I love a good bargain. I clip coupons, search the web for deals, and sign up for email alerts letting me know of great deals at restaurants, grocery stores, and more. Doing this type of work though can sometimes be like searching for a needle in a haystack. We don’t eat prepackaged foods so most of the coupons I see get tossed into the recycling bin. I read the advice of these “so-called” bargain shoppers and I watch the videos from morning shows of women that only spend $30 at Wal-Mart and come out of the store with massive shopping bags filled with crap that even my cat, Moe, won’t eat—and he’s not a finicky eater. There is a way to shop for good healthy food without breaking the bank, and it doesn’t require spending hours a day looking for bargains.
All of these shopping tips center on San Francisco and Bay Area businesses, and all of the businesses are locally owned. So not only are we spending our dollars wisely, we’re also helping the businesses in our city and not stuffing the pockets of the rich families that live in Arkansas or Texas.
1. Make a list. I keep a little notepad in a zipper binder, right next to the front door so when I’m ready to leave I always remember to take it with me. Inside the binder I keep coupons and membership cards that give me discounts, and I keep my list up-to-date by adding things I need as I run out of them instead of making a list the day of and having to remember what I ran out of 5 days ago. This way, the day before shopping, I can quickly peruse the pantry shelves just in case I forgot something and then add it to the list.
As much as other people say, stick to your list, I prefer to use my list as a blue-print. If there’s something on sale at the store that I will use, I’ll buy it. Being flexible at the grocery store is a key to shopping smart, just don’t go hog wild and impulse shop. It defeats the purpose of having a list to begin with.
2. One of my favorite stores in San Francisco is a little known place that very few people ever shop in, unless you’re in the culinary world. The San Francisco Herb Company is amazing. There are bags and bags of teas, herbs, spices, essential oils and more, all for only a few dollars. The best way to get the most out of this shop is to get a group of friends together and decide what herbs and spices you all need. They only ship in 1-5 pound increments and most of the herbs you won’t need a full pound of. After you receive the herbs and spices divvy them up in your old spice jars. You can also give the spices out for gifts.
3. If you live in the city, you’ll most likely have to purchase a Fast Pass to get around. We all hate MUNI but it has become a necessary evil to get to and from work. If you buy your Fast Pass at Cole Hardware and sign-up for the frequent shopper program, you’ll need to spend just $5 more and Cole Hardware will refund you 5% of your total sale in the form of a gift card at the beginning of the year. Here’s how it works: a Fast Pass costs $60 ($70 if you use BART). Shop around and include something else you need that costs $5 or more and you’ll get $3.25 (or more, depending on how much you spend at the register) back for the month, or $39 for the year. Cole Hardware also sends out coupons and has sales occasionally throughout the year.
4. Purchase two Green Zebra coupon books, one at the beginning of the year and one towards the end or middle of the year when the coupon books go on sale. The price of the booklet at the beginning of the year is $25, around August it goes down to $15. You can find great deals on restaurants and grocery stores. Let’s face it though, some of the coupons you are not going to use but some of them you won’t be able to hold yourself back from using the day you buy the book. There’s everything from free lunches and coffee, to free movies and pet care. It gives you the option to actually go out and find new places in the city you wouldn’t try otherwise. There’s also a Cole Hardware coupon in the book. Last year I used the coupon in the book to purchase the book, so the second coupon book only cost me $5.
5. Find coupons for grocery stores that you shop at the most. We’ve made references before to Rainbow Grocery and every year they advertise in the Yellow Pages with coupons that offer 20% off your total bill. The deals are usually restricted to two or three weekdays, but if you can get your hands on a few of these coupons and stock up on the items that you use the most on those days you can save a lot of money. This year the offer is only good every other month (January, March, May, etc.), so stocking up on the necessities and things you can store in bulk is important for those odd months they don’t accept the coupons. However, if you become a member of the SF Bicycle Coalition you can save 10% on your purchases at Rainbow Grocery for those in between months, and Green Zebra has a coupon to join the coalition.
6. When going grocery shopping always buy bulk items and seldom shop the inner isles of the store. Buying in bulk means that you can purchase as much, or as little as you want. Remember to bring your own containers and most stores will give you a rebate of a nickel or a dime per container/bag. That may not sound like a lot of money, but if you purchase ten bulk items, and bring your own shopping bags (another nickel or dime for each one) your savings could be upwards of a $1 or more. Still not enough, if you shop weekly that’s $52 a year, which is exactly how much a SF Bicycle Coalition membership cost for a year with the Green Zebra coupon. Not only does it save money but it also reduces the amount of plastic and paper being used. Saving trees and saving the oceans.
7. Shop for used items before you shop for new ones. Websites like craigslist.org or freecycle.org have plenty of items you want for a fraction of the cost of a new one, and a lot of stuff is free. We purchased a $10 paninni marker a few years ago before the grilled cheese press became the latest kitchen gadget. It’s still going strong in our kitchen and is perfect on those days when a salad and a sandwich is all the effort we can muster in making dinner. And that yogurt maker I purchased from Sur La Table, that I just had to have 3 years ago, is getting ready to be put up for sale. Anyone looking to purchase a slightly used yogurt maker?
8. Estate sales, flea markets, and garage sales. Every weekend there’s a plethora of retail activity going on in people’s homes and at local fair grounds. Some of the best places to find out what’s going are craiglist.org and yelp.com. But just driving around the city you’ll see signs and open garages with people peddling their wares. Two great flea markets are Alemany Flea Market, http://www.yelp.com/biz/alemany-flea-market-san-francisco, in Bernal Heights on Sunday, and Alameda flea market across the bay, http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/sf/alameda-flea-market-tips-046828. Bring cash with you and brush up on your haggling techniques. Also, remember to arrive early for the best pick, bring your own shopping bags, wear a hat, and use sunscreen–even on cloudy days.
9. Shop at the Farmer’s Markets. To get the best produce you’ll want to shop at the beginning of the day, but to get the best deals you’ll want to shop at the end of the day and buy what’s in season. Why? The merchants don’t want to take anything back so they’re always willing to sell you more stuff at the end of the day for less money. Also, shopping on rainy days when everyone else is at home is another way to save a little green. Fewer people at the markets means better deals. Also, get to know who you are buying your items from. When you become friends with the merchants they are more willing to give you a deal, or slip an extra something in your bag. And don’t be afraid to ask for a deal, just don’t be a jack-ass about it and insist. Remember, be polite and others might.
10. Limit the number of shopping trips to once a week and go to all the stores on your list on that given day. If you’re out of something you can always go without for a day or two, it won’t kill you. This will not only save money, but it will also save time. And don’t go to the stores on the weekends! Stores entice us with sales only to have us buy unnecessary items. Saturday is the busiest shopping day of the week and the one that you’re most likely to spend on junk you don’t need. Do you’re shopping on a Tuesday or Wednesday, even if you work during the week. An added bonus is that you’ll free up your weekend to spend time with family and friends instead of fighting the parking lots and crowds at the stores.
These are only ten of our favorite shopping secrets. While I was making the list I thought of a lot more than ten, so maybe I’ll be adding more top ten lists in future blog posts. Even though these tips are centered in San Francisco and the Bay Area, much of the advice can be tailored to fit your region. Farmer’s Markets are popping up everywhere, co-op and health food stores are found in most major cities and towns, and don’t forget the internet to find bargains in your area. Just remember that sometimes buying cheap processed “food” now can lead to expensive healthcare costs later in your life. Don’t be fooled with Super-Sized promotions as a way to fuel your body. You may not be paying much now, but you’ll be paying a lot more later on.
Lastly, leave us a comment about your choices. What are your secrets to spending wisely, or what foods are you eating and preparing in your area. We’d really like to hear from you.
Jason and Steve