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Queen of free: Thou shalt not spend too much at store

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Nobody likes rules. We feel like they stifle our creativity. We think they want to take away our joy.

But the truth is, rules are guidelines that keep our lives in check. They help our children remember to brush their teeth. They keep people from barreling down the highway at break-neck speeds. Best of all, if applied wisely, they can keep us from overspending.

I am not sure at what point in our debt-slaying journey I developed My Grocery Store 10 Commandments; however, I know that they help me save money on a routine basis. They are not complicated. They do not require hours of preparation.

And yes, they are simply guidelines (occasionally I do break one and am not struck down by lightning). I’d encourage you to develop a set of commandments unique to your shopping habits and family’s lifestyle.

What works for me, might not work for you and vice versa.

At this point, I want you to imagine me with a Charlton Heston voice and beard (OK maybe just the voice) handing over my stone tablet:

Thou shalt not shop when you are hungry. This one might seem obvious; every enticing morsel will jump right into your cart if you do, and you’ll certainly overbuy.

Thou shalt not shop after 9 p.m. This is also called my Rule of the Gremlins. Remember, the 1980s movie with the cute little cuddly brown-and-white bear things that went all crazy with green skin and pointy teeth if you fed them after midnight? It could be just me, but I can get completely disoriented in a superstore after the hour of 9 p.m. I wind up purchasing way too many breakfast foods for the next morning or wandering the aisles for hours on end.

Thou shalt shop the perimeter. Healthier and more affordable foods are found around the perimeter of the store — fresh fruit, veggies, meats, dairy, etc. Processed pricey junk food is in the center aisles. Don’t waste your money on food that will expand your waistline and leave you craving for more. Go for healthy, nutritiously dense foods that fill you up for longer.

Thou shalt use cash only. I am passionate about this commandment and find that when I follow it religiously (like what I did there?), I stay on target with my budget and our needs. The points on your debit or credit card will not save you as much as using cash will. I find that even the most conscientious shoppers overspend by $10 to $15 a week when using plastic. Spending dollars and cents keeps you from just that and creates a hedge around your budget. You will keep a closer eye to your total as you shop. When you are out of money, you are done shopping. Have an emergency? Well certainly, it is OK to use your debit card to cover it.

Thou shalt take three to five items out of your cart before checking out. This is my favorite shopping tip of all time. It is the simplest way to save $5-$10 (or maybe more). It requires no coupons, and unless you are a list commando, you probably picked up a few items you simply don’t need (or don’t need this week). Politely hand them to the cashier and say, “No thank you.”

Thou shalt not shop for leisure. Trips to Target or Walmart should not be listed on your résumé under “Hobbies.” Stop throwing me daggers with your eyes; you know it is true. If you play with snakes, you are bound to get bit. Stay out of the store unless you need to be there.

Thou shalt look high and look low. The most expensive foods are placed at eye level, so that you pay more for items you may or may not need. I’m a strong believer that the most enticing items are also placed at the eye level of the average toddler height. The most economical foods will probably be difficult to find on the shelves.

Thou shalt shop with your spouse on occasion. Typically, the chore of grocery getting falls on the shoulders of one spouse. If this is the case for your household, you need to periodically shop together. It will ground both of you in the exact costs to run your household and provide a strong basis for setting a budget upon both of you can agree.

Thou shalt have a written plan. Every great tactician needs a strategy. You can’t go into battle without one. Shopping without a list is just begging the store to take your retirement savings.

Thou shalt use coupons. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not extreme when it comes to couponing. But did you know that the average American millionaire uses coupons? I figure if I want a few extra zeros at the end of my income someday, I should probably espouse the theory. Couponing saves me an average of $35 per week (sometimes more), and I spend only one to two hours in total preparation.

Now is the time. Here is your chance.

Luckily, you don’t need a quill and parchment or a stone tablet and chisel. Simply pull out a pen and paper to compose your own sacred rules of grocery shopping.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe and her husband paid off $127,000 in debt in four years and now live debt-free every day with their two kids.

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