Posts Tagged ‘shopping’


Secrets of the supermarket ninjas

October 27, 2009

In a previous post I claimed that we were “supermarket ninjas” and Mellopuffy asked how we managed on so little each week.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I think comes down to these things:

1. Kathy is a vegetarian, and I only eat meat dinners maybe half the week. When I look at our grocery bill, the priciest regular items are wine and meat. If we both ate meat in typical New Zealand portions every night, our grocery bill would be a lot larger.

2. We buy very little in the way of processed food. No biscuits, no cakes, no muesli bars, no pre-made sauce, no packet mixes or tinned soups. I make our bread from scratch, and usually our yoghurt. If I want baking to take somewhere, or for an occasion, I bake. I have a good repertoire of dinner dishes that don’t take much when I’m tired, so I don’t need sauce in a jar.

I think the bread in itself is good for about $10 in savings a week. We would normally go through three loaves and that would be over $12 at supermarket, whereas the ingredients for a home made loaf total less than a dollar.

Because of points 1 & 2, we incidentally have a pretty healthy diet, which is a happy bonus effect.

Of course cooking everything and avoiding treats is a lot easier when you don’t have children, and I know that plenty of grownups would balk at not having any snack food in the house. Well, tough. That’s how it’s done. My Mum always said if you weren’t hungry enough to eat an apple or make a cheese sandwich, then you weren’t hungry.

Cooking is like any other skill — if you do it every day, you can achieve a tolerable level of efficiency, whereas if you only do it when you have plenty of time, you will probably stay an inefficient bungler and packets really will always be easier.

Example super cheap, fast meal for low-energy  evenings:

Pasta with broccoli sauce. Chop broccoli into tiny pieces, mince a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in olive oil with pepper until broccoli is cooked (put a lid on the pan for the last couple of minutes and the broccoli will steam). Toss through rigatoni or similar with grated cheese on top and maybe some more oil. Should take 20 minutes or less, and is very tasty.

I find Italian cookbooks particularly inspirational because lots of country food from that region is cheap, fast, and based around seasonal vegetables, and tasty with a little sharp cheese, oil and pepper. An interesting thing I’ve found is that nice cheese and good oil seem like luxuries, but they’re actually condiments that you use in small amounts to make much bigger quantities of cheap stuff nicer. So I tend not to be so hard-arsed about olive oil and cheese.

3. I buy our fruit and veg at the market on a Sunday, and that’s about 30% cheaper than the cheapest supermarket I know of. It is another trip in my week, but on the other hand I enjoy the market as a social experience. I often spend some of the savings on a roti or a dim sum or something too…

4. We shop at the cheapest supermarket in the area. Last weekend I spent a New World gift voucher, and I noticed how much more expensive New World prices are compared to the Kilbirnie Pak’N’Save, confirming for me the claim that they are the cheapest supermarket in Wellington. I’m pretty sure I’d have to spend a significant amount in transport to go anywhere cheaper.

5. We are sensible buyers: we stockpile when staples are on special, diligently compare unit prices, and always use a shopping list.

6. We buy in bulk when we can. For example, I buy my bread flour in 5kg sacks. If I had suitable storage, I’d probably buy 10kg ones. Likewise I buy olive oil in 4l tins, onions in 5kg bags, and meat by the half carcass when the freezer has space. Moore Wilson wholesale is not as cheap as it used to be, I reckon, but still turns up some good prices on catering sized stuff. Basically, if it doesn’t go off before we can finish it, and we have room to store it, I’ll invest in any large portion.

In summary, I’d say it’s cooking our own semi-vegetarian diet that really makes the big difference. It’s the nice food from simple ingredients that backs my claim “we eat well.” But there are some other things that help too, allowing me to blow some money on wine and chocolate out of the surplus.


Frugal Face Furniture

February 3, 2009

One place we men have it over women is the price of our consumables. Most products the ordinary man needs are usually far cheaper than a comparable item for women. Razors are an example.

But just because we have it a little easier, it doesn’t mean we can’t pash the antelope a little further.

My own preference consists of the simple item you see to the right.

My first shaving brush was purchased some 15 years ago, and since that time I’ve had to buy one more, as depicted. It was bought somewhere for about $5 if I remember right.

Personally I’ve never ben one for straight-edge razors, so I can’t cut back on costs there (boom boom), but I realised long ago that buying shaving foam was a conspicuous waste of money. In fact, I’m not actually sure how much it costs these days…

Whatever it costs, I haven’t have to buy a single can in the last 15 years. Instead I’ve used good old, manly, soap.

At first I used ordinary bathroom soap, but it was… “a little rough” on the skin. So instead I went to the chemist and bought a slightly flash bar of soap for maybe $10? Who knows! It was 15 years ago and it lasted for about 3 before it gave up the ghost.

Since that time those handy liquid soaps have hit the market, and they’re pretty easy on the skin. A tiny squirt when lathering is usually enough to get a decent covering going, and then tada! Clean-shaved and happy. Who knows how long this lasts, but it’s sure as heck easier than constantly buying cream.

Even better, I haven’t consigned a thousand tin-cans to the tip.

And that’s frugal and green.


Segmentation, supermarket strategy, and being a cheap bastard

October 24, 2008

Do you have a supermarket strategy? We do.

Before I go on, I want to talk about market segmentation by price.

This kind of segmentation is one way that companies try to maximise their profits. Here’s how it works.

Imagine that we sell eggs. They cost us $3 per dozen wholesale.

We’ve figured out that we get the most profit by selling eggs at $5 per dozen.

At $6 per dozen enough people are put off that even though we make more per egg, our total profit is lower.

At $4 per dozen, the decreased margin means we don’t make as much money per egg.

$5 per dozen it is then. Most people will buy at that price. Those people are normal.

But wait. We know that there are some people who would pay $6 per dozen. The hungry, the tired, the careless, and the people who are bad at maths. It would be neat to identify them and give them a separate price, and pocket the extra $1 per dozen. If only we could cull them out from the herd so they don’t perceive the deal that others see. Hmmm. Let’s sell them premium branded eggs in delightful bijou boxes and capture the increased margin! Let’s put those eggs in a colourful display with maximum visual impact at eye level! Let’s call those people… suckers.

There are other people who are going to hold out, and not buy until we hit $4 per dozen. If we could find a way to offer them that price without tipping off the others in the market, we could sell even more eggs, and still make at least something on them. We’ll have to make it off-putting so that only the hold-outs take advantage. Unwieldy poo-tinted boxes at floor level it is. Those hold-outs? They are cheap bastards.

You can see this pattern a lot. There are only two supermarket companies of note in New Zealand, but they have multiple supermarket chains between them, with different images, branding and pricing to attract those different segments of the market. Within each supermarket, most product categories have different lines that are equivalent in quality but marketed differently so that the normal people buy the obvious choice, the suckers are fleeced, and the cheap bastards have something to reward their effort.

Our mission as cheap bastards is to accept the challenge marketers set us. Treat it like a game with a prize. They want to confuse us or at least make us work for the best deal. That’s why they put the items they want to sell the most at eye level, that’s why the essential toilet paper is right across the from the non-essential chocolate, that’s why the bulk package is inexplicably more expensive per kilo than the small one.

We accept that challenge. This is how we play the game.

(I got the idea for this part of the post from Joel Spolsky, who wrote a neat article about segmentation in a rather different kind of market).

Have a list

In our house, we have a template that we print off with all our usual items on it. We cross off the things we don’t need before we set out. That way we don’t forget anything. If an item gets added by hand a few weeks running, it goes on the template.

Work out the unit price on everything

We always do this when comparing different brands of packaged goods, going so far as to check ingredient lists on food packets to ensure there’s no cheap filler. We have good mental arithmetic, but there is no shame in using a calculator. (Doesn’t your expensive mobile phone have a calculator?)


Buy in bulk to stockpile if:

  • It is something you usually buy.
  • The expiry dates show that you can consume it all while it is still good.
  • You can store it somewhere where it won’t go off.
  • The discount is more than you would obtain by investing the money over the period it would take to consume (eg, if you could save 5% off a year’s supply of toilet paper, but could get 6% in the bank, you would be better off putting the money in the bank and paying the normal price for toilet paper).

Example: our local supermarket was selling peanut butter, the brand we like that’s still not made in China, at about 40% off a couple of months ago, expiry date middle of next year. We bought four jars. We’ve just finished the last one, and I regret not having got a dozen.

Avoid temptation

Don’t use a basket if you can carry all the items; don’t use a trolley if they’ll fit in a basket.

There is no reason to go through aisles that don’t have something on your list.

Never take things from tempting display until you’ve checked the usual shelf for cheaper options.

Eat before you go lest your hunger makes you buy something stupid.

So, what did I miss?


Clothing choices

October 20, 2008

Beloved commenter (for we love you all) artandmylife asked when we would do a clothing post.

I confess this is an area where I feel inadequate. I oscillate between dandyism and novelty t-shirts, my vanity conflicting with my laziness. And I do have a sense of style—the problem is, I have a sense of several styles, and none of them go. In short, I am not a credible authority on how to dress. Neither do I have much to say about the process of clothes shopping. Like many men, my motto is get in, make your mind up and get out.

So this post is written very much in the hope that you will remedy its deficiencies. Maybe artandmylife will volunteer for a guest post…

Anyway, as a starting point, here are the ways I personally know of save money with clothes.

New and cheap

Thanks to globalisation, clothes have never been cheaper in my lifetime. So it is that I can pop down to the Warehouse, and buy things that look modern for very little, and weird clothes that don’t look like anything for even less. If they don’t last more than a year, what of it?

However, my ancestral tailor genes revolt at the quality. Also, I have nagging feelings about the exploited labour that must be responsible for the cheap prices. So I don’t often buy my clothes there.

New and expensive

Well, why not? Provided you only ever buy posh stuff when it’s heavily reduced, and it’s really quality, it will probably take years to wear out. This is the “Vimes’ boots” theory. Sam Vimes is a recurring character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

Early in his career, while he is still a nearly-impoverished Watchman, Vimes reflects that he can only afford ten-dollar boots with thin soles which don’t keep out the damp and wear out in a season or two. A pair of good boots, which cost fifty dollars, would last for years and years – which means that over the long run, the man with cheap boots has spent much more money and still has wet feet. This thought leads to the general realization that one of the reasons rich people remain rich is because they don’t actually have to spend as much money as poor people; in many situations, they buy high-quality items (such as clothing, housing, and other necessities) which are made to last. In the long run, they actually use much less of their disposable income. He describes this as The Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ Theory Of Socio-Economic Injustice.

This phrase has led to the use of the phrase “Vimes’ Boots,” or the description of a set of circumstances as a “Vimes’ Boots situation.” The phrase has widespread applicability. For instance, people who eat healthy food and get good regular medical care are generally healthier than people who do not. Although in the short run it costs more to provide medical checkups, wellness programs, and so forth, in the long run, those rich enough to afford them will not only spend less overall on medical care, they will have a higher quality of life. Thus those who cannot afford regular health care are said to be in a Vimes’ Boots situation.

The irony of the situation, coupled with the character’s own distaste for the wealthy and general cynicism, make the phrase a particularly effective and vivid evocation of the concept for those familiar with the Discworld novels, hence its becoming part of the vernacular in that subculture.

To economists and urban sociologists this phenomenon is known as the “ghetto tax“.

(From Wikipedia).

This is a strategy that works best with clothes that are merely stylish as opposed to fashionable. I particularly favour it for shoes, jackets and trousers.

For example, I was happy to pay about $180 for some trousers from Duncan and Prudence. That’s pricey for me, but the fabric was heavy, the cut was conservative, and the construction was solid. They were made locally and I expect them to last far longer than their cheaper Hallensteins equivalents.

Second hand

This is where we hope other people have been following Vimes boots theory too, casting off stuff with another year or two in it.

The problem I find here is that now “vintage” clothing shops hoover stuff up before I can get to it, the kind of thing I might like to buy isn’t cheap any more. Only anonymous crap like business shirts escapes without a hefty markup.

Oddly, there’s a few things lurking in Dad’s wardrobe that appear to fit quite well…

Hand made

My late mum used to make all our clothes when I was little. She was an excellent seamstress, and of course in the 70s sales tax and import duties made this a very worthwhile saving. I know sewing machines have got a lot cheaper, but are they cheap enough for this to be a frugal expenditure? I don’t know.

Mail order

I notice that catalogue clothes are often cheaper.

My issues here are that I am oddly proportioned enough that I really need to try things on and I can’t alter them myself.  And there’s something a bit tempting about catalogues. Dad used to joke, with respect my mother, that “Ezi-buy” should have been renamed “Ezi-sell.”

Our weakness in this household is novelty t-shirts off the internet. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the exchange rate meant that they were competitively priced with the local product, even taking shipping into account. No more, alas.