Thursday, February 14, 2008

Another Bulk Buying Success Story

Sometimes I think I don't realize that many of the products I buy ready-made could also be created very easily and cheaply at home. And that can be a very expensive oversight.

As an example, about three years ago, our dog had a terrible case of fleas, and her skin reacted so badly to all the itching that she lost a lot of her fur, especially around her back end. We felt so bad for her, walking around all bald around her tail. We didn’t think much could be done, but when we left her at my parent’s house while we went on vacation, they started her on a regimen of brewer’s yeast and garlic powder. Just a sprinkle twice a day in her food with water, and within the month her skin had cleared up and her fur grew back thick and glossy. The bonus was that she loved the taste.

The only problem? This stuff was expensive! An 8 ounce container cost $16 at the local herb bar, and lasted about 2 months. So we were spending over $100 year to keep the dog flea free. This was definitely cheaper than Advantage or any of the other medicines, but it still seemed a lot to spend.

Then one month when we ran really low on the stuff and I didn’t have time to make the trip to the herb bar, I realized I could mix up a home-blend of nutritional yeast and garlic powder, both of which I buy in bulk at our local co-op. So now, instead of $16 for a premixed blend, I spend about a buck for a bag of yeast and another buck for powdered garlic, and mix it together at home in the same container the original stuff came in. The dog still loves it, her fur is still healthy, thick and shiny, we don’t have to make special trips to the herb bar, and we’re saving about $90 a year.

I'm sure there are lots more examples of times when I pay more for something premixed simply because it has never occurred to me to make it myself. I know sometimes the effort is not worth the results - I've never had much success cooking my own beans, for instance, so buy them canned is worth it to me. But I'm definitely going to look more carefully at my pantry over the next month to see if there are other easy ways to save money by putting things together myself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ultra-bargain new garage doors

Early last week, we had a new garage door installed. The old one was in terrible condition, with rotted wood along the bottom from years of rain bouncing back up against it. It was also very heavy and made a terrible noise when it opened or closed. I used to cringe when I heard it outside, because it was so much more noticeable than any of our neighbors' garage doors.

We got a great deal on this door. It's a Wayne-Dalton that we got at Lowe's during their free upgrade sale. The deal was that you buy their basic model 8000 door, and get upgraded to the insulated model 9100 for free. Since we already knew we wanted the 9100, we got exactly what we wanted for $250 less.

Then my husband's eagle eye spotted a $20 price difference on two displays of the garage door opener we wanted, so we asked for the lower price and received it.

As I said, the new door is insulated. After it was installed, I noticed that it was much darker in the garage during daylight hours than it used to be. I realized that the uninsulated wooden planks of the old door must have leaked lots of cold air as well as light. Now in the morning on a cold day, it's not freezing in the garage. And our bathroom wall, which butts up against back wall of the garage, is less chilly when I take a bath at night, so the water in the tub stays warmer now.

I'm hoping this makes a difference in our electricity bills. The downstairs thermostat is located just inside the entrance to the garage from the house, so on super cold nights, the coldness in there must certainly have made the system cycle on more often.

But mostly I'm just happy to have a new garage door because now I don't have to hear that old clunker banging and squealing as it opens and closes. That makes it really a bargain to me.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Two little changes that are adding up to big gas savings

A couple weeks ago, I finally stopped by Costco's tire shop to get my tires topped off. They'd been looking low for a couple months, but I never could remember to get them checked. Since we had bought the tires at Costco about 2 years ago, they checked them and topped them for free (I had to show my receipt, which luckily I had in the glove compartment).

Anyway - since then, I've noticed that the car runs much smoother and vibrates less. But I've also noticed that the fuel efficiency has improved. Usually I get about 270 miles to a tank of gas (10 gallons). But right now I'm at 175 miles on the trip odometer, and the fuel guage is at the halfway point. If this trend continues, I might get over 300 miles to this tank of gas.

I know that keeping your tires correctly inflated is always listed as a way to improve your fuel efficiency, but I didn't expect it to make this big a difference!!

The other small change I've made recently is that I no longer drive so far looking for my favorite kind of parking space in the garage at work. I used to pass by all the spots on the uphill ramp right after I entered the garage, instead going up to the second level to find a non-sloped spot. Since the garage levels are one way, this meant that I had to drive all the way around the level to exit, even if my spot was very close to the top of the uphill ramp. I measured it on my trip odometer, and discovered that I was adding 2/10 of a mile to my trip every day by doing this. Over the course of a week, that was a mile, and over the course of a year, that was probably two gallons of gas. So now, instead of shunning those sloped spots, I take the first one I can find. Every little bit helps!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Why is it more expensive to buy recyled??

At work today, I attended a kick-off event for RecycleMania, which is a competition among college campuses to increase recycling and reduce waste. One of the presenters showed a slide that said it is less expensive for companies to produce recycled paper than it is to produce virgin paper.

One student raised his hand and asked, "If that's true, why is it more expensive to purchase recycled paper?"

He is right. I'm the purchasing coordinator for my section at work, and in many cases, the "green" option costs more green - sometimes a lot more. It frustrates me because I'm then torn between being a good steward of the environment, and being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. This plays out in my personal life as well - though in much lower dollar amounts.

So what's the deal? Is it really cheaper to produce recycled paper, and the manufacturers are just ripping off those of us who are committed to creating demand for recycled? I hate to feel like a sucker....

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Beauty of Buying in Bulk

I never used to understand the bulk section of the grocery store. My mom always bought food that came in its own packaging, and thus so did I. Sugar, flour, rice, cereals, spices - everything came in its own bag, box or bottle. When the package was empty, we threw it away and bought a new bag, box or bottle of the same thing.

I dipped a toe into bulk buying 10 years ago when I found a store that sold premium coffee beans in bulk for much less per pound than those foil vacuum-sealed packages on the shelf. The store's frequent-buyer punch cards helped reinforce the habit.

The kids, of course, drooled over the nearby bins of candies sold by the pound. In this case, "bulk" was a misnomer, because we controlled quantity by getting them each one or two gummi worms, instead of a full 12 ounce bag of them. We adults, however, indulged in bulk cashews, and not just one or two each!

But despite frequent visits to the bulk area, I didn't think of bulk buying for staples until about 4 years ago, when we joined a food co-op.

Here I discovered real food sold from bins - not just sweets, treats and coffee.

The co-op encourages members to buy in bulk because that reduces the packaging that has to go into the waste stream. In fact, we get 5 cents off our bill for each bag or bottle we bring from home and refill in the store.

But for me, the real revelation was how cheap it could be to buy in bulk!

Here's an example from today: I needed dried basil. The last time I bought it, about 5 years ago, I paid probably $1.50 to buy a .375 oz (10 gram) plastic container. This time, I brought the same plastic container with me to the co-op to refill. I weighed the empty bottle first, marked its weight on a label (which I put over the UPC), then filled the bottle with organic dried basil that cost $14.55/pound. When I checked out, the cashier weighed the filled bottle then subtracted the original bottle weight - leaving me with .02 pounds of dried basil.

So - 16 ounces to a pound means that .02 pounds equals .32 oz. That's not too far from the .375 the container originally held (I had deliberately not filled it because I obviously don't use it too often). The price on the receipt came to $0.29 - and when I subtract the nickel discount for providing my own container, that means I got it for less than a quarter! And this was organic basil, not the non-organic kind I'd bought last time.

And this is why I have filled my pantry with items from the bulk section - because it's cheaper, because it's healthier, and because it helps to reduce waste in the world. To me, that's a beauty of a bargain!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Thrift Tips

Shopping in a thrift store can be a little (or a lot) overwhelming at times. In order to make a thrift trip successful, it's wise to have a strategy in mind. Otherwise, it's easy to spend either way too much money or way too much time in the store. These are the tips I've used successfully over the past 15 years of shopping for clothes in thrift stores.

Set a budget
This may seem obvious, but having a maximum amount you want to spend helps you be discerning when you are trying to choose between similar items. Sure they're each only $2.99, but do you really need two pink shirts? Knowing you only want to spend $10 total will help you look critically at them both to figure out which is really the better bargain.

Have an idea in mind...
It's wise to go into the store with a general idea of what you might like to find. For instance, I've recently been looking for items in brown, since I realized I don't have much of it in my wardrobe and would like a little more. This thought helps to focus my attention when I first walk into the store and gives me a place to start when looking through the racks.

...but don't have an idee fixe
Looking for a specific item in a thrift store is almost always a recipe for disappointment. If you have your heart set on finding just exactly that pair of grey pants you wanted in Nordstrom but could not afford, you won't be able to see and appreciate similar (but not the same) the grey slacks hanging on the rack.

Know your style
When there are hundreds of shirts hanging on the rack, you could spend all day looking through them. It helps to have some basic rules to follow. For instance, I don't like tops that are too long, since they emphasize rather than minimize my hips. So I look for shirts and sweaters that fall just at the top of my hips. Know what you like and learn to recognize those styles quickly so you can work through the racks efficiently.

Know your colors
No, I'm not talking about having your colors "done," though that's an option (and you can probably find a book to guide you in a thrift store!). But have an idea of what colors work for you and which ones just don't. I stay away from most reds, fuschias and certain acid greens, and this saves me time, especially when the racks are organized by color.

Watch for your own "good" labels
Everyone has clothing makers whose clothes just fit better. For me, Eddie Bauer, Ralph Lauren and Harold's seem to make clothes that hang well on me and don't need to be altered. When I see those labels, I'll generally look twice at the item because it's likely to fit well.

Feel the fabrics
Good quality clothes have a good hand feel. Get used to what top notch fabrics feel like. That way, as you work your way through the racks, you can use not only your eyes to evaluate the quality, but also your fingers.

Check the details
Make sure no buttons are missing or broken. Look for stains on the garment. If it's a shirt, check the front for dribble marks and the armpits for yellowing. Check pants for stains in the crotch (big ick!) and along the back of the leg where mud often gets kicked up. Also check the hem of pants and collars and cuffs of shirts for fraying. Make sure the seat seam of pants is intact - a surprising number of trousers get holes along the back seam. Also check that zippers are fully set, not coming unsewn at the bottom. And finally, look for loose threads or missing hems, signs that the garment may not last much longer.

Consider the cost of ownership
A $10 pure-silk blouse may seem like a bargain, but if it's dry-clean only, you will find that the true cost of owning it turns out to be much higher than just $10. Think carefully before buying clothes that needs special care or alterations. For very special items, this could be worth it, but not for most things. Also, if you see a pair of shoes or boots that need a visit to the shoe hospital, make sure they are repairable before buying them. If the wear on the heel has gone past the heel cap into the body of the shoe itself, the shoe probably cannot be repaired.

Experiment when you have time
Not every trip to the thrift store has to be about efficient use of time. When you have the luxury of an extra-long trip one day, pull out some items that catch your eye (but are not your usual style) and try them on. One nice thing about thrift stores is that you can find a variety of cuts and colors all in one place, letting you see first hand what works and what does not. So break out of the mold once in a while and challenge yourself by trying on something you never thought you'd wear. For instance, a few years ago I discovered (unexpectedly) that ribbed tops look much better on me these days than they did when I was a flat-chested teenager. Now they are a staple of my wardrobe.

Make sure it's really a bargain
Some thrift stores just don't seem to understand what thrifty means. I'm sorry, no matter how worthy the cause your store supports, I just won't pay $20 for a used pair of jeans that cost $25 new, and $5.99 for Target-brand kid's pants is more than they probably cost originally. Be aware of how much items cost in the stores so you can snap up the real bargains and pass on the overpriced stuff.

These are just a few of my favorite thrift store tips - I'd love to get your suggestions as well. And if you don't like thrift, why not? Is it the selection, the experience, the "ick" factor of wearing pre-owned clothes, or something else? What keeps you away?

Thrift Chic

I spent an hour and $23 in a thrift shop today, and came away with two almost-new pairs of name brand, work-quality wool trousers, a like-new turtleneck, a really cute pair of brown suede ankle boots, and a pair of workout shorts for my son. It was a successful visit, all in all.

I love thrift shopping for lots of reasons. First (and obviously), it's cheap. It would have cost me $80 to buy just one of those pairs of pants today if I'd paid full-boogie-retail for them when they were new. Even marked down 50%, one pair alone would have been twice as much as I paid for everything I got today.

But apart from being cheap, shopping at thrift stores makes me feel good. Generally the money I spend supports a good cause. My favorite shops are Goodwill, the St. Vincent de Paul store, and the Junior League store. These all put money back into the community with their works, and also provide vouchers to the poor to help them buy clothing, housewares, and furnishings. So my purchase benefits many, not just my family's budget.

Thrift shopping is green too. The items are donated locally and travel many fewer miles from donor to store than new clothing does when it comes from China or Bangladesh or wherever it is labor is cheapest these days. And by recycling clothes instead of buying new, I'm helping conserve resources.

Finally, when I shop in thrift stores, I don't worry quite as much about where in the world an item was made or whether the person who assembled it was being exploited. I can't say I never think about this, because wearing prominent swooshes or polo ponies does help promote those brands, which could result in increased demand for them in the new-clothes market (though any increased demand that results from a woman in her mid-40's wearing a particular brand is probably offset by the "eww" it evokes in my kids and their friends). But at least the direct connection of consumer dollar to store bottom-lines is broken this way, and I don't feel quite so much like my own clothing choices are responsible for the off-shoring of almost every textile manufacturing business these days.

So enough of my musings about *why* shopping thrift is a good thing to do. Tomorrow I'll post my suggestions for making the most of a thrift shop visit.