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Smart Shopping Tips from Ellie Kay: Part 2–Milk Your Money

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In continuing on with our series looking at Ellie Kay's Smart Shopping Tips, here are some of her tips on milking your money with a few of my thoughts thrown in as well:

Go on the Cash System –One consumer trend I have seen revitalized is the idea of shopping with cash. When my husband and I were first married, we had $40,000 worth of consumer debt and sometimes didn’t have enough money for groceries. That’s when we went to the cash system by taking out the budgeted amount for groceries in cash and putting it in an envelope. We had a visual reminder of how much was left for the week, it helped us stay on budget, and we didn’t go further into debt by using our credit cards. –Ellie Kay

I can't even begin to tell you how much money we save by shopping primarily with cash. There's just something about handing over green stuff which makes you more aware of just how much you're spending.

We once did an experiment where we paid almost exclusively with our debit card for a few months all the while attempting to stick to our usual budget. We found, to our surprise, how much easier it was to spend a "little here" and a "little there" without even so much as realizing until it came to the end of the month and all of these little purchases were added up.

If you've never tried going cash only for purchases like groceries, clothing, gifts, eating out, etc., I'd highly encourage you to try it out for at least a few months and see if it makes any difference in how you spend and how you consider whether or not a purchase is necessary. You just might be surprised! Plus, it's a whole lot easier to stick to a written budget if you only have cash from an envelope to spend instead of a card to swipe!

Play the Price Matching Game –I’ve worked 40+ hours a week for years with a house full of kids, so I don’t have time (or energy) to drive all over town to shop various sales. I can benefit from all the sales though, by going to a store that matches the lowest price. I save gas, time and money by going to a store that will match competitor sales. –Ellie Kay

While I've found it's more cost-effective for me to shop at two stores (Dillon's and Aldi) rather than price-matching at Wal-Mart, I definitely think everyone should consider going the price-matching route–especially if you'd prefer to keep it simple and only shop at one store. 

As always, I think it is very important that you factor in the time involved in bargain shopping. After all, time is money, too. So be careful to evaluate the return on your investment of time as well as money. If you've been bargain shopping for a few months and you're taking four hours per week to plan your shopping trip, clip your coupons, and shop at various stores and you're only saving $20 or $30 for that time spent, it's likely not worth it. I personally think you should work up to saving at least $30-$40 per hour and buying things you truly need or have a good use for, for it to be worth your while. (Of course, you are free to do whatever floats your boat, I'm just sharing what my rule of thumb is!)

Go Beyond the List –Most families know that creating a list and sticking to it can save you as much as 30% on your grocery bill. But did you know that as many as 50% of the sales or price rollbacks for the week are not advertised in the sales circular? This means that there may be clearance items throughout the store that are not on your list. Give yourself permission to snatch these up if they are a super good value. One week, I found deodorant on sale when the store was remodeling the antiperspirant aisle. There were a variety of brands marked down to $1, including my favorite brand. I matched my “$1 off” coupons with those clearances to get 16 packages of deodorant for free! –Ellie Kay

I disagree with Ellie Kay a little bit here in that I think you shouldn't bust your budget in order to snag a good deal. My philosophy is that if you can't afford something it's not a good deal. However, if your grocery budget allows no wiggle room for stocking up on unadvertised sales, you might need to raise it a tad or learn to be creative in rearranging your plan of attack at the store.

For instance, I plan our $40 menu each week before going to the store based upon what we have on hand and what's on sale at the store. This way, I know we'll have plenty to eat for the week. However, I often will find a great deal on something while I'm at the store which was not on my list–be it an unadvertised deal, marked down meat or produce, or something on clearance. I often know that I have $3-$5 in wiggle room so I can snag the extra deals without needing to cross another item off of my list. But sometimes I don't have as much wiggle room or the items I found are more than the extra room I have to play with.

When this happens, I usually just consider whether I can re-work the menu a bit or see if there are any non-essentials on my grocery list that I can cross off. If not, then I remind myself of my rule of thumb (if it's not in the budget and I can't squeeze it in, it's not a good deal for me) and pass over the deal. There are always plenty of other good deals to be had later on so it's not the end of the world if I have skip over a few. (Of course, like I said above, you are more than free to disagree with my personal philosophy and do what works for your family.)

I'd love to hear your thoughts, if any, on Ellie Kay's tips above. Do you agree or disagree? What works for your family? To see all of Ellie Kay's Smart Shopping Tips, go here.

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27 Comments

  • “Go Beyond the List” — I agree wholeheartedly with Ellie Kay. Because I live 15 miles from the nearest grocery store and I never shop more than once a week (usually every 10-12 days), it is essential that I stock up on an excellent bargain when it’s available.

    Don’t have the extra $5 in the budget that week? I figure I’d rather spend an extra $5 this week rather than be “caught” and not have what I need when it’s on sale and have to spend $20 later… full price. I make it work.

    And actually, that extra $5 (or whatever!) is usually there for me since I’m such a miser 90% of the time!

  • Suzanne says:

    I’ve recently started using the cash system. A friend of mine is a super-budgeter and I’ve really learned a lot from spending time with her and watching her at the store (she uses the cash system as well). Just the last month alone I’ve saved several hundred dollars!!! So, my grocery costs were basically sliced in half. And that was without even really having a planned-out meal list. I always thought that without as much grocery money to spend that we wouldn’t be able to eat well. Quite the contrary! I’m simply learning 1)to make more things from scratch (which taste much better and are much healthier) 2)to get more creative with what we have on hand and 3) to really USE what I have on hand. I’ve found that I buy all sorts of things that don’t really get used. Instead they get pushed to the back of the pantry because I didn’t really know what to do with it (although it looked good at the store). Sticking to a tighter budget forces me to think outside the box and make my food stretch.

    Whoa, sorry this is so long. I’m just so excited about the good changes!

  • Sandy says:

    Using CC for everything has been working out for me. I also use “Virtual” envelope system in my excell sheet instead of real envelope. I keep track of everythng…I mean every single thing that i purchase on my excel sheet. As i enter how much i spend, it will give me how much available balance i have left to use. It was a lot of work in the beginning but now it’s not that bad at all. I also catagorize how much $ i spend in which catagory to get a snap shot of my spending habbit….the good thing about using CC is i can get cash back from my cc purchase. I bet CC company hates me. i don’t pay interest b/ i pay everything in full and accumulate all those points and redeem it later. I’ve been making any where between $200 to $400 each year by doing this.

  • Rachele says:

    You mentioned in your post that, “If you’ve been bargain shopping for a few months and you’re taking four hours per week to plan your shopping trip, clip your coupons, and shop at various stores and you’re only saving $20 or $30 for that time spent, it’s likely not worth it.” :

    While I do think it’s wise to think critically about whether couponing, or any activity, is worth your time, there’s more to the calculation than how much you are saving/earning per hour. If you enjoy hunting down a bargain or clipping and organizing your coupons or just being in the stores and out of the house, then it might be worth it to you. Any time your leisure activities are earning or saving you money on things you need to get done anyway, you blur the line between work and play. You got more accomplished, you feel satisfied and sane at the end of it, and your family’s larder is stocked to the gills? Then your time has been well spent. I find that value can rarely be counted in dollars and cents.

    I don’t spend hours on coupon clipping and such; my questionably frugal activity is sewing. I save a pretty good amount of money if you don’t count my labor cost, but not so much if you are calculating my time. However, I LOVE IT!!! And that’s worth more than you can imagine. It provides contentment, which I would say is right up there with good planning as a key ingredient to frugality.

  • Hopefulone says:

    Hi Crystal and all:)

    I love Aldi as well but they’re a town over from me so I only go to really stock up there a couple of times a year and just mostly rely on Walmart weekly for shopping.

    A thought I have about the article is that if a person had the choice to be at home working 4 hours to save about $5/$7 an hour by couponing and ad matching each week why not? That’s probably better then working a part time shift of minimum wage, paying out taxes and a sitter etc. If a person could work one less night away from home then why not?

    I don’t work outside the home but I personally ad match every week and save at least $30-50 a week. Add in coupons and it’s more. Honestly I don’t know how long it takes me to get ready to ad match but I’d say no more then a couple of hours.

    I get about 1-2 ads a day in the newspapers that are mailed to me and as I go through each ad I circle the deals. I write a big C by the ones I want to match with a coupon if there’s one. Then the night before I go shopping I grab all of my flyers for the week.

    I make a menu from what’s on sale, grab my list of things that we’re needing as well, add in what else I need for the recipes, pull coupons, and head to town the next day with one very organized by aisle list. If something is on admatch I put it in one area of the cart so it’s already sorted before the check out. If I have a helper along we just take 2 carts and sort as we go. Walmarting takes me an hour start to finish usually. I also do my CVS/Wags on that run too. I only go to town once a week.

    I buy bulk on a deal if it’s decent. So I normally have at least a 6 month supply of food on hand from a $70-150 budget per week for our family of now 8 (one of our sons just recently passed away so we used to be 9:(

    This week I hadn’t planned on buying instant oatmeal packs-I never buy them, but a store brand locally was selling boxes of ten for $1 so I admatched with the walmart brand and got 10 boxes (now I wish I’d have gotten more of course!). I also admatched Wilton gingerbread kits at $5.99 from Kmart saving $4 for each of my 6 kits.

    Neither purchase was in my budget for the week. But I saved almost $40 with just those 2 items that we will use. Or I like to think I “paid” myself almost $40:) Plus I know my budget’s up to $250 in a couple of weeks from hubby’s OT. (We always do a family night of decorating the gingerbread so I had to get them;) And yes we have tons of oatmeal in bulk stashed around here but making our own packets isn’t much cheaper then .10 if at all. Plus they’re a yummy treat! Once brown/powdered sugars were .69 on admatch and not in the budget but I picked up 12 and it all worked out then too.

    So it’s all interesting to think about. We’ve been living on one income for over 17 years. I also pay everything with my Ccard!! YIKES! Big rule breaker I know. I pay it off every week from my budget $ that I have anyway. I use it because I earn $ back towards any vehicle repair or purchase. When my hubby needed a newer used motorcycle I had an almost $400 check sent to us just from my times of paying for groceries and our gasoline on it. I only ended up paying interest of $13 to them one time because I lost my card and it got frozen and I couldn’t pay online. I wasn’t sure I’d be disciplined but I’ve been doing this for 2 years now and so far so good.

    Anyway sorry I wrote a book! It’s just my nature when talking about $ I guess. I see so many families struggling and hating their rat race lives and paying too much for it. I just like to inspire people that living on one income can really happen. It does all take some time, but I usually can find more of that then $ plus I get the blessing of being home with the kiddos…

    Love your blog as always-I often link to it and learn deals from it weekly:) Keep up the great work!

  • Bet says:

    Our Aldi just started accepting bank cards–so no more cash needed at Aldi. I spent WAY more than when I used cash only.

    I’m sure they’ve figured it out on their end, that the 6% they pay in credit card processing fees is more than covered by the increased spending of their patrons.

    Great series of articles. Really enjoying them. Thank you!

  • Bet says:

    Oh, I meant to add, the go beyond the list issue:

    My mother was a go beyond the list person. When she got a good deal, she stocked up. (We also lived in the country and the closest town was a small one, so it made sense geographically). We always had many bottles of shampoo, many tubes of toothpaste, a huge pantry stocked (we also canned and froze food too).

    Maybe putting a limit on your off the list spending, like, no more than $20 or something like that when it comes to stocking up? Just a thought.

  • Sandy says:

    I kind of agree with your comments about “If you’ve been bargain shopping for a few months and you’re taking four hours per week to plan your shopping trip, clip your coupons, and shop at various stores and you’re only saving $20 or $30 for that time spent, it’s likely not worth it.”…I’ve been doing this for maybe a little less than a month and i spend so so so much time clipping, planning, finding, etc etc to the point where i wanted to give up. So i came up with a solution that i will implement. I wil budget my time. For example, i will only spend x amount of time on clipping, spend x amount of time finding on planning, finding etc etc. This way, i can stay more focused.

  • Rebekah says:

    I completely agree with Rachele! I don’t really have too many hobby’s outside of “hunting” down a deal and I LOVE it!

  • Lee says:

    After the new year we are switching over to the cash system and I can’t wait. I have been taking my calculator with me to the store the last few trips and can’t believe how fast my budget gets used up! I spend a good bit of time every week going over my coupons and clipping them and while I doubt I spend 4 hours every week some weeks I do. However I am saving us a ton of money and I consider this part of my job but also it is a hobby for me!

  • gina says:

    We just started using cash about 3 months ago and I can’t believe how much we have cut our spending! But I have to admit that I love bargains! When I shop, if something is a good deal amd I know we will use it, I stock up. This doesn’t really affect my budget, becase I give myself $170 for the month, and I just spread it out, one week I may spent $70 becasue I stocked up, but the next week I may only get milk and produce. This really works well for us becase I only buy meat when it is on sale, so I base my menu more on what meat we have in the freezer. Last month we started the month with a full frezzer! To me it seems to all even out, and I still stay in my budget.

  • I completely agree with sticking to your budget, looking for great deals, and using coupons to save lots of money. However, one thing I do allow is if an item is on sale and it’s a necessary item that I must buy, I have a coupon, I know it’s a great deal, but I don’t have a lot of extra budget, I WILL go ahead and buy as much as I can with all the coupons I have. I know that I have just shorted my budget, but I can make some cuts next week, knowing that in the long run, I have saved money. Now, this again is only if the item is a necessary one, not just one that I think we might need!

  • Takisha says:

    I have been thinking about trying to shop with cash only. I do have to say the “little here and there” really add up. My husband once pointed out that my little trips one week added up to $70. And I swore it only felt like I went to Dunkin donuts for a coffee a couple times!! But then dunkin donuts is next to CVS etc etc downhill from there. I think it will really help. I went from $130 a week to about $80 a week But the little trips is what keeps it at $130.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Jeannine says:

    One thing I noticed over the years is that it is good idea to continually evaluate what you are doing. It is easy to get stuck in a rut and end up paying more than you should for various things.

  • Ashley says:

    I’m new to couponing, reading a little bit here and there on the best tactics and secrets to getting good deals. I’m very encouraged and motivated but just one question looms over me. How much is a decent food budget for one week? I was spending $100 for my family of 4 and was feeling pretty darn good that I was fixing approx 21 meals for $5 or less. But now I feel like I’m ripping off my husbands hard earned paycheck by not shopping for the best deals in town. Time is precious to me with 2 kids, being in school full time, and babysitting 10 hrs a day to make ends meet. Help! I’m a bit overwhelmed but hopeful that I can start this coupon-ing journey and make my family proud! Thanks!

  • Jessica says:

    I do my couponing / deal seeking early in the morning on weekends or at work on break, since I work full time and have a toddler, time is a premium. So I can’t chase deals at all the stores in my large city, but I do get good deals! I price match at Meijer, which also doubles coupons. I do the drugstore game, which has helped tremendously this year.

    I pay for everything with a credit card and pay the balance in full each month. Our paychecks are direct-deposit and I just don’t get to the bank. Plus in a big city, I simply do not feel comfortable carrying large amounts of cash. And for some things, you have more protection as a consumer when paying on credit card, as you can dispute the charge if you don’t get the service you paid for, etc. I get points toward Meijer rewards and use those rewards on my normal grocery purchases. So rather than a rewards system that I would have to buy some junk that I don’t want, I get to use it at a place I shop at weekly and for things I need like milk and eggs!

  • Hopefulone says:

    Hi Ashley and All,

    I would think that you should be proud already! Any attempt to live frugally is better then none at all. Look at the good you are doing already. Feeding your family of four for $5 a meal is already great compared to running to Mickey D’s every night for $10+ a pop. Every situation is different. With your schooling you are doing great! Don’t worry it always works out:)! Entering the world of couponing can be overwhelming just hang in there.

    Ordering multiples of a certain coupon from a place like http://www.thecouponclippers.com so they’ll make it to me before a sale ends has helped me to build my stockpile. (this is great for people who don’t want to cut coupons either!) (My 10 year old daughter cuts mine with my paper cutter to earn $1 a week:) she snags the candy ones too-next generation zealot!

    By stockpiling the sales I have things like ragu, canned refried beans, soups, etc. on hand and I can cheat for at least one meal a week and not have to even budget for it. This also keeps the stockpile rotated because I’m actually using it and adding to it constantly.

    I ordered coupons for $1.50/3 hormel chilis back in the summer just because I knew it was a great coupon. I held on to those suckers like I was waiting on the stock market to move! Finally 3 days before they’d expire the sale came-.99 cents a can=’s .49 a can compared to $1.78!!! each. You betcha I stocked up (60 cans!) and even shared with my brother who got laid off. Sometimes I do order a coupon and it never goes on sale so that’s heartbreaking those times I have to throw out coupons I paid .03+ each for:(

    I still highly recommend couponing and admatching.

    Actually the week where we only get $70 I try not to buy groceries at all. I try to make spaghetti, burritos, chicken noodle soup, a hamburger helper, and have a pancake night because I always have those things on hand. We’ll have cereal/oatmeal/toast for breakfast and PBjs/tuna/egg salad for lunches with canned fruit/raisins/pudding.

    I know one family that has their house paid off already with no other debt and they still only eat PB for lunch each day-all 8 of them. Sorry I could not do THAT! So for my basic meal plan on the cheap weeks I’ll only need to buy bread and shredded cheese if my freezer doesn’t have them along with anything fresh like lettuce/fruit. (I only have the fridge freezer for now:( We use dry milk unless whole is $1.99 on match like lately.

    One more idea I’ve had on my mind is that you can admatch Aldi produce/meat/bread/butter/milk/eggs etc. store brand items at Walmart if you have a printed flyer in hand. I just admatched 4lb bags of oranges for $1.39 each. Walmart wanted $2.78 that’s another $2.78 saved this week on top of my $40 from gingerbread and oatmeal.

    I will try and do a post on my blog soon about admatching in detail soon. I will say I recognize the downside is that the little guy stores will go out quicker. So when a store in my town is having the sale I do try to give them the $ and add them into my errands. Mostly the stores I admatch are further away and we just don’t have those stores by me. You will find that store managers Admatch-so Walmart already knows they aren’t the cheapest on all things:)

    Hope this is helpful.
    Sorry for the windedness again!

  • Froogirl says:

    I’d also add, be patient and and don’t give up. It’s taken nearly a year for me to get into a groove and feel like we’re saving money fairly effortlessly. At this point, I know what a good deal is, I know what products we use and how fast we go through them, and I have a set routine as far as obsessive listmaking and coupon clipping.

    Also, I treat ECBs and other cash back as I do cash, meaning I stretch them the same way I stretch actual cash.

  • trisha says:

    If I see a good deal on something that we WILL use, I will snag it up in a heartbeat. The nearest grocery store is 10 miles one way (15 mins) and they don’t always have what I need, produce is hit and miss (mainly miss) and prices are high. I try to limit that store to the good sales I need and things they have that are reasonably priced. I go to the “city” (40 miles one way) about once every three weeks, but sometimes it’s more like every 5-6 weeks for grocery shopping. I don’t have the luxury of CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, etc close by. It’s about 3-4 gallons of gas roundtrip for those places. I do keep an eye out on their sales and do grab those items when I am in the area and have the time, but I can’t save enough to justify spending the gas to go weekly just for that. I try to spend my ECB and register rewards that I get the same day because I may not get the opportunity to be back before they expire.

    I’m in a different mindset from you. I don’t buy for “weekly” because I do not have the opportunity for that, I buy to stockpile my pantry. It’s a survival thing for me, not to mention a huge savings in money and time since I can’t just go get the super deals this week. I have to take advantage of the deals I see when I can. We tend to eat the same things throughout the month, so I make sure we have those necessary items. I have a list on the frig of items to pick up to replenish my pantry so I don’t run out(when I run out of baking powder from the cabinet I grab it out of the pantry and then put it on the list). I have an amount that I try to stick to monthly, but I allow myself to go over if there’s some really good deals to stockpile my pantry with.

  • Robin says:

    I find I do much better using a debit card, than with cash. Cash tends to “burn a hole in my pocket” and get spent more quickly. Having no cash feels like having no money and I am more careful because I know the $ in the bank will be drawn out for mortgage, car insurance, etc. It is much easier for me to reconcile when these transactions are in the bank website, than when they are “offline” because they were cash. I keep a spreadsheet with transactions, maintaining a running total and another menu planning sheet with detail of spending on food, diapers, etc.

    Robin

  • Michele says:

    I agree with Trisha. I don’t have a weekly budget mentality. I have a spreadsheet of all items I typically buy in a month. I know in general the best price I can get for each item. If I go to a store and there is a special for a better price than I usually pay, then I stock up on that item. If it’s something I will use within the next year, then it is worth buying and paying less for. Buying it cheaper now, means I won’t be paying more for it later.

    Other than that, I agree with your comments with regards to Ellie Kay.

  • Both you and she had some great advice. I have often spent more time that I thought I should on working out the deals/coupons before going to the store. I think I can take a few of her pointers and combine them with yours to really help me tweak my system.

  • Julie says:

    Those of you who use a credit card for everything: I admire your discipline. It’s so tempting for me to go over budget if I don’t have to hand over the actual cash. I suspect I’m not the only one.
    If you can keep yourself on track, pay off the balance each month, and earn cash back or rewards on top of that, good for you!

  • I am a die hard credit card fan, IF people pay it off each month and IF they are someone who can be organized about it.

    I have wallet full.

    I have a CC that gives 6% back on groceries, gas, and drugstores. I put a sticker on the front for my husband and I, and we ONLY use it those 3 places. Since I am a coupon shopper/drugstore shopper and ONLY buy coupons/sales, then I know I am not overspending there. I average $50 to $60 for a family of 5. And, well, not much I can do about gas prices except hit the lowest priced station and not drive as much if close to budget.

    For home utilites, I have a card that gives 6% back there. I set all my bills up to pay automatically to that ( I would be paying that from our checking anyway ) and then earn money back. I cut that card up then, because we don’t need it for anything else.

    Then, I have my next card that pays 3% back for Haircuts, Restaurants, etc. This gets used infreguently, because we cut the kids hair at home, so just my husband and myself go. Restaurants…we have always had our routine that fits our budget. With 3 kids, we get Pizza night on Friday and a Kids Eat Free meal night one other night. This would be in our budget even with cash.

    ANYWAY, for us…it takes me about a day each calendar year to reevaluate our credit cards ( I usually do in January ) to make sure we still have the highest return, set up automated payments for bills if I found a better card, etc…and put my stickers on the front.

    This year, I have earned over $900 back.

    And, American Express just sent us an offer, when you spend your first $500 they will give you $500 in Gift Cards.

    That is $500 in free money. I opened it and will be using that for Gas, Groceries and Drugstores until I eventually reach the $500 mark…and basically got it all for free.

    Love them!

  • Lisa says:

    We’ve just recently gone to a cash only system for everything, and I love it. Yes, it’s a bit more inconvenient to go get a money order if I need one to pay a bill than it is to pay it online with a click of the mouse, but that way I *know* how much I’ve spent and I *know* how much I have left. We take our tithe out first, then put aside a little for ourselves (not enough to invest yet, but one day it will be), then pay the bills and plan for the rest of our necessities. Then we know exactly how much we have left for things we’d like to do just for fun. With a debit card, I forget to write things down in my register, and I tend to way overspend (and then we get slammed with overdraft fees, which are brutal). With cash, I have a visual reminder of how much money we’ve got and what has to get paid. Isn’t it interesting how different methods work for different people, and what some can do (go strictly credit/debit card) just doesn’t work for me? 🙂

    I’m also getting into couponing, and I know from others’ experiences that I can save a lot once I get into the swing of matching up coupons with sales. I’m excited about that!

  • sandy says:

    CARRIE: How did you get that AMEX card deal? I should definitely get one for myself if i dont have to pay for fees.

    I am a die hard credit card user but never thought about using diff CC for diff occasion. I better find out which card pays more % on what and utilize it! It will be awesome if i can pay rent and car pmt on CC.

    It is very true, I sometimes do get carried away using CC and/or buy things that wasnt planned. But i make sure the purchase can be covered from “misc spending” virtual envelope. So I can pay everything in full each month.

    I know using CC is not for everyone. Eventhough I am a die hard CC user, I know CC is an evil and can bites you.

  • Jude says:

    I definitely agree about the cash system. We are trying to go back to that, as I know I have gotten in a bad habit of spending more using a CC.
    I agree about stocking up, I will blow my budget to snag six months worth of chicken at $1.99/lb. (we have a deep freezer) I used to keep a reserve on the side for those kinds of times though. (Then I would build it back up.) I have learned the hard way that overstocking on things like deoderant isn’t always a good idea. I had about 20, since they were free, but they DO have an expiration date. Some of the tubes had gone bad, smelled funny, etc. I now grab what we will use in a few months if it is a good buy, but if I get the freebies, I donate them to a shelter, salvation army, etc…

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