How I Shop for Things

One of the most common types of questions I get from readers is how exactly they should shop for something. How do you shop for clothing? How do you shop for food? How do you shop for tech devices?

In this article, I’m covering how I shop for anything less expensive than a new car.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers almost everything I buy with any sort of regularity, and I also include a general strategy at the end that covers almost everything else.

Here’s How I Shop for…

Food: When I buy food, I start with a meal plan for the week that basically lists everything I expect our family to eat for each meal during the week, as well as a few snack items. I usually base this list on what’s on sale in the grocery store flyer, with an eye toward our family calendar for the week. From that, I make a grocery list and follow it when I go to the store.

When I’m actually shopping for food items, I usually buy store brand versions if they’re available. If it’s a nonperishable item that can sit in the cupboard for a long time, I buy whichever version is the cheapest per serving, which is usually the large version. I don’t bother with coupons unless one is right in my face, meaning it’s actually sitting on the supermarket shelf or I happened to see one somewhere in the normal course of events.

I shop at a discount grocery store, which might not have all of the nice departments of other stores and might be a little crowded in the aisles at times, but the prices are great. Examples of these kinds of stores are Aldi and Fareway. For more esoteric food items, I’ll stop at another local grocer, Hy-Vee, and buy just a few items, as their prices are higher.

Household supplies: I usually add these to my grocery list as needed. When I’m buying them, I typically buy store brand versions in whichever package offers the most uses per dollar. If there’s a sale, I’ll usually stock up and buy several of that item. These are frequently purchased at a warehouse club, but not always.

Toiletries: My wife and daughter select most of their own toiletries together; I don’t really worry about their toiletries too much. For myself and my sons, I typically buy whatever toiletries have the lowest cost per use when we start to run low; if this coincides with a nice sale, I’ll stock up on that item. These are frequently purchased at a warehouse club, but not always.

Clothes: When I need most clothing items, I stop at secondhand stores near well-off neighborhoods and scour the racks, which usually covers my pants and shirts and suit needs.

For socks, I usually request really well made socks for gifts (Darn Tough). I don’t need many pairs.

For underwear, I usually buy jumbo packs from the local department store, whichever package offers the cheapest price per pair.

With all clothing, I toss them when they start to get significantly worn. Usually, I downgrade clothing that’s starting to be pretty worn to wearing them purely around the house and when doing yard work. When I’m done with them, they’re often not even suited for Goodwill. (My wife sometimes complains about how long I’ll hang onto really comfortable t-shirts, jeans, and other clothing.)

Insurance: Once a year, I shop around for most of our insurance policies, particularly auto insurance and homeowners insurance. If my current insurer has been fine, I won’t switch unless there’s a significant discount elsewhere. If I don’t like my current insurer, they go on something of a “black list” (meaning I won’t include them in comparisons any more) and I chase the lowest price.

Electronics: I research electronic purchases extensively and then shop around online and off, usually checking prices frequently. I usually bookmark the items I’m interested in at several retailers and check them daily until I either hit a sale price or it migrates toward more of a necessity, in which case I buy the lowest priced version. I generally don’t buy any electronics used.

Small appliances: I start by looking at secondhand shops near expensive residential neighborhoods. I usually find what I’m looking for there when it comes to a small appliance. If this doesn’t pan out, I use the same procedure I use with electronics, described earlier.

Large appliances: I try to watch our large appliances carefully so that any major issues and upcoming replacements are known to me well in advance of the purchase being a necessity. I’ll research these purchases in detail, usually trusting Consumer Reports above all, and I usually aim for their “Best Buy” models. Once I have a few models in mind, I start shopping around for prices and I watch all the local retailers each week for appliance sales. I’ll look at the flyers for every local store that sells appliances each week to see what’s on sale there and when one of those models pops up, I buy it.

Books: I visit the library. If I end up reading a book there and realizing that I will actually want to re-read it and refer to it in the future, I’ll put it on a list of books to look for at secondhand stores and book sales. I will often add books that fall into that group on my Amazon wish list, as I have relatives who use that when buying holiday gifts.

DVDs/Blurays: We borrow from the library or rent. We rarely buy these any more; I think the only “new” ones that have come into our house in the last year have been gifts.

Gas: I buy this from the local warehouse club almost every time. Once a month, Sarah or I will use another gas station in the area and use all of our points, accumulated through a customer rewards program at a local grocery store chain. That fill-up is usually lower than the warehouse club price.

Cellular service: In our area, there are really only two companies that offer consistently decent service, so I frequently price check the two of them. I’m very willing to jump companies whenever we don’t have an agreement signed with either one of them. A cell phone with a service provider that isn’t very good in your area isn’t worth anything, so I don’t compare them and won’t do so until I hear lots of reports of their service improving in our area.

Travel: Since we’re a family of five, unless it’s logistically impossible to do so, we drive to our destinations. Many of our family vacations are spent at national parks, so we’ll often just load up the vehicle with camping materials and camp at our destination. We very rarely fly.

When we need a hotel room, we stick with in order to maximize their rewards program, and we choose whatever the least expensive hotel in the area is that has at least a 4.2 rating on and on TripAdvisor (with more than a handful of ratings). I don’t sweat a few bad reviews, but a cavalcade of them is a problem.

Other hobbies: My main hobby is board gaming, so this is a good place to discuss that. I get most of my board games by trading away games that I no longer wish to play, as there is a very active board game trading community in my area. When buying games, I’ll either support a local retailer (especially on sales days) or I’ll shop online at Coolstuffinc to maximize their rewards program.

Everything else: Most of my other purchases follow a cycle of identifying a need, figuring out whether it really is a need, doing research, identifying a few good options, and then price watching those options until I find a sale or some other kind of promotion. I find that patience is the best virtue for almost everything you buy, as most things aren’t really needs.

The single most powerful tactic for buying anything is simply asking yourself if you really need this right now. If you can’t answer that with a strong yes, you’re almost always better off waiting and shopping around and keeping your eye out for a sale. This applies to virtually everything you might spend your hard earned money on.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.