As we enter the holiday season, many shoppers are juggling long grocery lists for that big family gathering and long gift lists for their loved ones. For some, this holiday season brings the excitement of shopping, cooking, and gift-wrapping. For others, this holiday season is a precursor to the hefty credit card statement or empty wallet.
AARP PA sat down with Mary Bach, Consumer Issues Task Force Chair, to talk about ways to save money this holiday season.
AARP: Mary, thanks for joining us today. With the holidays fast approaching, how can consumers save money when they are grocery shopping this season? Do you have any tips for folks looking to get the most for their money when buying their holidays meals?
Bach: There are plenty of things that people may consider to save money – not just this holiday season, but year-round. You may consider checking the newspaper which often includes coupons. If you don’t get the paper, there are several websites you may visit to download coupons online. However, I would urge people to compare prices before they shop! Sometimes just knowing the stores and brands can help you save money. Certain stores will carry brands that you prefer more, and they often run sales around the holidays.
AARP: What if they have a large family? Any thoughts on how to feed an army without leaving with an empty wallet?
Bach: I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, I would recommend creating a shopping list and plan to stick to it. If you discipline yourself to only get the things on the list and you may cut down on your grocery bill. Second, consider what product you are buying and how it is packaged. Depending on the store sale cycle, it may be more or less expensive to buy the product fresh, canned, or frozen. You may want to consider this to determine if you want to switch to the less expensive packaging. Third, many stores run “buy one get one specials” or offer cheaper rates when you buy in bulk. For a larger family, it might be beneficial to buy excess supplies and save them for later use – but I recommend you check expiration dates on those items so you don’t end up throwing out expired goods. It’s not only a waste of consumable goods, it’s a waste of money too. Fourth, when grocery shopping, you may want to reference the unit price of the items, not just the shelf price. If you have a product that is sold in a 8-ounce container and in the 16-ounce container, but the 16-ounce container is on sale, looking at the unit price per ounce or pound can help you determine which of those two products is less expensive. One other thought to consider is that many store sales are only available if you have a frequent shopper card or loyalty card.
AARP: Can frequent shopper cards or loyalty cards really make a difference in your final grocery bill?
Bach: The advantage of frequent shopper cards or loyalty cards is that many sales or promotions are only offered to those who present the cards at checkout or can use a phone number to look up their cards. These cards may be handy, and do provide some savings, but I recommend comparison shopping between stores first. In some cases, these cards do not actually give shoppers the best saving. If other stores offer the same product for a cheaper price than the loyalty card does, consider shopping elsewhere. I would also suggest checking your receipts. If you have a loyalty card, it may tell you how much you saved on each item and on the total purchase. If you find an error on your receipt, stores or cashiers may offer you compensation for the mistake.
AARP: Thank you Mary! Now we wanted to switch gears to talk about holiday gift shopping. When looking for gifts – such as clothing or other retail products – how can people increase their savings?
Bach: In terms of clothing, it may be cheaper to look at thrift or resale stores. Stores that sell overstock products are also good sources of quality products at a discounted rate. Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean that you need to do all of your shopping right now! If you plan in advance, you can buy items at the end of a clothing season and gift the items the following season. In some cases, you may save up to 90% on after-season sales. One thought to consider though – if you are shopping for grandkids or loved ones who are still ‘growing’, you may want to plan to purchase larger sizes that they can grow into. I would also recommend you look for discount ads that many stores are likely to run as it gets closer to the holidays. These discount ads may highlight higher discounts than you would traditionally see, but that’s not always the case. So, again, comparison shopping can help you determine which stores to shop with for the products that fit your budget.
Many stores offer price matching. If you see an item on sale on the store’s website – and in many cases, on another store’s website – you can go to a store that offers price matching and they may honor the lower price. I recommend you bring a copy of the ad that features the lower price or show them the online price on your smart device. Just the other day I went toy shopping for my grandkids and saw that a nearby store had an item listed on their website $15 cheaper than the store I was shopping in. I showed the cashier the discounted price and she honored the other store's pricing. That may not seem like much but it adds up!
And lastly, for those that prefer to give gift cards during the holiday season, consider these tips. Be mindful that some gift cards have an activation fee and will cost you more than the dollar value of the gift card, while other gift cards do not have an activation fee. Also, many stores will offer gift card promotions if you have a loyalty card, earning you savings off a future shopping order or a reduction your gas price. For example, a store may offer you $20 off a future shopping order if you buy $100 in gift cards. Another store may offer you 10 cents off your gas price up to 10 gallons if you buy select gift cards. These promotional deals may not reduce your spending on gift cards, but they may increase your savings on future shopping trips and fueling up. Be sure to read the fine print so you can benefit from these promotions.
AARP: Before we finish up, do you have an insight for us on the balance between splurging and saving? The holidays typically mean going above and beyond for our loved ones, but should we consider future expenses more?
Bach: I know that we all want to shower our loved ones with gifts, especially during the holidays, but you also have to consider future financial stability. Giving expensive gifts in the present could mean lead to financial distress in the long-run . I know that everyone wants to find the perfect gift for their family or friends, but keep in mind the feeling you will have receiving the credit card statement come the end of January. In many cases, making small adjustments to your spending habits like using coupons, comparison shopping, and shopping off-season may save you money. Your loved ones could enjoy a nice gift and you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with being the best gift (and most thrifty) gift-giver!
Mary Bach is an AARP PA volunteer and Chair of the AARP PA Consumer Issues Task Force. Bach's responses reflect her personal opinions and may not represent the official policy or position of AARP.