Updated on 05.29.09

Living and Saving in the Moment

Trent Hamm

My three year old son loves to go to the grocery store with Mom and Dad. He wanders around with us, listening to our discussions about which products to buy, and quite often expresses his own opinions. He’ll remind us that he loves V8 Fusion (our preferred fruit juice, since it’s 100% and also is half vegetable juice) and often dallies for a long time near the Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers, as I noted two years ago (and depicted as well):

Joe wants goldfish

As we shop, we make tons and tons of little decisions along the way. Those decisions, on their own, seem inconsequential.

Should we buy the bulk can of diced tomatoes or the smaller can?
These tortillas feel softer, but they’re way more expensive – is it worth it?
The free range whole chickens are on sale! Should we stock up?

A choice one way or another here might save us a dollar or cause us to spend a dollar more. In the eyes of many people, it’s an inconsequential decision – just make it and keep going. One dollar doesn’t make a huge difference, right?

The problem is that each little buying decision you make is deeply tied to other buying decisions, whether consciously or not.

How so, you might ask?

All of our buying decisions are based on a set of principles in our head, ones that are often so well-grounded that they don’t even pop up in conscious thought.

Here’s a thought experiment to help you see what I mean. Imagine a product you would never buy in a grocery store – pork rinds, maybe, or perhaps insanely potent hot sauce. Now, what about that product would cause you to not buy it? You’re likely to pop up an immediate simple answer – I don’t like the taste or it’s unhealthy – but on other purchases, you’re quite willing to overlook that principle for other reasons.

In truth, when we make a decision to buy in the grocery store, we’re trying to reduce a big set of principles and inputs down to one split-second decision. And often we feel we’re completely justified in that decision – and we move on with life.

It is very easy to tease apart each little buying decision, tell yourself that it doesn’t really matter that much and that it’s okay to splurge, and then essentially ignore your final tally when you get to the checkout because each decision was justified in your mind. Doing that, though, is a game that will, time and time again, put your wallet in the hurt locker.

So, what can you do to overcome this problem?

The easy methods are the shopping list and the meal plan. Making a shopping list in advance of your visit to the grocery store simply serves to reduce the number of decisions you have to make. This, of course, leads you to making fewer bad decisions.

But that’s just the start. Once you’re in the store with your shopping list in hand, commit to three more things.

First, simply do not put anything in your cart that’s not on your list. Your list, if it’s thought out at all, should have everything you need for your meals for the next week. If you see something you feel like you need or deserve, jot it on the back of the list for next time.

Second, mark any items that you’re not simply searching for the cheapest version of. On our list, I like to put a little X by any item that I don’t intend to just buy the cheapest version of. For example, with diced tomatoes, the various brands and cans are identical in terms of ingredients, so we usually just get the cheapest version. This, again, reduces the number of opportunities for poor impulse decisions in the store.

Third, if you have specific brands in mind (because of coupons or because of previous buying experiences), put those on your list, too, along with the size. For example, we usually have a big stack of coupons for V8 Fusion (100% juice, half fruit and half vegetable). So, instead of just writing “fruit juice x 3,” I’ll write “46 oz. V8 Fusion x 3” on the list. In other words, if you make the list more specific, you further reduce the number of potential impulse decisions in the store.

Using all of these techniques, you’ll end up making just a handful of in-the-moment choices in the grocery store – and with fewer potential decisions, you have fewer chances to make poor ones. The end result? A cart full of items that you actually want and a much smaller grocery bill.

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  1. Sandy E. says:

    For the life of me, I have yet been able to walk into a grocery store to pick-up one thing and walk out there with just that one item. I see too many deals, and before I know it, they’re ringing up 5, 6 or more items at the check-out! And often those items are collecting dust in my pantry. That’s not saving a dollar. So the best advice I’ve come across for people like me is to go to the grocery store one time per week and no more than that. I always, always have a list, by the way, but invariably I deviate from it, getting what’s on it, plus a lot more.

  2. leslie says:

    When I go in for my bi-weekly short trip (milk, eggs, bread), I pick up a basket or just carry everything. This helps me limit the “extra” purchases.

  3. Candi says:

    I always budget for my “treat” item at the grocery store. It’s easier to ignore other purchases when I can tell myself I already have my treat item for the week in the cart. This personally helps me keep my cart to what I reasonably expected it to be. However if I try not to buy my treat item (and yes its usually something sweet, lol) then I find all kinds of things to put in the cart I don’t really need.

  4. Johanna says:

    I have a bit of an opposing philosophy: If you’re going to give in to the urge to make impulse purchases, it’s much better to do it at the grocery store than at (say) a kitchen gadget store or a shoe store. Not only does a box of granola cost a lot less than a stand mixer or a pair of shoes, but once you eat it, it’s gone, so you’re not accumulating more and more stuff that just turns into clutter.

    So the way I see it, impulse food purchases have their place, but it pays to be smart about them. Know what types of items you’re likely to use eventually (before they go bad) and which are likely to just sit there and collect dust or worse. It might also help to set explicit limits – you could say, for example, “I’ve got $10 this week to spend on things not on my list,” or “I’m going to allow myself one extra item as a treat.”

  5. Jackie says:

    We love V8 Fusion too, but I’ve only seen coupons for it once or twice– do you get yours from a clipping service? I know you’ve blogged about couponing before, but I’d love to know this in particular.

  6. Kevin M says:

    I think the first tip – to not put anything in your cart that isn’t on the list – is a little short-sighted. We usually find a good deal or 2 while shopping that makes us want to stock up. Why not do that and save a little in the long-term?

  7. bethh says:

    This “If you see something you feel like you need or deserve, jot it on the back of the list for next time.” is the best thing on here. That’s a great idea.

    It’s akin to what I do when flipping through catalogs looking at stuff: I’ll bend down the corner of the page if I like something, and then look at it a week later. 99 times out of 100 I’ve lost the desire to buy, or can better control the impulse anyway.

  8. Des says:


    Do you have a blog of your own? I always love your comments, and you seem very intelligent. If you don’t have one, you should start one. I would read it. Seriously. :)

  9. a conscience life says:

    “For example, with diced tomatoes, the various brands and cans are identical in terms of ingredients, so we usually just get the cheapest version.”

    But they are not all the same in terms of where the ingredients came from, how they were grown, and how the companies treat their employees. So, at what point do you stop making the dollar the bottom line and begin to place value on things other than money?

    (I am not saying you don’t do this, Trent, just that this is an interesting and an important question. Maybe even more important that the financial question)

  10. Maggie says:

    I do make a list and try to stick to it, but I will always make exceptions for especially beautiful produce, and that would not be a good impulse to delay. There are just some things in life I want to enjoy at their best, and it is worth deviating from my plan to do it.

  11. Manshu says:

    Its very difficult to cultivate a habit in which you can say no just because the thing costs a dollar or two. I have failed to cultivate such a habit. Therefore I take the next best option, which is delay going to the store as much as possible. Reducing the frequency of visiting the grocery store helps me reduce spending a bit.

  12. Deb says:

    Better yet, plant a garden (tomatoes, peppers, herbs) and make your own spaghetti sauce, salsa, V-8 juice, tomato sauce, and “rotel tomatoes”. I do–and you don’t have to buy any tomato products–and, you know what ingredients are in the “homemade” variety. Family members think it’s great!

  13. Sierra says:

    My grocery shopping trips have become simpler and cheaper since I stopped shopping with my kids. We get a lot of our groceries directly, through our farm share, our raw dairy club and our bulk foods coop. Once a month I go to Costco alone and stock up on bulk household items and foods. About twice a month my husband makes a late-night run to our local natural foods coop for a few odds and ends (always with a list!).

    The kids have not set foot in a grocery store in over a year. Our house is blessedly free of expensive, unhealthy snacks and we never have to fight about it in public.

  14. Chillyrodent says:

    My partner does all the grocery shopping for us, and when she does our “Big Shop,” she uses a list. But, when we stop in for one thing (“I need fruit-pops, and I need them NOW”), she comes back out with two bags full.

    Lately, when we stop for impulse purchases, I go in. Like a heat-seeking missile, I do not swerve from my objective, mostly because I hate being in the store in the first place. Then, I’m at the self-check and out in a flash.

    So, we can still have that one thing without busting the budget. It’s a strategy.

  15. Kim says:

    I don’t believe that one should only shop strictly by a list. Taking advantage of “unadvertised specials” can lower your overall food bill if they fit into your meal plan. Also sometimes I see basic food items that I forgot to include on the list. I like to be more flexible in my shopping but still not go overboard with impulse spending.

  16. I too love Johanna’s comment above. A little chevre is not a budget-buster and is a genuine treat.

    Also, I would endorse articulating your decision-making process to your children. My parents did this with me. I did it with my children. We never said, “We can’t afford it.” We told them why we chose to buy or not to buy something. So far, they seem quite responsible and thoughtful.

  17. I’m curious Trent, do you ever “fail” in your own advice or are you able to stick to your plan 100% all of the time? Are you ever tempted with deals or great buys that you hadn’t expected going into the store?

    Also, you don’t spend much time discussing ways of splurging with your money. Do you ever take your wife out to a nice restaurant for dinner or for a night out on the town?

    I absolutely appreciate living a frugal lifestyle and I do my best to make wise consumer choices as often as possible. I try my best not to waste my money on frivolous purchases, but I also make it a point to take time to indulge myself.

    I know that you often discuss how you find joy in life through your children or at home doing “the little things” with your family such as board games or whatnot but what about the other things I’ve mentioned? I realize that every relationship is different, but I am willing to bet that your wife would appreciate being treated to a night out, even if she says it doesn’t matter.

    I know this has gone way off topic from the original post, but it is something I’ve been curious about. Is it an attempt to keep your personal life personal or do you think your relationship is beyond indulging in your partner? Don’t take that the wrong way, I’m not attacking your lifestyle. I just know how we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking these sort of things don’t matter in a relationship, but they do.

    I’ve been there, or rather, at home, while my girlfriend was out being pampered by another man. Needless to say we aren’t together anymore but I now realize that if I’d paid more attention to her that things might have ended differently.

    I’m just curious how you deal with these issues. Thanks Trent.

  18. jennifer says:

    i agree up to a certain point. someone mentioned unadvertised specials–if it’s something you use and you can stock up on it, you should! example…i just went grocery shopping and found pork loin for a $1 a lb. i got 16 pounds and had my husband cut it up and freeze it. when you are saving enough $, i stock up. as far as buying fresh veggies or fruit, i put ‘vegetable’ on my list and if something looks good or is on sale, that’s what’s for dinner! if salad bags are ‘buy one get, get one free’, then salad is gonna be the side dish this week! and so on….

  19. dsz says:

    I have to agree with Kevin and Kim. When I shop I have a very short list of the specific items I need to buy such as sour cream, coffee cream, eggs and milk. The rest of the list is general-salad stuff, veggies, food for lunches and the like. The remainder of the shopping is based on what’s on sale (often unadvertised) and what looks good.
    I don’t use a meal plan and except for a few items my shopping list is very fluid. What I buy and cook is dictated by what is in season, on sale and can be combined with items already on hand in my pantry and freezers. The general categories are filled by these criteria. For salad stuff and veggies I buy whatever’s the best/freshest available. Sometimes that means the huge bag of spinach which goes into salads and is cooked as part of a meal, sometimes it’s a head of leaf lettuce and a bag of frozen broccoli if everything is expensive and wilted. If the lunch meat is high and whole chicken breasts are on sale (or in the freezer), then it’s chicken salads for lunch or if it’s winter time then leftover chili or stew beats a cold sandwich any day.
    We’re pretty flexible and like to eat a great variety of dishes and because we eat very few prepared and convenience foods we have very little brand loyalty. Except for spaghetti sauce, soup, and the odd box of mac ‘n cheese most of my pantry is filled with one ingredient items and in most cases the store brand is just fine. I also have an extensive pantry and two chest freezers where I ‘shop’ on a daily basis for meal preparation so the only items I buy on a weekly basis are the perishables. I buy rice, pasta, flour and sugar in bulk and store them in airtight containers. Canned beans, vegs and fruit are bought on sale and stockpiled and all the meat I buy is on sale, repackaged into meal sized portions and frozen. The freezers also have bags of veggies, potatoes (steak fries and tater tots), fruit, juice concentrate, homemade chicken and beef stock and butter. I also have stewed tomatoes and other veggies from our garden.
    This way I don’t need to buy anything on any given week.
    At any given time I have on hand ingredients to make just about any meal we’d care to have so if the sales that week aren’t so hot I just don’t go, or I’ll run in for a couple of things that are either perishable or I want for a special recipe.
    Of course not having kids and being flexible and enoying a wide range of foods helps a lot and we’re fortunate to have space for the pantry and freezers. I also have the time to invest in the big shopping trips and meat freezing marathons and that frees us from having to decide on a weekly basis what to buy. I will buy 25# of split bone-in chicken breasts for .89 a pound and freeze in lots of 2 or 4. Or I’ll get two 10# packages of ground beef, brown one and freeze in 1# lots and make three meatloaves out of the other one, bake, portion and freeze. I do this all the time and find it’s a great insurance policy against weeks when nothing seems to be at a decent price. It takes work and organization, but when it comes to feeding us the best I can for the least amount of money it’s time and effort well spent.
    In our case sticking to a detailed shopping list would tie my hands. Our shopping and dining habits reflect the best of the season and spending-wise we do quite well. I guess it all comes down to what works best for you and your family.

  20. Wise Finish says:

    Great Tips. I am finding that grocery stores are using “unadvertised price drops” to lure people into walking the isles to find a deal. I know that it makes me go up isles that I might have skipped taking a look at if price drop circles did not exist.

  21. Bambi says:

    I always have a list when I go to the store, but I did’t always stick to it. I have found that if I go to the store right before it closes I always feel a sense of urgency to get out of there, which causes me to stay on task and not stray from the list. I give myself about 15 minutes for every 10 items on my list and that has worked for me so far.

  22. Larry says:


    In reading your post I thought of the book by Thomas Hines ” The Total Package”. He speaks about packaging and the little and big choices we can make while shopping based on the packaging of the product.

    Packaging is a stong tool that is used to help us make a choice…maybe not always the best choice.


  23. Mamacita says:

    One small way that I save every time I go to the grocery store, is to choose the smallest package of fresh meat that looks good. Each package of a certain item is the same price per pound, so I’m paying the same price, and I find that by choosing the small ones I save a total of a couple of dollars or more on every trip. By the time it hits the table, no one can tell that it was a smaller package, so there really is no downside, just savings!

  24. Damester says:

    We don’t do meal plans (we need more flexibility) but we do keep running lists of things we eat regularly and that allow us to make a variety of different types of food.

    That list is the start for our weekly stockup (sometimes every 10 days), then we check out the weekly sales, special sales and adjust accordingly. (Some weeks we are more vegetarian based on what’s available in fresh produce and vice versa with chicken and fish–we don’t eat beef, pork or veal)

    We try, where it works, to make more than one night’s worth of a dish so we can freeze or have for later in week. (If we really like it.) so there are actually weeks when all we really need is fresh fruit and veggies (from our local stores, on every corner in our big city)

    At any time, we do have enough in pantry or freezer to improvise.

    The key is being realistic about what you can eat and when. We have learned, the hard way, to be very careful with fresh veggies and fruit. Most stuff really has to be eaten pretty quickly so you have to really stop and think if you will be able to do that. (This is really true in summer when you see great prices on say tomatoes, zucchini, etc. Really, most of us can’t eat it many pounds and most won’t have time to make big batches of something for later.)

    Another key is to not purchase anything, even if on sale, if we would normally NOT use it. A lot of folks use a big sale price to rationalize buying something they wanted to try but is not something they would normally use. That’s how you get a pantry of stuff that was not worth the price based on consumption.

    We also keep a running list of all non-perishables. This really helps because you don’t want to have shelves of stuff Or duplicates for things you will not use before they expire. This can happen more frequently than you like if you stop making certain things for example.

    For most of us, however, shopping is very simplified based on a set budget. If you know you only have X dollars to spend, that’s it. Sales or not. That set amount (and you should have one, regardless of how much money you have available) is a real deterrent to overspending.

    Whenever we’ve gone off using a specific number for each week or month, we’ve overspent!

  25. Sharon says:

    Like dsz, I have a well-stocked freezer, and pantry and pantry annex. I don’t believe that I have anything that was full price. I wait for incredible deals and then buy enough to last, sometimes a year’s worth. I track how often things go on sale. If it is on sale every few weeks, I buy less.

    We were looking for knee-high white socks with heels. We looked for about 4 years, found some, and my husband was going to buy two pairs! I pointed out how often we were able to find them (average once a decade) and buy at least a dozen pair at a time. We even found them in black this time! (Yep. Got 12.)

    However, some of us have health issues and cooking from scratch is too energy-intensive. Tips to buy prepared foods at the best price available are also important. There was a recipe for people with fibromyalgia in a magazine that started with buying meat and then grinding it! It would take the average ill person four days to prepare that dish. One to go buy the meat, another to grind it and one or two days to finish it up.

  26. tammy says:

    Meal planning happens when I perimeter shop at the market, which is twice a week, as I’m doing other errands. We eat whatever is on sale. If salad is a dollar a bag and hamburger is reduced, it’s taco salad night. If I find a fine reduced loaf of asiago cheese bread and cheese is marked down, it’s going to be a pasta sort of supper!
    I admire folks who can formulate a plan and stick to it. And FAMILY FOLKS really have to do that. But my plan works for the two of us. I cook mostly from scratch and thankfully the garden is starting to come in!
    Love your post and it’s VERY GOOD of you to take the little one along. What an education!

  27. Rachel says:

    A great post as always, Trent!
    Something I always find a problem as I plan my list is not only meal planning and avoiding impulse buys, but shopping to accomodate IMPULSE EATS!
    The children often arrive home from daycare and want a snack, or DH comes home hungry from work and, let’s face it, I’m not perfect either. But budgeting and planning for these snacks is difficult (and sometimes a vicious circle – if there are more snacks in the cupboard, DH might have two, or if the boys can see that there are plenty of bananas, they want another) and then I often find myself running to the store for extra snacks mid-week.
    I can only imagine how hard it must be to plan for these things with teenagers in the house!
    Can you see a future post on this aspect of grocery planning, Trent? Or can someone point me in the direction of a post on this somewhere else?

  28. Taking young kids to the supermarket can be a very expensive practice . . . marketers love that! Watch out.

  29. Bill in Houston says:

    I agree with Divorced Dad. If I had kids I would not take them to the market. I see little kids pointing at some brightly colored package even though they don’t know what it is. That’s a distraction. Then there’s the whiiiiiiiinnne if you don’t get a certain item (I’ve shopped with my brothers/sisters and their kids.).

    Last time my wife and I visited my youngest sister I offered to do her shopping for her. She gave me a list. When we came back 30 minutes later she was amazed. She said, how did you do that? She was wondering if I shopped that store chain. When I told her I’d never been in this chain she was a bit skeptical until I told her that we had no “distractions.” She understood. Now my brother-in-law does most of their shopping and their grocery bill has come down.

    As to my own shopping, we clip coupons, tend to stick with store brands for most items, and don’t really comparison shop. For example, if those flour tortillas feel softer they probably have lard in them. I guess one advantage of grocery shopping on my own for nearly 30 years is I’m familiar with lots of stuff. Nearly 10 years after my heart attack focuses my grocery list, too.

  30. angela says:

    I really like this post.

    We have debt in our house brought on by “needing” the item, under-employment and a single birth that turned into a double birth 1/2 way throught the pregnancy. WE have gotten rid of the credit cards…that was #1…we stayed away from malls…that was #2…so all that was left was the discount stores and the grocery stores. I began to see myself ‘splurging’ on meat, seafood, hair care etc. It was when I made the list…stuck to it…carried the coupons (just in case)…it was then I realized on a scale of 1-10…this trip to the grocery store does not need to contain more than what we need…it doesn’t need to be a 10 every time you go to the store. We get caught up in “I deserve this” or “I worked so hard” who cares what kind of hot dogs you get…not everything needs to be a 10 all of the time.

  31. ejpoeta says:

    I like some of the things I am hearing on here. It’s tough shopping. I make a list, but often forget things. I do take my kids most of the time, because I have no choice. It’d be great to be able to go alone, and when that happens I feel like i am on a vacation. But I don’t have much choice, so I learn to say no.

    I have 2 kids and one on the way. A ten year old and a three year old. And I have had very bad temper tantrums with Emily. And I have had Ashley run off on me in the store. But I have rules… If you are good you MAY be able to get a treat. It’s not a guarantee, but sometimes it is possible if the kids are good. IF they misbehave, then they will get nothing. No matter how much they throw a fit.

    I love when I used to work as a cashier and I could hear the kids screaming and crying through the store, and then at the register the parent gives in. My thought… you are just guaranteeing that kid will do that again next time. I refuse to give in when my kids act up or whine.

    Once my daughter sat in the make up section and refused to leave for anything because I wouldn’t get her something. I walked away and came back and then some lady tried to give me money to give her what she wanted. I glared at the woman and told her to go away. Oh was I mad. I do not reward bad behavior!!! Not for anything.

    But kids are a distraction. It is tough to go in and just get what I need. Some of it is my own fault because I like to ‘look’ at things. When my husband goes in, he is in and out in ten minutes tops. But I feel like I am in there forever!! LOL!

    I tend to do better when I know I only have a certain amount. Like, when we are really stretched and I have like $20 to spend. I stay pretty much on task then. I also like to see if they have meat on special, so while it might not be on my list, if I can get chicken or something on special I tend to do that.

  32. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I love ChillyRodent’s “heat-seeking missile” analogy! Guys definitely tend to have a different shopping style from us women. My husband hates to leisure-shop/browse, but he does all the grocery shopping. I used to do it, but since I don’t cook, I would come home with lots of flowers, magazines, candy bars, etc. When he shops, he buys food! I’m in charge of inventorying and listing the staples we need. He’ll make decisions in the store about meat, produce, etc. since he’ll be cooking the meals. We’ve also found that if we go to Costco together, we buy lots of extra stuff, because we basically give each other permission to indulge (you’re worth it, you deserve it, I love you and want you to have the things you want). If my husband goes alone, he buys what’s on the list. He does better with the focused necessity shopping, and I do better with tasks such as buying gifts for friends and family.
    We’re trying as an experiment to use our debit card for groceries. This seems a little counter-intuitive to me, since I show much more restraint with cash. But we’ve found that if my husband comes in under budget, he fritters away the cash. With the debit card, the extra stays in the bank. So far, we came in under budget last week, but went over this week. But at least the surplus was in the bank to cover this week’s overage, and hadn’t been frittered away. I figure we’ll need to try it for a couple of months and then evaluate whether it’s a good or a bad strategy.

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