Cheap Chic

Saving money on everyday purchases seems to have attained a great deal of popularity these days.  I suppose this is really nothing new; I have fond memories of my parents pasting Triple-S Blue Stamps (from Grand Union), S&H Green Stamps (from Daitch Shopwell) and Plaid Stamps (from the A&P) into little books that were stored in a kitchen cabinet next to the refrigerator.  And then there were always coupons to clip from the pull-out sections in the Sunday newspaper.

My teenaged niece recently expressed interest in “couponing.”  I see that, these days, coupons don’t necessarily require scissors; you can just print them off your computer’s printer.  I call these “click coupons.”  Some coupons are even paperless.  You just wave your phone at a QR tag, scan a bar code or show the email/web page to the clerk.

There are a lot of bloggers out there writing about sticking to a budget and shopping economically.  I particularly enjoyed this post that encourages readers to make the dollar store part of their regular routines.  Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the author’s thumbs down on purchasing food at the dollar store.  Sure, you have to keep careful watch on expiration dates, but you can often spot large remaindered lots of soup or tomato sauce or canned vegetables that sell for more than a dollar each in the supermarket.  Junk food like chips and soda seems to be cheapest at the dollar store most of the time.  For nonfood items, however, you can pretty much run amok like a kid in a candy store.  (Speaking of which, it’s a great place for candy if you’re dying for sugar.)  We wouldn’t think of looking for greeting cards anywhere else.  And I credit the dollar store for the Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas schlock with which I have been able to decorate my cubicle at work.

I am a big fan of the “green” movement, and a fervent believer in reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  So the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores are always fun places to visit.  Several times each year, we make donations of clothes that we no longer wear and toys that my grandniece has outgrown.  Better that someone else should enjoy them for 99 cents than that they should sit forlornly in our closets.  We like the fact that many donors have dumped off piles of books there, a few of which find their way cheaply (and temporarily) into our library.  We rarely keep them long.  After we’ve read them, we usually pass them on to someone else.  If no family member is interested, there’s always someone online who is.

I still get a kick out of the references to Grandpa’s coat and “poppin’ tags” with “twenty dollars in my pocket” from Macklemore and Lewis’ hip hop answer to conspicuous consumption, “Thrift Shop” (although I could do without the gratuitous profanity).

soy meat

When I recently had a day off work for Veterans Day, we took a trip up the freeway and over into Sutter County to check out Grocery Outlet.  My wife had stopped into one of their stores in downtown Sacramento after she dropped me off at work one day last month and was surprised to find my favorite “fake meat.”  There are a lot of these vegan products around, made from soy or textured vegetable protein, either of which can be formed into nearly any shape.  They are meat substitutes, good sources of protein and typically supposed to taste like beef or chicken (they don’t).  Most of these products make an excellent dish when sautéed in a little olive oil and garlic with a bunch of veggies and served over rice, potatoes or pasta (or done up as tacos).

So we decided to check out a Grocery Outlet store a little closer to where we live.  This place is a far cry from a 99 cent store, but it certainly does carry an eclectic variety of merchandise at relatively low prices.  You just have to be choosey and see whether anything you happen to need is available on the cheap.  In front of the store was a tall display filled with the largest bags of potato chips and barbecue chips that I’d ever seen.  Perusing the aisles inside, I was amazed at the quantity of non-food items they carry.  The last time I’d been in a Grocery Outlet store was back when we lived in the Central Valley, many years ago.  We used to call the place “the canned food outlet,” because that’s what we would buy there:  Lots of dirt cheap canned items, mostly dented or with the labels peeling off.

This place was different, however, and we were surprised at some of the bargains we were able to pick up.  A blue and white laundry basket for my niece, along with a matching rug.  (Merry Christmas.)  A Psalms calendar for Pastor Mom.


And that’s when I saw it.  A rack of zippered jackets, with enough insulation to be cozily warm without being heavy like a parka.  Most incredibly, they had some in my size!  I tried on a chocolate brown jacket and decided that this was indeed a bargain for twenty bucks.

Oh, and they had my fake meat, too.

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo





Today we visited the local recycling center with a load of eight bags full of plastic water bottles and aluminum soda cans.  I use the word “local” rather loosely, as we had to drive to the next town.  The recycling center in our own town closed earlier this year for reasons that are somewhat unclear (rumor has it that the operator was arrested for the possession of illegal firearms).  This created a pronounced hardship for everyone here, particularly for our many homeless individuals who no longer have any means of redeeming the bottles and cans they pick up for a little cash.  Lugging bags of empties on the bus is problematic at best and cuts into one’s profits.  That is, assuming one even has the bus fare.  More than once, we have provided a homeless person with a ride to the recycling center.

In the 105°F heat, we ripped open our bags, dumping our bottles and cans into one large bucket after another.  As you can see in the above photo, the aluminum cans were sent on their way to the crusher, where they are shaped into large blocks of metal that will eventually be reused.

Many states passed “bottle bills” back in the 1970s, when I was in college.  I recall the irritation of consumers over the prospect of paying an extra five cents for each bottle or can purchased, a premium that could only be recouped by returning the container to the store.  This was before recycling centers became commonplace and before many supermarkets installed automatic can crushing machines that spit out nickels like crazed slot machines.

When I lived in New York, many people drove across the border to buy their beverages in New Jersey, where no bottle and can return law exists.  Similarly, when my wife and I lived out in the far reaches of the California desert, many of our neighbors would save their nickels by buying their soda and water over the bridge in Arizona.

Of course, many of us don’t care a whit about recycling and dump our bottles and cans into the trash, the return value be damned.  This is a perpetual boon to teenagers, entrepreneurs and those local homeless people who have the time and patience to dig empties out of dumpsters and pick them up from the side of the road.


Here in California, we have a rather strange container recycling law.  In most states with “return bottle” laws, each empty is worth a nickel.  The exception is Michigan, where bottles and cans are worth ten cents.  You may notice, however, that many cans and bottles are stamped with the indicator “CA CASH VALUE” or “CRV” (California redemption value).  This is because state law permits recycling centers to pay for bottles and cans by weight rather than count.  Thus, today we were paid $1.80 per pound for cans and $1.06 per pound for plastic bottles.  Payout varies from one recycling center to another, but I hear that what you can expect works out to a little over two cents per container.

What I didn’t know until I researched the issue, however, is that Californians have the right to demand that the recycling center pay by the individual container rather than by weight, for the first 50 cans and 50 bottles.  This doesn’t help if you’re bringing in a big haul, but who knew that state law allows you to bring in up to 100 containers and be paid a full nickel for each?  And if a can or bottle holds 24 ounces or more, it is worth ten cents!  You can read about it here.

With the price of gasoline out here in California, it may end up being a wash in the end.  Not many of us want to pay for extra trips to the recycling center so that we can be paid by the container instead of by crush weight.  I think it’s safe to say that most people would rather save up big bags of bottles and cans to bring in for recycling once every few months.

However, I know a few homeless people who might not agree.