Updated on 10.16.08

The Power of the Chaperone

Trent Hamm

A chaperone is defined as a qualified person... by mradwin on Flickr!Ever notice how your shopping behaviors change depending on who you’re shopping with? I certainly have. I noticed this most thoroughly on three recent grocery shopping trips, which I’ll relate.

My first shopping trip was entirely by myself. I went with a shopping list in hand, which I almost always do, and I stuck pretty strictly to it. My only splurging, if there was any, was on specific items – I bought free-range eggs and organic milk, like I usually do. I only made one real impulsive buy, which was buying some organic steel-cut oatmeal.

My second trip was with just my wife and I, when we decided to go shopping before picking up the kids one afternoon. We shopped with a list again, but with just the two of us, we wound up with several unintended items in the cart at the checkout: salad dressing, a loaf of Italian bread from the bakery, a smoothie, and a pint of ice cream were among the items (and I believe there were one or two more).

My third trip was with just myself and my two kids. This time, I stuck 100% to the list. The only diversion that occurred at all on this trip was that I had an item on the list that said “snack” and I let our son pick a type of cracker to get – we wound up getting Triscuits, which he loves.

What did I learn from these three trips? My two children are my best shopping chaperones. When they’re along and I’m under their watchful eyes (and they are watchful – they pay careful attention to what I do), I tend to be very careful to follow the list. When I’m by myself, on the other hand, I just focus on the list and don’t have time for distracting conversation or anything like that. With my wife, however, we often get engrossed in conversation during the trip and decide together on impulsive items.

What’s the point of this observation? Shopping habits are often influenced by the people you shop with. This just happens to be a great example of this effect, but it’s something I often noticed during my life. If I shop with certain people, I tend to spend more than if I shop with other people.

If you want to cut your shopping expenses, having a list is one useful step, but having a strong chaperone that controls your frivolous tendencies can also be useful. Here are some useful tactics that fall in line with this strategy.

Master shopping alone with a list. Give it a sincere shot. Every time you go into a store for the next month, have a list with you and only buy things on that list. If it’s not on your list, don’t buy it, period. Mastering this skill makes it much, much easier to get in and out of a store without succumbing to the desire to buy impulsively.

Identify those friends that encourage you to spend more – and those that encourage you to spend less. For example, I have one friend who almost always subtly convinces me to spend money on electronics and video games. For some reason, we often tend to wind up in electronics stores, and it’s with him that I’ve purchased several items that I simply don’t need.

On the other hand, another of my closest friends basically doesn’t spend anything at all. Whenever I happen to be in a shopping situation with him, he gives almost a negative vibe towards spending – and that’s a good thing. It discourages my tendencies to spend.

Avoid situations where you’re in tempting places with friends that encourage your spending tendencies. To put it simply, I should make a special effort to avoid electronics stores when with my gadget-loving friend. If I sense that I’m about to be in such a situation with him, I should have my guard up very high – or I should try to divert us into a different activity.

Similarly, window-shop with a “chaperone” that encourages your frugal side. On the other hand, when I’m doing comparison shopping, my frugal friend is a good one to have along. He subtly discourages bad buying tendencies and helps me keep my focus on the things I actually need instead of frivolous and short-lived material desires.

The word “chaperone” is a loaded one. It might make you think of a high school dance or of treating yourself like a child. I think of it more in the sense of curbing your poor tendencies. A shopping chaperone can really help you save money. Give it a try.

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  1. Interesting.
    I’ve never thought about it in this sense, but when I accompany my wife to the grocery store we do tend to come home with more “splurge” items than when either of us goes alone.
    Great idea for tough economic times.

  2. Ramona says:

    Well I have to say this post is crap. If you have a friend who “subtly” influences you either one way or the other, where is your sense of self? C’mon we’re all adults are we not? How about taking responsibility for yourself?

  3. Ramona, I think we’re all susceptible to some level of influence, whether we like it or not. We don’t live life in a vacuum, and I for one appreciate the accountability that other people bring to my life. I never made any success on conquering my food wasting habits until I started posting the photos of my waste every week on my blog. Having other people see my waste is a form of accountability…in a sense, they’re influencing me and encouraging me to waste less.

    On topic, I shop with all four of my kids every week…pretty much the only time I ever shop with my husband is on vacation. We do spend more then, but I always figure it’s because I’m not shopping loss leader sales and not buying in bulk.

  4. Carlos says:

    I agree; when I shop with my wife, we buy far more impulse items than if I shop alone.

  5. Ryan McLean says:

    Anyone find it amusing that the best ‘chaperone’ are the people that you are meant be be ‘chaperoning’.
    I know what you mean though, when I go shopping with my fiance we always buy more than we intended….
    I get married in 6 days….YEOW!
    And I just released my first ebook…I am so excited

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Ramona, are you actually saying that your shopping habits don’t change *at all* depending on who you’re shopping with? I’d be hard-pressed to believe that of anyone, actually. It might be true on one or two isolated events, but over a long period, everyone is subject to the plethora of small cues that their peers put out.

  7. Anna says:

    The best shopping chaperone I ever had was my oldest friend. When she visited me and we went mall-hopping so she could find a shirt for her husband, we visited every store in the mall and looked around at all the enticing merchandise. After each and every tour, she would say, “Well, I don’t see anything I have to have,” and out we would go, empty-handed.

    She lives halfway across the country and can’t be my shopping chaperone all the time, but her words stuck in my head and often come back to me when I am in a store: “I don’t see anything I have to have.”

  8. Donna says:

    I find shopping interesting on many levels. Because we are 85 miles from a large town (as in more than the local store and WalMart) I tend to stock up for at least a month or two at a time. You get some interesting looks when you are purchasing 8 cake mixes at a time. :)

    While I have “grown up” enough to not care what other shoppers think about what is in my cart, it is hard for DH and I to shop together. We seem to feed off of each other and add a ton of splurge items into the cart. However, when I am alone I can get what I came for and leave the store.

    One “advantage” of poverty is that my teenagers know better than to ask for things most of the time. They do ask for things they need, and try to push a bit for wants, but ultimately they live with the understanding that the money just isn’t there. It sucks, but it is reality with my DH’s chronic medical problems and my need to stay home to take care of him.

  9. Dawn says:

    Interesting post. As a single gal I do most of my shopping solo, however, I certainly know of a few friends who have influenced me a time or two.

    The best method I have found for watching myself on grocery shopping is not only having a list, but also setting a dollar amount. Yes, I am one of those folks with a calculator in hand as I shop! It has really helped me focus on what was important.

  10. BonzoGal says:

    @Ramona, comment #2: Wouldn’t “adults” be able to disagree with the contents of a post without using vulgar, insulting language?

  11. Erin says:

    Wow, this is the exact opposite advice I, and anyone else I know with young kids, would usually give, for both financial and healthy eating reasons. Maybe because yours are still really young. Once they hit about age 3 they start incessantly asking for any sugary junk they see, even if they’ve never had it before. Or they ask for treats they’ve had before that you didn’t intend to get on this trip. Yes, you need to be a firm parent and be willing to say no, but the constant whining can get to anyone! If you’re asked 99 times sometimes on the 100th time you give in.

  12. Maureen says:

    I agree with Erin. Usually parents are advised to shop alone. It’s easier to stick to your list and saves time too.

  13. asithi says:

    This is exactly the reason why I am not the gatekeeper of the refrigerator in our home. Whenever I go, I have a tendency to want to try new things (a habit I picked up from my mom). This usually result in a 30% increase in our food budget. So I usually give my husband a list and he picks it all up.

  14. plonkee says:

    I think that taking your kids with you to the supermarket and sticking to a list and only buying healthy food is a learning experience. I’ve never tried it myself, but I suspect like many other learning experiences, it’s also hard work.

  15. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Wow, this is the exact opposite advice I, and anyone else I know with young kids, would usually give, for both financial and healthy eating reasons.”

    My advice was to find people who encourage you to spend less and focus on shopping with them. Right now, my kids are good chaperones. That doesn’t mean they always will be.

    Besides, I think shopping with them and setting a good example by sticking to a list and not buying silly stuff is worthwhile.

  16. Kevin says:

    I’m in the same boat as Trent. Wife, not so good a chaperone – but when I go with her it’s usually on “sample day” and that ends up adding a couple things not on the list. Overall, we are pretty good about sticking to the list. Of course there are always things we forget to list…does that count?

    My one-year-old is a good chaperone since I know if I wander, he’ll start to get fussy being cooped up in the shopping cart too long. So with him, not only do I bring a list, I try to organize it by the store layout so I don’t miss stuff and have to go back for it.

  17. Finola says:

    Well, I just finished my pre-trip list – things I need and want to buy in duty free and here in Barbados that we can’t get in St. Lucia and it’s a balance sheet of sorts – what income I have coming in, in hand etc vs things to buy- if I didn’t do this I’d be lost when I hit the shops later!
    I’m in with the spouse-shopping crowd who tend to buy more together! And I’m with Trent on the kids-as-chaperone – I regularly brought my niece and her friend home with me from school – both 13 – they’d ask, beg, dance, sing, whine, but I knew I had to set an example and I’d even stop them spending their own coins at times too.
    I’d even go as far as not picking up items I knew I needed but that might seem frivolous! I won’t tell them what good chaperones they were though – the effect would be lost!

  18. Tyler says:

    Yes. That devious bottle of Italian dressing is a killer. I buy what I want when I want it regardless of who is with me (and still spend far less than $400/month to feed a family of four). It’s called self-control.

  19. Foxie says:

    When my husband got deployed, it was the first time I ever had to grocery shop for just myself… We always shop on base, since it’s insanely cheaper at the commissary than anywhere off. (Both in the price of the food and the lack of tax.) It’s usually a pain to get through the lines at the end, since it’s typically always busy… So I decided to limit my trips to 20 items or less, therefore allowing me to use the express lanes.

    I always make up the list beforehand, and always stuck to it since I otherwise wouldn’t qualify for the express checkout. It’s saved me quite a bit of money and a lot more time, plus showed me that I can ignore the impulses. Or, if I get the urge to buy something not on the list, I have to take something off my list and substitute the new item.

    When my husband comes back next week, I’m sure he’ll go back to grocery shopping for us. He’s really good about taking a list I make up, plugging in his iPod, and just getting what I’ve written down… Sometimes to my detriment when I forget to add something obvious to the list. :)

    The grocery store has never gotten me as far as impulses go… I’m really bad at the mall when I have money set aside for spending. Then I’m ready to part with it and often do without thoroughly thinking anything through. And, as far as that goes, my husband usually keeps me from buying things… He guilts me out of them because I already have “a lot of clothes.” :)

  20. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Yes. That devious bottle of Italian dressing is a killer. I buy what I want when I want it regardless of who is with me (and still spend far less than $400/month to feed a family of four). It’s called self-control.”

    The USDA seems to contradict your claim: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/USDAFoodCost-Home.htm

    Their August 2008 food cost estimates on their thrifty plan (which is as bare bones as you can get while still being nutritionally balanced) for a family of four is $602.80. If you can honestly halve that without government supplementation or a large time investment of your own, you should be promoting your plan far and wide.

  21. Trent, I feed the six of us(two adults, and four kids, ages 9, 7, 4, and 2) on $400 a month. It’s no easy task, and has taken a lot of practice, but I do it without buying much in the way of prepackaged food, and we eat a lot of fruits and veggies(I post my menu each week on my blog, so if you’re interested you can see what we eat on $400). I don’t receive any help from the government or anyone else either.

    I live near several big cities in MD, so my food prices aren’t unusually low(at least not compared to yours in Iowa).

    Anyways…it’s a job to keep my grocery bill this low, and I’m sure that as my children grow to eat as much as adults do, my budget will have to rise. But for now, it works.

  22. BonzoGal says:

    It’s funny, but even though I noticed food prices creeping up, I didn’t really get floored until I realized that my twice-monthly loaf of wheat bread was costing me $5 a pop! I joked to my husband that I’m getting old (I’m 44) because my first reaction was, “Back in MY day a loaf of bread cost blah blah blah…” And my husband’s response was that he hadn’t noticed food prices AT ALL for about the last 20 years. (In other words, not since he was a ‘starving college student.’)

    That made me further realize that shopping on my own turns out much cheaper than with husband in tow because he grabs name brands and impulse buys and never ever checks the prices.

  23. Tyler says:

    You’re right. The USDA knows my food budget better than I do.

    If I was spending more than $400/month on food then we’d be going into debt each month just to feed my family. If I’m only bringing home $15,000/year and 48% goes to my apartment bill, almost 33% to health insurance then we are left with around $3000. It’s entirely possible to live on $3000/yr for gas and food. Just because you can’t doesn’t mean others can’t.

  24. Elizabeth says:

    I have noticed this tendency to overbuy when shopping with certain people. I don’t like it, but I find that I feel kind of stuck because the particular friend I over-shop with frequently asks me to go out shopping or running errands with her because she is lonely. I enjoy her company and I know she is lonely in the evenings because her husband has to work weird hours, and I really don’t mind spending the time with her. What I do regularly find myself regretting is my excessive spending after we’ve spent an evening spontaneously going to the nearest mall, almost an hour away. Any suggestions for how to curb my spending without cutting back on time spent with my friend? There isn’t much to do in our little town.

  25. STL Mom says:

    When I was a broke college student, one friend was great to shop with for clothes. We would talk each other out of almost every purchase, so we only bought things we really needed, and only if it was an excellent deal, and only if it worked with everything else we already owned.
    As an adult, I have a friend who used to work in retail clothing stores. She is great to shop with if I have a specific clothing need, because she can help me find just the right thing in a short amount of time, and she won’t let me dilly-dally and try on things I don’t need.
    Elizabeth – I know about living in a small town where there isn’t much to do other than go to the mall. In nice weather, could you suggest walking around a park, or through a nice neighborhood? How about watching a fun TV show together, and making jokes about the commercials? Or even just putting on your running shoes and seeing how quickly you can get around the mall without stopping to shop?

  26. Jenzer says:

    The advice to shop with a list every time you go into a store is spot on. I’d add the emphasis to do this with EVERY store you go into–not just the grocery store, but the hardware store, the electronics store, discount department stores, the mall, the office supply store, etc. Heck, these days I don’t even go into thrift stores or garage sales without a list prepped ahead of time. A $.25 impulse buy at a garage sale can still be a waste of money, even if the item is “only” $.25.

    My best grocery-store “chaperone,” besides a list, is my Weight Watchers electronic Points calculator. I’ve saved myself from a *lot* of caloric damage at Trader Joe’s by using it to evaluate the tempting new merchandise they’re always putting on their shelves.

  27. Kevin says:


    I agree with Tyler – that was a pretty bad assumption on your part to think NO ONE could get below the USDA’s budget for food costs.

    You of all people (being frugal and all) should know that government statistics aren’t the norm for people like us.

  28. Charlene says:

    Since I’ve started really watching prices & couponing, I do much better if I go alone–I take my time to look and compare, and my family tends to get impatient with that. I find myself starting to rush, and end up forgetting something or adding extras. For so many years we just bought whatever we wanted, they still have a habit of spying something they want and just dropping it in the buggy.

  29. BonzoGal says:

    Tyler and Kevin- Trent didn’t say you COULDN’T get below those guidelines- he just said it would be really difficult, and that if you can do it you should share your methods! And seriously- you should, because any and all hints on this subject are helpful.

  30. Marcus says:

    As a reader of the site for 2 years (come early November) it’s ridiculous the way Trent takes offense to anything relating to how much they spend on food (if it’s below the average) or having to do with clothe diapers or a clothesline. He can be a real jerk to some people on these issues.

    Tyler never said anything about healthy eating at that price. He spoke about eating cheaply. I’ll give you a hint. Eat lots of potatoes, rice and instant soup. If I had to, I could eat off of $1/day.

  31. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I made the assumption that Tyler was a good parent and was feeding his children nutritionally balanced meals. Was that an unfair assumption?

    If he can do that for under $400 a month, he should be sharing that *everywhere*!

    Of course families of four could eat for that little. If I fed my family nothing but potatoes, we could easily do it. But that’s not a healthy or balanced diet.

  32. Brigitte says:

    I suppose I should add, the reason we started eating the better way, with less boxed food and takeout, was because the 5 year old came home from kindergarten and hung a food pyramid on the fridge. We’d been feeding HER properly, just not the rest of us, but she had to keep a food diary for the whole house–and that was about the time we started doing “family dinner” again. So we were actually following the governmental food guide as far as portion numbers and nutritional distribution was concerned.

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