When you’ve missed the blindingly obvious

Well today was an abject lesson in how unthinkingly you can do things.

It was brought on, of all things, by the grocery shop.

I don’t have a lot of money and I’m cooking for one so I try to keep my grocery bill to a minimum. I tend to make in bulk and freeze, otherwise stuff goes off faster than I can consume it. If you looked in my fridge you’d think I was on a liquid diet; pretty much all it does is chill wine drinks 5 days out of the week.

On the most part I thought I’d done reasonably well. My weekly bill isn’t high. I go to the cheaper place, I look for the deals, the total rarely comes in higher than I expect it to.  Besides those items where you have to buy the brand because others never taste right (Heinz ketchup 4 lyfe) I thought I was choosing wisely and that I was reasonably aware of cost. I thought I was too smart to fall for these con tricks like packaging and shelf placement.

Pfft. WRONG.

As part of an attempt to be fiscally responsible – I’m feeling the squeeze at the moment – I had a rethink on my grocery bill. “Anything I can shave off from anywhere at all” is the theme of the month. I had already gone onto a lot of own brand stuff, but tended to avoid the value version because frequently they’re lesser quality or full of crap. The exception is probably stuff like medicine or laundry detergent etc, chemicals rather than food – have always gone own brand on that. (Supermarket antihistamine is the same damn drug as Benedryl but do you see the price diff? Rip off). I’m especially prone to stick to the standard own brand if the price difference per unit is small; 5p less to buy a tin instead of one of those convenient cartons doesn’t sound worth the bother when you’re in a hurry and just following the routine.

People do shop a lot out of routine, I think, and once you’re used to buying a particular thing you stop price comparing. You have the particular thing you like. You’re attracted to certain types of packaging. There are brands you trust. There is a reason that there is so much strategy behind how supermarkets price deals, design packaging and design their layout. Consumers aren’t stupid but they are creatures of habit.

But since I was trying to cut, I started doing some comparisons and making a rule that if it truly made no difference to the product inside I would suck it up and deal with shitty packaging. Also started looking at freezing even more items to benefit from some more bulk buying.

So here’s where the lesson started coming sharply into relief:

  • Rather than buying sauces, I’ve always made mine out of chopped tomatoes and my spice cupboard – it’s cheaper and to be honest nicer. I always bought them in cartons because they’re less faff to open, but buying in a value tin instead saves me 8p. On average I probably get through two of the things a week.
  • I was buying milk in 2 pint bottles, one to open and one to freeze so it wouldn’t go off in the meantime. To take advantage of the volume discount on 4 pints, I invested in a cheap glass bottle that I can decant the milk for immediate use into before freezing the remainder. That saves me 78p a week.

Those were the first two items I looked at and they were enough to embarrass me profusely before I’d even looked at the rest of my typical shop. Firstly because I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed I was needlessly paying 78p more for the exact same thing. There wasn’t even a nominal difference like packaging or value vs standard, it was the exact same volume of the exact same product line. Doing that without thinking nearly doubled the financial cost to me. That’s valuable money I could have spent on a Dairy Milk, damn it! Secondly – and this was the kicker – I worked out that over 12 months those two tiddly items are going to save me nearly £50. FIFTY QUID. That’s pretty shameful to me. For the sake of actually engaging my brain and doing some basic maths, I’ve spent £50 more in a year than I needed to on tomatoes and milk.

I have yet to come to terms with this. I mean, REALLY? Tomatoes and milk? I think twice or even thrice before spending £50 on anything, yet I’ve been frittering it away on frickin’ calcium?!

So yes, I feel very very sheepish right now. The stupid thing is I’m not unaware of all these principles. I know how things are marked up, I know how items with better margins for the supermarkets are placed and packaged more attractively. I’m not a compulsive spender and I do keep track of my money. I’m a reasonably smart person who knows the value of shopping around and researching before you buy. And yet… out of sheer force of habit I have wound up ignoring simple things and needlessly costing myself money. I sincerely doubt I’m the only one overspending in that manner. It’s an important lesson, however, just how true it is that if you look after the pennies…

Lord, it’s no wonder the supermarkets make millions. Their entire profit system is down to raking it in from perfectly intelligent people shopping on autopilot.



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