Comedian Daniel Tosh delivers a great joke about Target. The scenario: A shopper enters Target for one item and walks out of the store $95 later. That shopper could have been me. Too often, when I push a cart through discount chains, my wish list expands, and my wallet shrinks. Fortunately, I’ve developed a money-saving shopping plan. The strategy involves the following elements:
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Set time limits
Time appears to be a stealth money-making strategy for the retail industry, including Target, Marshalls, Walmart and other stores. Here’s the process: The longer the shopping trip, the greater the bill. Therefore, I dramatically cut my shopping bill by watching the clock and adhering to self-imposed deadlines. This week, for example, I gave myself 30 to 45 minutes to shop, and with that deadline, I spent 60 percent less money than a previous 70-minute outing in that same store. Stores use a lot of tricks to increase your spending. The less time you spend on their turf the better.
Make a list
A shopping list is a money-saving tool. Armed with a list, I have a defined strategy for getting in and out of a store. That’s because a shopping list represents a contract between me and my budget, and even if I don’t consult the list in the store, the items on the paper remain etched in my brain. With a list—developed from the weekly featured merchandise in the store flyer—I avoid impulse purchases and stock up on sale merchandise.
Use rain checks
When hunting for sale merchandise, avoid expensive substitutions. If a featured sales item is out of stock, go to the customer service desk and ask for a rain check. Avoid almost-but-not-quite alternatives, which are typically more costly than the sale promotion. Stash the rain check in a convenient location and take note of the expiration date. Like coupons, rain checks have a specified time period and are no longer valid after the expiration date.
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Avoid danger zones
Walk through the store with blinders. Stay clear of money-magnet sections, which include the dollar aisles filled with salt shakers, back scratchers and snacks. Detour around marked-down sections showcasing candles, books, frames and movies. Avoid making eye contact with employees offering free taste-test samples and coupons. Don’t touch displays near the checkout line. Those danger zones often lead to impulse purchases that will fill your cart and drain your wallet.
Even at full price, private-label merchandise—pots, clothing and chips—can cost significantly less than the marked-down version of name-brand counterparts. For example, I found a store-brand bottle of salad dressing that was 20 cents cheaper than the “discounted” version of a national brand. (See also: How to afford gourmet every day.)
Target, Walmart and even some Marshalls carry food products. That superstore mixture of fashion, food and photo frames offers a risky mix of temptation for many shoppers. Of course, it’s convenient to snap up bed sheets and taco shells in one location. But too often, I’ve gone into the superstore for a $2 jar of spaghetti sauce and walked out with a $20 sauce pan, school uniform pants, decorative pillows and new towels. Superstores make it convenient for shoppers to spend lots of money, especially when the low-priced food section is inconveniently located after layers of clothing, candy and cameras. (See also: 4 alternatives to high-end supermarkets)
Sharon Harvey-Rosenberg is a special financial news contributor for Wise Bread. She is the author of "Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money” and a contributing author to ”10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.”