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A Black Belt Shopping Project

Black Belt Shopper (featured column)
by Larry Wiener

If you’ve read this column and this site over the months, you know that black belt shopping is a whole paradigm and lifestyle. You develop strategies and habits to save money on everyday purchases and then very intentionally use the money you save to plan for the future and enhance the quality of your life.

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Sometimes a family needs to cooperate in order to make black belt shopping work. Often developing a goal, tracking progress, and working together makes changing paradigms easier. A recent visit with a large family that used coupons to get out of permabroke gave me the idea for a story that illustrates how you can go from random to black belt shopping.

Meet Sam and Sally Spendthrift and their two teenage sons Sam Jr. and Sean. They are a suburban family with a mortgage, two car payments, two careers, and sometimes more month than money. They’re not in danger of bankruptcy, but they haven’t been on a real vacation in a long time and their house can use some repair. They don’t think they have time to check out sales.

They got propelled into action when they realized they were spending $1000 on food, including school cafeteria lunches and sometimes breakfast at the local convenience store. "You can’t stop those teenagers from eating and with both of us working long hours, we find many times dinner is provided by the Colonel or Boston Market," Sam lamented.

The Spendthrifts consulted with Benny Blackbelt, a neighbor and black belt shopper. Here was their plan.

First, the Spendthrifts had a family meeting to acknowledge the problem and develop a plan of action. They decided they would work together to spend less on food and would keep track of their savings. To keep everyone motivated, they would apply ½ their savings to buying a DVD player, a small luxury they had not been able to afford. They brainstormed on how they were going to afford the player.

The family noted that when Sally had to work late, she often brought home takeout because she was so tired. Sam Jr. offered to cook meals on those nights. Sally would call home as soon as she knew she was going to have to stay at work and Sam would find a quick and tasty meal to make.

Benny Blackbelt suggested starting with spaghetti (50 cents a pound at the dollar store) with Ragu sauce (often $1 when it is on sale with a coupon) Lentils (also available at the dollar store) and frozen meatless meatballs from Trader Joe’s, a specialty grocery store in an increasing number of areas (a little expensive, but gives taste to an otherwise bland meal) would provide protein.

The family agreed to assign a saved value of $5 for this meal over a meal from Boston Market. Not exactly haute cuisine, but the family was thinking about those DVD’s they wanted to watch while they ate it.

Sean offered to cut out the coupons from the Sunday supplement each week. Benny suggested that Sean cut out coupons not only for what they might use this week, but for every non-perishable item the family might use in the next six months. He then suggested that one particular store in the area doubled coupons and often put items with coupons from the Sunday supplement on sale that week (this is a very typical pattern in the Southern California area where I live). The first time Sally went shopping, she saved $28.32. That DVD player wasn’t far off.

Sam Jr and Sean agreed to brown bag it several times a week, assigning a savings of $2 for each day they saved.

During the meeting, the family noted that Sam Sr. had the habit of stopping at the local convenience store near the gas station or a drive thru on the way to work and buying breakfast, often spending $4. The family decided to buy frozen muffins at the local convenience store and a reusable cup for Sam’s coffee. Since Sam usually got his $4 breakfast three times a week, they decided they would be able assign a savings value of $5 a week for each week Sam could go without stopping for breakfast.

When Sally told her sister about the plan, she found that her sister regularly shops at dollar stores for certain kinds of groceries. Sally checked that out and was able to save $17 the first time by getting pastas, relish, juices, and a few other items at the dollar store across the street. Add that $17 to the list.

It didn’t take long for those savings to start mounting up and the family stated to realize that DVD day was only a few weeks off. Sean was taking his life and guidance course at school and one of the projects was to research a major purchase. Realizing that part of black belt shopping is to make good purchases based on information, Sean agreed to research the different brands and features on DVD players.

Once the family was really close to the magic number, he also started going through the newspaper to see who was having a sale on the model the family wanted.

The family began getting excited as they got closer to DVD day. They were wondering what to do with the other half of the money they were saving. Sam had been putting it aside in a cash box. He got his answer. One day the car wouldn’t start. In the past, the Spendthrifts were so much on the edge that a car problem could put them into deficit for a month or two. Fortunately, this time Sam had enough in his cashbox to pay for most of the repair.

That car repair showed them another black belt shopping principle, that you use some of the money you save to build a financial base. Start by having a reserve to cover life’s emergencies. This reserve needs to be in a liquid account outside the stock and bond market. Once you have your reserve, then you can start to work toward becoming an investor.

Six weeks after their initial meeting, the Spendthrifts gleefully unpacked their DVD player. They all agreed it was worth brown bagged school lunches and all the rest to have that machine. They decided they were going to find more ways to get more out of a dollar to save for even more goals.

Sean was sharing the story with his friend George who had moved to Minneapolis. George told him about Plato’s Closet, a chain of clothing consignment stores that catered to teens. Sean, who in his pre-black-belt days would pay $30 for a t-shirt at a stylish teen-oriented specialty store because anything else was uncool, realized it would be at least worth looking for something like Plato’s Closet because he really wanted to save for a mountain bike.

Sam had always thought that he should participate in his company’s 401(k) plan, but never really had the funds to do it. Thanks to the family’s black belt shopping, six months after that initial meeting, he was able to start putting money into the fund. He also was starting to save for a special family vacation next year when Sam Jr. graduated from high school. Sam Jr. began researching how to get hotel deals on the Internet.

The story above is fiction, but not really. It is a compilation of the stories of many people I know who have made decisions to become more intentional about how they use money. It is an example of how all of us can use the black belt shopping tools of saving money on everyday purchase, researching major purchases, and being intentional about the money we save to enrich our lives.

The Spendthrifts also added an element that I think is really helpful to motivation, especially when you are first developing these habits. They set a goal and kept track of their progress toward the goal. Their goal was relatively short-term and one that everyone could buy into.

From their story, you can see the following steps that can help you move from random shopping to black belt shopping:

* Identify your own spending habits. Eating breakfasts at drive throughs and bringing home takeout were keeping the Spendthrifts from reaching their goal. If you like to eat out, better to budget meals at a real restaurant.

* Look for specific ways to save. Couponing and other ways of saving on groceries is a great starter. Besides saving you on a most basic expense, couponing helps you develop habits that will help you with other purchases and even with investment decisions.

* Set a short-term goal to start with. The Spendthrifts wanted a DVD player–a relatively inexpensive item now that you can get a good one for $100 or less. Setting that type of goal and measuring progress toward it keeps you motivated during those early weeks. Thinking of the goal when you eat those brown bag lunches will keep you positive.

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Copyright 2002 by Larry Wiener. All rights reserved.

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