Reader Q&A: Saving on Little Purchases vs. Eliminating Big Expenses

Reader Q&A

Do you have a question for me about couponing, saving money, menu planning or anything else? I love to hear from my readers, so please be in touch!

I’ve been reading your blog for a while and appreciate all the tips about couponing – I used to just cut out one or two coupons and then promptly lose them. Now I save all my inserts and only clip when I know I need a coupon – thanks! Anyway, I have noticed that most of your blog seems to deal with what my husband and I refer to as the “little purchases”. But he thinks – and I tend to agree with him – that it’s the big purchases that are really getting us: The house, our cars, our kids’ tuition. If we didn’t have tuition, for example, we could comfortably spend $2000 a month on food and it wouldn’t matter. So, I’m wondering if you think the little stuff really matters all that much in comparison to much bigger monthly expenses? Thanks so much! ~ D in Lawrence

Thanks for your question, D. My answer got a bit long, but here goes:

The way my husband and I make decisions about where to spend our money comes down to two factors: availability (of funds) and values.

With everything we buy, I look at it as a zero-sum game. If I do x, I probably won’t be able to do y. So is X really that important?

Our budget is a symbiotic whole: The little things affect the big things and vice versa. As I always say in my couponing class, one of the reasons it’s so important to focus on what you’re doing at the grocery store and Target and Costco is because even a small little leak in your basement can eventually cause major structural damage to your home.

In other words, I think both are essential to your financial well-being. It’s a balancing act.

With big purchases – and to me, that means anything from a new TV to a new car to a summer vacation to our home — we ask ourselves three questions: Do we need this? Can we afford this? Does it fit with our values?

Additionally, we almost always “sleep on” big purchase decisions – sometimes for a long time. We’ve found that when you take impulse out of the equation, it’s a lot easier to make prudent choices.

At the same time, I think it is still critical to focus on the little stuff. Maybe those of you with more wiggle room in your budget can “afford” to be less attentive, but at the end of the day: The more you waste at Target today, the less you have for your retirement – or your child’s wedding… or any other far-off goal that seems impossible to relate to right now, but one day (soon) will be all too immediate.

For us, we spend around $500 a month on groceries and household expenses because it’s the best way to make the rest of our budget make sense. To achieve this goal, I have to pay attention to the “little stuff”.

For example, I went to Target the other day to pick up supplies for our Lag B’Omer bonfire. Drinks, chips and supplies for s’mores (I had the marshmallows at home) rang up to just under $50 without coupons. With coupons, my total was $26. And that was just for one party.

It’s VERY easy to over-spend. And, yes it does happen to me. But that’s why I think it’s so important to pay attention, focus on my stock pile, and menu plan.

When I’m feeling a little lazy or overwhelmed with the rest of life, believe me – those things go all too quickly. And the second half of the month becomes a major struggle!

As for your specific situation, I obviously don’t know the particulars. But I will say that it really sounds like you are really struggling under the weight of your day school tuition – and that possibly you’re in “too much” house and even vehicle. (If you have a car loan(s), that’s probably definitely true.)

While downsizing your home, trading in your car loans for paid-for “beaters” (as Dave Ramsey likes to say), and even home-schooling or public schooling your children are all money-saving options, I’d suggest to you and your husband that you spend 6 months really focusing on the little things. And here’s why:

1. The little stuff is easier to change.

If you are like most families, you have a lot of memories, value, personal identity and even self-worth wrapped up into your home. Possibly even your cars. Definitely your kids’ education.

Are you really that attached to the jar of hearts of palm? Will your kids have to say goodbye to their peer group if you switch brands of toilet paper?

Plus, if you’re upside down on your vehicles and/or home, getting out from under that loan will be far from easy. Yes, it’s do-able – with a car, for example, you will probably have to take out an unsecured loan to pay off the balance and then get a very inexpensive car to get you from point A to point B in the meantime. Even still, a $4000 loan is easier to pay off than a $40,000 one.

But that is a LOT of work, especially in comparison to cutting some coupons and paying better attention at the grocery store.

If your situation is really dire, you can even institute a full-on nothing-but-survival spending freeze. No new shoes, unless you are down to one pair and that one has holes in the sole. You obviously won’t want to live like that forever, but doing so will surely shine a light on all the little things. They may seem small now – but in total, I bet they are a really big part of your overall budget struggles.

2. The little stuff is faster to change.

Unless you are super lucky, odds are you won’t be able to sell your home and relocate by this time next month. Maybe not even by this time next year!

But you will be able to cut your grocery budget by 25% or more within just four weeks. If you’re currently spending $1500 a month – that’s an immediate savings of $375. Within six months, I think you’ll be able to have your food & personal care items budget well under $1000 – possibly even as low $700!

Even if your grocery spending is the only budgetary change you institute, that’s still a savings of $8,400 a year! After taxes! And I’m guessing $8,400 will make a lot of the big struggles seem far more manageable.

I’d love to hear what you all think! What matters more in your overall budget — the big things or the little things? Is it a balancing act in your family, too, or do you focus more on one area than the other?

Disclaimer: This post contains my opinion. I am not offering professional or legal advice, nor should this post be construed as such.


  1. Great answer!

  2. Well-spoken and eloquently said, Mara.

  3. stephanie says

    Particularly if you can’t move across town or to a cheaper place (in our case because of 50/50 custody) the little things become more important. We have an emergency fund but don’t want to touch it for everyday expenses or even medium sized surprises. Our goal is for me to stay home until the baby enters first grade (K here is half day and the sessions switch mid year so it is a logistical and expensive nightmare to find different coverage midyear) so every dollar we don’t spend means that much more time for me to be home. We can’t move to a cheaper/smaller place for 8 more years but I can drive a fully paid off 15 year old car, buy used/shop sales wherever practical, not put the 2.5 year old in expensive classes (we go to an inexpensive playgroup and the library does free craft and story times), coupon, stockpile presents, use library passes for outings, save up Swagbucks for my special treats and get better at menu planning/eating less meat/cooking from scratch.
    I think the big thing is to know where your money is going and why.
    I wish we could focus on the big stuff but that can’t be changed for years so we do what we can with the medium and small stuff.
    The other thing that I don’t believe has been mentioned is that unless both people are completely on board with a change it will not happen. We still have cable because one of us is not ready to give up Comedy Central and move to Netfix. So far we are fine with that because we have the money and revisit the topic a few times a year. We have downgraded several times and now have the cheapest level that has that channel so we are both content enough for now. We have agreed that if the budget needs tightening then the cable is first on the chopping block. If you have the wiggle room in the budget, compromise can work wonders.

  4. Jennifer S says

    Great article! Thanks!

  5. Well written and great points!

  6. wow! $500 for groceries and household expenses! I admire you. But then couponing is almost a full-time job… For someone who has another full time job saving time on chores, including shopping, is important, and choosing what and where to buy depending on what’s on sale is simply not practical. Any saving tips for busy people?

    • Elina – I share what we budget not to “brag”, but to show that it can be done! I hear you on not wanting to spend all day couponing – I certainly don’t want to (nor do I!). If you spend just an hour or two a week, I believe you can see the kinds of savings I’m talking about. Are two hours of your time each week worth saving $150 or more a month? For me the answer is definitely YES!

      If you are a new reader to KOAB, this probably seems overwhelming, but YES, it is possible! You might want to start by reading my posts on coupon misconceptions, including the one that it takes too long to save money through couponing.

      • Can you please describe exactly what these 2 hours/week are going to? If it’s just for looking over existing deals and deciding what you need, I believe you. But what about shopping itself? It seems it’s not just the issue of finding time, it’s also a matter of flexibility, e.g if you shop after work or on the weekend it’s more crowded, so you’ll spend more time, therefore you tend to save time vs. money. If you need to buy a lot of groceries, it’s much more convenient to go just to one big supermarket, than drive around, because tomatoes are on sale in A, toilet tissue deal is in B, and meat is better to get in C. Please don’t tell me all of it is just 2 extra hours per week. And if store A is farther away than store B, but has sales for something I need, I can easily forgo $5 in savings in order to get extra 20 minutes of valuable family time.
        Obviously, it would be stupid once you are in a supermarket not to look over the circular and notice if anything of interest is on sale. Also, deals are very practical for anything bought online, because you get in with one click instead of shlepping to a store, and the savings are usually more substantial. It is mostly practical for household goods, shoes, toys etc., not for groceries though. For some groceries and baby items, I find Amazon Subscribe & Save invaluable for price and convenience.
        Don’t take me wrong, I am all for saving and I use such opportunities. I just want to make a point that in the couponing game one should also take time in consideration along with the savings potential.

  7. I love you blog and your advice is typically very good, but…

    I disagree here. while i don’t minimize “the little things” you can see much quicker/bigger success going after the big things. say you exchange your expensive car into a quality clunker you can save hundreds or even thousands in one swoop- with minimal loss (e.g. if you accept the clunker is good- it still has a roof and 4 wheels, just like the luxury cars. )

    What i suggest is go through the big ticket items: insurance (15 minutes can save you…), car, utilties, school, housing, etc and develop a plan. take one at a time so it’s not overwhelming and see where you can save. develop a philosphy. pretty soon you’ll have your infrastructure set (you should revisit utility and insurance rates every year or two along with the other items.) then you can spend even more energy on the little things.

    the challenge with the little things is that it can be a struggle each day- “what should i buy? what can i cook that’s more economical? i really like x in the store i cant buy it.” that can discourage people. instead take it one step at a time. start with paying attention to prices and looking at coupons and go from there.

    I’m not saying do do little things- do the easy little things first and concentrate your energy on the big first.

  8. Elina, I’m going to jump in to the discussion here. Getting to the point where you are saving 25% off your grocery bill based on two hours of work per week is not going to happen overnight. You need to educate yourself on couponing methods, you need to get organized, you need to come up with shopping lists that make sense, and you need to change your attitude about spending. Realistically, this might take you more than 2 hours a week initially, until you get into a groove. But it’s very possible to get to that point if you work on it. I know, because I’m there and so is Mara, and trust me when I say, we are both VERY busy people. 🙂

    As far as shlepping around to different stores, here’s my advice. I live in an area (Denver) where one-stop kosher shopping is impossible. My shopping trips involve visiting six stores on a regular basis. But I’m organized. One week, I’ll go to Walmart and Target and the veggie stand. The next week, I’ll go to Costco and King Soopers and the veggie stand. The next week, I’ll go to Walgreen’s and the veggie stand. The next week, it’s Walmart and Target and the v.s. again. And some weeks, I don’t shop at all. See what I mean? And I’m flexible enough so that if Target has some great deals, I can go there two weeks in a row. I think the key to not running to ten different stores in one trip is to to organize your shopping, rotate the stores weekly, stay ahead of your needs, and stockpile so that you never really run out of the non-perishable basics, and you never have to buy your stuff at the pricier store just because you’re already there. Does that make sense to you?

    • Thanks, this is very sound advice. I guess the hardest thing is to change the attitude about spending – that alone can save more than the whole Target circular 🙂 working on it:)

      One problem I can see right away with this strategy, that living in the apartment rather than in a house, I don’t really have much space for stockpiling. I do buy things before they run out, but really stockpiling large quantities will suffocate our living space.

      Another one pertains to grocery spending (one of the main expenses I am trying to downsize). How can I make food choices based on what’s on sale, if most things that are on sale are not necessarily the healthiest ones or simply not the ones we eat? Certainly, you can come across coupons for the foods we do eat, but that alone wouldn’t make me go to this specific store at this specific time. And I am mostly talking about perishables that you can’t stockpile.
      In fact, I really wonder what people eat to make it manageable. Perhaps, you – couponings gurus, can share a menu plan and a shopping list (healthy, a plus) exemplifying the savings strategy.

      • caroline says

        I absolutely buy produce based on the sales! If I can’t get to the fruit/veggie market (and I usually can’t because it’s a shlep based on timing ad location), I will select based on the best options. Since Target has expanded most locations to include fresh groceries, I have found MANY good deals on eggs, berries, etc. there — and then it’s not an extra trip!

        Because we also live in an apartment, we have instituted an arbitrary stockpile rule–no more than 10 of any item. This goes for toothpaste, floss, pasta, diced tomatoes, whatever, and it helps keep the stockpile contained.

  9. Elina,

    Don’t ever make food choices based on what’s on sale. See, this is the difference between “Extreme Couponing” and “Couponing for Normal People Who Have Lives.” And this is also why my goal is to save 25-35% on my grocery bill, and not 95%.

    There is a difference between, say, buying Cheerios instead of Rice Chex because I can get the Cheerios for $0.35 and I would pay full price for the Rice Chex. But I would never not buy good healthy food just because I couldn’t get it on sale. There’s a huge difference between giving up on brand loyalty and buying crummy food because it’s cheap. I’m pretty sure Mara mentions that quite often on KOAB. (I.e., there are going to be times when I spend $5 on a head of organic red leaf lettuce because it looks really good, and I don’t care. But then the tomatoes and cukes had better be on sale.) Mara talks about creating margin: saving money where you can, so that you can spend more when you want to or have to. I think everyone who keeps kosher has to deal with this issue, because it’s rare to spend less than $2.39/lb on a kosher Empire chicken (even when the Tyson might be on sale for $1/lb), but we make up for it in other areas of the grocery budget. For example, I can’t remember the last time I paid anything for toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss or air freshener. I use Purex HE detergent because it’s a great brand that works well, and I never spend more than $2 on a 50 oz. bottle. I just bought 6 containers of pareve coconut milk that were free after coupon stacks. Etc. If you let out a little pressure in one area, you can splurge more in another.

    Not having room to stockpile things is a real challenge, and I’m not sure how to address that. You can limit yourself to a very small stockpile. You can borrow some space in a friend’s or parent’s garage or basement. Neither is a very convenient solution. I will tell you this: my stockpile is not huge. If I get to the point where I don’t have room to put stuff, I stop buying. In some ways, being organized is even more important to saving money than the ability to stockpile.

    • Interesting – never saw Cheeries for $0.35, but that is because I am no a couponing maven, I guess. And to me brands do matter – there is often a difference in taste and quality, and standing behind the brand, and then there is simply taste preference. For example, we eat vine tomatoes (a more expensive kind than plum or beef ones), but that’s the only one that have real flavor. One can say that cereal is cereal, but we only eat about 3 brands from the mainstream cereal brands, and if I see something else on sale my eyes might not even register. Thanks for mentioning Purex detergent, I’ll definitely give it a try, I see they have Free and Clear variety. Things that are good and economical are a big yes! That’s why I asked for sample grocery lists.
      I realize I have to learn quite a bit in the discount shopping area.
      Thanks a lot for your insights and to Mara for her helpful blog!

  10. Elina, I was just using all those foods as examples. It’s hard to provide sample grocery lists because what might be on sale here might or might not be on sale where you are, and I might have coupons that you don’t, and we eat things that you don’t, etc.. Anyway, keep reading KOAB and keep trying, a little bit at a time. Maybe the first few times you save 5% on your bill, maybe then 10%, etc. I guess my point is really that this is all do-able! Hatzlacha!

  11. I think focusing on big vs. little really depends on the circumstances as well as a family’s priorities at any given time: circumstances like income, house size, and car loans, and priorities such as tuition or one parent staying at home. If the reader asking the question does not want to prioritize tuition, then obviously that big change will make a difference. But if tuition is a priority, then small changes may be the only ones to work with.

    For instance, we live in a part of the US with an extremely high cost of living right now, and our salaries are very low for the area (mostly by choice for reasons of work-life balance and job field preference). As a result, our basic expenses are reasonable and yet consume most of our income. After focusing on utilities for a while, we’ve got those down as much as we reasonably can and so we focus on little things. That is really where we have the opportunity to make changes, because our cars are used (paid in cash) and our house is as cheap as it gets here.

    Elina, there are other ways to reduce food spending if coupons and shopping at multiple stores isn’t your thing (I do try when it makes sense but it’s not really my thing). I am buying less and less packaged food and commercial toiletries, so less coupons apply to my routine purchases, and yet those purchases can be cheaper in terms of servings we get out of them. By far the easiest and most effective thing I’ve done is to menu plan. I didn’t realize how little food I needed for 2 weeks until I decided what I was cooking ahead of time.

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