Maximizing: Paying more for consistency and trustworthiness

Every week I get those little envelopes with 2 or 3 different places advertising oil change specials ($19.95 for an oil change! $10 off on an oil change!).  For five years now, I have been going to the same auto mechanic shop for my oil changes and assorted car maintenance issues.  They charge me about $43 each time I get it the oil changed, and I am fully aware that I could get an oil change for less at a place like Jiffy Lube.

However, I really trust them with my car.  They never try to up-sell me on anything, and whenever I need something, they offer me different price options with no pressure to take the more expensive one (replacing my side view mirror with an after market part), but also give me recommendations about quality products if they feel like it would be better not to go with the alternative (new car battery).  They also do what I ask with no questions (not a transmission flush, only a drain-and-fill).  So it is completely worth it to me to go to them with everything else in order to know that my car is always in good hands.

Same thing with my hair.  I have had the same hair stylist for 5 years (although I rarely get my hair cut, since it always has to coincide with summer or a school holiday).  However, when I do get my hair cut, it costs me over $70 (which probably averages to about $7 or $8/month for how frequently I get it cut).  I don’t get anything fancy – I just tell him, I want something low maintenance that will grow out well and is approximately this short.  And it always looks good.

Bottom line: Even knowing that you could get a (possibly) similar product for less, over the long run it is worth more to pay for consistent and reliable services.

Buying in bulk, or, Getting while the getting is good

My husband and I considered becoming Costco members for a while, but after a bit of research, we figured out that based on what we buy, the annual membership cost plus the overall cost of driving to Costco wouldn’t be worth it.  However, I am a hawk when it comes to coupons and specials, and I keep a list of prices of usual grocery items from the three stores we shop at the most: Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Fred Meyer.

I find that for the most part, I can get inexpensive, high quality produce from Trader Joe’s, but occasionally there will be a fantastic deal at Fred Meyer (1.29 /lb for fresh strawberries!).  I can get really good deals on toiletries at Safeway by combining manufacturer’s coupons with Just for U and personalized prices.  With Just for U and personalized prices, I can load coupons and “just for me” prices to my Safeway card, and end up with 2 boxes of Ritz crackers for $4.25, or cans of soda for about $.16/can, or bacon for $3.50/lb.

It’s not necessarily that I can’t get similar or better prices at a place like Costco, it is that I can’t take advantage of the spontaneous great deals that happen when I regularly peruse the grocery stores shelves for things I normally buy.  I can pop into Fred Meyer after Crossfit 3 times a week.

Last week at Fred Meyer, I bought 34 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast for $57.28 ($1.79/lb).  That’s about 3 months worth of lunches for Mr. LL and me.  And I hadn’t even planned on buying chicken that day.

Cost analysis with Amazon purchase spreadsheets

Amazon has an interesting feature that allows you to download your purchase reports for specific time periods.  The Excel spreadsheet allows you to look at purchases you made with gift cards, purchases you made for others, subscribe & save options, and pretty much anything you are curious about.  One option that was missing but that can mostly be inferred from the chart is whether you took advantage of the Amazon Prime shipping for each purchase.

We have been members of Amazon Prime since May 2012, so our renewal time is coming up at the end of June (due to the one-month trial period before the year-long subscription period).  It costs $79 for a year-long subscription, so I wanted to see if it is worth it to renew based on our purchases.

Breakdown:

Over the course of May 2012-May 2013 year, we made 54 purchases and spent:

Total: $1889.60

Gift cards applied: $78.53

Gifts for other people: $292.92

Total of our own money spent on items for us: $1518.15

Conclusion:

We would reconsider making some, but not all, of the purchases that we made.  If we are more intentional and don’t procrastinate in buying gifts for other people, we can take advantage of the Super Saver Shipping that Amazon offers with purchases of $25 or more.  We have decided not to renew Amazon Prime for the time being.

Cost analysis: Delicious home-cooked meals

Since we decided to stop going out except for on social occasions (with other people), Mr. LL and I have been enjoying food more than ever.  I sorted through all my old Cook’s Illustrated magazine issues, looking for meatless (or meat-as-a-condiment) dishes that we had never tried before, and we have come up with a few new favorite and inexpensive dishes:

Cuban black beans and rice: This simple one-pot dish is really fantastic – it makes about 8 servings, at about $0.65 per serving.

Baked ziti: This is somewhat of an involved recipe, especially if you make your own tomato sauce first.  However, it comes out to about $0.89 a serving for 10 servings, and it is delicious.

I also eat more homemade snacks – my own yogurt made from milk at $2.99 or less a gallon, and peanut butter made in our blender.  I think we have become a lot more conscious of what we eat and we appreciate it more by knowing that we are saving so much money, and we have made the food ourselves.

Cost savings for May: dining and groceries

After having tried to cut a bunch of dining and grocery expenses, we have crunched our May numbers to see what our actual savings were.  Before we decided to cut our expenses, we were spending about $390-$400 for groceries per month, and about $500 on dining.  This included social dining once or twice a week, plus two to three times a week of just the two of us going out to eat.

The Breakdown:

$126.38 on dining

– 4 times social dining (2 times to pub trivia night, 2 times post-hiking meals)

– 2 times just the two of us

$284.49 for groceries

– We ended up saving more money by 1) making staples like bread, croutons, salad dressing, yogurt, 2) buying cheaper versions of staples (whole instead of pre-shredded carrots), 3) having cheap default meals (baked potatoes and scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast), 4) eating less meat, and 5) buying items on sale and using coupons (Safeway and Fred Meyer both have digital coupons you can download to your store member card).

Total: $410.87

Total savings: between $479.13 and $489.13.

Conclusions:

I think that we can cut down dining to purely social outings and save another $35/month, so that we are at $100 or less per month for dining expenses.

We can continue to search for deals on staples and make cheaper meals to get our grocery bill even lower.

 

Toilet paper and an incidental research benefit

We recently tried a cost savings experiment by switching toilet paper brands – from 2-ply Charmin Ultra Soft to 1-ply Scott, which was the cheapest by unit price.  However, we have since discovered that we probably end up using twice as much toilet paper as before, since Scott is not as thick or absorbent as the Charmin.  I think it is worthwhile to experiment with other brands to maximize the value we get, but this is one situation where knowing the unit price was not the whole story.

On a related note, this Luxe bidet attachment has been the best way for us to save on toilet paper.

On an interesting different note, when I was researching toilet paper, I learned that mega-stores like Walmart might have generally cheaper prices on items like toilet paper, but when grocery stores like Kroger or Safeway have their sales, they can beat those prices.  Grocery stores hold their sales about twice a month, at the beginning and middle of the month, to coincide with pay cycles.  A mega-store might have the same kind of sale (at approximately the same prices) only four times a year.

Default meals: breakfast and baked potatoes

Back before Mr. LL and I thought more carefully about retiring early, we went out to eat about 4 times a week, with one or two of those times being social occasions.  Sometimes going out to eat was something I really wanted to do, and other times it was almost like a chore – realizing we had nothing to eat at home, then choosing a place when we didn’t want anything in particular.

As of now, we have cut our dining down to one time a week, with that one time being a fun trivia night with our friend at a local pub.  However, this means a lot more food planning – and no more saying that we have nothing to eat when we almost always having something that we can whip up in a pinch.

Two meals that have become default meals are 1) loaded baked potatoes and 2) scrambled eggs, bacon, and bread.  Back in March or April, I bought about 8 pounds of bacon as part of a buy-one-get-one sale, and we keep one package in the fridge and the remainder in the freezer.  During weekly grocery shopping, I make sure that I always snag four large russet potatoes ($0.39 each at Trader Joe’s), and enough eggs to boil or scramble.

Our baked potatoes have butter, cheese, homemade Greek-style yogurt, and crumbled bacon.  They are really satisfying and easy to make, although you have to give yourself an hour’s cooking time.

I make fresh bread to go with our scrambled eggs and bacon, so it also takes about an hour to bake.  I use a no-knead bread recipe, which means that I have to prepare it the night before, but it’s so easy that it is really just a matter of putting it in the oven.

I have gotten used to only going out to eat as a social occasion with friends, and I don’t even miss it.  Having home-cooked default meals that we know will be satisfying helps us save money and reduces the amount we will need for retirement.