. BJ's doesn't have any stores in Kentucky.

Sam's also offers the option of making purchases online and picking them up at the store, she said.

Don't feel guilty

Clark also found another area of major savings: cleaning products. You can make your own from basic ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, bleach, etc. She makes laundry detergent in her food processor for pennies a load. (Her website, Momadvice.com, has a simple recipe at Bit.ly/PiqGuO.)

Like a lot of busy parents, Clark has found that the equation for time and money must have some flexibility.

"Having the time to make everything work doesn't always come together. I have two kids and I'm really busy. Ideally we'd have time to make our laundry soap and mixes, but maybe we don't," Clark said. "I'm trying to manage my time and what's important to my family. If I'm sitting around making baking mixes and my family is going to the movies, then I'm going to have a problem with that."

Her advice: "Choose where to save and not have guilt about it. What are you going to do with your savings and how is that going to make life better? Maybe it will be 'have more family nights out.'"

Time is money, and sometimes money buys you time where you most want to spend it: with your family.

This month's homework

Take a field trip to scout prices at Aldi, Save-a-Lot, Costco or Sam's Club. Take along a list of your 10 most-frequent grocery purchases — milk, bread, fruits and veggies, pasta, whatever you buy a lot of — and compare to what you usually pay.

For extra credit, make your own laundry detergent. You will need bar soap, borax and washing soda. Clark's version is a dry detergent, but there are liquid versions if you prefer that. Then give it a spin and let me know how you grade the results.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Email: jpatton1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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