Saturday, 1 August 2015

Shopping at the High Street, the Smart Wallet way

Raise your hand if you DON'T enjoy making your money go further. Right, those of you that did raise your hand, please feel free to beat yourself with your keyboard (if your on your tablet or smartphone and don't have a keyboard, find the nearest wall and knock your head into it a few times). For everyone else, read on to discover one of my tips to increase your money mileage.

Personally I have a love/hate relationship with high street stores (both online and physically). Going back to the turn of the last century, I can only imagine shopping was a very congenial experience. Shops were nice, shop owners were nice, and they would address you as sir or madam and show you their delectable products, kind of like what you see in Mad Men or how you read a Sherlock Holmes novel. Fast forward to the modern age and cost cutting is everywhere. Everything is mass produced in the east, and products seem generic and unnecessary. I've watched TV shows where people pay for additional storage because they cannot store their crap heirloom pieces in their own home. Members of my own group of friends and family, seem to have more clothes in their singular wardrobes than both me and my other half own, collectively.

As I write this, I can think up of several things I have seen and heard of in the last few days, that cost extra and all they do is fill your life with crud. For example, a battery operated mop that automatically squeezes the water out; A battery operated stirrer for your kitchen pots; A chest of draws for a baby, with a built in changing mat on top, a spinning spaghetti fork. Consumerism. Make a ridiculous product, advertise it as a "must have - your life is sooooo incomplete without this pile of tosh" product , and bingo, you my friend are in the profit!

Other things that get to me, are cheaply produced clothing. As strange as it seems, if I ever peruse a clothes shop, I tend to always check the inner collar or the inner seams for the care label (for every product I pick up - so shop assistants probably think I'm shop lifting or insane). I then check the material that the garment is made of. The vast majority of the time, I tend to see, acrylic, polyester, polyurethane, viscose and a few other oddities. These are man made, cheap to produce, bad on the skin, uncomfortable - and yet nearly everyone buys them. Shop shelves clear out, even at ridiculously high prices. I usually tend to pick out, cotton, wool, linen, cashmere - perhaps paying a little extra in the knowledge that it is higher quality, more comfortable and will last longer. In the sales you really cannot go wrong picking up a good piece made of natural fibers. But do check for construction and sizing, as that is where cost cutting is made - especially in high street stores, sizing is mass produced - so a size medium is designed to encompass as many body sizes as possible. If you are a medium with short arms, your out of luck. Size large with tapered waist - your out of luck. Size small with a larger neck, out of luck. Every size is as generic as they can make.

Anyhow, there are some instances where you can and will find good quality items in high street shops. Debenhams and M&S are 2 shops where I've found wool and brushed flannel trousers, (the M&S one has an active waist feature, that has a built in elasticated bit at the waist that fluctuates as you move or eat too much at the Christmas party). The wool ones are really comfortable for the winter. In any case, how do you bag a bargain for these items?

My rules are simple:
1. Curb wants, fulfill needs
2. Make a wishlist
3. Stack vouchers
4. Only spend what you can afford

Firstly, and most importantly, you MUST train yourself to stop "wanting". Curb your wants, fulfill your needs. Learn to ignore the advertising, they are just messing with your mind. This goes back to what I have said about TV and social media. You might think you are socialising, but your just being harvested for your details for advertisers. Its a one-in-a-million shot that you will see something life changing on facebook or instagram - a new job or a life partner for example. Most often people tend to follow other people to see what they are doing. Holidays, homes, clothing, cars, job upgrades - all things that make us envy them. The term is "keeping up with the Joneses". You just lose time (which we all have a limited amount of, before our final heartbeat), and see things that you "want". A nice dress perhaps or a red fur lined coat or something or another. Then you have a burning desire to fulfill this want, and you search various shops for similar items and pay to own this 'look'. Could that money be spent better elsewhere? Yes. Keep social media and TV use to a minimum for a fuller, richer life. And learn to distinguish between want and need.

My second rule is to make a wishlist. I have an Evernote list, an Ebay watch list and an Amazon wish list. I add things to those lists when I see things I need/want. I probably have more things on my lists than you can think of off the top of your head for your own 'reasonable' list (skip the Lamborghini and holiday home). But this stops me from pulling the trigger immediately and seeing money go down the drain, I tweak and prune these lists every few weeks. I do not need these items immediately, but I will search ebay/google/amazon for them or alternatives every few months. And when I see it or a comparable product at a good price, I will buy it. The list saves me money

I use the list to the same effect for my high street clothes shopping. I know what looks I want, for example grey trousers or a navy shirt, these are things I want to add to my wardrobe in the long term. Do I buy the shirt I saw today at £49.99? No, I add it to my list. I know what I want, navy, wide spread collar, french cuffs, 100% cotton (or 2-fold or Egyptian cotton), twill or herringbone pattern is a nice touch but not necessary. Then it is a waiting game. I don't have a need to follow the latest fashion trends, I don't need to be hip and trendy right now and I don't have to "be in it, to win it". I am patient. Over the coming weeks or months, I will eventually find the item at a discounted price someday in the future. 

Check ebay and other outlets. Oftentimes people will have already bought what you want and decided that they no longer want it. Handbags, shoes, cameras, mp3 players, phones (be careful with electronics and warranties) - people buy them and sell them as new or nearly new all the time.

Also, buying out of season really helps. Winter coat worn out? Wear it till spring, donate to a charity shop and then buy a new one at the end of spring/or in the summer sale. You can pick it up for half price.

Rule three, vouchers. These will come and they will go. Use them to the best effect. Check cash back sites like topcashback and quidco - to see when cash back rates for high street stores go up. You can set a notification for stores that you shop at or waiting for a discount for. Google for "shopname vouchers". Check HotUKDeals for vouchers. You will inevitably stumble upon a voucher for free delivery or 10% discount. Thats great - I've saved you a few quid.

Most shops have outlets (or clearance sections), check them. Again, remember Rule 1. Curb your wants. Checking through an outlet for Next or M&S (Amazon Warehouse), means you will see end-of-line items cheaper than in the shops. It doesn't mean you have to buy them. But if you find something on your list at a discounted price, this is a good time to purchase - again as outlets are often times online, ensure you check cashback and voucher codes online and use them for a further discount.

Also, most shops accept their own in-store credit. Store credit is either given when you refund items and they want you to spend that money with them again. Or it is bought as a gift. Either way that money now belongs to that specific shop, and cannot be used elsewhere. So people sometimes sell unwanted gift cards, at a discount. I mean, I would too, if I never shop at a computer game store and someone gifted me £50 of vouchers for HMV or Game or another high street store. I would rather sell it for £45 and use the money elsewhere, instead of letting that 'store credit' sit in a draw on a plastic card - that store has already taken £50 and added it to their profit sheet. So search online, on ebay and with a bit of diligence you can pick up vouchers for cheaper than their face value. A word of warning, check the expiry date, check how it will be delivered (email is ideal for online shopping, if you want a physical card, it will take a few days to post), check that there is a resolution process in place (ebay is quite good at this) for your protection, as there might be fake or old codes being passed around. 

Also, buy in smaller denominations for greater discounts. A £100 gift card, at £95 cost is really a 5% discount per pound spent. A £10 gift card at £7 is a 30% discount per pound spent. Plus there is less risk of losing money, if a gift card is forgotten about or lost etc...

Finally, live within your means. Lets take a Rolls Royce for example. Do you need it? Can you afford it with the money in your bank account? If the answer is no to either question, then walk away. Its that simple. Buying on credit (finance/loan/mortgage), is not acceptable (unless its a house and absolutely necessary) - the bank will beat you over your head with that finance contract and get their pound of flesh, figuratively speaking (literally they will get back £££ in interest). Credit card purchases are more than encouraged here at the Smart Wallet HQ, as long as you follow a few golden rules. (1) Ensure you can pay off the debt at the end of the month (2) Use a cashback credit card or some other point collection card (i.e. airmiles). This will add a further discount to your purchase, in that the credit card company will pay you back a little for shopping.

I can apply these principle to most of my purchases. But more importantly, from the tone of the article I hope it is clear that buying things do not make anyone happy in the long term. Keeping up with your friends and neighbours will not ensure happiness. Happiness cannot be found on a shop shelf or in the bottom of a DHL parcel. Stop buying stuff for momentary pleasure. You need to define your own acceptable levels of happiness to figure out what you need in life to be happy. Having a minimal wardrobe makes me happy and tides me for whatever occasions I need to dress for. Board meeting, check; Wedding, check; Sunday roast with friends, check - my wardrobe has me covered for most situations. Admittedly, I don't have that turquoise shirt with peach floral print and pearl coloured buttons, I just make do with a sky blue shirt. But it also means I have less stuff to worry about and more time to enjoy other aspects of my life - whilst also saving money to put towards more important things.

There is a lot of content to take in here, so to summarise, the saving money aspects in this post are as follows:

  • Define your NEEDS and WANTS. Reduce your wants.
  • Create a list of needs and wants. Visit the list regularly and tweak it. 
  • Compare and contrast across a range of shops and websites. Check places like ebay/amazon/retail shops/sale rails for things on your list.
  • Find vouchers for the places you have shortlisted. You should do this for multiple places as sometimes, combined with vouchers - the more expensive shop might work out cheaper. There are dedicated websites for this, where users aggregate their voucher codes. You can also purchase gift cards cheaper than their face value.
  • When purchasing, use a cashback card or another type of reward credit card to make your money go further. Ensure you can afford to pay the card back fully at the end of the month, so you accrue no interest of fees.
As an example, a £50 pair of shoes, might get knocked back quite a bit. 
10% voucher code, saves £5; Total is £45.
5% quidco cashback saves a further £2.50; Total is £42.50.
Purchasing an unwanted £40 gift card for £35, saves another £5; Total is £37.50.
Paying for it all on a credit card with 1% cashback, saves a measly 40p. (This adds up in the long term). 

So in total I will have paid £37.10p for something that should have cost £50. I am a little picky about shoes being second hand, but if this was an item that I dont mind being second hand, buying on ebay would be less hassle and perhaps saved a bit more cash. I hope you have found this informative, and you can use some of these tactics when you actually have a need to buy something from a high street store.

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