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How Single-Item Shopping Trips Can Bust Your Budget

by Kevin Mercadante

Keeping your spending under control isn’t always about the size of your expenses. It’s often about personal habits. One of those habits that can have a disproportionate effect on your budget are single-item shopping trips. Without you ever even noticing, these trips could be undermining the best planned budget that you can come up with.

If it seems as if you’re consistently coming up over budget on your expenses, single-item shopping trips are probably one of the biggest culprits. They can cost money in more ways than we usually think.

The Usual Suspects: Time, Gas, and Wear-and-Tear

Most of us are aware of the fact that single-item shopping trips are not very efficient. You end up spending time – plus money for gas and wear-and-tear on your car – to go out and buy a single item. It’s usually better to keep a running shopping list, so that you can consolidate the trips.

But as real as those expenses are, the real cost of single-item shopping trips can be far more substantial.

The Real Cost: It’s Very Unlikely that You’ll Only Buy a Single Item

Shopping Cart

Does your shopping cart tend to fill up on “single-item” shopping trips?

Several years ago I was watching a comedy skit that included this sidebar: Then I went into Wal-Mart – you know that store that you go into looking to buy one item for $5, but come out six bags and $187.29 later . . . . The audience got a real laugh out of it, but mostly because they all knew how true that really is.

That of course is a story, and even an exaggeration at that, but the point is well taken. How many times have you gone to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk or loaf of bread, but come out half an hour later with a full bag of groceries and $30-$40 poorer as a result?

When we run out for a single item it’s usually an important one. But once we’re inside the store, there is a natural tendency to load up on less important items. We might even start buying certain items only because we are not sure whether or not we need them.

At the time we do this, it seems that we’re doing this with the right intentions. But well-intentioned or not, this kind of impulsive shopping can be a serious budget buster. You go in planning on spending $4 for a gallon of milk, but instead spend $40 on a collection of items that you probably would not have purchased had you not gone out for the gallon of milk.

How Many Trips in a Month?

The real problem with single-item shopping trips isn’t the trip itself, but the number of times that we do it in a week or a month. If you do this one or two times per week, or about six times in a month, you could be spending hundreds of dollars more than what you need to spend.

Let’s say that you make six such trips in a typical month, on average with the intention of buying a $5 item for each trip. But instead, each time you average making a $40 purchase – or $35 more than planned – then you are spending about $210 per month more than you need to. That works out to be a hair above $2,500 per year, or the size of a credible IRA contribution.

Many of us will attempt to maintain at least a minimal budget arrangement, but will still come up short by several hundred dollars per month. One of the biggest reasons for a budget shortfall almost certainly will be single-item shopping trips gone wrong!

Stores Love Single-Item Shoppers

As shoppers, we have a built-in disadvantage anytime we go into any kind of store – no matter how resolute we are about buying just one item. Retailers know all about single item shopping trips, and they’re just waiting for us!

Virtually all retail stores are packed with impulse choices – especially at the front of the stores. If you have ever noticed the layout of a typical grocery store, you’re aware of the fact that the most important departments are usually set at the back of the store. That’s not an accident!

You will usually find the meat counter and dairy case at the very back of the store. You’ll often find either produce or the deli counter there as well. Single item shoppers in grocery stores are often coming in for milk, eggs, lunch meat, a bag of potatoes or a specific cut of meat. By placing these items at the back of the store, you’re forced to walk the length of the store and along the way, you will be exposed to the various impulse purchases.

Not only will you go down entire aisles – with all of their content – but you will be exposed to a number of “specials” on the way. This is also why specials are usually set up either on “aisle caps” (shelves at the very front or back of each aisle), or free-standing on shelves or racks in the aisles. They are there specifically to attract your attention and to get you to buy what you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s free advertising for the grocer while you are on your way to the very back of the store.

It’s not just your own impulses that cause you to overspend on a single-item shopping trip – you’ll have plenty of help from the retailer. It’s important to be aware of this fact, not only so that you will intentionally avoid distractions that will make you buy more, but also so that you understand the importance of minimizing single-item shopping trips in the first place.

Bonus Tip: Take only a certain amount of cash shopping to help you avoid overspending!

Have you noticed how single-item shopping trips have a way of undermining your budget? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Polycart


Published or updated May 27, 2013.
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