Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting Full on Less Dough: the Hungry Preacher's Guide to Savvy Shopping, PART 4

I know that my last post on retail kickbacks was a lot of fun, and insight into their use should give you much confidence as you head into the battle that is saving money on groceries.  Like the crane kick in "The Karate Kid," of retail kickbacks it can be said, "If do right no can defense."  Once you factor in the training you received in PART 1 and PART 2, you are ready to sign up for--and win--the All Valley Karate Tournament.

Of course, YOU are too ambitious to settle for merely winning the tournament, getting the girl, and driving off in your shiny yellow car.  You're thinking ahead, and crying out, "Wait!  Wasn't the crane kick blocked in 'The Karate Kid Part II'?  Wasn't it the drum technique that ended the fight in THAT movie?  And what about the kata technique in 'Part III'?  I still have so much to learn!  Please teach me, Mr. Miyagi!"

To you, prized pupil, I respond twofold.  First, you probably want to dial back on the Karate Kid references--they're kind of weirding me out a little bit.  Besides, the Hungry Preacher already has an alter-ego.  He doesn't need another one.  Second, if you really want to defeat the Cobra Kai once and for all, today is your lucky day.  I'm going to give you a crash course in several different "specialty" deals and tactics that will save you money from Pomona to Okinawa and back again.

Also known as "BOGO."  This is one of the most appealing SOUNDING deals, but remember: Don't fall for it unless the average price for the 2 items falls at or below your price ceiling for that item.  For example, my price ceiling for a box of cereal is $2 (maybe $2.50 if you get a few beers in me).  So if a box of cereal that is priced $4.39 goes on BOGO, it's still only borderline worth it for me to pull the trigger.  Always do the math.

Now here's the fun stuff with BOGO sales.  First, most stores let you use 2 coupons on a BOGO: one for each item.  It may seem counterintuitive that you can use a coupon on an item you are getting for free, but this is how it works.  Similarly, you can use a $-off-2 coupon on a BOGO deal; BOGO "counts" as buying 2 items.

What is even wackier is that every now and then, there is a coupon that you can cut out of the paper that says BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE for a product.  Sometimes, before that coupon expires, a retailer will put that same item on a BOGO sale.  Walgreens and CVS (at least) allow you to use the BOGO coupon in conjunction with their BOGO sale, and you end up getting both items for free.  It sounds crazy, but I've done it.  Furthermore, CVS actually issued a statement confirming that combining BOGO coupons with BOGO sales is valid and not shady (my paraphrase).  I have experienced some inconsistency among Walgreens stores on how they deal with the BOGO(squared) paradox, so don't be shocked if your advances are rejected by the local Walgreens manager.

For example, Shop and Save, a St. Louis grocery store, regularly offers $10 off a purchase of $50 or more.  These sales can be tricky, because there are a lot of traps you can fall into.

First, usually the excluded items are, in fact, excluded.  So make sure you're not including those items in your efforts to reach your targeted purchase amount.

Second, you still need to remember your price ceilings.  For this specific deal, you take 20% off every item you put in your cart.  If that reduced figure falls below your price ceiling, great.  On the other hand, if you've been doing the math, and have a bunch of items that still only total around $40 or so, you CAN break through the price ceiling on a few items in order to get the total up over $50.  That can be a slippery slope, though.

Third, when you're keeping the running total of the items in your basket, it's easy (and usually wise) to add a couple of extra items to make sure that you don't come up JUST SHORT of the target amount.  The problem is that every dollar you go over the target amount reduced the percentage that you save on your entire purchase.

Beyond those pitfalls, here are some other tips to remember on X-OFF-Y DEALS:
First, the target amount is usually triggered BEFORE coupons.  So, simplistically, if I'm buying one $50 item at Shop and Save, and have a coupon for $1 off that item, the discount will trigger, and then I can still use my coupon, essentially giving me $10 off my $49 purchase.  This is important to remember at Walgreens and CVS, where they regularly offer X-OFF-Y DEALS (often in the form of Retail Kickbacks) on products that regularly have coupons floating around, like cleaning supplies and Band-Aids.

Second, occasionally companies put out coupons that allow you get to an item entirely free.  This is most common with new products.  X-OFF-Y DEALS are good times to use those coupons, since you're effectively lowering the "Y" amount you need to hit to get your "X" discount.

Third, for the same reason as above, X-OFF-Y DEALS are a good time to make use of mail-in-rebates.  Which brings us to...

There is one rule regarding mail-in-rebates that transcends every other: MAIL THEM IN!  Personally, I find them to be a pain in the butt.  What helps motivate me is knowing that the companies do not want me to get around to mailing them in.  I see it as, "If I don't do this, I have become just another pawn in their profit-making game."  That's usually enough to make it happen on my end.

Logistically, make sure you receive and keep your receipt.  And check the expiration dates on the rebate offers.  Sometimes, a tag attached to the product advertises the rebate, but the valid purchase period has already lapsed.

Are something of a misnomer, annoyingly so.  In St. Louis, the 2 grocery chains that advertise that they double coupons only double coupons that are up to forty cents.  That was all well and good in the seventies, but coupons and inflation have trended such that the majority of them are for more than forty cents.  In other words, stores that SAY that they double coupons, in actuality, do NOT double the majority of coupons in print.

Worse yet is that no allowance is made for applying some sort of "double-esque" principle to coupons that offer, say, fifty cents off an item.  Contrast this with the Southern California (where I used to live).  There, the maximum value of a coupon that can be doubled is fifty cents.  BUT, if you have a coupon for more than that, the retailer will--though not double it--ADD fifty cents to its total.  So in California, a forty-cent coupon is worth eighty cents, but a sixty-cent coupon is worth $1.10.

Now you have an answer to the riddle, "When is forty higher than fifty?"  Why, when you're using coupons in St. Louis, of course!

All of that said, when browsing ads and sorting coupons, it's worth keeping the doubling principle in mind--at least in the back of your mind.

There are 2 kinds of coupons: Manufacturers Coupons (MC) and Store-Issued Coupons (S-IC).  You can almost never use more than 1 MC on an item that you purchase.  BUT, you can usually use 1 MC AND 1 S-IC on the same item.  This is easiest for me to do at Walgreens, because they usually print all the S-IC's for any given week within the ad for that week.  So while I'm looking through the ad, I can just cut out any relevant S-IC's as I go.

It is usually clear on the coupon if it is a MC or S-IC.  Most coupons you'll find in the paper or on the internet are MC's, while most S-IC are specifically within a publication from that retailer.

Grocery stores usually have a rack of damaged or discontinued items, weirdly tucked away in a corner of the store behind a freezer.  Walgreens and CVS typically have an end cap or two in the back of the store where they have these kinds of items.  I usually have a quick gander, and can usually tell if there's anything worth grabbing.  Usually there isn't, but sometimes there are some pretty sweet finds.

For example, CVS recently had a box of protein bars marked at 90% off.  That made them twenty cents a piece.  I bought about 15.  They also had some All, Gain, and Arm & Hammer laundry detergents at 75% off.  I had some coupons, and ended up getting about 7 of them for about $1.50 each.

About the coupons: Sometimes, a coupon will not "attach" to a clearance item when it is scanned, because the clearance item has been reprogrammed to scan as something like, "CLEARANCE MERCHANDISE."  Unless a manager tells you otherwise, don't take no for an answer if your coupon matches the item.

Also, every now and then, a clearance item will still trigger a Retail Kickback that is advertised for a similar, non-clearance item.  For example, Walgreens was once offering a $3 Register Reward on Ban roll-on deodorant.  On an end cap, I found a Ban, clinical-strength deodorant marked at around $2.25.  I bought it and, sure enough, the $3 Register Reward kicked back, netting me seventy-five cents AND some deodorant.

One more thing: Target clearance prices usually suck.  A lot of times, they're only like 15% off.  I've seen clearance items at Target actually priced HIGHER than the items by which they are being replaced, because the new items are on sale for 20-25% off.

Most coupons specify the brand, type of product, size of product, how many of the product you need to get, and when the coupon expires.  The only factor of those that is set in stone is "brand."  For everything else, I trust the scanner.  If it scans, I'm cool with that.  If not, I don't make a stink.

That said, it is very rare that an expired coupon will scan; usually, the only time I'll hand an expired coupon to the cashier is by mistake, since it's pretty much just a waste of time to hope that it scans.  It is almost as rare that a coupon will scan if you haven't purchased the amount of items specified on the coupon; it's also not something I bother testing except by accident.

But product type and size are sometimes fluid.  For example, a lot of coupons for shampoo will also work if you are buying that brand's conditioner.  Or if you have a coupon for peanuts and want to use it on mixed nuts, instead.  Or if you have a coupon for the 1-liter size mouthwash, but are buying the .5-liter size.

I have not seen a corporate statement that disparages such coupon usage, and most cashiers and managers seem happy to defer to the computer as all-knowing.  I try not to be too screwy with it and, like I said, if it doesn't scan, I cut my losses and move on.

We're in the homestretch here.  You've done the heavy lifting.  I'm planning to wrap things with an "appendix of resources" on Friday, and maybe one more post squeezed in between now and then.

Until then...


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Getting Full on Less Dough: the Hungry Preacher's Guide to Savvy Shopping, PART 3

Just yesterday, I walked into a Walgreen's store.  I bought a package of "Nasal Ease Homeopathic Allergy Reliever Nasal Powder Spray."  It was on sale for $9, but I had a coupon for $5 off that I had dug up from a weekend coupon insert a few weeks prior.  So I paid $4 out of pocket.  After I paid, I was handed my receipt and one of these bad boys:

That's $9 off a future purchase at Walgreens.  There are a few exclusions on what you can buy with it, and it expires in 2 weeks.  Other than that, it's as good as gold.

In other words, Walgreens paid me $5 to take their nasal spray (which I will probably donate someplace).

This is an example of using coupons in conjunction with what I refer to as "retail kickbacks," or "RK's".  Here is a quick rundown of 4 retailers that regularly offer RK's.

SPECIAL NAME OF RK:  "Extra Bucks"
METHOD OF RK:  Extension of your receipt.  They look like gift receipts.  Extra Bucks have bar codes and "tear hear" lines before and after each one that prints.
MEMBERSHIP REQUIRED?:  Yes.  You've got to show the cashier your card.
EXPIRATION:  Usually 3 weeks after they are printed, but CVS usually accepts expired Extra Bucks at least a month after their expiration date.
PURCHASE LIMITS:  Yes.  Each Extra Buck deal has a limit, and since you have to show your card to get the Extra Bucks, they keep track of whether you've reached your limit.  There are 3 nice things about this, though: 1), there is a "status section" on your receipt that tells you if you've reached your limit for any given Extra Bucks deal; 2), you do not have to buy all of the items that trigger the Extra Bucks deal in one trip.  For example, if the deal is "BUY 4 12 PACKS OF PEPSI AND GET 3 EXTRA BUCKS," I can buy one on Monday at a certain CVS and three more later in the week at a different CVS and still get my Extra Bucks.  But I do need to buy them all within the time frame of the offer; 3), if there is an offer limit of more than one, I can max out my limit in a single transaction.
PRODUCT AVAILABILITY ISSUES?:  Yes.  Especially near the end of a week, CVS may sell out of items with sizable Extra Bucks attached to them.  But CVS has a simple and customer-friendly rain check policy.  Bring the ad to the counter, say, "I need a rain check for this," and the cashier will take care of the rest.  Hold on to the rain check.  It never expires.  You can still use coupons with them.  You'll still get the full Extra Bucks amount printed out.
OTHER NOTES:  CVS's Extra Bucks program is consistent and customer-friendly.  The employees are usually happy to help out with questions and issues.  The purchase limits keep you from stocking up on particular products as much as you may like to, but this overall smoothness of the system makes up for that.

RETAILER:  Walgreens
SPECIAL NAME OF RK:  "Register Rewards"
METHOD OF RK:  Printed out on separate machine.  Sometimes handed to you in a stack of other coupons that print out at your purchase.
EXPIRATION:  2 weeks from day of printout.  There is no grace period!  Use them or lose them!
PURCHASE LIMITS:  You can only get one Register Reward for the same product, per transaction.  For example, if the deal is "BUY 1 COLGATE TOOTHPASTE FOR $3, GET $3 IN REGISTER REWARDS," and you buy two tubes in one transaction, you will get one--and only one--$3 Register Reward printed out after you pay.  That said, there is nothing keep you from making multiple trips to Walgreens stores and making as many purchases as you so desire.  BUT, you can NOT use your $3 Register Reward to buy another tube of toothpaste and still get another $3 Register Reward printed out afterwards (there are occasional exceptions to this rule of "no rolling Register Rewards" but don't worry about those).  You CAN use a Register Reward to pay for a DIFFERENT product that triggers a DIFFERENT Register Reward.  Because of this, if one week Walgreens has two products of similar price with the full purchase amount "kicked backed" in the form of a Register Reward, I will sometimes make several Walgreens trips in a single week: I will take my $3 Register Reward for the Colgate, run into another Walgreens and buy (for example) a $3.50 hair brush that has a $3.50 Register Reward kicked backed on it.  I'll pay for the brush with my $3 Register Reward and some change, then get a $3.50 Register Reward printed out.  At my next Walgreens stop, I'll buy another tube of Colgate and a box of dried fruit (to get the total over $3.50), then pay with my $3.50 Register Reward from the brush.  Over the course of a week, if I make 6 quick Walgreens stops, I'll have three tubes of Colgate, three hair brushes (and three boxes of dried fruit) all for just a couple of bucks out of pocket.
PRODUCT AVAILABILITY ISSUES?:  Yes.  And Walgreens does NOT offer rain checks on Register Rewards.  If there is an especially beneficial Register Rewards deal, I will try to make it to Walgreens on Sunday--the first day of the new deals--or risk getting left out in the cold.
OTHER NOTES:  Walgreen's RK system is glitchy and inconsistent compared to CVS's.  Sometimes Register Rewards don't print out when they're supposed to.  Sometimes the bar codes on Register Rewards won't scan when you're trying to use them to make a purchase.  Also, compared to CVS employees, Walgreens employees are often grumpier and less knowledgeable about assisting with their RK's (my experiences seem to be mirrored by others on internet message boards).  I have been told--even by managers--"rules" for Register Rewards that I know for a fact are not true (like, "If you use a coupon to purchase an item, you can't get a Register Reward.")  I have also experienced general grumpiness from cashiers at Walgreens who act like the money I save on using Register Rewards comes straight out of their pocket.  It was once so blatant that I was within an eyelash of actually asking, "Do you have a problem with me?"  That said, I suspect that corporate Walgreens has tried to instill an attitude adjustment in its store employees, because the problems I experience with them seem to be occurring with less frequency.  One trick I have found to be helpful--especially if I have a complicated purchase to make--is to make my transaction at the cosmetics register, even if it means tracking down the cosmetics cashier from somewhere else in the store.  There is usually not a line at the cosmetics counter, so there is less pressure and tension all around if something doesn't go smoothly and needs to be corrected.  Also, I have been told that cosmetic cashiers actually get a commission on certain items that they ring out.  It's amazing what this does for cashiers' cooperativeness!

RETAILER:  Target.
SPECIAL NAME OF RK:  "Target Gift Card" (not very special, I know)
METHOD OF RK:  A gift card loaded and handed to you by the cashier the moment the triggering items are scanned.
PURCHASE LIMITS:  Sometimes.  Read the fine print.
PRODUCT AVAILABILITY ISSUES?:  Sometimes.  The fine print in ads says "No Rain Checks," but I am not sure if individual stores enforce this policy.
OTHER NOTES:  It's nice that Target gives actual gift cards that work just like any other gift card regarding restrictions and expirations.  But the amount they kick back often just makes the deal "good but not great," and not necessarily worth an extra trip.  I have never seen Target offer an RK of the full purchase amount.

RETAILER:  Grocery stores.
METHOD OF RK:  A coupon printed out after you pay (similar to a Register Reward from Walgreens)
EXPIRATION:  Varies.  Sometimes, it's just a few days.  Not likely more than a couple of weeks.
PURCHASE LIMITS:  Usually one RK per transaction.
PRODUCT AVAILABILITY ISSUES?:  Rarely.  Grocery stores have the space to stock up.
OTHER NOTES:  These deals are offered relatively infrequently, and often are triggered by overpriced, name-brand products.  Occasionally, you'll see something like "CEREAL 4/$10, A COUPON FOR $3 BACK ON YOUR NEXT PURCHASE."  That actually makes it worth it, especially if you have some coupons.  Also, the purchase requirements at grocery stores are sometimes pretty broad--something like, "BUY ANY 10 OF THESE 97 PRODUCTS FROM GENERAL MILLS AND GET A COUPON BACK."  If you're wanting to mix and match, it can take some time figuring out exactly which products will trigger the RK.

Finally, here are a few rules/suggestions that are not store-specific but that will help you maximize your RK experience:
1)  Use your RK's!  Don't let them expire.  I have an extra pocket in the front of my coupon caddie for valuable and time-sensitive coupons.  If you do accidentally let one (or a bunch) expire, shake it off.  It happens.  (I also once washed about $15 worth of Register Rewards--turns out "wash survivability" is another way Register Rewards are different from actual currency.)
2)  Make sure you get your RK when you're supposed to.
3)  With rare exceptions, how you pay for an item should NOT affect the "triggering" of a RK.  For example, using coupons or gift cards should have no affect on getting a RK.  This is not my rule, but the rules issued by the various retail corporations.  (Yes, they do that.)
4)  If you do not get your RK, find out why.  If the cashier cannot figure it out, ask to see a manager.  If the manager cannot figure it out, politely say that you'd be fine just voiding part or all of your transaction.  Don't say it all snooty as though you're trying to pressure them.  And don't feel bad about it.  I've done it a half a dozen times or so--probably 2 of those were because I misread the fine print (i.e., the fault was with me) and the others were because the computer wouldn't spit out what it was supposed to, and the employees couldn't or wouldn't override it.  In that case, I still try to let the employees save face, and say something like, "I'm sorry.  I guess I misunderstood how this works.  I can just return this item if it's not part of the deal."
5)  Do NOT use your RK's to "treat yourself" (or anyone, really) to something that you wouldn't have bought already.  This is easier said than done.  Something deep within us feels like, "Oh, I just made $1 profit to take these adult undergarments--I'll use my $3 RK for a bag of Hershey's kisses!"  Don't.  Don't, don't, don't.
6)  There are some ethically questionable ways of using coupons.  Navigating RK's is not one of them.  It FEELS like you're stealing when you "get paid" to take an item.  It is not.  The retailers know that many customers combine coupons with RK's to make a profit.  On one occassion, Walgreens even had a big endcap set up to display a new Bayer aspirin product.  "PAY $3, GET $3 IN REGISTER REWARDS," the sign said.  Stuck right next to that was a big pad of $1-off-one coupons with the sign, "SAVE EVEN MORE!"
7)  RK's are almost always advertisted in the weekly ads for these stores.

That's the scoop on retail kickbacks. It might seem like a lot, but navigating RK's on a weekly basis is probably as lucrative as couponing in general. Toothpaste and shaving products are especially discounted with RK's. I estimate that over the last 3 years, I have spent a net of $0 on toothpaste. That includes the several dozen tubes I have either given away or have in my closet. And I have probably spent about $.25 per razor cartridge--and we're talking lots of name-brands, with 3, 4, and 5 blades per cartridge.

Next up I'll walk you through some other types of specicialized coupons and sales for even more savings off your monthly food budget.

Until then...


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Getting Full on Less Dough: the Hungry Preacher's Guide to Savvy Shopping, PART 2

"A well-used coupon is as good as cash.  Treat it as such."
     -The Hungry Preacher, 2012

By the way, quoting yourself is a great way to broach a topic on a blog AND at a party (more on that in my series on social savviness).

So, coupons.  I'll try to remember that figuring out coupons for some people is like figuring out computers for people like me: very intimidating, and you'll always feel like what you DON'T know is more important than what you DO know.

A couple of differences, though:
-The "rules" of coupons are fairly stagnant.  It's not like new technology is always coming out, rendering your knowledge obsolete
-A little bit of knowledge of couponing can, in fact, provide you with a little bit of help.  In contrast, I have found that a little bit of knowledge with computers usually just means that I will spend an extra 10 minutes poking around before I end up calling an expert.

It also might help to attack head-on the scariest thing about coupons: Being "that guy" (or girl).  "That guy" is the one who is at the front of a long line to check out, holding a stack of coupons, while the cashier is trying to figure out why the machine won't scan one of them.  The cashier is squinting at the fine print, then digging through your bags trying to find an item that matches the coupon.  Your kids are squirming, the kids of the people behind you are squirming, kids all over the world are squirming, and their parents all know that it's your fault.  You just want to empty your wallet on the counter, cry "keep it" and run to your car, leaving behind your purchases or even your kids.

First off, I've been that guy, and you're right: it's no fun.

Second, I survived.  So can you.  If you do your homework, and something goes wrong at the checkout, that's fine.  It happens.  You don't need to act entitled, rude, or demanding.  But you DO have a right to know why your coupon isn't working.  The fault may be with you, but even if it is, you still have the right to have the cashier explain what the problem is.  Don't apologize for that, and don't feel bad about it.  Your job is to save money for your family.  Don't let the stinkeye from strangers or a grumpy cashier keep you from doing that.

Over that hump?  Good.  On to couponing proper.

Since I don't know exactly what might work for you, I'll tell you what works for me, and let your pick which of these bull's horns you want to take and run with.

We begin bright and early on Saturday morning.  I hop out of bed at 6:00, put on my robe, and fetch the morning paper.

A couple of those details are embellished, but the important thing is that I do, in fact, get the paper delivered to my home on weekends.  It only takes a couple of bucks worth of coupons for the paper to pay for itself.  Then, hey, free paper!

Each weekend, there are anywhere from zero (usually on holiday weekends) to three booklets of coupons.  I pull out the booklets and set them aside.  Then I wait for either a baseball game or a football game to be on television.  That is prime clipping time, since clipping is a pretty mindless task and I would be watching the games anyway.

Once a game is on, I flip through the pages and mentally categorize each coupon into one of three categories:
1.  I have a high chance of using this before it expires.
2.  I have a low chance of using this before it expires, but I might use it if this item goes on some ridiculous sale.
3.  I have virtually no chance of using this coupon.

If a coupon is in the first category, I cut it out--right along the dotted line--and put it in a pile.  This pile will get sorted into my coupon caddie that I carry with me when I shop.

a stack like this...

turns into piles like these...

to get filed into this

If a coupon is in the second category, I do a "quick cut".  Basically, I separate it from other coupons, but don't really care about cutting along the lines.  If it's the only coupon on the page, I don't cut it all.  If it's on the top half, I quickly cut the page across the middle.  These pages get filed into a plastic, portable filing case.  I don't carry this case into stores with me, but sometimes keep it in the car.

some "quick cut" pages to be filed

Later, if I'm going through ads and see something on some crazy sale--like, if they're literally giving something away (more on that later)--I'll circle the item in the ad, then look through my file box to see if I've got a coupon in there that may even allow me to make a profit on an item.

If a coupon is in the third category, I drop it in the recycling bag.

Once I've cut out all the category 1 coupons, I sort them into new piles by type in order to sort them into my coupon caddie.  My caddie has 12 slots.  Here are how I catagorize them:

FROZEN FOOD (this category trumps other categories; e.g., a frozen snack food goes in here)

That's it.  Every coupon fits into one of those categories.

My file box of category 2 "quick cut" coupons is a little more segregated.  I've got 15 files:
AIR CARE (things like Glade plug-ins, odor eaters, etc.)
MEDICINE (INGESTED) (this is for all ingested treatments that do not relate to digestion)

There are a few products that could make a case for dual-citizenship, like make up products that double as lotion.  But there really are only a few.

Each coupon booklet takes me about 20 minutes to go through.  Again, these are usually 20 minutes that I would have spent just sitting on the counch watching sports.

So if you put in an hour a week in this manner, in just a few weeks you'll have a pretty good stash of both "quick access" and "on file" coupons.  Around the end of each month, I take another hour and flip through all my coupons to pull out the expired ones.

Caddie and Boxy: I wouldn't exactly call them "friends," but there's a mutual respect

Friend, you are not a coupon geek.  Welcome to the club.  Now that you've got your foundation, you're ready for intermediate couponing, where I'll share some very specific tricks and tips to help you maximize your coupon's effectiveness.  Until then...


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Getting Full on Less Dough: the Hungry Preacher's Guide to Savvy Shopping, PART 1

When not preaching for food, I sometimes acquire food for myself and my family the old fashioned way: the surrendering of legal currency to vendors of food. Over the years, I have practiced various tips and tricks to reduce the amount of money I need to spend on these regular food purchases.

I know there are other hungry preachers out there--some literal, some figurative--and while I cannot "give them a fish," perhaps I can "teach them to fish." Or, if I dare to balance the line between literal and metaphorical language (and you know I do!), I can "teach them to get the best possible price for fish from people who already know how to fish and successfully do so." So if you put on your listening ears, I'll put on my Yoda ears, and we'll have ourselves a good-old-fashioned paying forward of wisdom and experience, all in convenient blog form.

Let me quickly note that I realize that some people have the NEED to save money, and some people have the DESIRE to save money. Sometimes, those are the same people. Sometimes, they are not.

If you are someone with the need AND the desire to save money, I hope that my thoughts are helpful and my tone is compassionate. If you have the need and NOT the desire--well, I hope that some of what I write has the effect of "tough love"; it may be time to step up. In other words, I would like the very same words to seem simultaneously compassionate and confrontational, each in measures appropriate to the needs of the individual reader. Easy, right?

Today, I'll start off with some simple but foundational rules to embroid onto your reusable shopping bags. In the days that follow, I'll get into specifics regarding things like couponing and where to find the cheapest of certain products.

Shopping bootcamp starts now:

1. See Shopping as a Part-time Job. Let's say you added an extra 15 hours a month to the time that you spend planning and shopping. That probably seems like a lot. But I would guess that the average shopper for a family of 4 can turn that 15 hours of work into about $100 saved. That's actually not a bad return, if you figure it as a tax-free, hourly salary, with very flexible and multi-taskable hours. Such a perspective can help with motivation.

2. Shop Anywhere. If you practice "one stop shopping," you will pay more than you would if you strategically shop around. Of course, if it's worth it to you to take some of your food money each month and use it to buy time, convenience, or atmosphere (the things you gain by "one stop shopping")--by all means, have at it. Just make sure you realize that you ARE paying for those things, and that you are OK with making that purchase, so to speak.

3. Chuck Brand Loyalty. Sometimes brands matter, and we all have our name-brand splurges. I buy Crisco cooking spray because the capless spray-top is just to-die-for. Suggestion: Give yourself 5 products that you get to pick your brand on, and maybe another 10 that have brands that you WON'T buy. If money is tight each month, and yet there 37 items that you just HAVE to have in a certain brand... well, there's a disconnect. You've got to either adjust how much money you make or adjust your tastes. It took me a while to realize that I don't have a RIGHT, say, to buy only French's mustard or to never shop at Aldi. If I don't have money, I don't get to make those choices.

4. Establish Price Ceilings. A price ceiling is the low but reasonable dollar value you know you can regularly buy something for with sales and/or coupons. For example, my price ceiling on 12-packs of soda is $3. Without too much effort, I know I can usually get a 12-pack for this figure. Know the price ceiling. Commit to the price ceiling. If an item is on sale AND you have a coupon--BUT the final price is STILL above your price ceiling, then run away! Yell, "Go away, you filthy tempters! I am committed to the price ceiling!" Also, remember that the price ceiling is, in fact, a ceiling--if you stock up and practice patience, you can usually pay less than the price ceiling for an item (for example, 12-packs can often be had for $2.50 or even $2.00).

5. Look at Ads. The drugstores and the big supermarkets put out ads early in the week. Monday or Tuesday, I flip through them, and circle any items that are on sale for an amount at or below my price ceiling. (For circling, I've found that black ink stands out better than red or blue.) If I suspect I may have coupons for an item, I'll circle it even if it's a little above my price ceiling. Then I grab a pad of paper, flip back through the ads, and list out the items I've circled in each ad in a centralized manner. I end up with something like this, which helps me to see at a glance if it is worth making it to a particular store any given week.

Checkmarks mean I may have a coupon for that item

These are 5 foundational rules to get you started. In the next few posts, I'll elaborate on some of these, as well offer some specifics in other areas. But if you can follow these 5, you are well on your way to being a slightly-less-hungry preacher.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Catching the Moon: a Goodbye to Poozle

Two days ago, on April 4, 2012, we said goodbye to our loyal friend, Sir Poozalot--or "Poozle" as his friends called him.

Beth and I adopted Poozle from a pound in Kirksville, Missouri, shortly after we were married.  When we showed up at this rural shelter, the scene was chaotic.  People and puppies were walking around the gravelly parking lot and weedy grounds, while some groups of dogs were caged up in freestanding cylinders of chicken wire about 3 feet tall.  The permanent cages were being cleaned, but we were welcome to walk around and browse the dogs.

I wanted a dog with a distinct coat, so I grabbed a puppy with a brown and white pattern and tried to get it to play.  He seemed bored and lethargic, despite my prodding.  Then I heard Beth call, "Rob, check this out!"  She was standing next to one of the chicken wire cylinders, pointing at one of the six or so puppies flopping around like fish in a shallow pan of water.  "He can climb!"

I watched.  This little guy with hopeful eyes looked at us.  He stood up on his back feet and put his front paws on the fence.  Pretty normal so far.  But then he stuck one of his back paws in the fence.  Then his other back paw.  Then he moved his front paws to a higher link in the fence, one at a time.  Then he pulled with his front paws, pushed with his back, and started the whole process over again.  My eyes got buggy.  This crazy dog can climb fences!

He got to the top, but couldn't pull himself over the edge.  He teetered for a moment with his front elbows over the top of the fence, but the weight of his body was pulling him back into the cylinder.  His eyes looked at ours, desperate for help.  Not to be heartless, but I wanted to see how this would end apart from outside intervention.  He rocked, then wobbled, then flopped backwards, five squirming puppies cushioning his fall back into captivity.

It was darned near the cutest thing I'd ever seen.  Beth was already in love, and I was certainly impressed, but not quite sold.  I told Beth, "How about if he makes it to the top again, we'll grab him and he'll be the one?"  She agreed.

It wasn't long before we realized there were drawbacks to owning a dog that could climb fences.  Beth was in class and I was at the off-campus house for the college ministry I was working at.  The office phone rang.  "Hey, Rob.  This is Jim.  I'm in the office at Baldwin Hall, and I've got Poozle.  He was running around inside the building when I recognized him and grabbed him."

So much for our fenced-in yard being a perfect place to keep Poozle while we weren't home.  Baldwin Hall was the fine arts building.  Maybe Poozle was just looking for an adventure (probably) and maybe he was looking for me or Beth (doubtful).  But I like to pretend that he was drawn to a place where eccentricities were commonplace.  Artists and dancers and singers--often regarded as "weird" or "different"--they fit right in at Baldwin Hall.  And yes, Poozle was a little odd.  Quirky, if you prefer.

There was the climbing fences thing.  There was his insistence that he was a lap-dog, even after growing to 45 pounds.  There was his desire to "walk himself"--holding his leash in his mouth sometimes for the duration of a walk.  Of course, one end was hooked to him, and the other end was held by me or Beth.  But he'd just grab the middle, in his mouth, and casually trot along the sidewalk.

As an aside: On one of his first walks, I hoped to wear him out so he'd be less inclined to get in to trouble when I had to leave him alone.  My plan worked a little too well.  I didn't realize that tiny little puppies had a limited supply of strength and energy, especially on hot and humid summer days in the midwest.  Maybe his feet hurt, or maybe his head was too close to the hot sidewalk.  But after walking him a couple of miles, and nearly dragging him a hundred yards, he just sat down in the shade of a small tree.  He wasn't being stubborn.  He even looked pretty happy.  He just couldn't go on.  I, however, needed to go on.  Since at the time he didn't weigh much more than a gallon of milk, I scooped him up and cradled him like a baby the last few blocks to our air conditioned abode.

But Poozle's quirkiest quirk and favorite pastime was chasing lights.  Shine a flashlight on the floor in front of him, and he would go ballistic trying to catch that little circle of light.  If Beth and I ever used a flashlight, we couldn't just put it back on a shelf--Poozle would sit there, staring at the flashlight, whining.  Eventually, we figured out that one of us needed to distract him while the other one stealthily put the flashlight away.

Poozle eventually discovered that CD's also reflect light, and every time I reached for the CD stand Poozle would jump into "ready position", anxious to pounce at any fleeting reflection.

Once, we were walking him at night, when he looked up in the sky, stopped suddenly, and started whining.  It took us a few seconds to realize that he was whining at the full moon.  No, not howling.  Whining.  Longing to catch it like any old flashlight beam.  Our crazy dog wanted to catch the moon.

Poozle was soft and fluffy and affectionate.  He was big enough to wrestle with but small enough to cuddle.  He made two cross-country moves with us, once riding shotgun in a moving truck as my sole companion for more than 30 hours.  He never seemed to mind losing his yard to move to a 600 square foot townhouse.  He was just happy to be with us.  A half-a-dozen or so different residences also didn't faze him.

When he was 7 years old, Beth and I had our first daughter and 18 months later, our second.  He seemed to understand that there was a new order in the pack.  And he stayed loyal and mellow.  Even when his personal space got violated by our rambunctious little crumbsnatchers--and even when he got stepped on or tripped over more times to count--he kept his cool.

A little over a year ago, we brought another dog into pack, one that nearly doubled Poozle in size.  Loblaw was always eager to play with his new friend.  Poozle tried his best, even when Loblaw got a little rough for him.  Poozle wavered between welcoming and tolerant, but was never hostile.

This past year was tough for Poozle.  His feet didn't get very good traction on our hardwood floors.  It became harder and harder for him to make it up stairs.  His body couldn't quite do what his spirit wanted it to.  In his eyes, though, there was life and desire.  Whether he was looking up at us from the bottom of an insurmountable staircase, or eagerly hovering while I was taking a meatloaf from the oven, his eyes revealed a spirit more hopeful than his arthritic body warranted.

We always teased him about the meatloaf.  Every time one of us made a meatloaf, he'd dutifully sit watching our every move, not just hoping but actually expecting that we'd just set it on the floor for him to devour.  "Poozle," we'd ask.  "When have we EVER made a meatloaf, taken it out of the oven, and given it to you?"  He was always undeterred, and always seemed a little surprised and confused when we'd slice it up and eat it as though we had made it not for him, but for us.

A couple of years ago, Beth and I half-jokingly decided that when Poozle was on his last leg, we'd make a meatloaf just for him.  It seemed like it would be a long time before we'd have to worry about it.

But Monday of this past week, I looked in his eyes, and I knew.  Yes, standing was a nearly impossible task.  More significantly, though, his eyes showed that he was ready.

I made the appointment for Wednesday morning.  Tuesday morning, I thawed some ground beef and tried to make his last full day as pleasant as possible.  I spent some time snuggling with him on the couch and carried him outside for potty breaks.  He had eaten almost nothing but treats since the weekend, and was pretty worn down, but could still--with great care--put one foot in front of the other and walk to his water bowl.  I decided to take him out for a last walk, figuring it would do him good to get his legs moving.  I helped him off his bed then waved a treat in front of him to lure him to the door.  He surged towards the treat, but when his nose touched it, he turned his head away.  He didn't want a treat.

He still wagged his tail ever-so-slightly when I hooked him to his leash.  He even waved his mouth at it, like he remembered when he used to walk himself.  I got him down the steps to the sidewalk, barely holding it together.  We walked for two houses.  Then he sat down on the sidewalk.  He couldn't go anymore.  And I saw in his eyes that he didn't want to.  I told him it was OK, and then started sobbing.  I sat down next to him, legs out in front of me.  My left hand covered my slumped-over face while my right hand scratched his scruffy but still-soft neck.  We were both broken, in different ways.

He didn't seem sad, though.  Eventually, I looked over at him and saw a satisfied and reassuring expression.  I really, really believe that he knew what was going on, and wanted me to know that he was OK with it.  He seemed to be enjoying the moment, just sitting on the sidewalk together, and he wanted me to, as well.

We sat there, like two old men on a porch, and appreciated the times we'd shared.  After a few minutes, for the second time ever, I carried him home at the end of walk.

I laid him on his bed and got working on the meatloaf.  I used a square, 4-inch pan, and just a pound of ground beef.  I added enough ingredients that I could, in good conscience, actually call what I was making a "meatloaf" and not just "a baked hunk of ground beef."

A couple of hours later, after the dish was baked and cooled, I cut it into slices and put it in a bowl.  From his bed, Poozle perked up.  There was that familiar look of, "Oh, you a made a meatloaf?  For ME?"  Only this time, I had.  I put it in front of him.  He aggressively leaned his head in, sniffed it, then nothing.  He didn't want it.  I lost it again.  Why didn't I just make it for him a few days ago when he would have enjoyed it?  Then I thought about telling Beth when she got home from work.  When she got home, and I told her, she broke down just as I had.  "Did we wait too long?" she asked.  I shrugged, with tears of my own rolling down my face. "He did seem to enjoy smelling it," was the only answer I had.

I am very glad that later that night, Poozle did eat most of the meatloaf.  We rented a mindless movie and lifted Poozle up on the couch, his head in Beth's lap.  She held the meatloaf like a bowl of popcorn and, throughout the movie, broke off pieces to feed to Poozle, which he happily chewed and swallowed.

The next morning, we all loaded up in the car.  Beth and I dropped the girls off at school, then drove to the vet.

Every time we'd ever taken him to the vet, or the kennel, or to get his nails clipped, he was always scared.  Sometimes he would just tremble as though we were leaving him to be tortured.  But on Wednesday, not once did he seem scared.  He never trembled or squirmed.  He "climbed out of his cage."  He was very peaceful.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of the sadness I'm feeling.  Dogs--and this I am sure of--are not people.  They are dogs.  They are animals.  Some animals I step on and squish.  Other animals I make hamburgers out of.  But this animal...  He was my friend.  He had a consciousness.  He would try to cheer me up when I was sad.  Maybe more significantly to me, I knew that I could always, always make him happy.  It was easy.  I just had to scratch his ears or rub his belly or give him a treat.  He would purr if you scratched his ears just right.  It was nice to be able to always have that effect on someone, even if that someone is an animal.

It was nice to walk out the front door, look back at the house, and see someone looking out the window at me.

Once, I put a pancake on Poozle's nose and made him hold it there until I said he could eat it.  To my surprise, he flipped it off his nose into his mouth faster than I could even tell what happened.  I kept meaning to try to get him to do it again so I could film it.  Tuesday of this past week, I tried it.  To my surprise, he pulled it off.  Honestly, he probably hadn't moved that fast in nearly a year.  And shortly after I filmed this, he wasn't even able to walk, let alone sit upright with a pancake on his nose.  But he pulled it off.  It was a nice favor.  I'm glad I won't have to tell people about it and say, "I always meant to film him doing it, but never got around to it."  He was a good friend.

The Bible doesn't say if dogs go to heaven.  Most of the teaching in the Bible is about God and Jesus and people.  People have souls, and need salvation, and are invited to follow Jesus as an assurance that they, like him, will some day be resurrected.  Dogs?  Well, they don't need salvation, per se, in the same way that people do.  My opinion, though, is that dogs--at least as a rule--do go to heaven, or at least some place close enough to heaven that they can't tell the difference.

Romans 8:20-21 reads, "Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse.  But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay."  In the absence of specific teaching on the eternal destiny of dogs, this verse provides some non-specific hope--but hope nonetheless.  "Creation" in this verse does NOT appear to be another word for "people."  And this death and decay that Paul mentions certainly fit as a description of what animals in general and Poozle in particular go through as they age, fighting through disease and peril.

Nothing in the Bible or my faith would be scandalized if dogs do, indeed, go to heaven.  And there are suggestions, both biblical and experiential, that they do.  Christian scholars more revered than I--R.C. Sproul and C.S. Lewis, to name a couple--have taken a similar stance.

I am comforted by this.  I do believe that my friend is in a better place.  But if heaven is as full of light as the Bible indicates, I'm not sure Poozle will be able to control himself.  I'm sure his creator will figure out something.  Maybe, just maybe, heaven will be a place where Poozle can finally catch the moon, and all the joy, life, and wholeness that comes with it.