Tales from the Wallet: Leave Room in Your Budget to Take Advantage of Sale Prices

leave room in your budget for salesI just saw a great study on this, so I thought we’d discuss — do you leave room in your budget to take advantage of sale prices?  Do you do it in a disciplined way (“I have $300 to spend for fun purchases, no more!”) or is it just part of your budgetary cushion? Which sales do you splurge on? 

This seems like a great follow up on our recent post about how to make a budget: Of course it’s great to be aggressive with your savings, student loan payments, and investments — but be wary of trying to live on too tight of a budget if you don’t have to. Probably the biggest long-lasting effect the recession had on my money habits is that I leave enough room in my budget for unexpected sales on household items. When I’m in the grocery store or the pharmacy, I look for items with good sale prices and then purchase them even if we don’t need the item immediately (provided we have the storage space). The headline of the HuffPo article I saw about a relevant study says it all: “Poor People Have To Spend More On Toilet Paper Than The Rich: Study.” The study found that low-income households don’t have the cash to buy in bulk, so they end up paying higher per-item prices; the article also mentions that poorer people often end up paying more for “discount” toilet paper than richer people do on “premium” toilet paper. (A lot of readers agreed with me when we talked about everyday splurges: sale prices or no, life is too short for cheap toilet paper!)

I’m not the best about checking it now, but in the past I’ve kept a Google sheet on my phone to track “good prices” (per count) for expensive regular purchases like diapers, coffee, our preferred brand of toilet paper, and ibuprofen gel caps. (I’m ok with store brand vs. Advil, but I really prefer the gel form.) These days I mostly consult the chart if I’m setting up a new Subscribe & Save shipment in Amazon, but I also check the list on the rare occasions I’m in Costco. I had a friend who made a huge list for everything she had ever bought, but I just include the most expensive things we buy frequently.)

Ladies, how about you: Do you buy household items only when you need them, or do you stock up to take advantage of sale prices? Do you keep track of prices and sale prices on items you buy regularly? Do you leave room in your budget for unplanned but smart purchases? 

Further reading

Pictured: love this wallet! It’s $88 at Nordstrom. (Not on sale, ironically.) 


  1. For us this comes down to writing both annual and monthly budgets. We give ourselves $X per year per category, with monthly targets of $X/12. If a really good sale comes up, we stock up knowing that its okay for us to go over $X/12 that month because it will let us come in under $X/12 in some other month. We definitely don’t keep a separate “sale” fund.

  2. I don’t actively think about this, but I buy the same things regularly enough to know when it’s actually a sale vs. a minor markdown, and my budget is flexible enough that I’ll just stock up for a few months at a time (toothpaste/soap/lightbulbs/lotion are my big ones!).

    People always rave about how Costco saves them so much money, but I’m skeptical, every time I go there, I spend a lot on random stuff I don’t need, and I don’t always think the bulk price is THAT much cheaper than on sale. And unless you have a family, there isn’t much point in buying many things in bulk (like I do not need a 5lb jar of coconut oil when my small jar with 2 cups in it has lasted me 6 months already…)

    • So I’ll chime in as a single person with a costco membership. First of all, the wine section alone is a good value with a wide selection. You can make your membership value back in those savings alone.

      Garden stuff and grass seed, actually most seasonal items are great deals.

      Next I’ll move to paper towels and toilet paper. As long as you have the storage, these are some of the best deals going. Then laundry detergent.

      If you’re a pet owner, their premium dog food consistently get high ratings from the whole dog food journal and is a good value as well.

      As far as food stuffs. Well, I was born and raised in a cattle town and nearly everyone owns a deep freeze and goes in on bulk purchases. Costco is just a different version of this.

      You do have to get used to not going crazy…. list making is a must. However, once you get past that phase it’s a great place to shop.

      • MargaretO :

        I’m a single woman and I use costco with my roommate (we split all of our groceries/household items). I find that it saves me a lot of money and also time. I stock up on dry goods, meat that I can freeze, cheese, etc. and only have to go to the store for produce, which I find majorly decreases my stress. There might be a way to save even more money but it would definitely involve a lot more effort. But making a list is definitely necessary! Going without one immediately nullifies all the savings.

    • This is true – I did a LOT of tracking and analysis my first year with a Costco membership to see if the cost of the membership was even worth the money. In my case, it was (and I do not buy a lot of products in bulk), but it wasn’t the kind of extreme savings at the ‘crazy coupon lady’ level.

    • Anonymous :

      Also single person with a Costco membership. Gas alone pays for my membership. Organic food is way cheaper at Costco. You have to know yourself to know if it will be cheaper. I get almost all my staples at Costco and love it, but I live in a smallish city where I drive a lot for my job and have lots of storage in my house (including a stand alone freezer).

      • Maddie Ross :

        Co-sign. I know I pay for my Costco membership in the discounted gas. Bonus that it is the gas station most convenient to my house (if it were out of the way, I would probably feel differently, but convenience + 10 cents cheaper a gallon? heck yeah). We also buy dog food, diapers, paper products and baby aspirin there, so we’re at least getting value, if not saving money necessarily.

    • Senior Attorney :

      Another good thing about Costco is that I trust their buyers so when I’m in the market for, say, a flat-panel TV I can go there and feel comfortable choosing from their small selection rather than feeling like I have to go through All The TVs in the World. I may not get the very very best thing at the very very lowest price, but I know I’ll get a good product at a good price, and that’s good enough for me.

    • Anonymous :

      Same. I know what our common purchases cost normally and know when I see a good price. I don’t adjust for this specifically in the budget since I know that I’ll be buying it anyway.

      Note about budgeting for this: You have to know that you’d be buying it anyway. I know a lot of people who buy something at a great price… that they didn’t need to buy at all.

      Regarding Costco: You do have to watch yourself. When we first got our membership, I literally came with a calculator to assess what was and was not a good value for us. There are some items that we commonly buy which are not necessarily less expensive at Costco (or the cost savings is small enough that it’s not worth buying advance or storing) – but there are many that really truly are a better deal. I’d also point out that buying random stuff you don’t need is something that you can control.

      • Yes to the Costco comment. On our first trip I made a point to only buy stuff we normally bought, and the savings in that trip alone covered our membership. Since then I definitely buy more random stuff, but it’s still worth it for us (two adults and a baby) overall.

    • Marshmallow :

      I grew up poor, but attended a school district that really ran the gamut of socioeconomic status. My friends whose parents shopped at Costco (for some reason I remember that certain friends always wore Kirkland brand socks) were definitely the well-off ones. Costco brand stuff in your lunch, things purchased in bulk around your house, all of that was a marker of wealth to me. My family shopped at the bodega and bought off-brand, a few cans or rolls of toilet paper at a time. Lunch meat and cheese? 1/4 pound at a time. The idea of having the money to stock up on things you wouldn’t use immediately was always laughable to me.

      This is how poor people stay poor, you just can’t plan ahead enough to make wise decisions. You buy what you can afford with the $15 in your pocket right now, because you’re running out of toilet paper and meat for your kids’ sandwiches and veggies for dinner this week and your daughter has a school project that requires posterboard, and buying toilet paper in bulk means you can’t afford the [meat/posterboard/insert other necessary item here].

      I struggle with this as an adult even though I make plenty of money now. But I have picked up, and retain, the habit of obsessively checking price per unit and price per ounce on everything. Even if I’m buying some expensive luxurious foundation at Sephora or whatever– check that price per ounce!

      • Just read an article about how poor people pay more for toilet paper, despite buying cheap brands, because they can’t afford the low cost/roll 36 pack but have to buy the 4 pack instead.

    • It’s the storage that kills me — I have a tiny kitchen that barely contains my regular groceries! I’m very organized, but I can’t imagine re-configuring my whole house to store Costco sized staples :(

      • Wildkitten :

        I lived in the world’s tiniest studio apartment and we did Costco. We had a captains bed, and had fewer items (one giant almond butter, not pb + nutella + almond butter) and I am surprised at how now that we live in a much larger apartment our Costco shopping is pretty similiar. Using the space above the cabinets is clutch.

  3. For most household/baby stuff, I buy in bulk through Subscribe and Save. The price is often the same or a bit higher than in my local Costco or Walmart, but between the S&S discount for 5 or more items, no sales tax, and the 5% cash back from the Amazon Store card, it ends up being much cheaper with S&S (if the item is the same price on the shelf/website, S&S ends up being about 25% less). Plus it gets delivered to me.

    • Meg Murry :

      Yes, for me the biggest benefit of Subscribe and Save was that it saved me from the $50-$100 of random stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise purchased when at Target buying diapers. Sometimes that random stuff was a good deal and saved me from shopping later (like kids clearance clothes in the next size up) but a lot of the time it was random things that we probably could have lived without or been fine with paying a tiny bit more by buying them not on sale.

  4. tj – I need help planning a relaxed birthday gathering for 10 people and two toddlers this weekend in LA/OC. In DC I would say to meet up at a (free) museum and then have a picnic afterwards or meet up at a fun park, but the museums in LA are expensive! Guests are coming from all over, west side, Pasadena, and OC. So far, I am thinking of meeting up at the Griffith Observatory or Grand Market.

    • Senior Attorney :

      The Griffith Observatory gets horribly crowded and trafficky when the weather is nice. And I’m not sure the Grand Market is super toddler-friendly.

      How about the Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena? It’s great for toddlers.

  5. Senior Attorney :

    Back in the day I used to keep a price book. It was a spread sheet with all the lowest sale prices from all the local supermarkets. The first thing that happened was I realized Store A was consistently cheaper than Store B for everything. The second thing that happened was I learned to recognize what was the rock-bottom sale price on everything, and I stocked up when a given item hit that rock-bottom sale. So I kept my freezer full of $.99/lb ground beef and $.59/lb whole chickens, and cheap toilet paper and so on. (These prices are from a while ago, I realize.) It was a fair amount of work but it saved me a bundle when I had a family at home.

    I still get things like paper goods and wine at Costco, where they are much cheaper. Don’t stock up on groceries much because I don’t cook that way any more — we get Blue Apron and love it, and just fill in with odds and ends from Trader Joe’s.

    But no, there was no separate fund for sales. It was just using my grocery budget to get the most bang for my buck.

  6. I was just catching up on this morning’s thread and thought I’d point the poster looking for advice on eating less to Gretchen Rubin’s description of moderators vs abstainers. Another blogger I read talked about this a while ago and it really resonated with me – I realized I have no ability to moderate but I’m pretty good at abstaining, so that’s what I try to do. Others are the opposite, and either one is ok. It’s pretty simple, but a frame of reference I’d never thought about before and it has really helped me avoid the 3 p.m. treat that turns into an entire bag of m&ms.

  7. Could you share what your google sheet of ‘good prices’ looks like? This is something I’d love to have for our household, but would even know where to start something like this?!

    • At this point it’s just a spreadsheet of random notes that I’ve kept from me comparing prices, mostly on Amazon:

      Column A: Units (e.g., 4 packs of 16 rolls each = 64)
      Column B: Price
      Column C: Price divided by Units (=B1/A1) for a price-per-unit

      So for Folgers it’s like this:
      48, $18.47, $0.38,
      203.4, $50.81, $0.25,
      22.6, $14.41, $0.64,
      40, $23.99, $0.60,
      32.8, $22.60, $0.69,

      THEN if you’re going out to do shopping on the fly (like at Costco or at a CVS store sale or something) you can compare the price offered (they usually list price per unit on the shelf) to the lowest price-per-unit you’ve ever seen, and decide if it’s “worth it.”

  8. Meg Murry :

    Before my son was born I made a big spreadsheet comparing the costs of diapers at places like Target, BRU, a local drugstore, Sam’s Club and/or Costco (wherever a family member had a membership, we didn’t have one). I’d also do the “price per diaper” calculation in the aisles at Target, but after doing it enough times I generally had the information memorized as to what was a great deal vs what had “SALE” plastered all over it but wasn’t actually much of a deal at all compared to regular price.

    Also, FOOEY to my state for not requiring price per unit labeling at the grocery store/Target, etc like many states do. I feel like there are so many people in my area that get ripped off thinking that they are getting a good deal when in fact it is not uncommon at all for the largest size of an item (like laundry detergent) to not actually be the lowest price per unit. I went looking for a smartphone app that could run these kinds of comparisons (is it a better deal to get 64 oz of laundry detergent at $X plus a 10% off coupon or 128 oz at $Y, etc) but my searches never came up with a useful and easy one – although I haven’t looked lately.

    My other problem with sale shopping is that it has to be a good deal for an item I am going to use quickly and have a place for – if I wind up having to store 20 rolls of paper towels out of sight in the basement I may as well not buy them, because when we run out of paper towels in the pantry my husband and I will never remember about the ones in the basement.

    • Is there a cosco in Manahattan? I would like to buy stuff on sale, but do NOT want to have to buy 36 rolls of toilet paper, 20 pounds of laundry detergent, or 10 pounds of chicken breast’s in a super Pack. FOOEY! When Sheketovits was dateing me, he went thru alot of toilet paper and chicken, and my cleaneing lady was ALWAYS laundering my 1000 count Egyptian Cotton Sheet’s, but I do NOT want to have to do that again. DOUBEL FOOEY!

    • Faith2014 :

      I actually shop my basement when I run out of everything. It helps to buy more than paper towels in bulk. I don’t think you need to go nuts, but I do buy things on sale even if not on my list. So if my fave soup or two goes on sale, I buy up 5-10 regardless of how many I have at home.

      When I run low in the basement, I add it to the list. I HATE to run out of anything non-perishable that I regularly use. It’s just another habit to start.

  9. I definitely will stock up when things go on sale that I use, even though I live in a studio apartment. I also clip coupons – not in a “crazy” way where I buy up everything that’s a good deal, but in a “let’s save as much money as I can” way. Saving money on groceries and household items is like a game to me, and it doesn’t even take that much time to figure out rock bottom sale prices or find a few coupons in the paper/online. Totally worth it for me (though I realize YMMV).

  10. ManagementConsultant :

    I love using the site SlickDeals.com. I have alerts set up for things I consume regularly (toilet paper, paper towels, laundry and dish detergent, various Olay facial products) and get emails when there is a great deal somewhere on them. Doesn’t require any kind of paid subscription like Costco, and a lot of the deals don’t require buying in bulk either.

    However, I would recommend setting up email subscriptions and then never going to the site outside of those notifications, because I frequently get tempted by the random gadgets/electronics on the front page of the site, and end up buying things I probably didn’t really need just because it was a good deal :)

  11. SteelCityMagnolia :

    I don’t have a Costco near me (closest one is about 50 miles away – the drive and traffic make it not worth the savings) but I do stock up on things when they are on sale at the grocery store. I don’t grocery shop for the meals for the week ahead. I grocery shop to stock my freezer and pantry. Ground beef on sale? I buy several packages, break them down into smaller, meal-sized packages, re-wrap and freeze them. When pork is on sale around New Year’s, I buy 2 boneless and 2 bone-in pork loins, have them cut to what I want and wrap and freeze them. I only buy pork once a year. Pasta on sale? I buy several boxes for the pantry. Butter? Flour? All that can be frozen. I also have a garden in the summer and what I can’t use (I learned my lesson when I planted 4 zucchini plants!) I prepare and freeze in the amounts most called for in recipes. I learned all this growing up on a farm – my grandfather raised beef cattle and once a year, he’d trade a cow with a neighbor who raised pigs, so we’d always have a freezer full of beef and pork, and my mom and grandmother both canned or froze what was in the garden.

    I also stock up on things like paper towels, TP, laundry soap, etc when it’s on sale. I don’t have a set budget for stock-up buying. I figure that if I stock up when it’s on sale, it’s saving me money so I don’t have to buy it at full-price. Oh, yeah, I also do the coupon thing since most of our grocery stores offer double coupons, too.

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