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3 shopping mistakes we can't stop making

The good news is we're getting smarter about saving money on groceries. The bad news? A trio of mistakes keeps costing us money.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 3, 2013 9:34AM
Logo: Woman Grocery Shopping (Fuse/Getty Images)Though the economy is improving, saving money on groceries is still important to people, according to recent poll  of 1,100 U.S. residents conducted by ShopSmart magazine, a sister publication of Consumer Reports.

(Gee, you think?)

Some of our habits are good ones. More than 20% of consumers said they're more likely now than two years ago to buy store brands, shop at multiple stores to save money, use print or online coupons, or stick to a grocery list.

That's the good news. The bad news? A lot of us keep making the same shopping mistakes over and over.

  • 59% buy in bulk even if they have little to no storage space.
  • 63% buy things they don't need because of coupons or sales.
  • 71% toss expired food they never opened. 

Maybe we're watching a little too much "Extreme Couponing." 

Not that I have anything against coupons; I love the ways they save me money. I'm not alone: A recent survey by the RetailMeNot online coupon site indicates that 48% of U.S. consumers are proud to use coupons, considering them "a symbol of their savvy shopping skills."

Sometimes that usage needs a little work. Since September is National Coupon Month, I asked some money-saving experts for help combating those three big goofs.

Believing bigger is a better deal

The mistake: Buying in bulk even if you have little/no storage.

In theory, bulk buys make sense: You get a better price and need to make fewer trips to the store. But where will you put it all?

Half a year's worth of glucosamine can be had a great price, but it takes up great space in a studio apartment's cupboard. Even in a regular home you might be challenged to find room to store things like 36-roll bales of toilet paper or 52-count instant oatmeals.

Karen Rodriguez, who blogs at Saving the Family Money, says storage is a huge issue in her home state, Florida. Basements are rare and the heat places limits on garage storage. Here's what she tells students in her coupon classes: "(Know) what your family will use in a given time frame," and buy only what can be used before it spoils.
As for space restrictions, get creative about storage: 

  • Boxes under the beds, especially if you use the old dorm-room trick of putting your bed up on risers.
  • If you have a bookcase or entertainment center in a corner, store items behind it.
  • Hang shoe bags on closet doors to store small items like cans of tomato paste or toiletries.
  • Watch for file cabinets, armoires or dressers on The Freecycle Network or the "free" section of Craigslist. That extra file cabinet in your home office can hold a heck of a lot.
  • Put extra sheets and blankets between the mattress and box spring, then put dry or paper goods in the linen closet. Or place canned goods in a single layer on each shelf and stack linens on top.
  • I once interviewed a prepper who suggested piling up boxes of food, topping them with a round piece of plywood and covering the whole thing with a floor-length cloth. Instant end table -- but nobody has to know it's really cases of chili.

When to say 'no'
The mistake: Buying unneeded items because of coupons/sales.

Coupons plus sales can easily tempt you to buy something you don't truly need. Last weekend I saw an ad for Crest toothpaste that cost 99 cents after coupon and in-store rebate. My initial reaction was "That's a good deal -- I should get it."

Then logic kicked in: We already have five tubes stashed, and toothpaste regularly goes on sale for 99 cents. It was a good deal only if I needed dentifrice that day. I didn't.

Buying without thinking can bust your budget, warns Lynette Rice of the Cleverly Simple deal site. "It's too easy to get caught up in the excitement of a great deal," she says, "and forget that you need to stay within a specific spending limit."

An obvious solution is to donate such items. A food bank, social services agency or emergency shelter could likely use your overflow. So could a relative or friend who's fallen on tough times.

Or maybe sale + coupon = a frugal splurge. If you've got a shot at an inexpensive treat, why not thrill your kids (or yourself) now and then?

A coupon plus a great sale can mean the chance to try an item you've never used before. But don't buy half a dozen just because you've got the coupons.

"Make sure your household likes the product before stocking up," advises Sia Hills, who blogs at Thrifty NW Mom. "It's not a great deal if you have to toss it or give it away because they won't eat it."

Speaking of which…

Waste not -- please

The mistake: Tossing expired, unopened food.

Stephanie Nelson, aka The Coupon Mom, made a bold confession: She's had to throw out expired salad dressing, has kept deodorant so long it was dried-out and useless, and has had "more than one bottle of lotion or body wash evolve into glop after sitting in (storage) too long."

Yes, even the mother of "strategic shopping" has gone deal-simple on occasion, only to have the free or nearly free items rot on the vine. Let this be a cautionary tale to shoppers whose eyes are bigger than their pantries.

"I should have kept just a few of the items myself and then donated the rest of them," says Nelson, author of "The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half."

It's easy for a skillful shopper to end up with dozens of cans of beans, boxes of cereal or bottles of shampoo. Unless you're planning to donate this stuff, stop already; it's pointless to keep accumulating items that might have to be thrown out. Alea Milham of the Premeditated Leftovers site, has several tips for shoppers:

  • Pull older items to the front of the pantry and put new ones in the back. (I'd also suggest writing the sell-by date on the fronts of cans or packages with a dark marker.)
  • Inventory freezer, fridge and pantry before making a shopping list. Otherwise those rows of duplicates just build and build.
  • Don't succumb to marketing ploys. If the sign says "10 for $10" it generally means they're a dollar apiece, not that you have to buy 10 to get that price. If your list says "two cans of tomatoes," don't buy 10. "You will save money and reduce the chances that the extras spoil and end up in the trash," Milham says.
A note about sell-by dates: For shelf-stable foods, a sell-by date merely indicates the end of peak flavor. The United States has no universally accepted food-dating system, and no federal law requires expiration dates except for infant formula and some other baby foods.

Thus opinions about "old" food vary. For example, at least six years ago I got a number of bottles of barbecue sauce free with coupons. My partner and I are using up the last ones because he agrees with me that "best by..." does not mean "if you eat it after this date you will die a horrible death."

Food banks generally won't accept food past its sell-by date, and some people can't bring themselves to drink milk on the day it supposedly expires. Do what works for you -- but also try not to put yourself in the position of having to decide.

"If we stock up on (items) that we'll never be able to use, or end up throwing them away because they've expired, then we've done nothing but waste our time," Nelson says.

More on MSN Money
Sep 3, 2013 1:30PM
I'm trying to do better.  I do throw things out a lot and it's very wasteful.  Now I'm very conscientious about using things up so they don't get tossed.
Sep 4, 2013 12:55PM

One local food bank that services seniors in our area routinely provides a lot of "still fresh" produce that's donated twice a week by Trader Joe's. It's past the "sell by" dates (when chopped and bagged or sold in plastic containers), but is still perfectly edible if bruised or soft bits are removed. Lettuce, spinach and any other greens that are a tad wilted can be brought back to freshness by soaking in very cold, clean water for 20-30 minutes. Ditto slightly wrinkled bell peppers is halved before soaking. Broccoli makes a fast come-back if you trim about a half inch from the stem before soaking. Rehydrated produce can then be prepared for safe freezing... or cooked up into soups and stews before freezing. Not everyone knows this. Canned items that aren't badly dented or bulging will keep for quite awhile past "sell by" dates, and bug free pastas, rice or beans will keep a long time in cool, airtight storage.

Try a one week per month or two freezer, fridge & pantry challenge, where you DON'T buy anything other than, say bread, eggs or milk for a week and use up some of the stockpile.

Sep 4, 2013 11:13AM

Invest in a food sealer, it will help extend the life of a lot of items.


I once used coupons to get 900 tubes of toothpaste for free, after handing a lot out to friends and family and keeping a stash for myself I donated 700 tubes and got a donation receipt.


Sadly a lot of manufactures and stores are changing their coupon policies, I used to rountinely save 80% or more, now it is between 40-60%


I have over 700 rolls of toilet paper I got for free :) I do have space to store them.

Sep 4, 2013 3:10AM

The mistake: Buying in bulk even if you have little/no storage.


This is exactly why I do NOT order meats from Zaycon.  As a single person household what can I do w/40 lb of any meat in a reasonable amount of time.


The mistake: Tossing expired, unopened food.

I have a LOT of pasta, cereal, salad dressing, toothpaste that is past its best by date.  Unlike my daughters I will be using ALL of it.  They toss it.  The ONLY dates I watch closely so I freeze if not used are fresh & deli type meats.  Even dairy products keep for 7 or more days past thed best by/or sell by date.



Sep 4, 2013 11:40AM
I find that checking with Still gives a more useful guide on when to toss something than the expiration dates listed on the packages. Also, with the high turn over of products at food pantries and shelters, it is no problem to check expiration dates and donation things a month or so before they expire.
Sep 7, 2013 6:58PM
I don't buy in bulk because I often change my mind about a product. I will eat a brand of oatmeal or use a certain shampoo repeatedly for a few months and then begin to hate it. I have things I will never use but feel too guilty about to throw away.
Oct 22, 2013 7:50AM
Oct 22, 2013 3:03PM

To grasp money, KNOW  that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Know that 'prepared'

anything requires labor and thus will almost always cost more than natural or unprepared

versions. Know that 'bonus miles/points/cash/premiums' aren't offered for nothing, i.e. the

merchant intends to increase sales by offering such promotional strategy. In the end,

the customer pays more for products that have promotional ties.   


I dislike bonus-miles, stamps, premiums or cash-back rebates as a standard operating

method.  I know they will cost me eventually so I avoid them and instead focus on the

bottom line: generic products being bottom line, celebrity or well-known manufacturer

brands being top-line or high-end line. Stars are always paid more than unknowns if for

no other reason than RISK PROBABILITY.   


Every time you support a seller's 'bonus xyz' game you lose some sight of generic brands, 

clearance, seasonal, over-stocked or totally different vendor opportunities. But as we're not

spiders we're not required to only be sheltered in a web. Unfortunately, in the USA, we are

taught too often by 'true or false' choice selection and rewarded accordingly when we

should have realized there's more than two ways to solve problems.  When you're handed 

a solution on a silver platter chances are the platter isn't sterling.   


In conclusion, we don't have to buy or certainly not as soon or easily as seller's would

wish. Stall. Procrastinate. Substitute. Down-size. Do without! In between, review options.

Sep 4, 2013 5:52PM
"What  do  you  mean  'we',   White  Man?"
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