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  • Stockpiles mean not having to worry during times of stress

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    During the hospital crisis, the last thing on my mind was shopping. I’ll admit right off the bat that we ate a ton of take-out for about a week. But, it could have been a lot worse. Right from the start, we didn’t have to buy any snacks. Snack-type foods are pretty easy to find super cheap or even free when you combine sales and coupons. So we had a lot of cookies, crackers, Pop Tarts, and such around the house that we could take to the hospital and have on hand.

    We are thoroughly stocked on nonperishables like paper goods and toiletries. So if I don’t want to go shopping for a few weeks, that’s okay. We’re not going to run out of toilet paper or toothbrushes or shampoo. I did drag myself to CVS this week for the Huggies deal because I just opened the last package of Pullups (we seem to have raced through the packages I picked up last month at Rite Aid). But otherwise, I could easily not go shopping and not run out of anything important for at least three months, and maybe much longer.

    And that’s the beauty of stockpiling when things are cheap or free with coupons and sales: You don’t need to stress when times are tough.

    Costco vs Trader Joe’s vs Ralphs

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    We’ve been having connectivity issues this week, so I’ll be back sometime this weekend with regular posts (I hope!).

    In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting the issue of how prices at warehouse stores compare to other stores. (Mercedes of Common Sense with Money wrote a great post showing how buying in bulk is not cheaper last summer.) The specific stores I’ve been thinking about are Costco, Trader Joe’s and Ralphs.

    I shop at Trader Joe’s and Ralphs weekly. And even after reading Mercedes’s post, I’ve maintained my Costco membership, after calculating that the membership is worth it for the savings on gas and birthday cakes alone. That’s right, I said birthday cakes. A half sheet cake at Costco is $16.99 – $2 more than a year ago, by the way. A half sheet cake at Ralphs is about $30, depending on the design. And gas is an average of 10 to 20 cents per gallon cheaper, which works out to a savings of $1 to $2 per week.

    I go to Costco very infrequently, but I went recently and confirmed that sale prices at Ralphs and Pavilions are better than Costco’s every day prices. And Trader Joe’s low every day price is often better than Costco’s, but not for everything. Bananas are cheaper at Costco by about 10 cents per pound, organic ground beef is cheaper by 66 cents per pound, and organic low fat milk is cheaper by 6 cents per half gallon. It’s not much of a difference on a weekly basis, but I can freeze the meat and the milk is ultra pasteurized, so the expiration date is pretty far off. So I might make a run to Costco every two to three months to stock up on those items.

    After-Christmas sales don’t seem that great

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    We went to a few stores on Friday and Saturday, and I noticed a couple of things. First, there seemed to be fewer people around than in years past. The parking lots weren’t completely packed, and there was plenty of room inside the stores and mall. There weren’t any checkout lines in the stores. Even the kids’ areas at the mall we went to was actually kind of empty. It was nice.

    Second, the deals weren’t as great. Maybe the stores did a pretty good job of managing their inventories and getting people to buy with steep pre-Christmas discounts. I found the clearance sections to be surprisingly sparse. In fact, even though I said that I would wait for a 90% clearance to buy wrapping paper, the selection was so small compared to years past that I ended up picking up a couple of rolls at only 50% off. Their cute patterns aren’t holiday specific, and are colorful enough to use for kids’ birthday gifts, which is exactly what I needed – and I was afraid that if I waited a week for a bigger discount, these patterns would be gone.

    What about you? Have you found any great post-Christmas bargains?

    Chief Family Officer’s Holiday Shopping Tips

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    Last year was the first time I fully appreciated the power of online shopping portals, deal forums, and online deals. I discovered sites like SlickDeals and FatWallet, which posted astonishingly great deals, and sites like Ebates, which give you cash back on your online purchases (read my Ebates review). I learned that if I monitor my favorite deal sites, I can give awesome gifts while saving hundreds of dollars. As this year’s holiday shopping season swings into full gear, I offer some shopping tips to save you as much money as possible:

    Establish a budget. Know how much you can afford to spend this holiday season. Don’t go into debt. Enough said.

    Establish your priorities. If your goal is to save the most money, then you should be prepared to devote your time to hunting down the best deals. But if time is more precious, then be prepared to spend a little more money in exchange for saving some time and stress.

    Get comfortable with the best deal sites. Spend some time on SlickDeals and FatWallet to become familiar with how they post deals, before the sheer number of deals posted becomes overwhelming. My personal preference is to subscribe to the forums via Google Reader, but that only shows me the first post in each thread so I probably miss out on some deals that are posted within threads. (I’ll click through if I have reason to believe there’s valuable information within the thread.)

    Find sites that specialize in deals on the things you’re interested in. For example, I like to keep an eye on toy deals at Amazon, and last year, I found that Bargain Hunting Moms did a pretty good job of highlighting some real bargains.

    Decide if you’re going to shop on Black Friday. I might skip Black Friday this year, but I’m still keeping an eye on the posts at GottaDeal.com. They post previews of Black Friday deals as they become available, which is helpful in planning your Black Friday shopping trip. If it’s your first Black Friday, try to find out what to expect. It’s been my experience that lines form outside the electronics stores and Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving Day, while the early bird at the mall has it pretty good. If you plan to hit an insanely busy store like Wal-Mart or Best Buy, do a Google search to learn how others handle the experience.

    If you shop online, don’t forget to take shipping charges into consideration. Shipping charges can turn a great deal into a terrible one, so always make sure you’ve factored them into your decision on whether to make a purchase.

    When shopping online, always shop through a rewards portal. There are very few sites that don’t offer a reward of some kind. Alas, one of them is my favorite online store – Amazon. But except for Amazon, I have always been able to earn a reward on my purchases. My favorite portal is Ebates, because it gives me cash back each quarter. But I’ve also used Upromise and my credit card issuer’s “shopping mall.” There are dozens of other rewards sites, so there’s no excuse for not getting something in return for your online purchases.

    When shopping online, always look for coupons, discounts, and promotion codes. I try to never shop online without some kind of discount, because I can almost always find a code that gives me free shipping, a dollar amount or percentage off, or a free item. For example, when I bought some items from Oriental Trading Company for Tyler’s upcoming birthday party, I went through Ebates and got 6% cash back (it was their Double Cash Back day) and free shipping, saving myself over $15. Ebates lists coupon codes and automatically applies some of them when you click through to the merchant. You can also find discount codes at sites like RetailMeNot and UltimateCoupons.

    Keep track of your purchases. This is especially important if you have to buy a large number of presents or if you have a tendency to forget what you’ve already bought. You don’t want to accidentally buy two gifts for Aunt Maggie when you only need one.

    Similarly, keep track of your expenditures. See the first point in this list and don’t go overbudget.

    If you follow all of these tips, you’ll have a houseful of affordable gifts, which should make your holiday season brighter. Happy shopping!

    New rewards program at Ralphs

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    Ralphs is all about change right now. Along with cutting their coupon policy, they’ve instituted a new rewards program called Ralphs rewards. You can visit the official web site and FAQ (and see for yourself that “rewards” is written rewards every time, even at the beginning of a sentence).

    The new program incorporates Ralphs Club (which used to get you the sale price) and also has an earnings component. You earn one point per dollar spent. (Exclusions apply – scroll to the bottom of the page to see them. Does anyone know why milk is excluded?) You can also earn points by bringing your own shopping bags. Once per quarter, you’ll receive a $5 “rewards certificate” for every 500 points earned. Points roll over from quarter to quarter, but reset to 0 every January 1.

    Supposedly, they will also send coupons and “offer emails,” but I’m a little skeptical that they’ll do it often or that the coupons and offers will amount to more than a token savings.

    At least converting the card was fairly easy. They put a very personable young man at the table near the main entrance, trained him to call every woman “Miss” no matter how old she was, and put out a plate of cookies that immediately attracted Tyler’s attention. (I loved hearing the young man say “Miss” to the 80-year-old woman who wanted to know the effect of the new program on her Senior card. The answer: there are extra perks for seniors anymore.) All I had to do was hand over my Club card, wait for him to transcribe the old number onto the new card application, then fill in my name, address, phone number and email address. Normally, I wouldn’t provide all that info but I haven’t heard or experienced anything bad about spam or junk mail sent to Ralphs Club card holders, and I had to provide my address to receive those rewards certificates. And maybe they actually will email good coupons, especially with programs like Shortcuts now in place.

    If you do get a new card, don’t forget to register it with UPromise, if you’re already a member there.

    New Ralphs coupon policy

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    Out here in California, we have Ralphs supermarkets, which are part of the Kroger family. Up until Wednesday, Ralphs doubled coupons with a face value of up to $1 (so you would get $2 off for a $1 coupon). But according to the LA Times, now they only double coupons with a value of up to 50-cents. They will take off $1 for coupons with a face value of 51 to 99 cents.

    I used to do most of my grocery shopping at Ralphs, but five years ago, there was a widespread lockout/strike at the major chains. The supermarkets agreed that Ralphs would stay open and share the profits (which might have been held illegal, if memory serves). Since I felt bad crossing the picket line and didn’t want to face the picketing workers, I started shopping almost exclusively at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. And for the last five years, I’ve done my weekly shopping at Trader Joe’s. I particularly like their wide selection of and reasonable prices on organic and hormone/antibiotic free products.

    But lately, as I’ve gotten into using coupons more thanks to The Drugstore Game, I was thinking about shopping more at Ralphs. With double coupons, there could be some really good deals to be had. And I did pick up a $330 gift card for $300. But this new coupon policy is putting a damper on my enthusiasm for shopping there again.

    How much does a store’s coupon policy affect whether you shop there?