Stocking the Grocery Pantry

I threw a list of Pantry items together in 2004 and went shopping. My goal was to confirm or dispel what participants in my budgeting classes would argue: that it was cheaper to purchase groceries at larger markets, especially those in larger towns where there is more than one grocery store.

What I challenged them to consider was the cost of transportation and the added time it took to make a 1 hour round trip each week for groceries; especially if the sale items were the same price in a local store.  Did they save enough to off-set those costs? Even though the cash register receipt is lower for the same items, it wasn’t enough savings to cover the cost of transportation.

I took my list shopping to the local grocery in 2007 and again today.   Here’s what I’ve learned from the comparison:

  • The cost for store brands, 2004-2018, increased 54.7%, the national brands increased 34.3%.
  • The margin between the cost of buying a store brand and buying a national label continues to erode. In 2004 the difference was 30%, in 2018 the difference is 24%. Store brands still cost less, but not as much.  Quality becomes more important.
  • The changes in package sizes has slowed. I found several items in smaller packages between 2004 and 2007; but only Oat Cereal was found in a smaller package in 2018.
  • Some items are lower priced. Brand name stick margarine is priced lower than the 2004 cost and the store brand is equivalent to the brand name price. Oat Cereal, when broken down into price per ounce, is 27 cents today. In 2004 it was 26 cents an ounce.  Brand name green beans have declined slightly since 2007, with store brands getting close to equivalent price.
  • Items on my pantry list with a larger than average increase in price are: a 2 lb. block of processed cheese food – the national brand increased 100%; a 5 lb. bag of national brand flour increased 61%.

A new player in the pantry shopping list is a local dollar store.  My grocery sack included a combination of store brands and national brands. The sizes were equivalent. Not everything on the list was available. Some items were lower, but others were higher in price. In the end my combination sack cost the same as the store brands at the local grocery.   If you have the time and pay attention to prices you could lower your total grocery costs by shopping at both stores if they are close to each other.

Visit the Spend Smart, Eat Smart website for low cost recipes and other tools to manage your grocery dollars.

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Confirmation Bias? Dangerous

I heard a speaker yesterday refer to “confirmation bias.” It’s an idea I know well, but it had been a while since I heard the actual phrase, so it caused me to think. The idea behind confirmation bias is that if you believe something to be true (or if you even want something to be true), you will be able to find facts you can interpret in such a way that they will seem to support the belief you want to be true.

For consumers, confirmation bias can be a dangerous thing. Here are some hypothetical (but realistic) examples of how that could work.

  • Several friends have purchased a very-expensive brand of Widgets, and they all swear by the benefits of the brand. Undoubtedly, a search will lead to other positive reviews of the widget that persuade you that your friends are right; this may leave you feeling justified in spending much more money than planned on your new widget.
  • You hear a rumor that now is a great time to invest in Company X. You do an on-line search and you find several articles that support your desire to jump into the investment, so you move forward with the idea.

In both of these examples, the fact that you knew in advance what answer you wanted to find made you much more likely to find it.

There has been much discussion in recent months about facts and what to believe. Sadly, the abundance of information available on the internet includes “sources” that claim opposing facts: one source shows how “Fact A” is definitely true, while another source cites information which “prove” the false-ness of “Fact A.”

This simply reminds me how critical it is for consumers to protect against confirmation bias, as well as against unreliable information in any situation. The best decisions are based on research conducted by well-respected scientists. Three tips to protect yourself:

  • Always shop around (at least 3 sellers) before making any significant purchase or consumer decision.
  • Always seek information from multiple sources; ideally, those multiple sources would not be connected to each other. (For example, if you read an article in 3 different publications, but all those publications are operated by the same umbrella company, it’s really not equal to three different sources).
  • The most reliable on-line sources on most topics are sites whose URLs carry a “.gov” or a “.edu” extension. Some “.org” sites are reliable, but use caution because they may have an agenda. Two reliable “.org” sites are www.consumerreports.org and www.nefe.org.
Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Plan for Change

The wife of a dear friend has lived in a care center for about 10 years now. I frequently cross paths with him and can see how much he misses her. I called him, excited to hear the details, when I saw on Facebook that she had moved back home. He explained that as her condition deteriorated over time, the cost of care in the nursing home had increased…so much so that they could no longer afford for her to live there.

That sounds like bad news, but it is truly turning into good news for them. You see, my friend has now retired from farming, and he can provide some of the care in their home. They have found it much more cost effective to hire a nurse to come at scheduled times to provide care and guidance for my friend, who wants only the best for his wife and is eager and able to be her caregiver. This solution has brought much joy to their home, as they are together again under the same roof.

As we plan for the future in retirement, we often think about three stages: early retirement when we do more traveling or activities that cost more…the middle years which cost less, when we are still healthy but do less because our goals have been met…and the later years when our health care cost rise. For my friend, the thought of bringing his wife home was not part of the original plan. Once he retired from farming and was more available to provide care, it made sense. It is important to make a plan but to also revisit that plan and see if it is still the best solution even after it has been implemented. Plans can always be revised.

The Finances of Caregiving is a series of five 2-hour workshops to expand your understanding of possible solutions for providing care for a loved one and help families plan together for the care receiver’s care. Understanding your choices means knowing your current situation. This program guides you through finding and collecting that information; it also provides information about communication strategies and options for care. To find a location of a program being offered near you, check out www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/finances-caregiving

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Prescription Costs: Cash vs Co-Pay

Prescription drug costs are getting a lot of media attention these days, sometimes leaving consumers unsure who to trust.  One question raised by news coverage is the question of how much we should trust our insurance plans to get us the best deal. According to a recent study, nearly one-fourth of all prescription purchases would be less costly to consumers if they paid cash rather than having their insurance cover the purchase. In other words, their co-payments were more than the actual cash cost of the medication.

The report said it is common for this overpayment to occur with generics. A news report gave an example where the difference was dramatic — a $285 copay compared to a $40 cash price. It seems unthinkable, yet it happens!

Consumers have told stories about this problem for years, but the recent paper from the Schaeffer Health Policy Center at USC was the first known systematic study, so only now are we learning how widespread the problem was; the study, which examined 2013 data, indicated that 23% of all prescriptions involved this kind of overpayment. A few states (not yet Iowa) have passed laws against this practice, but anecdotal reports suggest that it is still widespread.

I’m reminded of the classic consumer advice: “Let the buyer beware;” when in doubt, we need to check things out carefully, gathering information on our own rather than trusting an outsider’s guidance. In fact, the report mentioned that pharmacists’ contracts often include gag rules which prevent them from telling patients about this, unless they ask.

SO – next time I fill a prescription, I’m going to ask: how much would this cost if I just paid cash? If it’s cheaper to pay for it outright, then I’m happy to leave my insurance out of the equation.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Sales Tax Holiday: Use Wisely

In Iowa, this coming Friday and Saturday (Aug 3-4 2018) offers a chance to buy qualifying clothing items without paying any sales tax. For most Iowans, (depending on local sales tax), that’s a savings of 7% — not a huge windfall, but still an advantage.  That savings is magnified by the many retailers who offer clothing sales on the same weekend.

Sounds like a winning proposition, right? It can be. But like anything else, it requires consumers to use good judgment! Why?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve had experience with the risks involved in shopping simply because there’s a sale. Who among us hasn’t made a purchase because it was such a “great deal” and then never (or rarely) used it? Hopefully we learn from those experiences, but it always pays to exercise caution when shopping sales.  Here are some ideas to help us avoid regrets:

  • Have a list and prioritize.
  • Plan a dollar limit that lets you fit your purchases into your budget without borrowing. When purchases are paid off over months of credit card payments, the benefit of the sale price quickly disappears.
  • Know what the “regular” prices are, and consider whether items will be on a bigger sale later in the fall. In other words, ask yourself “Are they just giving a small discount to tempt me to buy now rather than waiting for later when bigger discounts will be offered?”
  • Keep all receipts. If you pick something up and later decide it wasn’t that important or that great of a bargain, you’ll simply be able to return it!  Be sure to have the self-discipline to follow through on that… it may be “only” $10 or $20, but that adds up over time.
  • If you are buying for people other than yourself (especially growing children) check out their current clothing stock before you make your list — find out what fits and what doesn’t. This will help you make sure that the items on your list are the most important items.

Iowa’s Sales Tax Holiday applies to most clothing and footwear items priced below $100. Most accessories are not exempt (such as jewelry or watches), but some items do qualify for the exemption (such as scarves).  Certain specialty clothing items, such as clothing specific to a particular sport, are excluded as well. For a full list of items that are taxable vs. exempt, go to https://tax.iowa.gov/iowas-annual-sales-tax-holiday.

Happy shopping! Good planning means no regrets!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Meals Delivered

I recently participated in a meal prep event where a dozen women met at a local grocery store to make and take meals ready to cook. We came with empty coolers and each left with coolers filled with 12 meals in Ziploc bags and a copy of the recipe and cooking instructions. Each meal would serve 4 to 6 people. Each of the 12 women would assemble twelve of one meal. When everyone was done dumping all the ingredients for their meal, into a large gallon Ziploc, we walked around the room and grabbed one bag of each meal. Some of the meals were meant to be grilled; others were ready for the crockpot. These meals were healthy with lots of flavor. And…it was a fun social evening for us.

At first, I felt the per-serving cost was a little pricey. But, if you consider all the ingredients AND all the left overs of each ingredient I would have had to store (or toss because I didn’t use them) it wasn’t bad. For example, I paid for only the 1 cup of rice that was needed for the recipe…not the other 3 cups in the bag. The same is true for all the herbs and seasonings.

I recently helped a Veteran who was blind, figure out ways to stretch his budget. We talked about his struggle to shop and cook. He took advantage of the Meals On Wheels for one meal a day during the week; but what about the other meals of the week?

After a little research, I found that in Iowa, there are several businesses that prepare and delivers refrigerated meal. Naomi’s Kitchen, Mom’s Meals and Sisters Entrees are just a few.

A thought did cross my mind…what if I and a dozen of my friends volunteered our time to assemble meals for him. It would be a fun and he would benefit greatly. If we made only crockpot meals, it would make meal prep easy for him…just dump it a crockpot, and put it on high for 2 hours.

What other inexpensive ideas or options do you have access to for easy meal prep for individuals that have physical challenges in the kitchen?

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Is There Treasure Hiding Near You?

Geocaching is an electronic treasure hunt. It is a great low-cost activity, and can be fun year-round. It is easy to catch on to and there are caches all over – literally around the world (2 million to be exact).

To get started set up a free account at geocaching.com, then download the free app to your smartphone or purchase a GPS unit. Search near you for a cache, use your app or plug the coordinates into the GPS to start hunting.

Many geocaches are found in safe places like rest areas, parks and cemeteries or near landmarks. What you will find may be very small like a pill fob OR it may be larger, like an ammo box. Some will be harder to find than others but they are never buried. Inside will be a log to sign. There may also be “swag” like geodes, stickers, patches, pins, marbles, key chains, lanyards, and geocoins.

Tips:

  • Dress appropriately.
  • Let someone know where you are going or enjoy navigating with someone else – perhaps a child or grandchild.
  • The caches are secret so don’t let passersby know what you are doing.
  • If you take something, you should leave something of equal or greater value.
  • Always return the cache to its hiding place.
  • Bring your own pen to sign the log, then enter your find at https://www.geocaching.com.

Discover what is hiding near you today! How many will you find?

Written by Sandra McKinnon, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach family finance specialist and geocacher since 2009

(Photo by Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Upon Graduating – Financial Words of Wisdom

Many students recently marked a big milestone by graduating from school.  Looking back, what words of wisdom regarding personal finance would you like to have received when you left high school?

Personal finance does not have to be boring!  The National Endowment Financial Education – www.nefe.org has a couple resources to help your graduate be an independent young adult.

On Your Own –is a blog with a range from credit score calculated, making better money decisions, and the pros and cons of college?  This is a trustworthy site.

Another option is Smart About Money (SAM) is an in-depth, guided learning experience.  There are five sections with valuable tools, worksheets, calculators and quizzes.  Each course is about 45 minutes.

Cash Course targets college students. Some colleges and universities offer it especially for their students, but any student can enroll independently. It’s free, with no strings attached, but you do need to create a user account.

Forty Money Management Tips Every College Student Should Know – this Cash Course resource helps young people learn how to take control of their money instead of letting their money control them.

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Updated Tip for Dairy Month

Several years ago I wrote a MoneyTip$ post extolling the virtues of dry milk.  Since June is Dairy Month, it occurred to me that now would be a good time to revisit that topic, because things have changed. Dry milk is no longer the same bargain that it used to be. I’m sure this varies regionally, but where I live I can no longer buy the bargain-sized (20-quart) box of dry milk, and the store-brand liquid milk is so inexpensive that it’s usually a cheaper product per quart compared to dry milk.

Why is this blog-worthy? Two reasons:

  1. It’s a valuable reminder to re-examine your consumer habits periodically. I resisted giving up dry milk — it was a habit ingrained from childhood, built in to how I work in the kitchen. I kept buying it for a while even after I realized it was no longer the cheapest deal.
  2. It’s also a reminder that cost is not the only consideration when shopping. After being without dry milk for several weeks, I realized it was a product I still wanted in my pantry, for several reasons.

I’m back to using dry milk, though not as much as before; these days, if I’m making pudding or pancakes I’ll probably use liquid milk, unless my supply is running low. I still use dry milk though, for more reasons than I could possibly include here; I’ll list a few to give you a general idea:

  • I can add milk nutrients without adding liquid. By adding extra dry milk to casseroles, meat loaf, soups, baked goods, and mashed potatoes, I can boost my intake of calcium and other key nutrients without making my product too runny.
  • It doesn’t need to be stored in the refrigerator. At holidays or with company, frig space is at a premium; by using dry milk for cooking, I can make extra space for refrigerated foods – after all, an extra gallon of milk takes a lot of space!
  • If you make yeast bread (I know not many people do), using dry milk means you don’t need to “scald” milk before adding it to the bread dough. (Scalding deactivates an enzyme that interferes with yeast action – with dry milk that enzyme is already gone).

The main reason for this post is not to let you in on all my kitchen habits, even though that is fun to talk about. The main reason was to share one story of how things that are true at one time may not stay true indefinitely. This applies to specific products we buy, and it also applies to questions like how high should an insurance deductible be, or how much to keep in a savings account.

What habits, beliefs or assumptions affect your consumer decisions? When is the last time you revisited them to make sure they were still on target?

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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The Importance of POA’s

My brother recently attended a medical conference in which a lawyer spoke about the physician’s responsibility when providing care for someone who is unable to make medical decisions for themselves.  If a patient has not completed a Power of Attorney for Health Care, the doctor is required to listen and weigh the concerns of all family members when caring for the patient. Speaking from our personal experience, my brother and I did not struggle while communicating with caregivers and making decisions for dad; we knew what dad’s wishes were and the two of us shared dad’s values and faith. Additionally, as Dad’s POA for Health Care,  it made it easier for me to say “no” when a family member made a request that was clearly not in line with his wishes…even when there was support from a fourth sibling for that request.

In comparison, the family of my brother’s wife is learning (the hard way) what happens when someone has not designated a Power of Attorney for Health Care. Their mother had a major medical emergency that has left her unable to communicate her wishes. Early on in her health emergency, there were 8 – 13 people in her room at all times and an additional 3 – 5 being consulted by phone; basically, they were making decisions by a majority vote while under stress and in an emotional state. Can you imagine being the physician in this example…having to listen and weigh the concerns of all family members?

The Finances of Caregiving is a series of five 2-hour workshops to expand your understanding of options and to help families plan together for providing care for a loved one. Understanding your choices is only possible when you know your current situation. This series guides you through finding and collecting that information, and includes the importance of identifying a Power of Attorney for both Health Care and Financial matters. For more information on this program, visit https://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/finances-caregiving 

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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