How To Navigate A Grocery Store

How you shop a grocery store depends on what you’re looking for, but no matter what your primary goal in beating the system is, there are tricks to it.

The first and most important rule is to remember that a grocery store’s layout is not by chance. Everything is carefully placed to get you to spend as much as possible on things you don’t need, preferably those items with the most profit margin, since grocery stores have a razor-thin profit margin. CheatSheet lists some of the many ways that grocery stores are carefully planned to get you to spend.

So, here are some tips to help you make the most of your hard-earned dollar in the grocery store.

1. Make A List And Check It Twice

Don’t walk into the grocery store without a grocery list. Before you leave, go through your shelves and your fridge, to see what you have and what you need. Keep an inventory of your pantry to make sure that any needed items get replenished.

This can be done either on paper or on your favorite phone app – of which there are many.

2. Eat Before You Go

Never, ever walk into a grocery store when you’re hungry. Eat out or grab something out of the vending machine at work if you have to. If you do, you’re almost sure to buy things you don’t need. A better choice is to plan a meal at home just before a grocery store trip – you’re shopping full and have already been in your kitchen recently, so you have a good idea (and hopefully have written down) what you need.

3. Coupons and Savings Cards

If your grocery store has a phone app, consider using it. Sure, it helps them, but it also helps you. At the very least, have and use the savings card for your favorite grocery store. You can save quite a bit.

That said, I’ll say this: don’t buy something you wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because it’s on sale. That means you’re falling for the trap of buying things you don’t need just because it looks like a sale. You’re still spending more money than you save in the end, no matter how good the deal.

4. Look Down, Look Down

A grocery store shelf has a plan to it. The stuff at eye level is the most expensive stuff, the stuff the grocery store wants you to buy most. The stuff directly below that is the next most expensive, then the stuff at the top. The best bargains will be on the bottom shelves, including the large bulk containers.

5. Unit Prices Rule

When shopping for food, always look at the unit price to determine the value you’re getting. The retail price tells you how much you’ll spend for that box, but the unit price tells you how much bang is in that buck you’re spending. Usually, the smaller the box, the less bang you’re getting for your buck. When comparing two brands, compare the unit price, not the retail price, because those prices are normalized against a standard unit.

5a. Bulk Isn’t Always A Bargain

Generally speaking, large containers mean you’re paying for more food and less packaging, so the unit prices will be better on large containers. However, if you buy such a large container that you’ll never use it all before it goes bad, you’re throwing your money away on the portion you can’t use. If you only use a small container of milk, don’t buy a big one, because you’ll waste most of it.

On things that don’t spoil, go for the bulk packaging so long as you have the space to store it! Bulk is a great way to get paper products and cleaning products.

6. Cheaper Isn’t Always Better

Yes, that store brand can is 20ยข cheaper than the national brand. Sometimes, that’s a really good deal, but only if the store brand is equivalent quality to the national brand. It isn’t, always. The reality is that store brands can be very hit-or-miss in quality, and an item that is poor quality will need to be doubled up or replaced more frequently – and if that is true, are you really saving money?

Be cautious with off-brands. Try different products in the off-brand, but you’ll find sometimes that the off-brands don’t cut it and you’re actually saving money by spending a bit more on a high-quality product that lasts longer or that you can use less of to get the same effect. My experience tells me that you’re almost always better off with the national brand for these products:

  • Trash bags
  • Toilet paper
  • Paper towels
  • Paper plates
  • Canned peas (off-brand frozen veggies are usually fine)
  • Dishwashing detergent
  • Laundry detergent

7. About Display Placement

You know those displays of various things on the end of every aisle? Those are called end-cap displays, and those are items that the store is being paid to set out in a special place, or things that they want to sell more of. If it’s not on your list, skip it.

Also, have you ever noticed that the candy and/or cookie aisle almost always coincides with some essential that every parent needs? I’ve seen candy across the aisle from peanut butter, bread, fruit juice, and even diapers. Dirty pool, if you ask me – that’s a great way to get a harassed mother shopping with her kids a chorus of screams for candy. This isn’t an accident. As I said above, grocery stores are carefully planned by psychological and marketing experts to encourage you to make impulse purchases. Consider not having the kids (or your SO/spouse) in tow when you grocery shop to avoid this trick.

8. Don’t Hesitate To Ask

Grocery stores are forever moving things around on shelves and reorganizing the store. They also have a nasty habit of placing a key item that everyone buys somewhere that no sane person would ever think to look for it. This behavior is on purpose — it’s intended to force otherwise savvy and organized shoppers to slow down, hunt the shelves, and look at everything on display in hopes of encouraging one or more impulse purchases.

Don’t waste your time or money on this ploy. Find a clerk and ask them where the item you want is to be found. They know the store very well usually and will help you find it without any further fuss.

9. Where The Goodies Are

This is a tip for the health-conscious shoppers. If you’re trying to eat better, the good stuff is around the perimeter of the store. Frozen, dairy, meats, produce — all these items are to be found around the edges of the store. There are a few items in the middle that you’ll want, but by and large, the middle of the store is where you’ll find the junk. Stay to the edges, with a few forays for specific items, and you’ll shop more health-consciously.

One caution, though — the flowers and the baked goods near the door are designed to bombard your senses, so focus on your list and ignore the rest.

10. Groceries Can Be Had Online, Too

There are a number of grocery delivery and pickup services out there, where you can shop online, make your picks from the comfort of your couch, and have it brought to your door for a nominal delivery fee. They don’t always offer all the things you buy, though, so I don’t find that it works for me, but if you’re busy, it can be a godsend.

It can also keep you out of a lot of the head games played by the grocery stores, so if you’re tired, it’s an appealing choice.

11. Don’t Use A Bigger Basket Than You Need

When you have an empty space, the temptation is to fill it. The bigger basket you use, the more you’re tempted to buy. If you’re only going in for a few items, use the hand-carry basket, or seek out the smaller half-carts.

A Final Word

A grocery store can be a minefield of budget-busting choices. Shop mindfully and don’t let yourself get sucked into the head games, and you’ll eat well for less than eating out would cost you.

Screwdrivers vs. prybars, and other safety stories… ๐Ÿ”จ๐Ÿ› โ€ผ๏ธ

I saw a meme this morning that got me thinking. The meme had a picture of a screwdriver, and read:

“If it looks like a screwdriver, feels like a screwdriver, and turns like a screwdriver, it IS a prybar. ALWAYS use a screwdriver as a punch, chisel, or prybar.”

Except, IS and ALWAYS were taped over the original words on a SnapOn “The Right Way Every Day” hand tool safety poster.

Screwdrivers, quite simply, are not prybars. The big ones might work like one in a pinch, but you’re way better off using a claw hammer, or – *gasp* – an actual prybar if you need a prybar.

Why wouldn’t you want to use a screwdriver as a prybar? Because you can break the tip on the screwdriver – especially if it’s a cheap one – and the tip can fly up and cause injuries to all sorts of things you don’t want hurt – especially your eyes.

Screwdrivers aren’t punches either, although with drywall, with nothing behind it, a Phillips screwdriver can be used as a punch – in a pinch. But you’re better off using an actual punch, or a drill, if you need to put a hole in something.

Why? Same reason you wouldn’t use a screwdriver as a prybar. You can break the screwdriver. Say you’re trying to punch a hole in drywall, but there’s a stud behind where you put the screwdriver. The screwdriver bends. You’re out a good screwdriver.

Stud finders are much more useful for locating studs in the wall than knocking on it and listening for hollow spaces, or punching a screwdriver through the wall repeatedly until you hit something.

And as for using a flathead screwdriver as a chisel… again, they may look similar, but they aren’t the same thing. Chisels are made to cut things; they’re sharper than screwdrivers, sometimes considerably. Your screwdriver might work, in a pinch, but again, chisels are harder than screwdrivers, especially cheap screwdrivers, and you don’t want to break your screwdriver.

Trust me, a bit of metal in the eyeball is NOT a good idea!

If you do have to do any of these things, for $DEITY’s sake, use eye protection, and no, your glasses do not count! Make sure everyone around you is using eye protection too. It’s generally safer – and less expensive – to just go get the right tool for the job.

About Paper Checks

The reality is that the paper check is becoming obsolete as a method of payment. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, every adult had a paper checkbook and kept their records in it. With the advent of electronic payment, check fraud, and cloud-based recordkeeping, fewer and fewer people are opting to keep their records on paper, and fewer and fewer merchants are accepting checks as a method of payment.

What hasn’t changed is that the paper check is still the safest way to send money by snail mail. While the need to do this has decreased significantly, it isn’t zero. Some medical offices and no few government offices still require payment by snail mail, or if they do accept online payment, they charge extra for the service. (I’m looking at you, water and sewer bill.) It’s illegal and unwise to send cash in snail mail, and putting your credit card number on a slip in the mail exposes it to a number of people along the way who don’t need to see it. When you mail it as a check, only the entity written on the TO: line can cash that check, so it reduces the risk of money being withdrawn by someone who doesn’t have the right to do so.

There are also some people, especially older folks, who still use checks. A year or two ago, I was in a grocery store checkout line. The elderly man in front of me had been sent by his wife to the store to get a few things, and she had sent a blank check with him. I have the impression that she’d done all the money management for him, because he didn’t know how to make it out, and neither did the teenage clerk. I stepped in and showed them both how to fill it out, and he went on his way. The clerk told me afterward that she’d never seen one before.

So What Is A Check?

A check is an order to the bank to withdraw an amount of money from the account noted on the check and pay it to the entity in the TO: Line. The video below is a bit dated, but it explains the laws around checks, how they are processed, and how they are used.

Cautions About Using Checks

The video above shows checks being presented in paper to the bank. That isn’t done anymore; checks are now typically presented to the bank electronically as e-checks, which means that instead of clearing in a week, they’ll clear at best immediately or at worst in 2-3 days, unless you’re my water provider because they are archaic and need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. What this means to you: if you present a check to someone for payment, you’d better have the money in your account now, not on Friday when you get paid, because it’s presented immediately, and “floating a check” (writing a check now expecting that money will be in your account before it is presented to the bank) doesn’t work like it used to.

Nobody else can sign a check for you. Your bank has your signature on file and will compare the signature on the check image to yours before honoring the check. Any attempt to duplicate someone else’s signature is forgery, and forgery on a check is check fraud. The person who duplicated your signature, and possibly you, can go to jail for that. Protect your signature.

A blank check — that is, a check that has your signature on it, but no amount or pay to: entity written on it, is effectively cash. Treat it as such, and don’t give one to someone you wouldn’t trust with all the cash in your bank account.

If you have a checkbook, as shown in the video above, it should be kept protected. Lock it in a drawer or safe when not using it.

If you write a check, record it immediately in the recordkeeping system of your choice. Paper registers come with the checkbook, but an online recordkeeping system works too. Record the check number, the amount, and the payee; your bank will tell you when they have honored that check, because it will show up in your account. If you record it at once, you won’t forget you wrote it and spend that money elsewhere. Check bouncing is illegal, and it’s UGLY.

Bouncing Checks (Or, Why Good Records Are So Important)

Pay attention to your bank’s policy on how they record withdrawals and deposits. This can be found in the paperwork that came with your checking account, or if you don’t have that, ask any bank teller and they’ll tell you. Many banks record checks before they record deposits, if the two happen in the same daily processing cycle, and quite a few will record the largest check first. Both of these are dangerous, and I’ll take an example to illustrate what can happen.

Say you’ve got $100 in your checking account, and you make an ATM withdrawal out of network for $40. You’ve also written a check for $57, and made an electronic payment for $72. Your bank makes the largest withdrawal first, but an ATM cash withdrawal comes out before any other type of payment (normally the case because it’s cash on the spot). So, both electronic payments land on the same day. The largest one clears first, so the $72 is pulled — but whoops, you only have $60 left so that puts your account in the negative. You’ll pay a bounce fee for that to the tune of $25-$35 per transaction bounced. So when the $57 – that would have cleared if it had been presented first – is presented, it too bounces. So, you’re paying $50-$70 to your bank, and both transactions bounce, putting you in trouble with both entities you paid. Not very nice, is it?

Don’t put yourself in that situation. Keep good records of every transaction, and make sure you can cover every transaction you authorize against that account.

A Final Word

It may be that you’ll never need any of what I just told you — or you might. Chances are you’ll come across a check at some point, even as they fade into obsolescence. If it does, remember this information, and you should be okay.

Friday Wisdom: First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

Experts says that we size up a person anywhere in between 30 seconds and 2 minutes — and that first impression will drive all your interactions with that person, potentially forever.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? It doesn’t give you a chance to show all that you have to offer, only what you want people to see. That people who put on a good face and have terrible character go further than the amazing ones that take time to get to know.

You’re right. It isn’t fair. The best people take time to get to know, and not everyone will show their true selves at first impression — in fact, the ones who can do that often don’t have a lot to show.

The astute individual will tailor their own first impressions to what they want to show – and will trust their own only to a point. Your instinct is a powerful guide, but don’t let it be your only one.

 

On Hex Wrenches and the hexes they make us want to use on them… ๐Ÿ”จ๐Ÿ› 

Hex wrenches (also known as Allen keys or Allen wrenches) are used to drive bolts or screws that have a six-sided socket. There are two styles of hex wrenches: metric and Imperial (also called U.S. customary, or SAE).

Why is this important?

You want to make sure you use the right tool for the right occasion.

An SAE wrench in a metric bolt will not fit properly. Neither will a metric wrench in an SAE bolt. Sure, you can use one that’s a teeny bit smaller, and angle it, but then you’re running the risk of stripping the bolt.

Here’s the thing – you can strip (damage) any screw or bolt by using the wrong tool to try and put it into or remove it from whatever it goes in. Strip it badly enough, and you need specialized tools to remove it.

A basic hex wrench set, in both metric and Imperial sizes, is a good recommendation for any tool kit.


How to Load A Dishwasher (And Have the Dishes Actually Get Clean)

Loading a dishwasher is harder than it looks at first blush. Plates that don’t get clean, glasses with spots all over them, melted plastic takeaway containers — all these things and more can happen to your dishes. The good news is that there are some tricks and tips that will help you get the most out of your dishwasher – without a lot of headache.

Use The Right Product

There are three cleaning products that you need to know about in order to keep your dishes sparkling fresh.

  • Dishwasher detergent: This is not the same as dish soap. Unless your idea of a good time is cleaning a mountain of wet suds off of your kitchen floor, do not attempt to use Dawn or similar in your dishwasher. Doing so could also damage your dishwasher, so please just don’t. My personal preference in dishwasher detergent is liquid Cascade Complete, but I know people who swear by the dishwasher pods, and that’s okay too. I find that liquid dissolves better than powder form, so I recommend the liquid. It’s less likely to leave unwanted leftovers.
  • Spot rinse: This stuff is a blue liquid you find in a squirt bottle or a pod that clips to the upper rack of your dishwasher under the names Jet Dry, Finish, or similar. It keeps water spots from forming on your glassware. Useful but not overwhelmingly essential unless you’re cleaning for company.
  • Tang: A quick and cheap way to clean your dishwasher, which you’ll want to do from time to time. Fill the soap holes with powdered Tang and run a full cycle with no dishes in it. It’s surprisingly effective.

๐Ÿ’ก “But I drink Tang! Can it seriously be used as a cleaning agent, and if so, why am I drinking it?” Keep in mind that many foods have cleansing properties. Diet Coke can take corrosion off a car battery terminal, vinegar will remove urine from fabric, and lemon and baking soda will eliminate that nasty smell in your garbage disposal. Don’t let this fact turn you off of Tang, if you like drinking it.

Don’t Overdo It

Are you tempted to rearrange and cram that one last item in there, so that you don’t have to wash it by hand? Not so fast, tiger. One of the main reasons dishes don’t get clean is that the dishwasher is so full that the spray can’t reach every item in it enough to be effective. While running your dishwasher half-full is wasteful of both soap and water, running it excessively full may mean having to wash everything again, which is just as wasteful if not more so. You’ll spend less time and energy total if you wash that one last thing by hand and don’t have to redo the whole load because you overfilled the dishwasher.

My photo hosting is being a pain at the moment, but tomorrow I’ll try to post pictures of what a good dishwasher load looks like and what an overload looks like.

Turn It Towards The Water

Take note of where the sprayers are in your dishwasher. Most dishasher have a rotating one between the racks. When you load the dishwasher, turn it so the dirty side faces the sprayer.

On the topic of that rotating sprayer, don’t block it, or your dishes won’t get clean.

 

 

Rinse Your Dishes First

Get the worst of the food and crusties off the dishes by rinsing in the sink before you put them in the dishwasher. They don’t have to be perfect before you put them in there, but they shouldn’t be crusted over, either.

Everything Doesn’t Go

Some things shouldn’t go in the dishwasher at all.

  • Plastic types 1 (PET), 3 (PVC), and 7 (other): PET is meant for disposable plastic items and will warp or melt in the dishwasher. PVC is used for plastic pipes and outdoor furniture and is not considered suitable for food storage. Type 7 plastic is a catch-all category that may or may not melt and may or may not be toxic. It’s a crapshoot and the safest move is to simply recycle it.
  • Cast Iron Cookware: This includes any cookware like aluminum that has to be seasoned, but is most especially true of cast iron. Cast iron cookware will rust in the dishwasher, which means you’ll have to scrub the rust off with a Brillo pad and re-season it. This is a pain.
  • Fine china and special finishes: Fine china, handmade pottery, and some baking pans have special finishes that may be damaged or ruined in the dishwasher. In the case of fine china, it may also shatter or break when subjected to forceful sprays of water. Better not to risk it.
  • Wood items: Wooden spoons, picnic items, and bamboo can warp, discolor, go dry, or even burn in the dishwasher. Hard pass.
  • Excessively large items: If it’s big enough that it blocks the free rotation of any sprayer, it’s too big to go in the dishwasher.

Most other things will be okay in the dishwasher, although some things should only go in certain places.

Careful With That

These items should go only in the top rack:

  • Plastics 2, 4, 5, and 6: These are reusable food-grade plastics and can go in the dishwasher, but all plastics should be confined to the top rack.
  • Small items: Most items of this nature are okay in the dishwasher but need to be prevented from flying everywhere. Placing them in the top rack where they won’t be hit quite so hard is the best means of accomplishing this.

A Final Word

Remember that anything that goes into your dishwasher comes out hot. It also consumes a fair amount of water and electricity. A thrifty move that will also keep your from burning your fingers is to plan to run the dishwasher while you’re asleep. Electricity is cheaper in the wee hours of the morning in many places, and you’ll wake up to clean dishes. Many dishwashers now have delay timers for exactly this purpose.

Good luck! I’ll post pictures tomorrow of how I do it to aid in explaining how it works, when I can bend Flickr to my will.

Smart Ways To Spend A Windfall

They happen every now and then, and they’re oh so fun when they do. Tax refunds. Gambling winnings. Inheritance payouts from a relative’s will. Monetary gifts. If you have escrow on your mortgage, excess from your escrow. These items are referred to as windfall income, a one-time infusion of money from various sources. You can’t count on it happening again, but it’s often in large amounts.

Large or small, it’s very tempting to run right out on a clothes shopping spree or go get that new phone you’ve been eyeing. There are so many things to spend money on, aren’t there? And so many retailers are holding great sales right around tax time.

Not so fast, is my advice.

Especially around tax time, retailers know perfectly well that the majority of Americans get refunds on their income taxes, and their goal is to get you to spend it at their store. The timing of these sales is absolutely not by accident, and the majority of these retailers are selling you things that are nice to have, not things that you really need. Consumerism is rampant in American society, and feeling flush with cash can make it hard not to fall for the carefully-tailored psychological ploys designed to get you to leave it with your favorite store.

Before you and your cash-infused friends hit the mall, consider these other ways to spend your money.

Create (Or Add To) A Rainy-Day Fund

A rainy-day fund is a key part of any responsible and well-managed financial plan. It covers things like an emergency auto repair, dental work, or your bills in the event of a job loss. It keeps you from having to run up your credit cards to handle the budget-busting emergency expenses that are part of life, and keeps you from having a debt-reduction plan derailed by an emergency expense.

This fund should not be confused with savings for planned expenses such as weddings, vacations, car down payments, and so forth. That should be a separate account from this fund.

How much should be in it? That depends on your life situation and your income. Experts recommend starting with a goal of $1000, which is generally enough to cover dental work or many car repairs. My experience says that serious dental work ends up being $1500 or more, so I recommend working up from there. In a perfect world, you’ll have three to six months’ worth of living expenses saved up against a job loss, but that goal takes time to attain.

Start somewhere. If you don’t have a fund at all, open a new savings account with your current bank and start one. If you use the three-account system I mentioned last week, open it at the same institution as your bills account. If you do already have one, consider designating a percentage of your windfall to adding to it.

Invest It

An investment is basically using your money to make more money. It takes a lot of time to build up a lot, but patience and discipline pays off.

Have you started saving for retirement? If not, I recommend getting started. The longer a small amount of money has to grow, the more it becomes. Even if you can’t contribute a lot, contribute something, and give that little something more time to weather the ups and downs of the stock market and become a big something.

If your employer does not offer 401(k) pre-tax retirement contributions, you can still invest post-tax for retirement by contributing to a Roth IRA. You can also invest money for medium-term goals, like a down payment on a house, college savings for a child, or paying for your wedding. There are even mobile apps that allow you to invest small amounts at a time, such as Acorns, Betterment, Robinhood, and Stash.

Pay Off Debt

Got student loans or a car loan? Most loans today allow you to pre-pay all or part of the loan without penalty. Check to be sure that this applies to your loan before you do it, but consider paying off part of that loan. If you pay more now, you’ll end up paying less in interest later because of the way loan amortization works.

How about a credit card? Is it maxed out? If you owe on a credit card, you already spent that money in your hand. Paying off that credit card will help you avoid finance charges and late fees, and a whole lot of worry and headaches.

Take Care Of A Problem

I did this with my tax refund this year. I spent most of it to address a non-working toilet, a non-working sump pump, and some other plumbing problems in my home, and I consider it money well spent. Fix your car. Get it cleaned/detailed. Address any standing problems in your home. Get new glasses. Have your teeth fixed.

Save For A Goal

A down payment on a car. That road trip. A cruise to the Caribbean. That 60″ TV. These are all things that take time and money to work towards, but not usually so long that it’s worth taking the risk of investing it. Shoving some money in a savings account is never a bad idea.

Deal With Taxation

Be aware that some windfalls, particularly inheritances and gambling winnings, may be subject to taxation in your place of residence. If so, consider setting some of it aside to cover that.

A Final Word

None of this is to say that having a little mad money is a bad thing. It’s not. I’m not suggesting that you devote every dime you got to the boring adult stuff. A responsible adult, though, will not blow all of a windfall on fun. They’ll take care of business first and leave a little on the side for fun, instead.