A short while back, I wrote a post on how grocery stores offer a money-saving option when going out for dinner. Since that post, I’ve discovered more great ways to use the grocery store!
Grocery Antic 1. Self-Checkouts for Change
Thee are lots of ways to make transactions these days. Traditionalists prefer cash. Some even like to whip out a checkbook in a store. Most folks these days prefer the convenience of plastic. Some folks who have poor credit history or younger folks with no credit history may have to stick with debit cards, which offer the convenience of plastic. However, for those who can manage their finances, credit cards tend to be the best way to go. Credit cards offer great frugal avenues to save money and further leverage earnings. Because of these benefits, I almost always use my high reward credit cards. However, there are still many reasons why you might find yourself handling cash. Many small, local shops and gas stations offer discounts for purchasing in cash. Many Asian markets prefer cash to avoid merchant fees. Your side hustle may generate cash tips. My personal favorite: if you take walks around the neighborhood (a great frugal evening past time!), look out for free money on the ground.
So what should you do with this change? Does it make sense to just stash them in the couch or some penny jar? Since part of achieving financial independence is about optimizing life and finance, what’s the optimum use for change?
Whenever you have loose change, there’s really three options of extracting value. These are options are
1. Roll and take them to the bank like grandma taught you.
2. One of those coin kiosks at the front of your mega mart.
3. Spend it (protecting your other funds already in the bank).
Option 1: Roll those coins!
Coin rolling was, for a long time, my preferred option for handling coins. I would save diligently, making sure I didn’t lose any. Then, when I finally had enough to make a few rolls, I would pull out the bag of empty rolls from my closet and spend a half hour sorting coins and hand-filling rolls. This is not an unpleasant way to spend time, and it does feel marginally productive.
After I had filled as many rolls as I could, I would walk to my bank and deposit them. Then those coins would join my there hard-working employees in the mutual fund market. I really liked this option for a long time because, although small, I could clearly see the money’s path into my investments.
There are some obvious downsides to this strategy but the two biggest are 1. you have to have enough money to fill a roll and 2. inefficiency and 3. marginal expenses.
- There will always be some leftover change which can’t make it to the market and has to continue sitting around your home, instead of making you money.
- Your time is precious, and I’m sure you can come up with plenty more ways you’d rather spend your time than diligently sorting, counting, and rolling coins. You also have to take the time to go to the bank.
- Although many banks offer free empty rolls to customers, many people apparently choose to buy rolls from their local office supply store. This is just one more added cost to the whole endeavor.
Overall, rolling is not a terrible option but there is definitely room for improvement!
Option 2: Coinstar
At first glance, this option might seem ridiculous to even mention. “What a classic example of domestic outsourcing!” you’re probably saying. And yes, if you simply use these auto-sorting services to give you cash bills, this option can take quite a bite out of your money. However, this option can be OK if you use it to convert to gift cards which don’t take a cut out of your money. However, to get full value, you should only get cards to buy things you were going to buy anyway, and things you are planning to buy quickly (to deplete the gift card quickly).
I thought this service seemed pretty ridiculous, but when I went to go try it out for myself, I found the first two grocery stores actually had kiosks which were full. So much change is getting dumped into these machines, that apparently, the company can’t even keep up with collecting their revenue! Talk about a nice problem to have!
Option 3: Spend Those Coins at Self-Checkout!
This is actually my newly discovered preferred option. The best way to get rid of coins is to spend them as quickly as appear in your hands. By spending, you are able to utilize every coin you have instantaneously (an advantage to rolling) and you force someone else to sort it (the store) for free!
Although everyone is required to accept change as legal tender, dealing with change can be inconvenient to handle. Many merchants, especially bartenders and restaurant servers don’t like to accept it. Instead of being an annoying customer, you can spend those coins at the coin slot on the self-checkout at your grocery store. The machine will happily accept, sort, and count that change for you.
The other major benefits of spending change at self-checkout are 1. you can buy something with that change your were already going to buy and 2. you can spend large quantities of change in any amount up to the value of your grocery bill (if you run out of change, just pull out that rewards card and pay the rest on plastic!) and 3. you aren’t inconveniencing anyone else. You don’t inconvenience a cashier, because the machine handles your money. You also don’t inconvenience other customers, because generally, only one line forms for multiple checkout kiosks. If you take a long time fumbling with change, other customers will barely notice because the other kiosks around you will open and allow the line to keep moving. Because you can take your time checking out, and because you’re buying things you were going to buy anyway, you can do some other cool things like…
Grocery Antic 2. Racking up Purchase Counts
I have a new cash rewards promotion which I plan to review in the future. As part of opening the account, if I make at least 8 purchase per billing cycle, I am not charged any account maintenance fees. Because the cashback is not based on the amount I spend, it is more advantageous for me to spend most of my money with other rewards cards. So what’s the best way to balance this? Easy! The self-checkout lane wins again!
Because I want to make sure I make all my transactions, no more, no less, within a given billing cycle, I found the easiest way is to make all of the required 8 transactions at once. After calling the bank to confirm the billing cycle, I simply wait until a couple of days into the billing cycle and then head to my local grocery store. I shop around for something cheap that we were going to buy anyway. So far, yogurt and produce have worked the best. Once I have my 4 apples and 4 yogurts, I go to the self checkout and checkout the 8 items on 8 individual receipts. For $4, I can get all my necessary activity requirements for the bank, and again, not inconvenience anyone in the store!
Grocery Antic 3. Clearance Shelves
As frugal folks, my wife and I are always looking for good deals at the grocery store. The first thing we did at our local grocery store was get familiar with the location of certain shelves marked “clearance” or “manager’s special”. As most people are aware, clearance items tend to be slightly harder-to-sell items that the store is trying to recover cost on. Because of this, if you can apply a little frugal muscle you can find prices on tasty, useful items that would be impossible to find anywhere else.
Clearance Step 1: Find all your clearance sheves
One of the benefits of shopping at a reasonably priced store within walking/biking distance of home is that you can get familiar with the location of deals. Our store actually has 6 permanent clearance shelves spread around: produce, frozen, durable, meat, the bakery, and sweets. Each of these has different types of deals, and I’ll quickly outline below the best tips I’ve found for using each.
Clearance Shelf 1: Meat clearance
My wife and I tend to keep our diet stocked with lots of lean protein. Because of this, we tend to pickup some sort of meat on every major trip to the grocer. Generally the first place we look for chicken, turkey, pork, etc. is the clearance rack in the fridge section. Most of the time, the items available are just getting close to their sell by date. At our store, “close” appears to be 1-2 weeks, so really, it’s not even something that has to be eaten that day. Other times, items may be marked for clearance cause they are slightly fattier cuts. Also not infrequently, we’ve found clearance items that are literally identical to other, full-price items… How they got there, we couldn’t tell, but when I find an item I need at 80% discount, I’m grabbing it.
The trick to making the meat clearance work is the freezer. Cooked meat dishes can last months and months in the freezer and taste delicious after being heated in the microwave.We have a stack of portion-sized lunch entree’s stacked in the freezer right now, and just yesterday, I took some BBQ chicken to work. Several people commented on how good my lunch smelled. Little did they know that it was clearance chicken bought for $1.15 per pound and had been sitting in my freezer for weeks!
Clearance Shelf 2: The durable foods shelf
The durable clearance shelf tends to be the “scratch & dent” shelf at our store. The items range from scratch & dent cans and boxed foods to durable items that sell slowly like less-popular-flavored sauces or items with updated packaging. This was the first clearance shelf I discovered in my grocery store. It is also the clearance shelf that I use most often.
On the scratch & dent can side, I tend to only get cans that minimally damaged. Aluminum cans use a plastic liner (many of which still contain BPA) to keep the food and metal can separated.Foods, especially acidic foods like tomato sauce will leach metal from the can if the lining is damaged. That said, neutral vegetables and beans stored in water can be a good score.
Cardboard boxed items also make the scratch & dent list. The trick here is once again, to look for items with mere cosmetic damage. Foods like cereal, which have an internally sealed bag, are good finds. However, I never buy items like boxes of pasta where the box is torn open.
Sauces also tend to appear quite often on this shelf. As I mentioned before, we like to make tasty BBQ chicken, so we tend to look for BBQ sauces. Usually, the sauces that appear are less tasty flavors than the full-price items on the regular shelves. However, think of these sorts of sauces as “cooking sauces”. Just like cooking wine, we use these cheap sauces to stew dishes for hours. At the end of the dish, we’ll add some of the good stuff for the real flavor notes.
Items going out of production are the last category, and these items are identical to what’s on the shelf except for new packaging. Usually manufacturers use these package changes to reduce the amount of product in a container, thereby improving their margins, so both the manufacturer and the store want to clear the old items quickly. If the food is similar to something already on my shopping list, it goes in the cart every time.
Clearance Shelf 3: Produce
Produce clearance was a bit difficult for me at first. At our store, it’s essentially just a rack with some prepackaged mesh bags of slightly older fruit. Because I don’t have particular produce expertise, I initially used the same guidance as many other shoppers: look for the fullest rack with the best-looking fruit & veggie’s. However, the reality is that farmers are so selective about what they send to market, everything that makes it to your store is already some of the best stuff on the planet. That means there’s nothing wrong with buying the last apples left on the tray.
By buying clearance produce, you’re also helping the environment. Grocery stores don’t donate the leftovers to food banks. Anything not sold goes straight into the garbage. If you’re not sure, ask your grocer. They might claim they can’t donate food due to liability (false), but the reality is, throwing food into the garbage is cheaper than sorting and donating it…
If you have the time, Last week Tonight made a great episode about the colossal food waste in America.
Clearance Shelf 4, 5, & 6: Bakery, Frozen, Sweets
As a frugal stoic, I try not to outsource my cooking. Because of this, I tend not to purchase day-old baked items or frozen TV dinners. If someone is throwing a party and I need something special; however, I will still check these areas if i need a crusty baguette, some birthday party ice cream, or sweets for the holidays. If you use these shelves and think I’m missing out, definitely let me know!
Grocery Antic 4. E-coupons
E-couponing is a pretty cool development that has come about with those stores that track your purchasing with those little member key-tags. Many stores have mobile apps which allow you to set up a profile with your “member tags”. Once you have your profile, you can literally search the entire store for coupons and load them to your profile. Once at the store, all of the coupons you loaded will be applied automatically when you use the tag at checkout. In an effort to get customers to use the system, e-coupons can actually be better than paper coupons. Our store, for instance, offers free-item-Fridays. Every week they pick an item (usually worth ~$2-$5) and offer a free e-coupon.
This is actually great for two reasons:
1. You don’t have to carry any paper coupons, just your shopper’s tag. And if you forget what coupons you have loaded, just pull out your phone and check the app!
2. You can search for the all the sales from home while planning your shopper’s list. Thanks to better planning, you can take the time to find more items on sale. Last weekend, I was actually able to use 20 coupons and carry nothing more than my keys!
While none of these ideas are life-changing, my wife and I have found them to fun ways to add just a little more frugality to our lives. Sometimes a little penny-wise creativity is all it takes to reinvigorate yourself and avoid the pitfalls of ubiquitous marketing all-around. Be clever and don’t be afraid to break the rules!