When Deals Become Less of a Bargain

A few months ago, I was reading an older personal finance article at the library which discussed a very specific method for getting tremendous deals at CVS (a pharmacy chain). All you had to do was follow a sequence of steps and you’d find yourself with piles of items for free!

I decided to give this system a shot. I signed up for the CVS ExtraCare rewards program and started following the method outlined in that older article.

What I found was some good discounts, but not the mind-blowingly amazing discounts described in that older article.

Why didn’t it work out? I actually believe the older article did work as stated at the time it was written. It described a savings tactic that worked very well at a specific moment in time, but as times changed (prices went up, the ExtraCare program specifics changed, the coupons in the flyers weren’t as good), the savings tactic that once worked like a charm no longer worked as well.

(An aside: I’m not saying that CVS ExtraCare isn’t a worthwhile tool for good discounts on pharmacy products. It is. It’s just not the runaway bargain that it was several years ago.)

So, what’s the lesson here?

The big lesson is that no bargain is ever written in stone. Something that saved you a lot of money a year or two ago might not be a great bargain today. The benefits may have been scaled back, or other offers may be superceding it.

What can you do about it? You should re-evaluate your money saving tactics very frequently. I do this surprisingly often. I’ll stop at a different grocery store just to compare the prices to the ones I typically shop at. I’ll estimate the amount of savings I get from the time investment of using coupons (usually, it’s one of those “barely worth it” things). I’ll try to learn about new ways of doing things and see if they beat the way I used to do them (for example, the ongoing Saving Pennies or Dollars series).

How does one “re-evaluate”? The method I always use is calculating how much this tactic saves me per hour. I figure out exactly how much money I’m saving because of what I’m doing and exactly how much time it takes me to do it (if it’s minutes, I divide that by sixty to get the time in hours). I then divide the money saved by the hours spent to get my savings per hour.

That “savings per hour” amount doesn’t have to be more than what I earn, especially because I’m not paying any income tax on my savings due to frugality. It’s mostly useful as a way to figure out how to spend my time. I’d rather spend my time on something that saves me $20 per hour of effort than something that saves me $5 per hour of effort.

You should also be quite willing to discard tactics that simply don’t work any more. If your preferred grocery store seems to be raising their prices a lot, don’t keep shopping there out of familiarity. Look for a different store that has better prices. If you find that the coupons aren’t saving you what they used to, don’t be afraid to ditch them and use that saved hour for something else that saves or earns you more money.

Speaking of which, you might reach a point where the frugal tactic doesn’t change, but you change. Let’s say, for example, that you switch from a low-paying part time job to a better-paying full time position, or that you’ve decided to start volunteering with an organization in your town that needs someone to man the phones. You’re likely going to find that you no longer have time for all of the things you want to fill your life with. This very well could mean cutting some of the frugal tactics that don’t save you as much money. (Of course, that is a cost of your new job, but that opens an entire new can of worms.)

Frugality is never set in stone. It’s all about being aware of what’s going on around you and consistently making better choices along the way.

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